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Days and Days of Knights: A Unit on the Middle Ages

You've tried an activity or two on the Middle Ages -- and your students are begging for more. This is the kind of topic cross-curricular units are made of. Don't miss your chance! Included: A teacher-created unit on the Middle Ages.

So you've tried an activity or two from this week's Education World Lesson Planning article, The Middle Ages: Twelve Activities Take Students Back in Time -- and now you're hooked! Even better, your students are begging for more. This is the kind of subject, you realize, that exciting cross-curricular units are born of. But where to begin?

Why not begin with a unit created by Carol Moyses and Carla Choponis of Pine River Middle School in LeRoy, Michigan? Recently, Moyses, an 8th grade English teacher, and Choponis, a technology paraprofessional and the school's webmaster, shared their unit, their experiences, and many of their original materials with Education World -- and we're happy to pass them on to you.


What middle school student -- or teacher, for that matter -- would pass up the opportunity to participate in an authentic (well, almost authentic) Medieval tournament? This is why almost everyone participates in one of the most popular culminating events of the Pine River unit -- Medieval Fun Day.

On a fair -- or foul -- day in spring, eighth grade students and staff meet at the school's football field, Choponis told Education World. For two hours, they compete in such "traditional" Medieval games as:

  • Bocce ball -- played with croquet balls.
  • Sheep throw -- participants grab Bubba, the stuffed sheep, by the legs and try to throw him over their shoulders and through the goalposts.
  • Archery -- using rubber-tipped arrows.
  • Lance throw -- using foam "noodles" that kids often play with in the swimming pool.
  • Ball toss -- using plastic cups to catch balls.

Participants whose strength is sapped by the exertions of the day are refreshed by the cookies, strawberry jam, juice, pretzels, and ginger snaps served at The Boar and Tankard Inn.

There's something for everyone at Medieval Fun Day -- although students aren't universally enthusiastic about everything. According to Chris G., for example, "The food was really different -- but I enjoyed the archery and the sheep throw!"


Medieval Fun Day is followed by an even grander spectacle called -- Parents' Night. According to Moyses, about 80 percent of the students and their parents attend that event, at which students display the projects they've created during the unit.

All the students wear some type of Medieval clothing, Moyses added. Costumes can range from a simple tabard, or tunic-like garment, made from a burlap sack or oversized T-shirt, to a long skirt and ruffled blouse with a belt and other elaborate costumes sewn by the students themselves. Many of the girls make flower wreaths with ribbons for their hair.

Ideas and patterns for Medieval clothing are available through the research links at The Medieval Experience: Medieval Life and Times Research Unit, according to Moyses. "A number of fabric stores sell patterns suitable for medieval clothing, as well as burlap for tabards and sequins for a chain mail," she added.

Every student is also required to bring a Medieval food and a copy of the recipe to the Parents' Night feast. "A lot of tasting goes on," said Choponis. "We have venison, rabbit, squirrel, fish and wild and domestic fruits in our area, which fit well with Medieval cuisine," she added.

Students also find recipes through the site's research links, said Choponis, who has put together a guide to help parents adapt the Medieval recipes to modern foods.

"One nice thing about the project is that parents become involved at home," Moyses added. In fact, for many students, parent involvement is the best part of the project!

"My favorite part of the unit was dressing in the fancy clothes and seeing the other kids in their outfits," said Molly F. "My mom and I enjoyed sewing the costumes together."

"My mom really got into helping me make my outfit for Parents' Night," added Ben N.

Of course, all this revelry cannot occur until students have acquired more than a passing acquaintance with life in the Middle Ages -- and with those who lived it! So let us return briefly to the early days of the unit -- the days that made it all possible.


Pine River Middle School, located in a rural area of northwest Michigan, is home to approximately 325 students of all abilities. "Our goal in every project," says Moyses, "is to make every student a successful learner. Our research units are developed with the range of abilities in mind. For the Middle Ages project, we also wanted to develop a cross-curricular unit that integrated technology."

"Because we incorporate a great deal of literature, reading, writing, and technology into the unit, we decided to conduct the project with our eighth grade English/literature classes," Moyses added. "Students begin by reading books, plays, and informational material about the Middle Ages. Many of the readings we use are condensed. Some of the literature is classic, some has been rewritten. We've found that Weekly Reader is a good source of readings and plays and that Dover Publications produces a number of picture books and coloring books showing details of Medieval life."


After reading about the Middle Ages, students choose a research topic -- from a list that touches upon nearly every aspect of life in the Middle Ages. Topics include Beowulf, Robin Hood, the taking of Jerusalem, the history of golf, town fairs, legends and myths, and many more.

Each student is then assigned a research outline for his or her chosen topic. Those outlines, according to Choponis, were developed to give students direction and to help them narrow down the vast amount of information on the Web.

Research outlines are essentially a collection of related assignments centered around a particular Medieval theme. Each outline includes a specific subject for a written report, questions to be answered within the report, and a craft project. Students also choose a Medieval food and some type of Medieval attire to create and wear for Medieval Fun Day and Parents' Night.

The first requirement of the research outline is the written report. Students use the middle school home page as a jumping off place for their research. A wide range of Internet links posted at the site allows students to research their topic with a minimum of wasted time. It also helps avoid inappropriate sites that might come up in a search, Choponis pointed out.

All the information needed to complete the projects can be found at these links, but students must use library materials as well, Moyses notes. For the written report, students are required to research, cite their sources, write a rough draft, peer edit, and then type a final draft.


"We started with a limited number of research topics," Moyses told Education World, "but as students began reading more stories and informational materials about life in the Middle Ages we found they were very interested in the topic and eager to find out more. They especially liked the heroes, knights, and castles -- and the "gross" aspects of life in Medieval times. So we began to add more activities and research topics."

"It was cool," agreed eighth grader Mary F., "to learn about the different time periods and what really happened in the Middle Ages."

"Students also brought up additional ideas for craft projects -- whenever there was something 'cool' or different they wanted to make," said Choponis. Student-inspired projects have included recreating Excalibur and Robin Hood's bow and arrows, building castles out of stones, growing herb gardens, embroidering Medieval designs, stitching lavender sachets, and building chess boards.

In fact, according to Matt H., "The best thing about this unit was making my sword."


Not all of the unit's activities, of course, are strictly language-arts related. According to Moyses, many staff members contribute to the success of the unit by providing suggestions and cross-curricular activities for their subject areas. Some additional activities students participate in during the project include:

  • Social studies -- exploring the creation of government, society, and lawmaking; discussing trade routes and bartering.
  • Shop class -- creating such items as wooden swords and chess boards.
  • Math -- converting money from English pounds to American dollars; studying plague statistics; creating a budget; and determining the amount of food needed for a royal Medieval feast. In addition, Math Detectives: Ready to Joust, Level F (by Dr. Lee Mountain; Steck-Vaughn Company, 1994) offers a worksheet with word problems that cover such knightly word concerns as the weight of a shield and how far a lance can be tossed.
  • Science -- studying the planets and the Solar System; and investigating how modern thinking compares to that of the Middle Ages.

Another interesting aspect of the unit, Choponis pointed out, is that every eighth grader learns to play chess. Students who know how teach the others at the beginning of the unit, and at the end of the unit a chess tournament is held. The prize is a chess set.


Any project of this size must include tools for assessment. Many of those tools will, of course, be observational. Moyses and Choponis, however, also make use of a number of more objective assessment tools.

"Many of the resources we use contain comprehension and vocabulary questions, but we create most of the assessment tools ourselves, including worksheets, crossword puzzles, tests, and quizzes," Moyses told Education World. In addition, she said, students demonstrate what they have learned as they

  • develop plot outlines for stories and movies.
  • write manuscript letters -- as the monks did.
  • create a coat of arms.
  • make a foldout castle from a manila folder. (They draw the outside of the castle with all the turrets and towers and a drawbridge on the outside; then they draw the inside of the castle inside the folder.)
  • write and illustrate a children's storybook about the Middle Ages.

"All these activities give students a wide range of information while providing the opportunity for students of all abilities to excel," Choponis pointed out.

"The program is a great way for middle school students to experience a variety of learning styles. It also provides opportunities to adapt activities and give students with learning problems success at school," agreed special education teacher Lisa Bowyer.


Much of the success of a unit of this type depends on the planning and preparation. Moyses and Choponis offer these tips for starting off -- and continuing -- on the right foot:

  • Send home a letter explaining the project, and require that students bring it back signed. This gets families involved and helps keep students on track.
  • Provide a variety of assignments and projects so all students can be successful. Variety also holds student interest and offers many different ways to present material to students.
  • Be sure there are inexpensive activities all students can participate in. Food and clothing can be creative without being expensive.
  • Most importantly, be aware that this kind of project requires a lot of time and the help of many people.

Besides core curriculum teachers, Choponis points out that Pine River's Middle Ages project relies on many others for its success. Among those:

  • Sandy Gustafson, a Title I paraprofessional, works with students, helps keep the lab running smoothly, and contributes ideas for craft projects;
  • Lisa Bowyer, a special education teacher, helps create activities and assignments that maintain a balance among different learning abilities; teacher Glenna Maneke made Bubba the sheep;
  • Librarian Cathy Tacoma orders books and materials for our research units; and
  • Dave Champion, our principal, helps with funding and scheduling.

"Our parents group, Friends of the Middle School, also helps with funding," Choponis adds.

If enough time or help isn't available, Moyses and Choponis recommend breaking the project down into smaller parts. "Start small and add to the project as interest develops," Moyses advises.


Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
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Links updated 3/02/2012