A Connecticut Yankee in the English classroom

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We are all aware of the benefits of extensive reading, but some of us may feel unsure about how to approach longer texts in class. How should we scaffold the reading for our students and how much time should we dedicate to talking about the book in class? How will the students benefit from their reading experience? How can we link the book to our syllabus? These are just some of the questions a teacher might have to consider when thinking about teaching through literature.

In this series of posts, we would like to encourage you to take extensive reading seriously and take a novel into class. We will look at how you can prepare your students for the text and expand it beyond the frame of the story. It is important to prepare the students so they are aware of what they are doing. Some of them may feel intimidated by the idea of reading a book in English, others may not see the benefits. These fears and preconceptions can be easily addressed and thereby make the reading process much more beneficial and all-importantly FUN for the students. It is always a good idea for students to keep a WORD BOOK where they can jot down new words and expressions. We also recommend getting your students to read slightly below level (‘I’ minus 1) so they are at ease with the language and consolidating language while learning new words in context. We also encourage you to offer projects for students individually or in groups so that they can connect with the novel through many pathways. These projects place the story in a wider cultural, historical and scientific context.

These projects support classroom reading and research projects based on Mark Twain’s classic, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. You can read a short description of the Helbling Reader edition here.

The book was adapted by Scott Lauder and Walter McGregor and illustrated by Andrea Alemanno for elementary and pre-intermediate level learners (from pre-teen to adult) of English (CEFR A1-A2).

Our aims are to:

  • raise interest in the story,
  • become familiar with the reader,
  • find pathways into the story through projects,
  • expand the social, cultural and historical setting of the story,
  • explore the scientific topics in the story,
  • make personal links,
  • have fun.

CLIL links:

  • History
  • English Literature
  • Physics
  • Geography

INTRODUCTION

Mark Twain wrote A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in 1889. The story is about Hank Morgan, an American who travels back in time to Britain at the time of Camelot and King Arthur. Morgan uses his knowledge of science to improve life in the past.

1 Talk about the title. Ask your students if they know when King Arthur lived. Then ask them if they know what ‘yankee’ means and when the state of Connecticut was founded. How is it possible that a ‘Connecticut Yankee’ can travel to King Arthur’s court? This question might lead you to the topic of time travel. Talk about other stories in which time travel happens.

2 Look at the cover and the characters. Ask your students to focus on the clothes the knight and the gentleman are wearing. Who are these men? Why do they look so different?

The characters in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Illustration by Andrea Alemanno. ©Helbling 2019

3 Make predictions from the illustrations. 

Ask your students to flick through the book and write some words/short sentences about what might be going on in the pictures. They can write them in their notebooks and then go back to their predictions as they are reading the book.

4 Before you start discussing the projects, share this Wordle image with your class.

It shows the fifty most frequently used words in the readers (the bigger the word the more it is used). What do these words tell us about the story? Get the class to ask questions and make statements based on the words.

Wordle image of the top 50 words in the reader.

PROJECTS

When you have become familiar with the book, offer a series of projects for your students to explore on their own or in pairs/groups. We recommend that your students choose their topic whenever they feel best prepared to do so (before, during or after reading). Some students might not be comfortable reflecting on the story from a personal point of view and they might not have the linguistic toolkit to analyze it critically. Projects can provide friendly pathways into the stories and they can also provide the basis for cross-curricular projects.

1 History: King Arthur’s Court

The Arthurian Cycle is one of the most popular collection of tales and its most famous character is King Arthur, along with the Knights of the Round Table, Guinevere and Merlin. Students who decide to focus on the historical background of the novel can do some research about medieval England. Here are some questions to answer:

  • Was King Arthur a real or a legendary figure?
  • When did he live?
  • Where did he live?
  • Where is Camelot?
  • Who was Thomas Malory?

Here is a short video to help you learn about the topic (for intermediate learners and teachers):

2 Legendary places: Camelot and Avalon

Camelot is one of the most important legendary castles, while Avalon is a famous legendary island, and both are connected to the Arthurian legend. Students can refer to the dossier in the book to find out more about Camelot and use it to find out more about Avalon. Ask them if they know of any other imaginary locations (sollicit answers such as The Wall in Game of Thrones, The Shire/Mordor/Rohan in Lord of the Rings, etc.)

3 Geography: Places in the story

Hank Morgan is from 19th-century Hartford, Connecticut and he travels to 6th-century medieval England. Some of the places connected to the Arthurian legend are Tintagel Castle in Cornwall and Caerleon in Wales. Find these places on a map (you can use the map on page 14 of the book) and present their history and main attractions.

4 History: Castles in medieval England

There are several magnificent medieval castles all around England. Find the five most popular castles and prepare a presentation about them. Talk about their location, the main events related to them and their owners. Students can start their research on the English Heritage Medieval Castles webpage.

5 History: Clothes

Knights and gentleman dressed differently in different centuries. What did they wear? Present the items of their clothing with pictures. You will find a lot of great examples in the illustrations in the reader.

6 Magic and magicians

Merlin, the Wizard of Oz, Doctor Strange, Harry Potter and Gandalf are some of the most famous wizards in legends and fantasy fiction. In which stories do they appear? What do they look like? What are they like? Students can make a presentation about famous magicians and the magic they can do. They can also find famous paintings of Merlin.

‘The Beguiling of Merlin’ by Edward Burne-Jones, oil on canvas, 1872-7. Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool.

7 Astronomy: Solar and lunar eclipses

In the story, Hank Morgan is saved because he successfully predicts a solar eclipse. How was he able to do this?? When was the last solar eclipse in your country and when is the next one?

What happens during a solar and a lunar eclipse? Students interested in astronomy can explain these phenomena to the others in class.

Here is a video to help you understand them:

 

8 Biology: Vaccinations

There is a tragic scene in the story, where King Arthur and Hank Morgan happen upon a family that has been infected by smallpox. Smallpox was an infectious disease (causing death in 30% of cases and severe scarring in many others) which has now been eradicated thanks to vaccination.  Divide the students into groups and ask them to research: the first vaccinations;  how do vaccinations work;  diseases which were untreatable in the time of the story and in the 19th century; controversary over vaccinations.

9 Inventions in the 19th century

Hank Morgan introduces many 19th century inventions into the world of King Arthur.  Get students to write a list of inventions which were existed at the time of the novel (the end of the 19th century). They can go to the project page to create an advert for them or present the top most important inventions. What modern invention do they think is most useful?

10 Time travel

Is time travel possible? What other stories do the students know about travelling back in time or into the future? Here are some of our favourite stories:

Link to Physics: If your students already study physics, ask them what they know about our perception of time in space and on Earth.


Learn more about the author, Mark Twain’s other stories:

Learn more about King Arthur:

DOWNLOAD our (.pdf) to use for keeping notes and organizing your ideas:

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