eChaucer: Chaucer in the Twenty-First Century

If you are like me, your introduction to Chaucer didn’t exactly warm you up to the guy.  We read the Prologue and probably a couple of the tales (whatever was clean enough for the textbook), but my teacher took no pains to engage us in the material, nor did he bother to make it interesting.  And what a shame!  Chaucer is easily one of the most entertaining poets in British literature!

When I took a sophomore-level survey of British literature (up to 1700) at UGA, I had an instructor who made this literature I didn’t think I liked — not only the Chaucer, but also Beowulf — finally come alive.  We read Chaucer in the Middle English in a text with the original and side-by-side modern tranlation by A. Kent Hieatt and Constance Hieatt that I still like: The Bantam Classics edition of The Canterbury Tales.  I had the translation to fall back on if I just couldn’t figure it out, but otherwise the strategy I used then (which still works for me now when I read Middle English) was to read the piece with the notion that the writer can’t spell a lick.  As with anything, with practice, Middle English can become easier to read.

One thing that has always bothered me, however, is that in a survey British literature course in high school, it can be fairly hard for my students to enjoy Chaucer because they have difficulty reading even the translations when they are in verse.  I do have my students experiment with reading Middle English, but I think for the levels I teach, it would be a disservice to ask my students to read it all in Middle English.  I feel differently about Shakespeare, but let’s face it — Middle English is just that much more difficult than Shakespeare that I think with high school students (with few exceptions), reading it might be more of an exercise in frustration than pleasure.  And I don’t want my students to hate Chaucer the way I did.

I was very excited to find Gerard NeCastro’s Web site eChaucer: Chaucer in the Twenty-First Century.  NeCastro provides his own prose translations of each tale in several formats (and other works by Chaucer), along with a cheat sheet for common Middle English words, and a concordance for each tale and the book as a whole.  It’s an amazing resource, and if you plan to teach any part of The Canterbury Tales this year, I urge you to check it out.  NeCastro’s translations are readable and enjoyable, and most importantly, accessible.

You can give students NeCastro’s cheat sheet and assign them to read a post in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Blogge.  I recommend the posts listed under Favourite Posts to start, but if your students are familiar with the Heath Ledger film A Knight’s Tale, they might also like “Lament for Sir William.“  If you want students to try their hand at Middle English by using Chaucer’s blog, I have a handout you might find useful.  You may also be interested in my UbD unit plan for The Canterbury Tales.  My performance task was altered based on an idea of Joe Scotese’s.

Portrait of Chaucer obtained from Gerard NeCastro’s eChaucer: Chaucer in the Twenty-First Century; from Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes.

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9 thoughts on “eChaucer: Chaucer in the Twenty-First Century

  1. I appreciate your blog posts for many reasons; one especially, though, is that you still teach the "classics."

    In my district, we are strongly encouraged to focus on what we refer to as "literacy lab," where we are to encourage young adult literature and "free" student choice. A good thing about this is that our students are reading more than I have ever seen (although I am not sure but what this is a national trend also.)

    I often feel like the Lone Rangerette within my department, for I feel a professional obligation to truly "educate" my students, to expose them to a wide-range of literature. Not that I always to the best job in presenting the literature, but surely whether they go to college or not, these young adults need to be exposed to the classics.

    So let me say thanks for unknowingly encouraging me and for the tremendous role-model you are in this area and in so many others.

  2. Thanks, Tammy. Yes, I do teach the classics, and I did so even when I worked in a rural school with a high percentage of students in the lower socioeconomic status. We read A Midsummer Night's Dream. However, I should add that my current school is a high-achieving private school, and I think that my administration, parents, and even students expect to study the classics.

  3. Dana: This time, I found your post before teaching (as opposed to the Beowulf idea, which I used anyway!) and am going to thoroughly check this out over the Sukkot break (we get the next two weeks off, do you get any of that time?) in order to get the lessons ready. I'd planned on doing "what's in the book" as well as the Knight's Tale, and I thought about Wife of Bath but decided I'd probably get some phone calls.

    Anyway, going to check out all these links, so thanks in advance!!

  4. Ashly, you probably told me this before, but where do you teach?

    We have two days off for Sukkot and two for Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah the following week.

  5. I'm at Margolin Hebrew Academy/Feinstone Yeshiva of the South (MHAFYOS) in Memphis. So your idea for stories told on the way to Graceland cracked me up! I may use it– giving you full credit of course.

    I kinda wish we had the time between for class, because we've missed more than a week over the last few with all the holidays– but it's alright, gives me time to refresh. :)

  6. That's right. I remember now. The Memphis angle would be great for your kids! It was Joe Scotese's idea, not mine. I hear you about momentum. It can be tough! I see your school is Modern Orthodox. We're transdenominational, but as I explained to my students last week, we take time off for the holidays in order to accommodate our most observant students. One of my students had asked why we got Sukkot off — she understood Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but not the others. I always find it a weird position to be in, as a non-Jew, when I have to explain religious practices of other denominations (or even their own!) to students.

  7. I'm still learning, since this is my first year at this school. My students tell me about how kosher works, the concept of shomer, etc. I find it fascinating as well, but the kids just roll their eyes about some things that they "have" to do– we're a dual-curriculum school and I think some of them aren't crazy about studying so many different things (Ivrit, Chumash,etc.) Plus, and I don't know if your school is this way, but the kids are sex-separate in high school, after going through 8 years together in one classroom. Whooo, they REALLY don't like that.

    Enjoy your time, though. And thanks for all the great ideas. I meant to tell you I checked out Joe's stuff but he does still have membership frozen, which stinks for me:(

  8. Let me see if I can invite you to join Joe's site. Our school is co-ed. The theory is that if you really want to go to sex-separate schools, we have a Yeshiva Atlanta (boys) and Temima (girls), but students who go to our school accept that we have Jews of all backgrounds. For prayers, they can go to an Orthodox minyan with a mechitza, a Conservative egalitarian minyan, or a Reform minyan (as well as discussion groups). We are also dual curriculum with most students taking two Judaics courses and Hebrew in addition to English, math, social studies, and science.

  9. Wow, that's a lot of minyan! :) We've got several synagogues (in Memphis) that cater to the different denominations within Judaism; the school itself is a pre-K4 all the way to 12th grade school and we just have a separate building for high school girls, which includes a beit midrasha; the boys midrash is in the main school building where they take classes. I teach in both the girls' school and the boys. Our buildings are old, and we're hoping for a new school sometime in the next few years. Most of our actual school population is Orthodox but the teachers come from all ends of the spectrum of Judaism, as well as those of us who are not Jewish at all. I'm glad that it isn't an issue, and in this economy, I'm grateful every day to have a job in such a great place.

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