Archive for June, 2010

Alleviating Shakes-fear, Part II

When my young charges entered the room that day, they saw five red balloons stuck to the whiteboard with tape.  Each balloon had taped to it an 8 ½ x 11 sheet of paper with one of the following phrases printed on it in 100-point font:

  • Shakespeare wrote intellectual “high drama.”
  • The Renaissance was a wonderful time to be alive!
  • Shakespeare was highly educated and wrote specifically for kings, queens, and nobility.
  • We can learn more about Shakespeare by studying his plays.
  • The issues Shakespeare wrote about have no bearing on my world.

I explained to the class that these statements represented some commonly held misconceptions about Shakespeare and Elizabethan England, and that today we were going to symbolically destroy these beliefs that even the very highly educated and refined members of this class may even hold themselves.  Volunteers would come to the board to read one statement out loud, pop the balloon, and then read aloud the folded-up refutation that I had placed inside the balloon before inflating it.

The initial response was blank stares and silence from the class.  Uh-oh.  Had I completely lost the plot?  Was this too babyish for my high school sophomores?  After what seemed like an eternity of silence (which was roughly equivalent to three seconds realtime), an explosion of “ooh, me!” and “can I go first?” and “Mr. B, can I get a shot?” and other general commotion overwhelmed me.  When I heard one of my much less motivated students say to himself (unironically), “Wow, that’s really creative”, I knew it – they were hooked!

Five students got to (not “had to”!) go to the front of the room, pop a balloon, and explain to their classmates about the hygienic pitfalls of living in England during Shakespeare’s time, the universality of Shakespeare’s themes, and the rather straight lines one can draw between Shakespeare’s plays and some modern horror movies.  Afterwards, I gave every student in the class their very own red balloon, into which I instructed them to channel every bad feeling and negative association they ever had with William Shakespeare.  Then, on the count of three, we all popped our balloons in a cathartic release of negative energy.

Of course, a hook without substance is nothing but a cheap gimmick, and to follow a start like that with anything less than both barrels blazing would have been a heartbreaking waste of momentum.  We then did some work with Shakespeare’s language and physical movement, just getting familiar with the vocabulary and cadence and simply getting the words into and out of our mouths, much like a baseball player takes a few practice swings before stepping up to bat.  A little bit of acting, some discussion about stage directions, unfamiliar syntax, and using context clues to determine meaning, and before I knew it they were arguing over who got to be the witches first in 1.1.

In subsequent years, I added Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Measure for Measure, and Twelfth Night to the list of Shakespearean plays I would explore with my high school students.  While the specific assignments and activities varied by play, I found that by following a few guiding principles, I was able to make Shakespeare a relatively painless (possibly even enjoyable!) experience for my students.

While we all had a great time popping balloons and making a commotion, at the heart of that activity was an attempt to help the students get to the content in an unconventional way.  Along that line, I’ve found that having a healthily irreverent attitude towards Shakespeare can go a long way toward defusing some of the anxiety, intimidation, and subsequent resistance students demonstrate when confronted with this seemingly foreign writing.  Where others might put Shakespeare up on a pedestal, I always aimed to take him down off the pedestal and have some fun with him.  Making jokes and poking fun at odd phrasings or situations had my students laughing with me, and we were all in the Shakespeare boat together, which made for a dynamic well-suited to open-mindedness and learning.  If you haven’t seen The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), do so – it’s a perfect example of irreverence toward Shakespeare by people who clearly love him.

Physical movement is imperative to any study of Shakespeare.  I cringe when I think of all the time I wasted as a young teacher having students sit in their chairs, reading the play aloud.  Having my students get up and move around with the text made them think not just about what is being said, but how that translates into physical action, and why.  Whenever I asked students to block scenes, I would always challenge them to defend their blocking – why should Juliet stand here instead of here?  Why did Ophelia give the crowflowers to her instead of him?  Acting out the same scene in different ways can also lead to high-level discussion about character motivation and major themes in the context of a director deciding how to play a scene.  For example, I used to split my sophomore classes in half and ask one group to act out the banquet scene from Macbeth twice: once with an actor playing the ghost of Banquo, and once with no one playing Banquo.  We then discussed how both the audience and Macbeth’s dinner guests are impacted by a directorial decision to have Macbeth scream at an actor in ghost makeup versus having him scream at an empty chair. These all helped the students gain a more multi-dimensional understanding of the play – not just what’s happening, but why, and what could (or could not) happen as a result.

Also in a performance vein, I strongly suggest watching movies with your students.  More accurately, I suggest watching clips of movies.  I don’t believe I ever showed a complete film start-to-finish during any study of Shakespeare.  I used clips of scenes to reinforce basic comprehension or to make a point as needed, but my primary focus was to use film as a text for analysis and discussion.  One of my favorite film-based activities was to show three different versions of the same scene in Hamlet and have my students discuss whether they felt Mel Gibson, Campbell Scott, or Ethan Hawke had the most accurate take on the great Dane, and why (they are three very different portrayals).  We also examined how each film treats the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia and discussed the major points of contrast and what impact that has on the audience’s perspective.  Studying how closely different versions of a scene (such as Titania’s seduction of Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream) adhere to the text can lead very easily to discussions of how the tone of a scene (and the subsequent impact on the play) can be altered by omitting a single line or set of lines, or by re-arranging the events of a scene.

Speaking of lines, editing Shakespeare’s text is a fantastic exercise in critical reading.  I often gave small groups of students a scene and instructed them to edit out ten (or twenty, or thirty) percent of the lines.  To do this effectively, they had to work together to distinguish what was essential to the scene and what was not, as well as what might be important to keep for later in the play.  As I’ve never been one to ask my students to do something I wouldn’t do or haven’t done myself, I first did this at TSI 2002, and I can honestly say that it is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever been asked to do with a Shakespeare play.  Try it yourself before you assign it to your students; you’ll see what I mean.

Regardless of the teaching strategies you try, above all, please: have fun.  If you dread teaching Shakespeare, your students will dread learning Shakespeare.  If you display your genuine enthusiasm, however, and can maintain a light-hearted attitude, even the most reluctant learners can be brought along for the ride.

Alleviating Shakes-fear, Part I

I’m proud to announce that this month, my first short story was published by Kaplan Publishing in an anthology entitled The Teachable Moment: Seizing the Instants When Children Learn.  The book was compiled and edited by fellow school psychologist/blogger Dr. Rebecca Branstetter, and is available at finer online and offline purveyors of literature.

The title is pretty self-explanatory, so if you’re inclined to read about such things, please pick yourself up a copy and check out what stories these fine educators have to share (no, I don’t get royalties for copies sold!).  For my contribution to this collection, to be published here in two parts, I drew upon my experiences exploring the works of William Shakespeare with high school students.

What follows is taken from the last version I submitted to the editor.  With the exception of any links I added for online publication, any disparity between what appears here and what appears in the book are due to the in-house editing process (and probably improved the piece immeasurably, so thank you, editors!).

Alleviating Shakes-fear

Of all the difficulties I struggled with as a new teacher, one of the most Herculean tasks I faced was not classroom management or dealing with difficult parents: it was getting my students interested in Shakespeare.  In retrospect, I guess I should have been able to identify with them a bit more; after all, even as an Honors student and self-professed English geek, it wasn’t until I got to the very end of high school that I even began to appreciate his works, and then not until the end of my undergraduate program that I really started to feel like I could engage the texts on a level deeper than what my Cliff’s Notes were telling me.  The summer after I graduated college, I was recruited by my Shakespeare professor to play the role of Young Siward in Macbeth.  My prior acting experience had been limited to a few high school musicals, so this was a great first Shakespearean role: I got to say four or five lines, have a short swordfight with Macbeth, and then die (my being “of woman born” my chief liability on the battlefield).

This opportunity led to others within the theater company.  Over the next few years, I would play increasingly larger roles in 1 Henry IV, The Tempest, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  About midway through this succession of roles, I landed my first full-time position as an English teacher.  By that time, I was a bona fide Shakespeare nut and ready to bring my love of the Bard to the unsuspecting tenth-graders with whom I’d be covering Macbeth that fall.

I think it’s safe to say that my first time around teaching Shakespeare to high school students didn’t go exactly as planned.  For some odd reason, they weren’t as excited to be reading The Scottish Play as I was, and I was actually met with resistance when I told them how great the play was!  I struggled through the play with them as best I could as a new teacher, and I think I speak for students and teacher alike that we were all quite relieved when it was over.  My first attempt at teaching Shakespeare was, as Will S. himself might have said, a hot mess.

As any teacher does, I picked up little tips and tricks my second and third time around with the play, and each time got a little less painful (which is what I was gunning for, really).  I was doing passably well with the text once we got rolling, but I was still lacking that hook that was going to grab my kids from the outset.  I felt it was taking too long to get the kids interested and invested in what was happening (although “by Act 3” was much better than my first attempt, which was “not at all”).  Fortunately for me (and my students), all I would need is a push in the right direction, and it was about to come.

In the summer of 2002, I was one of twenty-six teachers from around the US selected to participate in the Teaching Shakespeare Institute (TSI) in Washington, DC.  The TSI is held at the Folger Shakespeare Library every other summer, and allows teachers access to the Folger facilities and faculty, as well as to distinguished American Shakespearean scholars, to collaborate on creating exciting and engaging materials for teaching the works of Shakespeare.  To expound upon the litany of praise and respect I have for the people involved in the TSI is beyond the scope of this essay, but I mention the creative focus of the Institute because this is what jump-started me toward thinking differently about teaching Shakespeare.  Ironically enough, however, the “hook” I’d been looking for for years came to me in the least likely place: a lecture hall.

During one of our introductory lectures, Dr. Robert Watson of UCLA was making a point about the contrast between the romanticized storybook version of the Renaissance period that we often hear about versus the often horrible truths about pestilence, disease, and general hard living to which the majority of Renaissance England was subject.  I remember him using a variation on the phrase, “I hate to burst your bubble”, and as I was taking a short break from studiously and furiously taking notes, I started doodling a popping balloon. I then began to think about Dr. Watson’s point about preconceived notions in the context of teaching Shakespeare, and it occurred to me that so many students fight learning about Shakespeare because they have already convinced themselves it’s going to be awful (this may not be news for many of you, but I was still a new teacher, so I was taking all the revelations I could get).

Over the course of the Institute, I worked alongside some incredible teachers, actors, playwrights, and scholars, all of whom helped me come to a better understanding of how to approach Shakespeare with my students; for this, I am indebted to them.  When I returned to my classroom in New Jersey the following fall, I took all of that with me, but remained guided by that initial little flash I had in the lecture hall: start strong.  Do not let them convince themselves that they can’t do this.  Do not let them beat themselves before they even start. Don’t even give them half a chance.

My tenth-grade English class started our study of Macbeth right around Halloween that year, appropriately enough.  This time, rather than try any of my previous opening activities (much of which resulted in the students complaining about how hard “this Old English stuff” was), I had decided that I was going to burst my students’ bubbles – or rather, they were going to burst their own.

(to be continued!)