I just got back from a great conference. The best part was that I had a bunch of English teachers with me who are now excited about using theatre strategies to deepen their students understanding of literature, particularly scary, tough classical literature. I’m so lucky to get to work across the curriculum with these terrific colleagues, and so excited for what the future holds for our shared students!
The Shakespeare Works When Shakespeare Plays conference has been hosted by the University of California at Davis’s School of Education at the gorgeous Mondavi Center annually for the past five years. It’s a brilliant conference that brings practitioners from the Shakespeare theatre community who have adapted their educational outreach strategies to help classroom teachers teach Shakespeare the way that we think Shakespeare would have wanted himself taught, on our feet, through play.
I am a conference fangirl. I have been to every single one in Davis, I think, and now that they’re trying to hold it next July at the Globe I’m scheming to find a way to get there, despite limited resources to do so. The powerful work they do at this conference seeks to undo our deepest fears about teaching Shakespeare to our students what Ralph Alan Cohen calls:
Shakesfear. That he’s boring, that the language is old, that it is therefore too difficult, and thus why even try teaching it in today’s soundbyte world?
Mostly tailored to English teachers who must combat the biggest hurdles in this regard, as many of them are directed to teach entire Shakespeare plays, the conference gets its participants up on our feet, moving and speaking Shakespeare’s language in ways that allow students of all ages to access the text, plot, and characters. But it has a lot to remind drama teachers about as well.
Here are some takeaways from the excellent teaching at the conference. In the coming weeks, I will attempt to synthesize and scaffold some of the games and activities as I move forward with new ideas for the drama classroom, but I want t to revisit some pedagogical truths at work in this approach, particularly as I hear from new teacher after new teacher concerned about discipline and accountability in the classroom. Rules. Our own accountability. Students being focused. Following the rules. Not disrupting.
The act of teaching is disruptive. The most powerful things any of us ever learned in life were disruptive to us. Teaching Shakespeare and other texts on our feet is extraordinarily disruptive, and I would argue, necessary.
Here are three key takeaways that I saw emphasized across the conference, practices which can assist you in the eventual transformation of your classroom into a heaven for the adolescent scholar/practitioner.
1. WARM UP. Every single one of these great Shakespeare teachers started with a warmup. To paraphrase the wonderful Kevin Costa, the Education Director of Chesapeake Shakespeare Company who is also a full time classroom teacher, student need time in between classes to transition and refocus.
“If you don’t give it to them,” he says with a smile, they will take it.”
Kevin keeps three beanbags in his pocket. He is known to start class by gently tossing the beanbags around the room in a circle, urging students to slow down and synchronize their throwing with their breath, then adding our names, so we gently lob the beanbag across the circle in a smooth and beautiful underhanded motion. Eye Contact-Breathe-Swoop-Arcadia.
The best part of Kevin’s signature warmup is his evident joy in presenting it. He is relaxed, gentle, and delighted by the efforts of his students to move this object through space. It’s his warmup. It makes the class and the space his, while bringing each student into their own body and into the present moment. It’s ritual, which our students thrive on, and if practiced regularly, with tolerance in the beginning for our students who seem hellbent on target practice, I can see it being a transformative classroom practice.
In order to do Kevin’s warmup, you need to not have students sitting in desks in rows. If you teach English, or teach other classes that are row bound, one idea would be to teach students to quickly alter the space as part of the warmup. Pretty much any classroom that is configured in rows can also be configured in an O or a U without much trouble. If you already have open space, you are ready to go.
If you need to keep students in their seats, consider playing music, batting around a balloon, call and response, rhythm, or snapping warmups. The don’t have to be long. But the long term power of allowing for transition, focusing students on themselves, and connecting them to the community has major effects outside of simply a nicer working environment.
Takeaway: SAFE, FOCUSED KIDS WHO ARE IN THE MOMENT WITH EACH OTHER CAN TAKE GREATER ACADEMIC RISKS. Think about it.
2. WHOLE GROUP WORK. Another takeaway from the conference. We are concerned about students “performing.” We want them to present and to perform, and we’re disappointed, secretly or overtly, by their awkwardness and reluctance to do so. The teachers at the Shakespeare Works Conference were masterful at providing opportunities for whole group work. Kirsten Giroux and Joan Langley of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival had us turn outward and step forward and back in order to make vowel sounds and attach them to subtext, such as “You see a yucky thing on the floor” or “You’re trying to get a friend’s attention.” By the end of this brief activity, they had effectively tricked us into a vocal warmup of vowel sounds, and gotten us to explore the sounds, without being concerned about looking stupid.
Beru Tessema of Globe Education had us work simultaneously on the same scene from Othello, switching partners and using new focuses, in order to teach the methodology of exploring a scene, by repeating key words of each other’s dialogue, hitting the paper to emphasize certain words, moving towards and away from our partners, and choosing when to use eye contact. These are techniques one could use prior to assigning individual scenes to groups, or they could be used to work students simultaneously on different scenes. This family of strategies effectively tricks the students into a bout of close reading, requiring them to have read the scene out loud on its feet multiple times before settling down to think about “staging the scene.”
Takeaway: STUDENTS WILL SHUT THEMSELVES DOWN IN ORDER TO AVOID LOOKING STUPID. Free them, at first, from the spotlight, and they will gladly take it later.
3. SCAFFOLD DIFFICULT TEXTS. No teacher at the Shakespeare Works conference began anything by handing us a scene and telling us to go rehearse it for the rest of class, something I have been guilty of and see over and over among my wonderful and well meaning colleagues who then wonder why they get a limp and unconnected product. Perhaps one percent of any given group of students are natural wordsmiths, bookworms who love reading long and complicated things out loud just for fun. Perhaps one percent are natural actors, who enjoy and instantly empathize with the character’s struggle, and want to find ways to portray it instantly. The rest of our students are people who have a typical relationship with the written word. People who didn’t grow up reading iambic pentameter, who did not grow up speaking English, who read at a slower pace, who have trouble comprehending what they read, who have been bred by the Internet.
You can start out with ONE WORD AT A TIME or work on A LINE as a group. Mary Hartman from Bard on the Beach handed out disambiguated Shakespeare lines and had us rearrange them while trying to keep the meaning. Michael Bahr from Utah Shakespeare Festival had us turn a line from Macbeth, “O full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife” (3:2) into a moving picture. I just Googled the line to check it and the first two entries are from No Fear Shakespeare, and the next six are from students posting on platforms like eNotes and Yahoo answers attempting to figure out what the line means. Now multiply that, and you’ve got a student’s desperate reading strategy for the scenes you are assigning.
I point this out because the internet is where your students go when you hand them large chunks of “boring” text that they don’t understand and abandon them to wander in the wilds interpreting it. Start with a word, move to a line, move to half a page of text. Be as explicit as you can in class and insist on whole group think as an imperfect practice to decode text. Particularly with a tough work, like a Shakespeare play, figure out ahead of time what in a text needs to be dealt with explicitly, physicalized, or played with and presented, and what can be summarized, read aloud in groups, or shown during movie day.
Takeaway: YOU DO NOT HAVE TO TEACH EVERY WORD OF THE TEXT in order for your students to experience, understand, and write about Shakespeare. You will again reap the rewards, and so will your students.
METHOD TO THE MADNESS
Many teachers are concerned about “personal accountability” among students when rearranging the teaching of the texts to incorporate so much ungraded group work. I respectfully submit that this approach involves a shift in thinking as well as a shift in practice.
I recently pointed out on social media to a newer teacher who was concerned about discipline that having a billion specific rules with consequences to follow in a classroom causes students to tally your infractions the way you’re tallying theirs.Similarly, grading everything leads students to value the grade over the process, whereas multiple whole group strategies used to teach something will yield better individual comprehension on quizzes and papers by sheer value of repetition.
The educational world is currently exploding with wonderful techniques and strategies to facilitate close reading through active learning. I hope you can find something that works for you and your students. Honor your own ideas, play around and let yourself and your students have some fun.
For more information about Shakespeare Works When Shakespeare Plays, visit http://education.ucdavis.edu/shakespeare-works-when-shakespeare-plays.