Don't start with the Renaissance (or Middle Ages), or if you do, just blow through it on the way to the Baroque period. You can play them a chant by Hildegard and then Spongebob style, "400 years later..." play something by Josquin. Ave Maria or maybe one of his other songs (Petite Camusette or El Grillo). I like Ave Maria because I can tell them the words and ask them how many of the words they can understand while the piece is going. Usually it's less than 50% of the words, even if they're looking at the text. If they are into it, listen to the whole motet, but it isn't necessary. The point is to hear the style and talk about how the polyphonic writing makes it difficult to hear the words. I always play part of a Palestrina mass (Pope Marcellus) Sanctus or Qui Tolis works well. Show them images of the Sistine Chapel and talk about how Palestrina and Michelangelo both worked there. Last piece I always do is "As Vesta Was From Latmus Hill Descending." I really focus on the text and the use of word-painting. (hill, ascending, descending, running down, two, three, together, all alone - all these words are depicted musically) I may be selling Thomas Weelkes short, but I treat it not as great music, but as an example of the clever word play that they enjoyed in the Renaissance.
Then in 1600 opera was invented and music changed forever (play "Tu Se' Morta" from L'Orfeo). Tell them what it's about, read the text, have a brave student try to read it dramatically, then listen to it. It's a totally different emotional connection to the music when you hear one person singing about their feelings than it is with 6 people in a madrigal.
Boom, you're in the Baroque period and you can spend the rest of the year focused on music that they may actually encounter in a concert (outside of the Ren-fest).
I'm teaching music appreciation for the first time this year, and I've kind of been flying by the seat of my pants. We've done theory, composition, and an instrument unit. Now, we're starting on the Renaissance and... I'm absolutely lost on how to make this interesting to them. Everything so far has been interactive and hands on, I don't want them to just sit through lectures or videos on the Renaissance, I want them to do something! Does anyone have any ideas? How do you make music history appealing to bored high schoolers?
Also... I have four students in this class.