Tag: William Shakespeare

Five Ways to Teach Classics in High School Literature Class

Shakespeare. The Bard. A true genius in literary circles. Ask anyone with an advanced degree in the subject. And some without a degree at all concur.

Me? Not so much.

That didn’t stop me from teaching OTHELLO in four sophomore classrooms a few weeks ago. What I mean by “teach” is to let an audio recording read Act IV to the class while I paused occasionally to ask clarifying questions and double-check for understanding.
And once to just point out the lovely irony the Bard does so well which I do like.
The students had time to write a summary and pick out some figurative language for their assignment. I admit, by class three, I was commenting on some of the personification in one of Othello’s monologues.

Does that count as giving them answers? *shrugs*

Then I played the 1995 movie. Kenneth Brannagh plays Honest (HA) Iago and Laurence Fishburne (Morpheus from MATRIX) takes the title role. We watched Act IV.

Yes, I did this four times. I was playing Words with Friends and scrolling through Facebook during the movie the last few times. Although I did chime in when something was clarified once they could SEE it played out.

Shakespeare scripts were meant to be seen not read.

No matter what you say, I will not be pursuaded from this. If there hadn’t been movie adaptations for the nine plays I had to watch in my college Shakespeare class, I would have failed it.
The man didn’t even give stage directions.

You need the actors to interpret it for you and then learn from their actions.

It was during the final teaching session that a sophomore boy asked, “Why do we have to read this? Couldn’t we study something newer and easier to understand and learn the same things?”

Oh, young man, we certainly do need to study (not read) Shakespeare and other classics. But it’s time to be honest, high school students aren’t getting much out of it.

Use something modern that alludes to the classic.

In preparation for writing this post, I Goggled “Why teach classics in high school?” Links back to many of the articles I found on the subject will be included.

One article on an Advanced Placement literature help site claimed it was a disservice not to teach classics. One of the main arguments was because so many modern references derive their meaning from classical literature.

It’s true. As an aside, I fully believe advanced literature courses should cover the classics, and only the classics. Those students are preparing for college and they’ll need the analytical skills a great literature class teaches.

For the average student, I might recommend a book like THE WEDNESDAY WARS by Gary D. Schmidt. In it, the narrator is forced to study Shakespeare while every other student in his class goes to their weekly religious classes.

The students will engage with this novel’s story, and teachers can take time to delve slightly into the Shakespearian references that are made. In this way, the class stays engaged with the reading, and those who find Shakespeare interesting have now been given a sample. They’re free to check him out of the library or binge watch him on Netflix.

Pair a small bite of a classic with something more current.

Most students shut down when you show them an old story. They don’t care how much it influenced literature or society. All they care about is that it is OLD, and therefore doesn’t relate to them.
Students of literature know better. But general high school classes aren’t meant to make literature buffs out of students.

What is the purpose of literature class in high school? Go ahead and Google it. I did.

Students think the purpose it so learn to research a topic and write an essay on it. Teachers think it’s about grammar, vocabulary, reading and comprehension of broad categories (so why do they have to read a Shakespeare play in every year of high school?), studying the literary culture of English societies and organizing information and communicating it to others. Oh, they say the research and citation aspect is also important.

In any case, there is no reason to wade through hundreds of pages of classical literature to learn these skills. In the era of memes and movies, students want to be entertained. If you entertain them, they’ll learn more.

Ignoring the culture of learning is antithesis to teaching. Great educators can adapt their methods to fit their students. I know this because I worked in a special education classroom for ten years, and in that room, it was all about adaptation.

Invest in different formats of the classic.

I’m not a fan of graphic novels. I want words or I want pictures.

That doesn’t mean the upcoming generation feels the same. If we can put To Kill A Mockingbird in a more accessible format without damaging the beauty of the original language, why wouldn’t we do it?

If a student will read the book in graphic novel format, isn’t that better than if they don’t read it? You say you’ll read it aloud in class. Fine, but we know how easy it is to tune our brains to something else when we’re not interested in the topic at hand.

The key is in making adaptations that maintain the integrity of the original. And companies are trying to do it. Schools should make a market for this important work by investing in new books in a format that engages their students.

Put the classic into historical context.

Many of the posts I read on the subject said the most important reason for studying the classics was because of the cultural insight it imparts.

Wouldn’t this be better off in history class then?

I’d argue for the combined humanities courses that fall in and out of favor in our state’s middle school environments. That’s a perfect age to marry these two subjects.

But those students aren’t going to wade through UNCLE TOM’S CABIN to understand the American cultural climate. Good grief! I barely managed to wade through it as a junior in high school and I was an advanced reader and writer who devoured any book that was handed to me.

Except that one. But I did slog through it.

An excerpt or two could be gleaned from the text on the pertinent cultural lessons. This way, students can access the benefits in a dose they can handle.

Curate the substance and present it in a medium students relate with.

English and literature teachers are the experts on the subject matter. However, they aren’t meant to make experts of their students.

That’s why there are curriculum learning objectives.

As an author, I have to kill my darlings if I want to produce stories that readers will read. This means brilliantly written scenes get cut from the manuscript and filed in my “cut scenes” document.

High school teachers need to do the same. Is symbolism in literature an important thing for students to grasp? And if it is, then choose a modern book they are familiar with (one that has a movie to go along with it) to teach it.

Why? Because using a source they aren’t interested in to teach them a subject they think is pointless is only going to frustrate everyone. They won’t learn, and you’ll feel like a horrible teacher.

The English department at every high school needs to have a round table. The state mandates the learning objectives. Let the teachers decide which literature is best suited to the objective and the audience.

Too often, thought isn’t given to the audience. For an author, that’s the top of an ice-slick slope with an avalanche brewing at your feet. It’s time teachers realized it puts them in a precarious position to only think about what they want to teach instead of how their students will best learn.
What are your thoughts? Did you LOVE reading ROMEO AND JULIET in high school? Are there other ways to teach classics to teenagers who play video games and watch movies rather than read?

The Power of Guilt

Tragedy upon tragedy, that’s been the consensus drawn from this Shakespeare class. My final paper addresses whether or not Macbeth is a moral play.

According to this website http://www2.cedarcrest.edu/academic/eng/lfletcher/macbeth/papers/ksteiner.htm, a morality play, or moral play, is when a hero is tempted, falls from grace and must be brought to justice for order to be restored.

Compared with the other happy and uplifting (sarcasm drips from my fingertips) plays we’ve read this term, Macbeth seems to fall into this form more than the form of a simple tragedy. In fact, Macbeth doesn’t seem to have the ambition to promote himself in the beginning of the play and haply serves Duncan.

I’ve always felt that Lady Macbeth resembled Pilate’s wife. The greatest difference is that Lady Macbeth cajoled and belittled her husband until he finally became a murderer – thrice over in one night. Afterward, guilt ate at her, driving her to walk in her sleep while trying to wash the blood from her hands.

Pilate’s wife had a dream and warned Pilate not to condemn Jesus Christ. This was a wife who pushed her husband in the moral direction. Unfortunately, Pilate tied his hands by offering the mob a choice.

Guilt seems to affect Macbeth at first, too. He sees the ghost of Banquo at a dinner party he’s hosting and all the guests think him mad. Once he becomes king, he hires his evil deeds out and assassinates the family of one of his peers, after being warned to “beware Macduff.” This seemed to be the point when he carried things too far and began losing the support of his own men.

Guilt wields cutting power to rival a sharpened scimitar. Of course, guilt can be silenced and disarmed if a person has no moral compass. Guilt’s power comes directly from the assumption that there are absolute truths and standards. Once these standards are disregarded, guilt salutes the offender with a resounding “en garde.”

Macbeth shares characteristics with moral plays, but Shakespeare broke away from being “preachy” and gave the audience the freedom to determine the guilt of Macbeth.

Talk about a Dysfunctional Family

Working in a middle school in a town that is the county seat in a state with an unemployment rate that exceeds the national average, I see plenty of dysfunctional families. Who would have thought I would have been amazed by the crazy family dynamics of a play written in 1605.

Things I see in my everyday student interactions include:

  1. Students with four sets of parents
  2. Students whose parents are in jail
  3. Students who live with their grandparents or aunt and uncle
  4. Students with hyphenated last names because of their parental marriage situation
  5. Students who don’t have enough food, clean clothes or their own bed to sleep in
  6. Homelessness

I could continue, but just writing this down is depressing me.

In King Lear, we have a crazy king with three daughters (no one knows what happened to Mrs. Lear) and a lord who has two sons. None of these people live happily ever after.

The king disowns his youngest daughter for no apparent reason and bequeaths his worldly goods to the other two (and their spouses) with the stipulation that he will reside a month at a time at either of their estates. He will arrive to the oldest daughter’s home with his retinue of 100 knights shortly.

These loving daughters turn him away. He can’t stay unless he gives up his knights. How could they possibly support such a hoard of hungry men? Oh, I wonder. Using the money you just inherited from the very father you’re denying perhaps?

From USAToday

Our other model family is Lord Gloucester and his sons. His oldest son seems somewhat dense but fiercely loyal. His youngest son is illegitimate and weary of being overlooked. Big brother gets all the strokes and carries around dad’s name. He decides to betray them both.

First, he manufactures a plot against his father and says his brother planned it. He sends the brother away, claiming he will take up his cause with their father. Not a chance. Later, he allows the father’s eyes to be gouged out and the brother to wander aimlessly.

In the end, they all die. After all, this is Shakespeare. The two older sisters fight over the illegitimate son and poison each other. The older brother kills the younger brother in a duel. The disowned daughter is murdered and the king dies of a broken heart.

It’s worse than any soap opera aired today. Exponentially worse.

Do you feel that Shakespeare needed to kill so many of his major characters to get his point across? Do people have to die for a story to be considered tragic? I’d love to hear from you.

Hamlet – Not much of a Hero

While critics everywhere agree that Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most popular play, those same scholars find little to admire in the title character. He seems plagued by a “lack of will to act,” they say.

While watching the 1996 Branagh version of Hamlet, I followed the text in my weighty textbook. A few additions (from another version of the text apparently) were the only variations from what Shakespeare penned hundreds of years ago.

I enjoyed the film. While lengthy soliloquies covered a page in the book, the filmmaker gave visual flashbacks or cutaway scenes to explain what was being rambled on about in the tiresome speeches. It helped me understand the depths of plot that Shakespeare layered in this play.

Hamlet, in a deep state of grief over the sudden death of his father, resents the marriage of his mother and uncle less than a month after the funeral. A visit by the ghost of his father directs him to wreak vengeance on his murderous uncle. Hamlet voices his own moral quandary for carrying out this revenge.

It is this constant questioning and his need for verification of his uncle’s guilt that immobilizes him. What right does he have to be the executioner of this sentence? Won’t his vengeful retribution make him as much a murderer as his uncle?

In the film, it was easy to see that Ophelia and Hamlet had a preexisting love relationship, but it’s nonexistent in Shakespeare’s manuscript. What motivated the only suicide in this play?

Is it strange that I find the multiple murders at the end of the play preferable to the suicidal body count in the other three plays I’ve read this term? In fact, the true tragedy of this play is that a country is left without a monarch. An invader walks in at the end to claim the throne, the conquest for it accomplished by the royal family he deposes.

Even though I enjoyed reading (and watching) this play enormously, I have to admit that Hamlet’s character isn’t the compelling ingredient. So many famous sayings and familiar quotes are in this play, it’s obvious The Bard outdid himself with the turns of phrase in this story.

What do you think of Hamlet? Is he a hero? Who do you think was the hero in this play?

Romance or Tragedy?

With difficulty, I managed to keep myself from gagging, choking and puking over the gushing responses of some of the women in my Shakespeare class. They seriously consider Romeo and Juliet an accurate depiction of true, deep, abiding love.

These are probably some of the same people that put Titanic at the top of the box office in 1997. Meeting someone and having sex with them a few days later isn’t true love.

When Titanic came out, one of the girls in the church Bible study group I directed repeatedly went to the theater and extolled the virtues of this as a true love story. I finally asked her what made it seem that way to her.

“He stopped her from killing herself.” That was her answer. Doesn’t general Christian charity compel us to keep another human being from physical harm?

In fact, it was Cameron’s masterful direction of the movie that stirred the heart strings. I found it incredibly depressing. Thousands of people died. Nice for the main character to use the tragedy as a start to a new life, but why was she so deserving?

Shakespeare introduces us to Romeo as he pines for Rosalind. A few scenes later, he’s wondering who the lovely girl at the ball is. They exchange brief lines and suddenly they’re smitten. What idiotic blather!

How many of you met someone and were immediately attracted to them? Dozens of hands go up, I see. How many of you got to know that person and within a month or less realized it was all physical attraction? Pretty much the same hands are raised here.

Who knows why we feel initial sparks of attraction to people? Some scientist, I’m sure, believes they have the answer. The point is: most of the time the initial attraction wanes. In a few rare instances, it might lead to abiding love.

Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, not a romance. Here are two teenagers (Juliet was 13) that get married after talking to each other for less than an hour and then kill themselves in a fit of tragic loss a few weeks later.

I see melodrama. I see middle school fickleness. I see suicide being touted as a viable route to escape life’s seemingly insurmountable problems and losses. I don’t see true love that is united by death.

What do you see? If there are some Shakespeare aficionados out there, I want to hear from you. Make me believe this is romance.

 

What’s up for Winter Term?

Exhibit A - Murder by Shakespeare
Exhibit A – Murder by Shakespeare

Are you looking for a weapon? Perhaps you have a hard-headed relative that could use a good whack on the noggin. In that case, let me recommend The Complete Pelican Works of William Shakespeare.

Who knew several hundred sonnets and 38 plays could create such a monstrous tome? Bound with hard, red covers, my copy can certainly double as a weapon or a mallet for “Whac-A-Mole.

My other textbook caused the man who gave me a pedicure on Saturday to grin like a devil. Naked Playwriting: The Art, the Craft, and the Life Laid Bare is the textbook required for my other class this term. Any guesses on the names of these two courses?

Shakespeare

The dread course descends. As an English/literature major, I shouldn’t have such an aversion to The Bard. Actually, I have enjoyed every Shakespeare play I’ve watched. Reading it is a different thumbscrew altogether.

The professor delights in his Elizabethan Era torture devices. We’ll read eight plays before the term subsides. I’m looking forward to Hamlet because of the allusions to it in Gary Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars, which I read aloud to student a few years back. In that novel, Schmidt also alluded to the only chance for laughter we’ll get this term – A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Nothing will compare to the yellow tights with flowers on the butt that Schmidt’s protagonist wore, I’m sure.

In addition to all this reading and the discussion boards that accompany it (we have three different forums for this first week), we are required to write two essays. Do I even know what they are about? No. The first one is due on January 27. We will get the specifics on it one week in advance of that.

Is there any doubt that my blood pressure has sky-rocketed? I need time to write and think and write some more and rewrite. A week is hardly enough time to muster a C paper.

The last week, while reading our lone comedy, we will be expected to answer several essay questions for our final examination.

I’m happy there won’t be a huge research paper this term. Do I actually know there won’t be? Having so few details inspires me to imagine the worst.

Play Writing Workshop

“You might be SNHU’s own Shakespeare,” my academic advisor told me when I registered for these two courses together in September.

That is a scary thought. As in “laugh out loud” absurd. I have no desire, or aspiration, to resemble Shakespeare in any aspect of my writing. Okay, it might be nice to be quoted 400 years from now, but I don’t want to write with such verbose complexity to earn that distinction.

Dawn rises on my final writing workshop. I haven’t been looking forward to it.

Surprisingly, I think that has changed after reading the introduction and the first chapter of the textbook. (No, I won’t be doing any naked play writing.)

The professor is extremely engaging, so that’s a positive sign. Of course, the fact that I have very short writing assignments each week adds delight. My major project is a 10-minute one-act play and all the other assignments build toward that.

The next two months might be looking up. I should be able to stay on top of writing this blog. I might even compel my creative muse to sprinkle some magic over my fantasy novel.

I couldn’t answer this question: what’s your favorite Shakespeare play? I’d love to be convinced to make your favorite – mine.