4 Project Ideas for Ancient-Medieval British Literature
Incorporating grappling, sword fighting, and other movement into the class is awesome for single-day engagement, but projects help keep students interested for a longer span.
I've incorporated elements of theatre successfully into older British literature other than (and including) Shakespeare. Some of these were student ideas, and others were my plans based on the overall interests of a group .
The four ideas are similar but distinct enough to have as a separate project. They also build on the skills learned in the previous project, so you could teach an entirely arts-integrated semester using theatre and leading to a Shakespearian production.
Confession: I'm on a semester block schedule, so I've never had enough time to get ALL of these into one semester.
I'm going to quickly list the projects here and then provide details and examples below if you need them:
Dinner theatre: Beowulf
Script writing: "The Battle of Maldon"
Costume Design: Canterbury Tales, Macbeth, A Christmas Carol
Tableau and Photography: "The Battle of Maldon," Medieval fight manuscripts, anything with a blow-by-blow description of action.
Dinner Theatre: Beowulf
At the request of students in the fall of 2019, we turned the three major acts of Beowulf into a play with a narrator filling in the gaps between each fight. Once finished, we invited several classes to watch during lunch so they had the experience of a scop telling the story as they ate.
We didn't develop a full script. The narrator wrote his lines, and the focus of the acting was entirely the action and fight sequences of each monster encounter.
With guidance the students did the following:
Made cardboard armor, helmets, shields, and a dragon-head puppet
Painted set pieces using giant refrigerator boxes (this included a collapsible mead-hall bench)
Designed the lighting and sound for each scene
Painted tapestries based on the war helmets and a dragon
Created fight choreography directly from the text: For example, they had to include every dragon strike in Beowulf's final encounter. They could add ideas, but I wanted to encourage close reading.
The students who didn't want to act were in charge of scenery and moving the backdrops.
Our school has the folding walls, so we used those to provide layers and placed each scene behind a folding walls to make moving the set and cleanup efficient.
Beyond helping the seniors have a great Brit Lit experience and remembering the piece, other students in the school saw Beowulf as a fun experience and knew the overall story when they came to class the following year.
Script Writing: "The Battle of Maldon"
In fall 2020, our school returned in-person on a hybrid model: half of the students came two days and worked from home three.
I didn't want to make Beowulf the central text, and plays don't allow for social distancing, so we turned to "The Battle of Maldon" and "The Wanderer" for our main readings and created a script for "The BoM."
1. First, I made a copy of the poem that was more user friendly, and we read it out loud together over a few days.
2. In between readings, the students made Pinterest, Google Slide, or Canva collages of several researched items:
Weapons of the era
Warrior clothing of the era
3. Then, they wrote descriptions of the setting and the main characters of the poem, giving the characters personality traits based on the poem and clothing based on the research.
4. Next, the students re-read the poem looking at dialogue. We discussed how to make the speeches and actions fit for a stage production.
5. We bullet-pointed the central spear fight and incorporated a spear fighting/pole-arm class.
6. They decided on their angle: would it be funny or serious? Would it include flashbacks to a council of war? Would the poem be the flashback of a survivor?
7. After we looked at the conventions of script writing, they wrote, revised, and created some delightful works of art.
Costume Design: The Canterbury Tales (and Macbeth and A Christmas Carol)
Sir Gawain and Canterbury have extensive clothing detail. One way of turning the detail slog into an interesting hike through time and design is creating costumes based on characters.
I've not done this project with Sir Gawain because anyone who closely reads into Lady B's costuming will recognize how sheer her gown is. I wish to avoid nipples galore!
With Chaucer, I focused on one character and had the class create variations on a single character. In a future class, I would assign each student a character and produce a class look book of The Tales to publish online.
With Shakespeare and Dickens, I gave choices. Those who wanted to do design created a book with the art teacher and costumed the three ghosts and two other characters. They wrote a paper explaining each character's costume, their choices, and how their choices fit the era OR their vision.
Those who didn't feel artistically inclined had other options: write a research paper over the time, write a literary analysis, or write a short story based on the era. The students still went through the costume design classes with the art teacher to get the experience and to incorporate what they learned into their writing.
Each costume design unit has incorporated the following:
Researching the fashion of the era and/or bringing in an expert to discuss costuming
Co-teaching with the art teacher to explain proportions and water color
Providing croquis to students who weren't confident in their figure-drawing skills (these still worked with the art teacher)
Writing about the connection of fashion, time period, and text
Assessing both the art and the writing
Photography and Tableau: "The Battle of Maldon," Medieval fight manuscripts, and any other text with a blow-by-blow description of action
Tableau is the art of creating a frozen scene.
In some instances, the tableau can be of an entire scene. Other times, it can focus on one moment in the action.
To encourage close reading and as a way to create fight choreography safely, I have students create a montage of a sequence using tableau.
Sometimes this is part of a larger acting project; sometimes this is its own project with an emphasis on integrating the elements of photography into the class.
We did this one year for "The Battle of Maldon" before I included script writing, and we did this as an informational text/close reading of illustrations unit based on Medieval fight manuscripts. I have a free TpT resource for the close reading of illustrations here.
Above: Teachers provided exemplars for the
Read through the fight scene or manuscript several times
Bullet-point each action
Create a tableau for each action and photograph several times
Choose the best photo from each tableau
Create an iMovie or slide presentation including the photographs and the text describing the scene.
Questions? Comments? Ideas? Let me know in the comment section!