During the final month of the school year, my students are well ahead of me: in their minds, they are already out of school and into the playground of summer. The last month of school is the most challenging for me. Just when my reserves on energy are nearly depleted, my students’ energies and attentions are fully charged—but not for school. Their bermuda shorts, colorful T’s and sunglasses remind all, constantly, that vacation time is only days away.
This unit is designed to meet both of our needs: on my part, to make the last month a meaningful learning time, on their part, to help my students understand why summer is so important and why they feel the way they do. We will use a study of Renaissance holidays and culture to explore some of the feelings they are experiencing as they get ready for the summer vacation: to examine the meaning and importance of holidays and to trace the common denominator of why there are holidays both past and present. This fascinating subject matter will wind up my ninth grade course in world civilization. A study of festivals thus will be informative on several levels. Why do people celebrate? Why are the feelings of anticipation as important as the celebration? Such questions as these will help students understand why summer is important to them both individually and culturally.
As part of the new humanitiesarts curriculum being developed at the Cooperative High School, this unit for ninth graders of all levels will draw on three main disciplines: social studies, English and the arts, both visual and performing. While its focus will be rooted in the rituals and festivals of the Renaissance, the unit will explore themes relating both to developments made in the Renaissance and to the personal growth of my students. As such, it is a unit about connections. Not only will the study of festivals allow students to see the connection between the past and the present and relatedness of their English, social studies and art classes, it will help them understand some of the changes and developments they themselves are going through.
Studying these festivals has something to do with the experience of the student. Rebirth and discovery are two of the most important themes of the festival, both in ancient times and even in our own times. Students often experience feelings of both during holidays, for holidays can be times of growth, even though the students may not know it. The festival was a time of “renewal” of self and society, a reminder of the natural year, and a symbol of spiritual resurrection. It was a time for an individual to discover or affirm how he fit into the community structure, through common, ritualized experience.
Studying Renaissance festivals can help students see themselves and their own development. Through study and discussion, I hope they will begin to identify those periods and activities in their own lives which are a reflection of the values and ideals of the larger community. At this point, they see holidays (our word for festivals and rituals) only in terms of what a holidy does for them as individuals—fun, time off and relaxation. For example, summer for them is a time to stay up late, sleep more, pursue hobbies and participate in activities of their choice.
Our culture puts much emphasis on individual growth. Because summer provides freedom from a structured learning environment, the individual is able to explore his own interests freely. Students may recognize the personal value of summer but not the cultural value. When I meet my students in the summer, they seem more relaxed; they are in control of their lives doing things they want and they seem secure, almost more mature. They are not playing the role of student in a hierarchical setting; rather, they seem happier to see me, I think, because they are meeting me as individuals.
This unit is designed to help them see why summer, in particular, is meaningful for them by examining the kinds of festivals Rennaisance people enjoyed and discussing the meaning of those festivals. It’s easier for them to find meaning in other festivals that they do not take part in and then to connect the meaning to their own experience of holiday anticipation and participation.
Through the school system, our culture ritualizes the transition between the formal structured learning environment and the free time of summer. Awards assemblies, Field Day, book collections, banquets, the Prom and room cleaning are all activities which tell students that the time for learning is over and the fun and free time of summer are beginning. These activities are significant symbols: part of student behavior is anticipatory and the other part is reactionary. We, as a society, give them permission to act and feel the way they do in the last month precisely because of the rituals of this time.
A look at Renaissance rituals will introduce them to the idea that rituals and holidays have both personal and cultural meaning. A study of festivals will help them understand how they have both personal experiences that are their own and group experiences that reaffirm the values of their culture. Students will be encouraged to consider the meaning of and the reasons for this duality, their identity as an individual and as a community member. After looking at Renaissance festivals, students will be challenged to identify some of the rituals in high school and in the culture at large that have allowed them to discover and grow.