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!)

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