Mistaken Identity: Shakespeare in the Classroom


NOTE FOR NON-ENGLISH TEACHERS: Please don’t be put off by what appears to be English heavy content. My needs are far reaching!

It’s an age old struggle for an English Teacher: I love Shakespeare and the kids hate him. Worse still, I understand exactly why they hate him. I hated him too. Passionately. Actively even. And so, this is the ongoing discussion throughout my career (notice my defiance).

Student:            I hate Shakespeare.

Me:                      No, you just think you hate Shakespeare.

Student:            No, I really hate him.

Me:                      You don’t even know if you hate him.

Student:            Mr. Vogt!

I’ve taught Shakespeare to kids in South America, North Africa, The Middle East, Ontario and now the Maritimes, and this exchange has varied little from year to year. Last year, the conversation climaxed when a ninth grader threw a copy of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ from my 3rd story classroom window, striking a science teacher in the head (this really happened).

Me:                        Ok, I believe you.

I should say my general approach to Shakespeare in my class hasn’t necessarily been driven by my defiance. My defiance, I think, is born from a belief that my classroom is somehow different. My approach to Shakespeare doesn’t resemble my high school experience, because I’ve tried everything and my high school teachers, beyond sitting in rows reading, tried nothing.( Actually, that’s not quite true. Some teachers, in some inspired homage to the 1950s would ask us to memorise famous speeches and then recite them beside their desk as they made ticks on a sheet of paper deducting grades with every stumble.) Anyway, each year, it seems, begins with the enthusiasm of a new innovation in terms of experiencing Shakespeare as well as expressions of learning Shakespeare. And this makes my students experiences with Shakespeare vastly different from what my own were. Except, of course, the outcome is basically the same:

Student:            Shakespeare’s boring and he sucks.

They are tortured by him!

(This is hard to admit, but, at times, I’ve even sunk to shifting my perspective: “OK, so they hate him. No matter what, they’re going to hate him. They’re supposed to hate him. At least I’ve provided meaningful and lasting engagement that will finally resonate at that more mature moment in life when it inevitably hits them that they do, in fact, love Shakespeare. At that time, a time when they will barely remember my name, they will thank me.” And, of course, I’m forever buoyed by the inevitable few – a very tiny minority – who decide they love him: “See,” I reassure myself, “I’m doing something right.” All of this represents a kind of cop out.)

In more recent years, I’ve found myself adding something peculiar to the conversation.

Me:                     OK, of course you find him boring. You know, I’m pretty sure that when Shakespeare was imagining these plays he didn’t intend for a bunch of high school students to be sitting around reading them from a text. They are plays! They are meant to be performed and experienced in that way.

Indeed, I have used performance in my classroom. Over the years, I’ve used it in all kinds of ways: dramatic readings, contemporary retellings, even performances of short scenes. This is, I have learned, an effective approach to Shakespeare. It adds a layer of interpretation forcing a deeper and more meaningful engagement with the text. It is through performance that Shakespeare’s language finally begins to reveal itself and, in some way, resonate. The overall level of student engagement is high when performance is the focus. If students are to in fact thank me later in life for exposing them to Shakespeare, it will be because I asked them to perform it. I firmly believe this.

Well, this marks yet another year of “teaching” Shakespeare and, with it, yet another innovation. But this year’s different!

This year’s innovation builds on the concept of performance. No, it flips the entire approach to Shakespeare by emphasizing performance. Until this point, performance, within any study of Shakespeare, has been a mere element in a larger goal of teaching the text. And oh my goodness, do I ever hate admitting that! However, with this confession I also hope (and goodness do I ever hope!) I’ve identified the single biggest factor in the student’s dread of Shakespeare. No matter how many innovations I’ve thrown at the wall, my general approach has remained. I have, throughout my teaching been determined to bring the students to larger understandings of the basic elements of literature within Shakespeare: theme, character, specific stylistic choices, plot even. Really, the end goal in my classroom has been for the student’s to be able to compose formal, literary essays. Sorry, why do the student’s hate Shakespeare?

(Isn’t this by far the most difficult part of truly and meaningfully changing what’s happening in the classroom? Being truly honest about what it is you’ve been doing and the effect you’re actually having on learning?)

So this year, in my tenth grade class, the students are performing! I mean, I still “teach” the text but this is something closer to modelling (to borrow from Kelly Gallagher’s ‘Readicide’) rather than an insistence on full comprehension. From time to time I select a key passage or exchange and I’ll model my approach to interpretation and analysis. The students, meanwhile, are primarily focused on the larger and daunting goal of performance. In the spirit of PBL, the basic idea looks like this:

Broken into groups of four or five, students create a five to ten minute performance of an important (or memorable or particularly entertaining) moment, any moment, their choice, from ‘The Tempest’. Within each group (or company) are particular roles: lead actors, director, designer. The company creates an identity with a name, logo, slogan, and mission statement. All of this is posted on the company website where each member maintains a blog (various prompts for reflection are provided throughout the experience). The company has a twitter account. There’s a research element where each member creates an annotated bibliography of sources that might inform their artistic choices. Final performances occur in the theatre before a live audience. My absolute favourite piece of this entire project is that the Grade eights are making documentary films of this entire process (hilarious!).

It’s been roughly three weeks since I’ve introduced the project and we’re now four weeks from final performance. It’s going OK, but here’s what I would love to know from all of you:

  1. They’re still really only taking a “getting the work done approach”. I’m sure fear, at some point soon, will play a huge motivating role. However, I would love some insight or innovations to enhance overall engagement in the meantime.
  2. I understand the twitter piece in terms of sharing the experiences of our classroom with the larger community. I’m struggling, in this instance, to understand how it might enhance learning. Help!
  3. The question framing the project is “Shakespeare: why do we still care?” I would love some creative ideas on how the students can go about synthesizing their ideas and concisely answering this question at the end of the process beyond just a written reflection or personal essay.
  4. Anything! Really, help me out. This is a messy experiment at best. I would LOVE to know what’s working in your classroom.



5 thoughts on “Mistaken Identity: Shakespeare in the Classroom

  1. I have friend who assigns characters in her Shakespeare plays to students in the classroom, and puts them all on twitter.
    All characters have a twitter account e.g. @MacbethTMS14 and these are each assigned to a different student, who has co-access to the account with the teacher.

    Some major characters are double-cast, so @MacbethTMS1 would interact with @ladyMacbethTMS1, while @MacbethTMS2 would interact with @ladyMacbethTMS2

    This allows students to participate outside of the classroom and engage in a character and with other characters outside of class. She asks them to hashtag the class back channel e.g. #TMSMacbeth14 so the whole thread can be taken up in class.

    I’ll b trying it for the first time this winter — I’ve got high hopes!!

  2. I wish I could tell you what students find reassuring and exciting when it comes to their work, but I really don’t know. Do you think you could ask them what would make it more interesting, and somehow embed that in the project?

    You know how in documentaries about the whole process of making a movie, or a music video, there’s always a clip of one of the actors or the director reflecting on how they did it? These clips always seem to be inspirational to me, as if I want to do exactly what they have done. I guess it’s kind of like watching a spy movie. There’s this weird motivation. The whole point to studying a great story is that you’ll get a whole lot out of it at the end, and this seems to relate to that.

    Are the grade eights filming little clips of the grade tens reflecting on how they did it? It’s the same idea as a written reflection, but maybe it’s a baby step in progressing towards something you’re looking for. Hope this helps:)

  3. Graham,
    First, I have to say how much I enjoy reading your posts. They are entertaining, witty, and truly honest. I was greatly disappointed when I discovered that due to your Maritime location, you would not be joining us on Saturday as I was hoping to meet you.

    Second, your PBL approach to Shakespeare is fantastic. I am sure that the students will remember this. I have a couple questions/ideas….

    1) Who is the audience for the final performance? I’ve found that a key part of any PBL is that authentic audience for the final showcase. I’m sure you’ve got this covered, just curious….

    2) Could you make a connection between your questions 2 & 3? Have students Tweet out the question “Why do we still care about Shakespeare?” and use some good hashtags to attract a wider audience to answer the question? Or, as your final synthesis piece, have them Tweet their answers to the question (in 140 characters or less – they’ll have to be succinct!)

    3) To enhance engagement in the short term, I have found that giving interim deadlines or surprise check-ins helps to keep students on their toes. Also, anything you can do to up the ante a little helps — get some professional actors in the audience (or stream them into the classroom on Hangouts), ask local celebrities to judge the performances, etc. In my experience, students always respond better to someone else judging their work than just me (because what do I know, anyway?)

    Please keep us posted on how it goes — sounds like an exciting project!

    PS – so cool that the 8’s are making a documentary about it!

  4. Graham,
    Nicely done! I agree with Les that your posts are great – you’re a writer there is no doubt and I can’t wait until you publish your 100 in 100 idea that took Lakefield by storm only 2 short years ago.

    I love the life you bring to your classes and here are some ideas with respect to your questions.

    1. I like the idea of periodic check-ins but I wonder if flexible grouping and goal setting could play a role in your Checks for Understanding? If they’re driving then they could establish timelines and proposals as to when they are ready for different check-ins – to Les’ point.

    2. I am starting to use Twitter much more in my classes with the goal of attracting a bigger audience and connecting students with francophones around the world. I think you’re connected enough that you can use your network to help your students network and get their ideas to spread across a wider audience. I agree with the hastags, and one idea I am going to try is to have them tweet as an exit ticket with what they learned in class. Once you’ve populated enough tweets you can showcase them with Twitter Fontana and have a scrolling list of the tweets, and you could examine them for their depth and actually work the skills of exhausting their thoughts in 140 characters.

    3. I think that doing a Rick Mercer style rant on this one, and then tweeting it out would be amazing! Share it with the C21 crew and we can retweet and even share in our classes. This would be a true Ode to the East Coast!

    4. Check out this checklist – you’re already down the rabbit hole but it’s a ressource that I have used in the past to ensure that we’re still PBL and not just another project http://teachbytes.com/2013/03/18/problem-based-learning-or-just-another-project-use-this-checklist-to-find-out/

    We missed you at the face to face and I hope things are well on the home front. Do blog again about this or let’s hangout sometime. Do you want to connect with a class here at LCS for your performance? Can I join via hangout?

    I am excited to hear more about this!

  5. Not only do I love your honest and humorous voice in this writing, but I’m also totally loving the comments. I feel like I’m getting so many great ideas for when I finally get the courage up to teach my grade 7 students some Shakespeare.

    I was just wondering if you had explored the idea of having the students film their scenes. It would be cool to have these videos on their blogs (password protected, of course) and perhaps even shared with professional actors (tagging on to Les’s idea) in order to get some feedback and critique.

    Students could watching their performances at the beginning of the unit, before they go deep into the text, and then re-film after building their understanding. It could be a wicked awesome way to build into your class growth mindsets.

    I might just have to steal this idea myself (insert sneaky smirk here). Thanks for the ideas and inspiration!

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