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The Middle Ages: Twelve Activities Take Students Back in Time

Learn how a unit on the Middle Ages inspired great writing among fourth and fifth graders in Chandler, Arizona. Included: 12 great activities for teaching about the Middle Ages.

The Middle Ages graphic

"Hoofbeats thunder on the hard dirt. The big heavy armor clacks as one knight fights another. The king watches with interest as two lances smash together at full force. One man falls to the hard dirt ground. That's what happens at the scene of a joust." -- Brian, Brisas Elementary School, Chandler, Arizona

That's the sort of writing that came out of students at Brisas Elementary School in Chandler, Arizona, when the fourth- and fifth-grade students in Ruth Sunda's gifted resource language arts class wrote about Life in the Middle Ages.

Recently, Sunda shared with Education World some of the strategies she used to help her students create research reports that avoided the dry prose typical of the genre.


Sunda's students began their study of the Middle Ages -- and their study of great writing -- by reading The Door in the Wall, Marguerite de Angeli's Newbery Award-winning book about a boy growing up in medieval Europe.

"I also made up a booklet of information about the Middle Ages," Sunda told Education World. "The booklet briefly touched on a variety of medieval topics and provided a background for the students' further study and personal research."

After reading the book and studying the booklet, the students brainstormed a list of appropriate topics, and each student chose one to research. Most of the research was done using school and public library books, although students did use the Web to search for some information and to find pictures.

"Unfortunately, in this project, I didn't require my students to cite their sources," Sunda pointed out in an aside to teachers. "Since then, however, having discovered the responsibility that comes with publishing to the Web, I do require a sources list."



After the students completed their research, the writing process began!

"The students were free to present the written information in whatever manner they chose, "Sunda said. "I only asked that they have an attention-getting lead -- No 'My report is about ...'s!'

"I work very hard on teaching students how to write an interesting lead -- not just for narrative/descriptive writing, but also for expository writing," she added.

"First we look at encyclopedia articles, which typically have pretty boring introductions. Then I have students look at the first page of the various books they used for their research, to see if any of them have more interesting leads," Sunda said.

"Although it can be hard to find good sources as inspiration, there are some," according to Sunda. "Russell Freedman's lead in Lincoln: A Photobiography is a good one to show that factual information can begin with a strong image. Jean Fritz has some great beginnings too in her historical books, such as Why Don't You Get a Horse, Sam Adams?"

After the students studied those resources, Sunda led them in a discussion of ways to catch a reader's attention. Together, the class decided that specific, concrete images and interesting contrasts or intriguing facts make great leads. Leads that sound like the beginning of a storybook story -- in other words, leads that include dramatic action, dialogue, a character's thoughts, or a strong description of setting, character, or mood -- make great story openings too.

"I have a small -- but growing! -- file of great leads written by former students," Sunda said. "It's always helpful for the students to see what other kids their age can do!"


In this project, however, the learning wasn't finished when writing was done.

"Another big benefit of the project was learning to prepare Web pages," Sunda told Education World. "We used no authoring software, I taught them basic HTML tagging. That requires a great deal of patience and proofreading!

"Students prepared their own pages and found images for them," added Sunda. "I gathered a selection of backgrounds, and they chose what they wanted and added the appropriate tagging for the background and images. They created their own pages, and I created the main page."


You may not be interested in teaching HTML tagging or in creating your own Web pages, but the Middle Ages theme lends itself to a variety of exciting, educational activities across the curriculum. Here are some others that you might use in your medieval unit!

Write about the Middle Ages -- writing and study skills. Encourage your students to read some of the research reports written by Ruth Sunda's students on Life in the Middle Ages. Discuss what makes those papers interesting to read. Then brainstorm a list of topics related to the Middle Ages, and ask each student to select one to research and write about.

Home Activities
Publish a cookbook -- language arts and history. Encourage students to explore medieval recipes and A Boke of Gode Cookery. Have each student choose a favorite recipe, then copy and illustrate it. Make copies of all the recipes for each student, and have them create personal cookbooks. Invite students to take the cookbooks home and create one or more of the dishes with their families. You might invite the families to share their creations at a medieval feast. (Don't forget to prepare the hand-washing water!)

Make your own paper -- science. Although it's believed that the Chinese invented paper before the first century A.D., it wasn't introduced in Europe until the tenth century. Introduce your students to the science of paper making with this recipe. Then use with medieval Dye Recipes. Students in high school might enjoy following this activity with a look at Manuscripts, Books, and Maps: The Printing Press and a Changing World, a history of the development of a print-dominated society.

Find fascinating facts -- history and study skills. Invite students to browse A Compendium of Common Knowledge, one of the most interesting -- and easiest to read -- sources of information about the Elizabethan period. This "short attention span history" of the 16th century includes such nuggets as these:

  • Children are the property of their parents and give them the respect a servant gives his master. Or else.
  • Some medical texts advise against eating raw vegetables as engendering wind (gas) or evil humours.
  • The most deadly sins are despair, hatred, greed, anger, gluttony, and pride.

Then brainstorm a list of topics relating to the Middle Ages. Ask each student to select a topic and create a fact file about it. Remind students to include a bibliography.

Make a sundial -- astronomy and art. Encourage students to click on Overview and read the "Practical Information" section at Sundials on the Internet from the British Sundial Society. Then, in small groups or as a class, complete one of the site's Four Simple Sundial Projects.

Make a virtual sundial and calendar -- astronomy and geography. As a follow-up to the previous activity, invite students to use Great Circle Studio's Sundial Generator to create sundials for various areas of the world. Students must enter the latitude and longitude in order to create an accurate sundial. You might also encourage students to create a calendar of any month or year during the Middle Ages using the Medieval Calendar Calculator.

Write a ballad -- music and language arts. Invite students to listen to The Internet Renaissance Band's Medieval Music, explore instruments at A Guide to Medieval and Renaissance Instruments, and read ballads on The Ballad List. Then ask students to compose ballads of their own. Encourage them to think about which instruments might be used to accompany their ballads.

Put on a play -- language arts and drama. Help students stage the play Robert the Bruce, about a medieval Scottish king. Or arrange students into small groups, and invite them to create their own one-act plays about some aspect of medieval life.

Technology marches on -- science and history. Encourage students to explore The Medieval Technology Timeline, which traces the advance of technology, from the plow and horseshoe in the epoch between A.D. 500 and 700 through the development of the blast furnace between 1300 and 1500. Arrange students into groups, assign each group a century between 1500 and 2000, and have the students create a timeline of the technological advances during the assigned century. Combine the timelines into one complete timeline, and display it on a classroom bulletin board.

Learn about the English language -- language arts. Have students explore the origins of words at Ye Olde English Sayings. Then brainstorm a list of additional common words or phrases of unknown origin. Arrange students into groups and have each group research the origins of the words on their list.

What's your future? -- career planning. According to the wise wizard at Kingdomality, in medieval times "it was very important that within each kingdom all the major crafts and professions of the day were ably represented to insure the survival of the kingdom. Each of us still has a medieval vocational personality within us." Invite students to discover theirs. (Be sure to tell them not to provide any personal information. It isn't necessary in order to take the career profile quiz.) Discuss the factors, such as personality, aptitude, education, and so on, that affect career choices.


Cardboard Box Castle - Enchanted Learning Software provides complete illustrated directions for building a cardboard box castle. Students in elementary school and above can complete the project, although younger students will need adult assistance with some of the cutting. - A listing of famous castles around the world.

Castles of the World - This site includes sections on castle architecture, armor and weapons, arts and crafts, books, food and wine, games, hotels, and links. There's even a real estate section if you're in the market for a castle!

Castles on the Web - This site contains castle books, games, crafts, recipes, links, a virtual castle tour, and much more.

Knighthood, Chivalry & Tournaments Resource Library - Besides the information about knights, weapons, armor, reenactments, and so on, this site also includes a couple of glossaries, the text of the Magna Carta, and a "Roll of Fine Deeds."

Build a Medieval Castle - Build a model medieval castle with walls, towers, gatehouse and keep. Learn about castles, sieges, knights, feudalism and life in the Middle Ages.


Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © Education World

Updated 08/28/2011