Bringing the Middle Ages to life: A&S students create award-winning teaching resource

May 9, 2022 by Christine Elstub - A&S News

Living through the COVID-19 pandemic helped inform the work of eight Faculty of Arts & Science students who recently won an Experiential & Work-Integrated Learning Ontario Student of the Year Award. The award recognizes students who have shown a strong contribution to work-integrated learning — an experiential learning approach that combines academic studies with experience in the workplace or another practical setting.

The students — Amrita Brar, Hannah Guiang, Mailey Horner, Rion Levy, Sai Vipin Nikam, Josefina Novoa Reátegui, Anita Jyothi Sritharan and Theodosiya Zyla — were recognized for their contributions to Giovanni Boccaccio’s One Hundred Tales, a web-based resource bank hosted on ArcGIS StoryMaps.

Set up like a virtual museum, the resource combines text, images, maps and other digital elements to explore the tales of 14th century Italian book The Decameron. It is designed to help educators teach the Middle Ages and is accessible to teachers at all 70 Ontario school boards.

Headshot of Teresa Russo

University Lecturer Teresa Russo.

Giovanni Boccaccio’s One Hundred Tales was developed as a class project for Signs, Meanings and Culture, a second-year Material Culture and Semiotics course at Victoria College. It was created in partnership with Gianluca Agostinelli of the Niagara Catholic District School Board, whose feedback helped ensure the content meets Ontario curriculum guidelines while addressing the needs of diverse learners.

Instructor Teresa Russo was inspired to launch the project after hearing from high school teachers about their challenges in finding a Medieval text that students could relate to. She knew The Decameron — a collection of short stories narrated by a fictional group of friends who escape to the countryside during the Black Death (1346 to 1352) — would be relatable to students who had experienced the COVID-19 pandemic. “If students who are now in elementary school study The Decameron when they get to high school, they’ll remember back when they had to wear masks and learn online.”

The winning students were recognized for their ability to connect The Decameron to modern-day issues of class, gender, race and, of course, the pandemic. Levy, a literature and critical theory specialist and a member of Victoria College, explored how nonchalant attitudes about travel during both the Black Death and COVID-19 pandemics contributed to the spread of disease. “We always knew that if you travel, you’re going to spread what you have or be more likely to catch something. In my lifetime, we had never really spoken about that until now, so I made the connection that this has happened throughout history yet we’re still repeating the same mistakes.”

Many of these students want to become museum curators or go to graduate school. To have experience working with a digital humanities project is amazing for their resumes. 

Reátegui, a Trinity College student majoring in anthropology and psychology, drew parallels between the book’s central narrative and her own interactions with friends during the pandemic. “I included a picture of me and my girlfriends having a picnic in the middle of 2020. It was the first time I’d seen them in ages and we were telling each other stories,” she recalls. “Hundreds of years before that, a group of friends were doing the same thing. Even the way the narrator talked — it’s just how I talk to my girlfriends. It made me realize that the people in the Middle Ages were actually human.”

an etching depicting people suffering the plague of Florence in 1348
The plague of Florence in 1348, as described in Boccaccio’s Decameron. Etching by L. Sabatelli after himself.  See page for author, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Beyond adding an award to their resumes, the students gained workplace skills, like teamwork, communication and the ability to make complex academic concepts relatable to a general audience. “Many of these students want to become museum curators or go to graduate school,” says Russo. “To have experience working with a digital humanities project is amazing for their resumes.”

Sritharan, an Innis College student specializing in cognitive science, says the project will prepare her for a career in education. “This was my first time creating a resource for teachers to use, following provincial curriculum guidelines. It’s a skill I’ll be using in the future.”

This year, Russo’s students completed 38 of The Decameron’s 100 tales. She plans to repeat the project to have the remaining 62 stories completed by 2023. Through a partnership with the American Boccaccio Association, she will also engage scholars from around the world for additional contributions.

Knowing the resource they created will be used by educators for years to come is especially rewarding, says Levy. “I haven’t seen a class activity before where we actually get to create something real. It’s exciting that the end product is going to be of value to people.”