"A" is for Allegory; "S" is for Symbol: Reading One Story as Two in "The Canterbury Tales"

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SWBAT understand the difference between allegory and symbolism as they relate to "The Canterbury Tales."

Big Idea

Stories function on literal and symbolic levels of meaning.

Teacher to Teacher: Time Frame and Context

We have arrived at our destination: Presentation Day.

Today is day 5 of 5 in the third section of our unit on satire and The Canterbury Tales. Students began their work w/ "The Pardoner's Tale," followed that w/ "The Wife of Bath's Tale," and finished w/ "The Nun's Priest's Tale." From there each student chose a tale on which to base an interactive summary. Here is the original assignment: Pardoner's Prologue Interactive version. Students have finished preparing their interactive summaries and are ready to present them to the class. Today, we 

  • prepare to present
  • present and discuss the tales
  • conclude with a look at allegory from "The Close Reading Cooperative."

Preparing to Present

10 minutes

When students arrive, I check to see who is prepared and make a list based on the three tales. Depending on the class size and the amount of time a teacher wants to devote to presentations, there may not be time for all to present. That's okay. I devote one day to presentations. 

Some students have their interactive summaries handwritten on both sides of the paper, despite having been instructed to write on only one side. Since I have a student teacher (shared with a colleague), I was able to leave the room and photocopy pages so students would have an opportunity to present. 

Next, I have students cut their lines into strips to distribute to their classmates. Some came to class w/ this done, but most needed time to do this. "The Nun's Priest's Tale" Student Interactive Summary Prepared for Presentation

Rather than distribute all the lines at once, we take turns as we move from tale to tale. This keeps students from getting the lines from one summary mixed up w/ the lines from another. 

Tell Me a Story: Interactive Summary Presentations

40 minutes

Once students have their documents prepared, it's time to present. 

I choose to focus on one tale at a time. This  makes comparing and contrasting student decisions about what to include and what to omit easier. It also allows for the filling in of gaps in information and the easy correction of misreadings that will inevitably happen. It doesn't matter which story we begin with but I like going with the story that tends to guarantee success, so we begin with the "Pardoner's Tale."

We have time for two student summaries of "The Pardoner's Tale." The Pardoner's Tale Student Interactive Summary shows one student's work. If students have enough lines, I participate, too. Before discussing the tale, we have both presentations. I then ask students not assigned this tale to tell us what they learned. Essentially, they are retelling the tale. This is really appropriate to The Canterbury Tales because it's already very layered in terms of telling and retelling;

  • Chaucer wrote the tales.
  • Chaucer's narrator tells the tales.
  • Chaucer's voice is filtered through the narrator.
  • The Pardoner tells his tale.
  • The Narrator repeats the tale the Pardoner tells. (We learn this in "The General Prologue.)
  • Chaucer's voice is really the one we hear via the Narrator's retelling of the tale. 
  • The tales were originally presented orally as court entertainment. 

The above is essentially the way each tell is filtered and is essential to our understanding of the tales as satire and to our understanding of the tales in their social/historical context. 

After the discussion of each tale, I ask the presenters to provide any additional information. If necessary, we go to the text to clarify contradictions. This was necessary for "The Wife of Bath's Tale" because one student misread the ending and said the Knight was hanged. I suspect the student didn't finish reading and based this claim on the King's initial sentence. Making time for more than one summary presentation means students take ownership for the tale, and I was able to sit back and let them work out the accurate reading without too much influence from me. 

Since "The Nun's Priest's Tale" has been divided because it's so much longer than the other two stories, it's important to present the first half and follow it w/ the second half. This is the most difficult tale, so I take time to discuss and clarify the first half before continuing with the second half. After finishing the summary and discussion, I ask students to identify a moral of the story. Happily, they see one moral is to be a bit wary of flatterers. I tell students about an important lesson I learned from my high school debate coach: No on is indispensable. Additionally, during the discussion of "The Nun's Priest's Tale," we compare and contrast Chanticleer to Beowulf, which students have read. I'm able to tell students that their epic heroes in the lesson "A Hero Ain't Nothing but a Sandwich" lesson have entered the realm of parody. This helps them understand the structure of the tale as a mock heroic epic.

From One Story Comes Two: Reading Chaucer's Tales as Allegory

15 minutes

Having presented the interactive summaries, we close with a short lesson on allegory. This adds another layer to our understanding of the tales, and even though I can define allegory for students, I, instead, show them a presentation from "The Close Reading Cooperative." 

Students are very interested in the discussion of "The Nun's Priest's Tale." They had not yet considered it as a retelling of the Adam and Eve story. Some of the students mention having read Animal Farm and recall that it, too, is an allegory of the Russian Revolution. I mention that The Crucible is also an allegory of McCarthyism. Most don't know this. None have read "Young Goodman Brown" and only a few have read The Scarlet Letter. I tell them that Young Goodman Brown is a story with a "mysterious stranger" much like the one in "The Pardoner's Tale." They're really beginning to understand how texts respond to one another. I tell them that allegory really clicked for me when I read The Singer by Calvin Miller and explain that it's a retelling of the crucifixion story. 

This short lesson is a wonderful way to end the period and leave students wanting more.