Grad students teach medieval history

Local fourth-graders learned about medieval bookmaking from grad students.

Lily Langerud

Standing in front of a group of fourth-graders, Elizabeth Bowser explained that while Philip Grace was wearing tights, he wasn’t a superhero.

Disappointing as that might have been to them, their attention didn’t lag while University graduate students Bowser and Grace gave a lesson on medieval history.

Using a grant from the University’s Council on Public Engagement, the Center for Medieval Studies’ outreach program connects University students with elementary and middle school students free of charge.

On Wednesday, Bowser and Grace went to Randolph Heights Elementary School in St. Paul to teach students about the history of medieval bookmaking. The fourth-graders could touch a page from an authentic medieval document, which brought gasps of excitement from many of the students.

Jean Schalk, the students’ art teacher, said this was the first time the school had worked with the University and that it was very successful.

Susan Noakes, director of the Center for Medieval Studies, started the outreach program in December as part of a larger program with the Minnesota Manuscript Research Laboratory.

After inviting local elementary and middle school teachers to a workshop explaining the program, graduate students started visiting schools that expressed interest.

“It seems to me that we’re in a time of great change in media, a change in how information is conveyed, and it’s a good time to remind young people that books were an innovation,” Noakes said.

Bowser, who has experience teaching high school students and plans on teaching at the college level after she completes her doctorate, said the program helps elementary students understand the roots of modern society, but also is important for graduate students in medieval studies.

“If we think that what we’re doing is important, we need to be able to talk to people about that, otherwise, we’re just talking to ourselves,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense to call something relevant and important if you’re not talking to other people about it.”

Elementary and middle school students create their own manuscripts to go along with the lesson. The quills, vellum and gold leaf the students use are paid for with grant money. Noakes said the program will need to find another source of funding next year, especially if it expands.

“At this point, it’s going to be focused on books and manuscripts,” she said. “If we find that there’s a demand, we might expand it into other areas of medieval studies because there’s so much interest with children, with “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings” and so on.”

The program is open only to graduate students, but Noakes said she would like to start pairing teams of graduate and undergraduate students. A manuscript research laboratory class is required for anyone who wants to participate.

Members of the outreach program plan to give another lesson in mid-February, at the Webster Open School in Minneapolis.