The school’s annual Renaissance Faire is almost upon us. Each year, it gives me the opportunity to reflect on my role as an educator as I am asked repeatedly, “But why do you spend an entire term on the Renaissance Faire?” As educators at THS we are encouraged to view our craft from increasingly creative and occasionally, audacious perspectives, so that students in turn can apply their learning in authentic and meaningful ways.
We have all known for a long time that learning is best done through experience - learning by doing rather than learning by listening or observing. Educational theory and research support this claim
and so does common sense! By giving our students the opportunity to learn through relevant experiences, we are giving them the ability to apply their learning, to see their abilities, to adapt and change, and to form the habits required to do this successfully in their lives beyond school. In practice though, for the teacher, this can be daunting. We can feel overwhelmed and vulnerable as we loosen our control, allowing the lesson direction to flow with the children’s interests which often takes us by surprise and we transit from our role of an all-knowing, purveyor of content to become simultaneously, a coach as well as a learner.
The Renaissance Faire isn’t just a one day event and I hope that it extends beyond the culmination of a term’s worth of learning. Each year, in Grade 4 it changes the dynamics in our learning environment - the barriers of the traditional classroom are broken down, along with the typical hierarchies, encouraging learning communities and connections among students and staff. Our lessons are cross-disciplinary. Students engage in a ‘choose your own adventure’ style of learning as they select topics of interest to them - anything from diseases, to ladies, to knights and more. They embark on historical research, and write a book about their chosen topic hence becoming experts in topics which teachers often know little about. It becomes our role as educators to learn along with the students and then model “learning behaviors” in a way that students often do not see in other learning pedagogies.
Preparing for the Renaissance Faire is more than just simply choosing a topic to research for a term, however. It is also about negotiation, communication and connection. We know as adults that to find success in the “real world”, we need the ability and understanding of collaboration with different people to achieve success. As a way to drive this concept forward, each weekly project and task for Social Studies in Term 3 require social connections. Students are divided into “manor” groups and earn feudal farthings depending on their ability to communicate, cooperate, and help each other achieve each unit as a collective. As a group, they make a 3D manor, coat of arms, illumination as well as engage in dramatic activities such as a joust tournament, living in a monastery, going on a crusade, entering a guild and attending the lord’s court!
We encourage personal connections and collaboration rather than flawless pieces of work completed by a few students in the group. In their manor groups, students and teachers take turns at acting in roles in the feudal system and are rotated around being a lord, vassal, priest, freeman and serf. In these roles, some students find their voices. They learn to delegate, direct and lead while for others they learn the importance of truly listening to other ideas and following their peers’ directions.
Last year, I introduced The “Black Death” game in which each manor is numbered and must throw a large, wooden die daily. If their number is rolled, they select a “Black Death” card and complete an additional challenge or face a penalty. Life can be unpredictable, random and at times unfair and so my hope is that the manors draw on their inner strength, resilience and personal connections to get through the more difficult challenges, eventually learning how to consolidate as a group rather than blame.
Towards the end of the unit, students use their negotiation skills and group feudal farthings to ‘buy’ the craft that their group want to present at the Renaissance Faire. It varies from candle-dipping, block printing, calligraphy, needle making and spinning to name just a few. The day that everyone knows as the Renaissance Faire, is really the ‘tip of the iceberg’ so to speak for us in Grade 4. However, it creates meaning of a term of learning and I hope that it helps my students to see that their life and their education is not isolated from one another.
I recently read that “education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten” in New Methods and New Aims In Teaching by B F Skinner. While I cannot teach and prepare my students for all the difficult days and decisions that lay ahead, I hope that they can move on from Grade 4 with a sense of confidence in their ability to create solutions to problems, as well as confidence in themselves as adaptable and creative thinkers who understand the importance of connection and collaboration.