Canterbury Tales lesson plan resources

Five activities plus two videos

Teaching high school English after eight years of middle school is throwing me for a loop! There’s so much new content to learn, especially for my senior curriculum and its emphasis on British literature.

Side note: Yes, I’ve studied British literature for my master’s degree, but my schedule only allowed me to study from Romanticism to contemporary; I haven’t studied the earlier works in any formal way.

Until now.

So basically, I’m feeling my way through British literature, but having a lot of fun doing it. We began the school year with the earliest literature from the Anglo-Saxon era. We read The Wanderer, The Seafarer, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Beowulf, and Dream of the Rood. (For three recent posts on my Beowulf unit, click here, here, and here.)

So on Friday last week, as we transitioned from a study of The Canterbury Tales to Le Morte d’Arthur, it occurred to me that it might be worthwhile to share with you the resources I used and/or created to teach the tales this first time.

Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales
My job: make this guy seem cool. | Geoffrey Chaucer, 1343-1400

I used and/or created a handful of resources to teach The Canterbury Tales. Here are six of them presented in the order that they fit into my lesson plans:

1. Video: Overview of the Middle Ages in World History by Khan Academy

To transition from the Anglo-Saxon poetry to medieval literature, I showed students this video from Khan Academy to help them visualize the breadth of the time period from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Renaissance. Seeing where on the timeline Beowulf, for example, was written, and relating that to the time period of Chaucer, including the events between, was helpful. Here’s the video:

2. Video: How the Normans Changed the History of Europe by Mark Robinson

We also watched “How the Normans Changed the History of Europe,” to focus on the most pivotal event between the writing of Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales: the Norman Invasion of 1066 B.C. Noting how one result of the invasion, the elevation of French and the suppression of English, provides some context for understanding the message Chaucer sent to the ruling class when he composed The Canterbury Tales in English.

3. Narrative Essay of the Week Assignment

I worked this assignment into my regular rotation of weekly homework assignments known as Articles of the Week (AOWs) and Essays of the Week (EOWs).

I discovered an essay on Literary Hub by YA author Amber Sparks titled “Escaping into Books about the Middle Ages is My Self-Therapy.” After reading the article, I created a handout for students to read.

After reading, students were to do two things: 1) write a short reflection of the essay, and 2) use Sparks’ essay as a mentor text to write their own narrative about their own forms of self-therapy.

Another way to think of it: an assignment for students to write about what brings them joy or solace in troubling times.

A big bonus to using this article: it shows that contemporary authors find inspiration in the revered texts of the medieval era. In other words, these medieval texts aren’t obsolete; they are actively used by professional authors today.

In other words, medieval texts aren’t obsolete… they are actively used by professional authors today.

4. One-Minute Middle Ages

For this activity, which I discovered in a Canterbury Tales Study Guide published by Glencoe McGraw-Hill, I asked students to select a card from a bundle of about twelve.

Glencoe McGraw-Hill Study Guide for The Canterbury Tales

On each card was a topic for them to quickly research online and then present to the class in a brief presentation. Topics included the Black Death, chivalry, Boccacio’s Decameron, alchemy, the Hundred Years War, and others.

Nearly all of the topics were mentioned in both videos listed above.

I liked how the videos introduced these topics, and then the students delved deeper into them in these short talks. I allowed students to use Wikipedia for the sleuthing needed for these informal mini-presentations; I feel Wikipedia is sufficient for introductory research.

I will definitely use this activity again. Kids seemed to like the informal nature of it, and it broadened their knowledge of the medieval ages.

Cards student chose to make their presentations for The Canterbury Tales
Pick a card, any card! Students chose “blindly” from these cards and then did some quick research to present their “One-Minute Middle Ages” talks.

5. “Roller Skating Fiasco,” a memoir by author David Mike

This is an essay written by an online friend of mine, David Mike, whom I met when we both were more active contributors on Medium.com. Mike is a published author. Find out more about his book, Dishonor: One Soldier’s Journey from Desertion to Redemption at this link.

His short memoir titled, “Roller Skating Fiasco,” is one that I used as a mentor text for a characterization mini-lesson a few years ago in my middle school ELA classes. As I was preparing to teach The Canterbury Tales, Mike’s essay crossed my mind as I remembered how it told of taking a pilgrimage of sorts to a roller-skating rink back in his youth. Find the essay here.

While at the rink, Mike notices and records a variety of skaters. This recollection reminded me of Chaucer’s tales and the variety of pilgrims involved. For examples, Mike writes about:

The Roller Bully… “This guy usually would seek out people with hats or other removable articles of clothing. Once he pulled up beside the kid as if he was in the race car scene from Grease, the Roller Bully would look directly into the victim’s eyes, snatch the loose item, and spin to skate in reverse so as not to break eye contact.”

The What-were-you-thinking-putting-on-those-skates-you-should-have-stayed-home-and-played-Dungeons-and-Dragons-with-your-friends-guy… “That would be me. Seeing me skate was like watching a cross between a daddy-long-legs trying to climb a plate glass window and an orangutan trying to break dance.”

David Mike also writes about other skating rink characters, such as the Damsel in Distress, The Skate Ninja, The Testosteroller, The Wall Clingers, and The Most Popular Girl in School. All of these represent quite different types of skaters, similar to how Chaucer wrote about quite different types of pilgrims.

How I used this resource:

At the beginning of our study, we read Mike’s memoir in class and then I asked students to think of a destination that is visited by many different types of people. We thought about places like the beach, a shopping mall, a professional, an airport terminal.

Then I asked each student to complete this quick, low-stakes assignment: Each student made a list of six to eight different types of people they might encounter at one of those places. My students said they thought this was a fun thing to do. Also, it was fun to hear what each student came up with after everyone finished. Here’s one character list that one student wrote:

The Beach
  • The fat guy that lathered sunscreen all over his body.
  • The athletic guys throwing a ball back and forth in the water.
  • The mom making her kids wear life jackets, floaties, and spray on sunscreen.
  • The old couple laying out in MINIMAL clothing trying to get a tan.
  • The popular girls going back and forth from the water to lying on their towels every 10 minutes.
  • The paranoid mother watching everyone’s kids, waiting for someone to drown.
  • The drunk guys who just came to drink and sit at the pavilion.
  • That ONE guy that thinks he’s hot stuff trying to flex his abs for the popular girls.

6. Article of the Week: Thomas Becket’s Bloody Tunic

I also like to google the internet and find interesting stories (and hopefully current ones!) that I can sprinkle into my AOW schedule. If I can directly tie ancient texts to current day topics, it’s a huge win in my book.

For example, in 2018, the Vatican returned the bloodied tunic worn by Sir Thomas Becket to Great Britain to commemorate the murder of the revered archbishop of Canterbury. I thought this article from The Guardian by Catherine Pepinster made the tales of all those varied folks making their pilgrimage to honor Becket all the more real. Score!

A high school writing assignment about The Canterbury Tales and Thomas Becket's tunic returning to Britain

7. A Pilgrimage Poem: A Chaucer-like Prologue

This was a fun culminating activity for our pilgrimage through The Canterbury Tales. I asked students to write a twenty-line poem about a pilgrimage to a favorite destination. Here were my instructions:

  1. Your prologue must have an introduction that explains your pilgrimage, i.e. where you’re going, when, why.
  2. Include character sketches of three travelers/pilgrims who represent very different social backgrounds. These can be people here at school, celebrities, or public figures… but people most of us will know.
  3. DO NOT use your characters’ names in your poem or say them out loud as you work because we’ll be guessing these when you read your prologue aloud to us later this week.
  4. Conclude your prologue with a few lines about yourself and what your pilgrims and you hope to gain by taking the pilgrimage.
  5. Your prologue must be a minimum of 20 lines–with at least 8 rhyming couplets.
A mentor text helped

I provided students a prologue I had written on the assignment sheet. You can see my attempt, “The Suffolk Teddy-tales,” about going to England to see an exhibition about the career of Ed Sheeran, one of my favorite songwriters and performers.

This project required about two 50-minute class periods. We ended the project with each student reading their prologue aloud to the class. After each student finished, the class tried to guess their pilgrims. Most guesses were successful, except in a few cases. It was a good first-try for this project and I definitely plan to do it again next year.

I’ve posted the handout below on TpT. View it here.

A high school writing assignment on The Canterbury Tales

Yes, our Canterbury pilgrimage is now over and we’re moving on to the valiant world of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.

And even though I’m yet again besieged with new content, I’m also excited to learn more. After all, it’s my responsibility to find the personal significance in every piece of literature that I read and teach. If I do that, it will certainly prove how fortunate I am to have the opportunity to learn from these great, foundational British texts.


Have any Canterbury Tales tips that I and others should know about? Feel free to leave a comment to share your ideas! Follow my blog for an upcoming post on my experience with Le Morte d’Arthur.


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Published by marilynyung

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

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