Social Sundays: 3 Unit Plans for teaching the Renaissance

The Renaissance could be a whole course. I even was lucky enough to teach a 10 week course, once. Ten weeks is a luxury.  Sometimes, you have just one or two weeks.  With that in mind, I have put together some of my best ways to teach the Renaissance in one week, two weeks, or three to four weeks.

To approach the Renaissance,  examine first how much time you have to work with the material and the major ideas students will come away with from their study. The second parameter is often dictated by the course in which it is being taught.  I’ll start with the major ideas and then outline possible activities for 1-4 weeks of study. 

Major ideas: renaissance means rebirth.  This is the big idea as Europe emerges from the Middle Ages. Beyond that though is the idea that this is a period in which existing or rediscovered knowledge was expanded upon for new discovery. To that end I include the scientific revolution and at least elements of the age of exploration as part of the renaissance. These three units which are at times taught separately are so intertwined that when possible I teach as one large unit. Other major ideas from the period include: How did the Renaissance change life in Europe? What conditions allowed for the development of the Renaissance?  What makes a Renaissance person?

A plan based on time: note the plans below do not include our study of the reformation. The reformation could be incorporated. Generally, the unit goal is depth and big ideas not to study every artist, scientific discovery, and patron of the era. Any of the ideas discussed here can be expanded to meet your timeline. For example the role play project for 1 week could easily be stretched over 3 or 4 weeks and the prove the statement project could be done as an end of unit assignment in week 3 or 4. 

  • One week: it is challenging to do a good job on the Renaissance in just a week. One approach is to have each student examine it through the eyes of major figures. Students spend the first four days of the week researching, writing about and creating a costume for a significant figure from the era. On the fifth day students arrive as their major figure for a meeting of the minds in which they meet and discuss issues of the day. Rather than conclude with an exam, students submit an essay on their figure and a reflection on the era based on their experience at the soirée.  Another approach is to start with the statement: "the Renaissance is a rebirth and expansion of ideas and knowledge" (or whatever idea you want) and then tell students they have 1 week to prove the statement, or if you have the right dynamic of creative thinkers they can attempt to disprove the statement. Divide students into groups of 3-4. Groups can present their proof or refutation in any format on the last day but should include a written piece (short essay or outline of their argument) to give directly to you. Each group has 5-7 minutes to present. I provide brief information on scholars, major artists, scientific changes and events as a starting point. Students need to select and investigate to prove their side.
  • Two weeks: we have time to work on a comparative timeline that looks at Renaissance events compared to other events in the world, examine a
    handful of major artworks, look at the role and power of patrons in city-states, and explore a little of the scientific revolution. If we touch on nothing else from the scientific revolution at this point, we do explore and analyze the Gutenberg printing press. I like to do a short simulation in which I “hold” the knowledge. Really I have a book that is written in only a language I can understand and there is only 1 of the book. I write the book in code. They can ask me questions or try to read it directly. This is a frustrating experience as there is only 1 book and I’m the only one who knows the language. Remind you of the priests who read the Latin bible and then shared information with the illiterate. Students do a brief writing response on their reaction. Part 2 I provide multiple copies so that every 3-4 students have it. Of course they still can’t read it. Then I give the groups the same book translated into English. Relief spreads across their faces. They can read it!  We watch a video on the Gutenberg press. Finally we have a discussion on what modern invention has had a similar impact on the distribution of knowledge in society. For the last part, students work in small groups. They have 2 minutes to share the invention or inventions if their group couldn’t agree and explain its impact.
  • Three to Four Weeks: With more time I like to incorporate more depth and more content. Day one of the unit starts with a contest. The students are asked to design the front doors of a university. The winner will receive great glory and have their doors (the design) posted in a place of honor. This contest is modeled after the contest between Brunelleschi and Ghiberti for designing the bronze doors on the Florence Cathedral Santa Maria Del Fiori.   Ghiberti won the prize and his Gates of Paradise  design remains today on the baptistry of the cathedral.  Ironically, a later similar contest was held for the design of the cathedral's dome.  Brunelleschi's innovative double dome design was chosen, and today is perhaps more famous than Ghiberti's doors.  Thus, our longer unit on the Renaissance begins.    

This is part of a series of posts on teaching topics in World History.  Topics include:

Social Sundays is a bi-weekly post sharing tips, ideas, resources, and products for teaching social studies.  If you have questions or think there is something I should share, you can leave me a message in the comments below or at the store in the question and answer section.



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