By Sarah Burlingame, 4th Grade Teacher
Each year, the fourth-grade students at Covenant host a Renaissance Faire for their fellow grammar-school students. The fourth-graders research and then portray a historical figure from this time period. This enables them not only to have the opportunity to live out what it was like to be a part of the Renaissance by tasting Renaissance food and wearing Renaissance clothing, but also gives them a chance to think and act like a Renaissance person.
This type of holistic experience is an example of embodied learning, an important aspect of life at Covenant. Embodied learning is a holistic approach that requires students to employ their entire beings in the learning process. It engages a student’s body, mind, and (dare I say) soul, enabling him to discover new ideas, understand concepts more deeply, and integrate these into his life.
Embodied learning reinforces synapses and connections in the brain by associating knowledge with actions and (often) engaging the emotions. It provides an experience for students. This is not something sensational as a means of entertainment; rather, it is an opportunity to interact with important ideas and fully appreciate their significance. We seek to teach our students to recognize and love what is good, true, and beautiful, and we desire that, through the Spirit’s work, this would also become part of who they are. Embodied learning is a means to that end.
There are at least two approaches to embodied learning. One involves using the body as a means of learning and memory. For example, after studying the stages of the water cycle, a group of students could reenact these stages and become part of a water cycle scene. Allowing the students to engage their bodies and emotions in an activity like this reinforces connections in the brain, but it also becomes an experience to remember. It becomes a part of a student’s identity. For one moment in time, he or she was the “sun” and had to live out what it would look like and mean to be a sun: bright, high, rays reaching outward, and causing the water cycle. Another example of this kind of embodied learning involves adding rhythms and movement to chants, songs, and even just key phrases for learning. Moving to the rhythm and motioning with hands often helps students to recall the ideas that accompany the actions.
A second type of embodied learning requires a greater level of synthesis and works well as a culminating activity.
This type of embodied learning is an opportunity for students to take ownership of what they have learned by reflecting upon its significance and living that out within a community. The Renaissance Faire is a good example of this type of embodied learning.
In preparation for the Faire, the students begin by researching and developing a thorough knowledge of an important figure of the Renaissance. They need to know these figures so well that they could “be them.” This involves knowing about the person’s youth, his accomplishments, and how he contributed to the movement of artistic and intellectual flourishing in Europe known as the Renaissance. After researching these important figures for a month, the fourth-graders become very eager to emulate them. They want to act bravely, nobly, cleverly, or skillfully, just like the people they have studied.
As a culminating activity, the fourth-graders host a Renaissance Faire for the grammar-school students. They are able to go back in time for a day and be a part of the Renaissance world that they’ve studied from a distance for so long, and they get to share that experience with the rest of the school. Representing an artist, explorer, scientist, or courtly figure, they speak in the first person and share important and interesting facts about his life. They then remain in character and lead the other students in an activity related to their topic. This experience shapes the characters of the students by giving them a chance to live out what another person was like.
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It is a delight to see the way that the Renaissance Faire has become a tradition within the Covenant community. I have had several parents tell me that, on the eve of the Faire, their children are so excited that they can’t sleep. They are just so delighted to teach and share what they have learned with other students. I see the fourth-graders growing in kindness, wisdom, and tenderness as they encourage the younger students, and I see them being brave and determined as they lead older students in activities. They put into practice all the things that they have learned throughout the year about leadership, knowledge, organization, kindness, presentations, research, focus (I could go on), and they exhibit these things for the rest of the school. They must be servant leaders, and what amazes me each year is that the fourth-graders thrive in this environment. They are filled with joy to take on such a daunting responsibility, and they complete it so well. The Renaissance Faire is more than just an opportunity for them to remember an important time in history (which, no doubt, they will after all of the preparations for the Faire); it is a chance for them to become like the leaders that they so admire from the Renaissance. And it is a beautiful picture of the formative effect of embodied learning in a student’s life.
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