Active Learning techniques for the (medieval) literature classroom

Active learning classroom at Berkeley's Educational Technology Center (2014)

Active learning classroom at Berkeley’s Educational Technology Center (2014)

This term in my undergraduate medieval seminar I tried something new: I did not lecture at all. Instead, I assigned a secondary reading for each primary reading, then informed the students that the secondary reading was the lecture, and that when they came to class I would assume that they understood it perfectly (and would hold them responsible for its contents), but would answer as many questions as they had about it. Similarly, I made it clear that I would assume they understood the primary readings perfectly unless they had specific clarifying questions about it. I then dedicated a Q&A session for primary and secondary texts in each class meeting, and the rest of the session to ‘active learning’ activities in which the students engaged with the readings in various ways, as follows below. I’ve compiled them into a pdf you can download here for your convenience.

I don’t know if this approach is or is not more pedagogically sound than the traditional lecture. I do know that is was a change of pace for me, and that they appeared to be more engaged and less bored over the course of a three-hour seminar that met from 5:00-8:00pm. I would love to hear about your own experiences trying out these kinds of activities in the literature classroom.

The following techniques are slight modifications of active learning strategies that I found on websites like this one and this one. Many of them involve the use of 5×7 inch index cards, which are great for focusing attention, limiting output, and can be projected on a screen using a document camera, which is a simple, efficient way for using student-generated content to focus class attention.

Linguistic awareness: On an index card, Identify 3 characteristics of the medieval language in question (provided it is a vernacular language) in a passage on board, then render the passage into modern. You can also collect the cards and spot-teach interesting or problematic features on the board.

Summary: each pair is assigned two chapters to summarize, then writes summaries on board in order to form a summary of the entire reading.

Synthesis secondary/primary: Main idea of secondary reading: on an index card, write one sentence that expresses the main idea of the secondary reading. Then explain why it is useful for understanding the primary reading.

Linkage: In pairs. On an index card, write one short passage each from the primary and secondary texts. Prepare for five minutes. Explain how they are related. Instructor can project index card with document camera so that entire class can follow explanation.


Quiz: Each pair writes a quiz question for the reading, write it on the board. Class votes on top four questions then takes the quiz and reviews the answers in pairs, reporting back to group.

Role Play: In pairs, one student as Interviewer and one as a character (historical or fictional) from the primary reading. Each pair writes five questions and five answers for the character. Each answer is based on a citation from the primary text. Write citations on cards, interview conducted with notes but not reading directly from cards. Can give hilarious results.

Name that author: In two teams. On index cards, each team selects 10 characteristic quotes from each author that voice different ideas. Shuffle the cards and number them 1-20. On a separate card, keep a list linking each card to the correct author. Switch decks with other team, try to sort them by author. Student reads cards, student from opposing team tells them if it is correct. Third student tallies correct/incorrect guesess. Team with most correct guesses wins a prize.

BNF Paris MS Espagnol 36 f32r, detail

BNF Paris MS Espagnol 36 f32r, detail

Transcribe section of medieval manuscript: It is getting progressively easier to find decent quality images of the manuscripts of the texts we are teaching. I’ve found a transcription exercise is a good way to bring a long seminar to a tranquil landing.

Discussion of peer’s written assignment: A productive way to leverage a written assignment for classroom discussion. In pairs, explain your written analysis of the primary text to your partner. Join with a second pair; then each explains their partner’s analysis to the larger group of four. This is a nice structured way for students to exchange their ideas and analyses of the primary text.

Paraphrase academic Spanish: in pairs, choose a paragraph from the secondary reading. Write a paraphrase of it in normative Spanish on an index card. Then join with another pair and explain the paragraph.

Deconstruct the narrative: In pairs, select six short passages from the primary text and write them on six index cards. Do not write the page numbers on the cards. On a separate card, identify the passages by catch words and record the page numbers. Trade cards with another pair. Each pair tries to put the passages in the correct order.

predictionPrediction: On an index card, write three predictions for what will happen in the following chapters of the primary reading. Include justifications for your predictions. Students can then exchange predictions and report to the larger group, or instructor can post individual predictions on a document camera to share with the class.

Questions about readings: On an index card, write your question about a specific passage in the reading (primary or secondary). Note the page number and location of passage. Instructor collects cards and reads/answers selected questions.

Flash analysis: Instructor shows a short passage from primary text on board/screen. In pairs or groups, students identify the passage and explain its significance. Give them a set time to work on their analysis. This can be gamified if you hand out a different passage to each group on a slip of paper, gives everyone five minutes, and then shows each of the passages on a slide as the groups present their analyses. Then the other teams can write down ratings for each analysis; ratings are aggregated at the end.

3-2-1 for secondary reading: In pairs, on an index card, write 3 key concepts from secondary reading, one example from the primary reading to illustrate one of the concepts, and 1 question. Students or instructor can then write the key concepts on the board.

debateFormal debate: Instructor gives class a resolution based on their reading of the primary text. Class divides into four teams (A vs B, C vs D), for two separate debates. In each debate, one team argues pro, the other team argues contra. In each debate, one student from the teams not currently debating keeps time and another tallies votes on chalkboard. Instructor places the following conditions on participants: (1) All members of each team must speak during each turn, (2) Everything they say must be supported by specific textual quotation (primary or secondary). (3) In your rebuttals, you must address specific points made by the opposing team and demonstrate why they are not valid. Debate format: (1) A presents pro argument (4 min.), (2) B presents contra argument (4 min.), (3), A rebuts contra argument (2 min.), (4) B rebuts pro argument (2 min.). Teams C and D vote on winner of debate. Repeat for teams C and D, with A and B voting on winner.





















Ziyad ibn ‘Amir al-Kinani and El Libro del Caballero Zifar

[You can also read the full-length article version, “Popular Andalusi literature and Castilian fiction: Ziyad ibn ‘Amir al-Kinani, 101 Nights, and Caballero ZifarRevista de Poética Medieval 29 (311-335):]

In the last post I discussed the thirteenth-century Ziyad ibn ‘Amir al-Kinani as an Andalusi chivalric novel, one that has particular implications for how we understand the reception of Arthurian narrative in the Iberian Peninsula. In this post, I write about how Ziyad ibn ‘Amir al-Kinani is of particular interest for students of the Libro del Cavallero Zifar (Toledo, 1300).

Do you believe in fairies?

Do you believe in fairies?

There are a number of coincidences between Ziyad and Zifar. Most of them are on the level of narrative motif. Two episodes in particular are present in both texts but absent from popular Arabic literature in general: those of the supernatural wife who bears the hero a son, and of the underwater realm. These motifs are united in the Arthurian “Lady of the Lake”, and here find expression in Zifar in the episode of the Caballero Atrevido (González, Zifar 241–251). In Ziyad, they appear in the episodes of Ziyad’s marriage to the Princess Alchahia, mistress of the submerged castle of al-Laualib (Fernández y González 22–26), and in the following episode of his marriage to a “dama genio”, or enchanted lady (Fernández y González 30–31).



This underwater castle in the online world Secondlife can be yours for only L$4,500

This underwater castle in the online world Secondlife can be yours for only L$4,500

First Ziyad arrives at the castle, which each night submerges into the lake:

—When the sun rises above the horizon, the castle begins to raise from the depths of the waters, until it reaches the level of the surface of the earth. Then horses cross a vast bridge to go out and graze, and the cows and flocks of sheep to pasture. As evening falls, when the sun leans toward the west, the flocks return, and the cows and horses, and they all sink again into the water, that is, enter into Al-laualib keep, submitting themselves to its movements. (Fernández y González 19).

There Ziyad is greeted by its mistress, who is dressed as a knight. She challenges him to combat, in the course of which Ziyad notices with some surprise that his opponent is female. Finally, he defeats her and proposes marriage. She accepts and he becomes her King and lord of the submerged castle. In the following episode, Ziyad encounters an enchanted lady who bears him a son and then releases Ziyad after the boy is two years of age. One day Ziyad goes out hunting a beautiful gazelle, and becomes lost in the woods. What follows is a perfectly conventional encounter of the hero with an enchanted fairy so common in Western folkloric tradition (Thompson 1:382–384, 3:40–42, ) and abundant in French Arthurian texts (Guerreau-Jalabert 30, 62; Ruck 167, 173):


When the star [i.e., the gazelle] was hidden, I saw that it was climbing a high hill, where a road led that looked more like an ant path or the side of a beehive, she continued her flight and I followed close behind, until I came to a grotto where she hid. I dismounted and entered the grotto to give chase, and the darkness surrounded me; but in its midst I spied a damsel, radiant as the midday sun in a cloudless sky (Fernández y González 29).

The woman, Jatifa-al-horr, describes herself as “a good Jinn who believes in the Qur’an” (Fernández y González 30) (Believing jinn who marry humans are also mentioned in the 1001 Nights) (El-Shamy 69). In this way the compiler brings the Arthurian supernatural wife motif, one also present in Zifar, into line with the values of the Islamic textual community, by giving the supernatural a Quranic point of reference. She then reveals that she appeared to Ziyad in the form of a gazelle and enchanted him so that he would follow her to her hidden castle.

"A good jinn who believes in the Qur'an"

“A good jinn who believes in the Qur’an”

In these two episodes the “lady of the lake” motif is broken out into two separate episodes, each containing elements of the well-known Arthurian motif found also in Zifar. There is a good amount of speculation among critics as to the sources of these motifs, ranging from “Oriental” to “Celtic” to “Hispanic” (González, Reino lejano 103 n 25; Deyermond). It certainly is curious that the same two motifs, the only fantastic motifs in all of Zifar, whose source is contested by critics and still an open question, should appear in an Arabic manuscript from the same region written some 70 years prior to the composition of Zifar.

Depending on how we read this evidence, it could lend credence to a number of different theories about Zifar. On the one hand, if we belive the motifs are Celtic in origin, we should suppose their transmission to Ziyad through Arthurian tradition to Ziyad and thence to Zifar. This would ironically corroborate both the argument that Zifar relied on Arabic sources, and the argument for the Arthurian-Celtic sources of the fantastic episodes in Zifar.

Historical storytelling, Living History Workshops, Kent, UK

Historical storytelling, Living History Workshops, Kent, UK

The existence of the popular storytelling tradition attested by the 101 Nights manuscript and Ziyad suggests yet another model for understanding the presence of “Arabic” source material in Zifar, in the episodes of the Caballero atrevido (‘the Fearless Knight’) and the Yslas dotadas (‘The Enchanted Islands’). (González, Zifar 240–251 and 409–429).

Suppose there were a tradition of 101 and/or 1001 Nights-style storytelling that was based on dynamic, ever-changing live performances (imagine a genre or tradition instead of a manuscript). Authors introduced new tales, adapted other tales from other traditions, and dressed them in the fictional trappings of the popular storytelling tradition of the Arab world that then produced both the 101 Nights and the 1001 Nights. We have already established that Castilian authors such as Don Juan Manuel drew on Andalusi oral narrative tradition (Wacks, “Reconquest”). What if the author of Zifar had done likewise, relying not on Andalusi manuscripts of learned Arabic texts but rather of stories told and retold within the context of the Nights tradition? The apparent Arabization of names and place names that has led critics to suppose an Arabic origin for Zifar may well be instead a reflection of a shared storytelling culture by which Castilian authors adapt material learned from storytellers in their written works, conserving and at times Hispanizing (or straight out corrupting) personal and place names, simply because that was how the Castilian author heard them.

Poetry slam, Nuyorican Poets Cafe, NYC

Poetry slam, Nuyorican Poets Cafe, NYC

Arabic texts of the time also reflect a shared culture of storytelling. As we have seen, place names of faraway, exotic locations such as China vacillate between Romanized and Arabized versions (Ott 258). Like the author of Zifar, the compiler of 101 Nights was drawing on a live, multilingual storytelling performance tradition in which performers told tales alternately in Andalusi Arabic or in Castilian, and likely at times some combination of both. This suggests a world of code-switching storytellers who moved effortlessly from Arabic to Castilian and back again. Only when viewed through the lens of the literary manuscript does this culture appear as two separate cultures, who communicate with difficulty through translation and adaptation. Just as with Iberian Hebrew poets who were perfectly versed in Romance popular culture, but who were compelled by literary convention to write almost exclusively in Hebrew, our authors and compilers of 101 Nights, Ziyad, and Zifar recorded in monolingual form a tradition that was in practice at least bilingual and probably to a certain extent interlingual as is today’s US Latino culture, where English, Spanish, and Spanglish coexist on a continuum of linguistic practice.


The evidence Ziyad presents is compelling on two counts. On the one hand, Ziyad’s analogues of Arthurian motifs episodes found in Zifar complicate the question of Zifar’s putative Arabic sources. We must choose one of the following: did the Arthurian material pass from the French to Ziyad and thence to Zifar? This would be a delicious but perfectly Iberian irony for the Zifar to have received Arthurian material from an Andalusi text. Or alternatively, did both Ziyad and Zifar take the material directly from the French? Or, a third and in my opinion more likely alternative: that the Arthurian material entered the Iberian oral narrative practice, where both Ziyad and Zifar collected it. This thesis finds strong support in scholars’ assessment of the Andalusi storytelling practice reflected in the 101 Nights manuscript.

Ziyad and 101 Nights both attest to a corpus of Andalusi written popular literature giving voice to a specifically Iberian (or at least Maghrebi) experience vis-a-vis the Muslim East. This corpus is largely latent and we await quality critical editions and translations into other languages of Ziyad, the other 11 texts in Escorial Árabe MS 1876, the 101 Nights, and other texts as they come to light. Our findings are necessarily tentative, based as they are on translations, until these editions come to light. What we can state, however, is the following: Ziyad provides us with new, earlier examples of the penetration of Arthurian themes and motifs in the Iberian Peninsula that predate both the Castilian translations of the Arthurian romances as well as their adaptation in Caballero Zifar. These versions circulated in a multi-lingual, multi-confessional Iberian narrative practice that included both oral and written performances. All of the above changes our understanding of Caballero Zifar and potentially many other early works of Castilian prose fiction as part of a literary polysystem with an oral component that is underrepresented in the sources yet important for understanding the development of literary narrative in Iberia.

Works Cited

  • El-Shamy, Hasan M. A Motif Index of The Thousand and One Nights. Bloomington, Ind: Indiana University Press, 2006. Print.
  • Fernández y González, Francisco, trans. Zeyyad ben Amir el de Quinena. Madrid: Museo Español de Antigüedades, 1882. Print.
  • González, Cristina. “El cavallero Zifar” y el reino lejano. Madrid, España: Editorial Gredos, 1984. Print.
  • —, ed. Libro del Caballero Zifar. Madrid: Cátedra, 1984. Print.
  • Guerreau-Jalabert, Anita. Index des motifs narratifs dans les romans arthuriens français en vers (XIIe-XIIIe siècles). Geneva: Droz, 1992. Print.
  • Ott, Claudia. “Nachwort.” 101 Nacht. Zurich: Manesse Verlag, 2012. 241–263. Print.
  • Ruck, E. H. An Index of Themes and Motifs in 12th-Century French Arthurian Poetry. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1991. Print.
  • Thompson, Stith. Motif-Index of Folk-Literature. Rev. and enl. ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1932. Print.
  • Wacks, David A. “Reconquest Colonialism and Andalusi Narrative Practice in Don Juan Manuel’s Conde Lucanor.” diacritics 36.3-4 (2006): 87–103. Print.

This post is based on a paper I gave at the 50th International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Thanks very much to Anita Savo for organizing the panel “Routes of Translation in the Medieval Mediterranean.”