The Tomatina Tales

Tenth grade English students make Chaucer their own in hilarious character sketches that combine to form a unique prologue.

A zealous vegan. A teenage goth. A man who greatly resembles Donald Trump—but is he? The storytelling group of travelers making their way to La Tomatina—a famous tomato-throwing festival in Spain—is undeniably an interesting bunch. What’s more, their stories make up the prologue of The Tomatina Tales, a creative composition by 10th grade students who are diving into Chaucer for the first time.

Although English teacher Lubna Najar has taught The Canterbury Tales for years, she only recently began giving students this assignment, which is the result of a pedagogical inspiration from English Department Chair Jennifer Solomon. “Jen always chooses a pilgrimage site that everyone pretends they’re going to,” says Lubna. “Since we don’t do a lot of creative writing over the course of the year, I wanted to try to fit it in where I could. It’s nice to give students an opportunity to share their work, which we don’t often do with analytical writing.”

The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer’s unfinished but masterful story collection that dates to the 1300s, is one of the oldest works of literature that modern-day high schoolers study—though it’s often reserved for the university level. Chaucer’s Canterbury-bound pilgrims are famously given a storytelling challenge by an innkeeper, which sets the stage for each of the tales in the collection. The prologue contains funny, satirical, and sometimes bizarre character sketches of each of the pilgrims.

While 10th graders do not confront the text in Middle English (future English majors can look forward to that in college!), the translation they read preserves Chaucer’s use of iambic pentameter. And so, when Lubna asks students to write character sketches for The Tomatina Tales, they don’t just have to come up with quirky characters—they also have to imitate Chaucer’s style.

“I think most of the students would say that it gives them an appreciation for the cunningness of the way the original poem is constructed,” Lubna said. “It’s pretty clear and pretty funny, so it can seem deceptively simple. Once they have to do it themselves, they really realize how tricky it can be.”

Despite the complex requirements, students plunge into the project and make it their own. Eden Taff ’19, for example, takes a teenage stereotype and gradually stretches it into the realm of the ridiculous:

            “And then there was a young indignant Goth
            Who wore nothing but the darkest forms of cloth.
            Although she owned the finest colored robes,
            Of anything but black she did oppose.
            Her father bought her shirts of red and green,
            A dress of gold with an unearthly sheen,
            And mother brought her jewels from far and near,
            But sparkles evoked nothing but a sneer.
            To try and make her dress with more allure,
            They ran their bank account down to the floor.”

Another student’s vegan-themed sketch made Lubna laugh. “The light-hearted detail of it, the way the vegan isn’t a bad person at all, but there are aspects of his behavior that strike you as absurd—that’s what satire is,” she says. “In school, students often get credit for being analytical, but they don’t necessarily get credit for being funny. It is nice to be able to credit a student for that.” A particularly memorable part of that prologue details what happens when the vegan opens a health food store:

            “With green dreadlocks, thick, unkempt, and winding,
            One could wonder what the man was hiding.
            Soon he worked a shop with his cohorts.
            The food smelled worse than old fish from the port.
            When carnivores stumbled upon his store,
            They turned and quickly moved towards the door.
            For they were greeted with a scene so crude,
            Nevermore would they indulge in food.”

After the students’ assignments are complete, Lubna combines all the character sketches into a full-sized prologue, which she binds together in book form. Then, using the books, students spend their final class studying Chaucer on a small mock-pilgrimage.

“They really enjoy reading the bits that are particularly clever,” Lubna says. “It gives them the chance to appreciate each other’s work.”

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