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Archive for October, 2009

First, I’ll admit that Titus Andronicus isn’t the greatest Shakespeare play, and I know about the dispute concerning Shakespeare’s complete authorship of the play. But it was his first Tragedy and he did write at least some of it–enough to have it included in collected works of his plays.  And in recent years scholars and directors have been re-examining the play.

So, why do teachers shy away from a play whose plot has all of the blood, guts, and violence that would draw students into the work–and some of the most moving poetry in all of the plays?  And why not teach a play that was made into a fascinating film, Titus, by Julie Taymor.

For a long time, I worked with students at risk of leaving high school, and I often used Titus as a way to get them started on their journey through some of Shakespeare’s plays.  Just tell students that Titus had 25 sons and a daughter and you’ve got everyone’s attention–even my colleague in the next classroom!  At any rate, think about Tamora as an early version of Lady Macbeth; Titus as a later King Lear; and Aaron as Iago.  There are three additional plays a teacher could explore with her/his students focused on ambition, family relationships, and jealousy, among other themes.  And that’s just for starters.   

It might also be good for students to read a play by one of the world’s most respected playwrights that wasn’t so good as a way to show how writers can develop over time.  Who knows? There might be a student in your class who will find her/his way into a life-long relationship with the Bard’s works because of Titus Andronicus.

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Recently, we’ve gotten a few requests from teachers looking for an ideal Shakespeare dictionary or lexicon.  There are several excellent resources available, but before I list them, I do want to point out that in order to teach a play, it is generally not necessary to know the meaning of every word.

We know for certain that the audience at the Globe Theatre in Shakespeare’s lifetime (especially the Groundlings) didn’t know the meaning of every word. There are examples in some of his plays, of Shakespeare defining some words for the groundlings.  My favorite is from Macbeth 2.2 when Macbeth tells Lady Macbeth about his blood-stained hands:

Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

Since “my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine” might (literally) go over the heads of the groundlings, the actor playing Macbeth might have then looked down to the perplexed groundlings and said, “Making the green ones red.”

When students are simply reading the play along with you, the teacher, it’s perfectly fine to skip over some words. When we attend a live performance or a film of a Shakespeare play, we can usually follow all the action without the need for footnotes or a glossary. But if you are having your students perform scenes (and we strongly suggest that you do), it’s a good idea to have several reference books available for them to determine how a line is to be delivered.

So here they are, in no particular order and in the case of the first two, have been somewhat revised and updated:

  • A Shakespeare Glossary (originally published in 1911) by C. T. Onions is a needed reference aid for anyone studying the works of William Shakespeare. This handy book helps to define or explain those words or phrases that are unfamiliar to the modern reader. Author C. T. Onions was one of the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary.
  • Shakespeare Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary (originally published in 1874) by Alexander Schmidt was produced by a leading nineteenth-century Shakespeare scholar and lexicographer. This massive two-volume work is a standard in the field, providing full definitions, locations, and meaning to the words in Shakespeare’’s plays and poems.
  • Shakespeare’s Words: A Glossary and Language Companion (2001) by David and Ben Crystal is the most recent glossary and it can also be found online at www.Shakespeareswords.com.  The book is a great classroom resource, but Website integrates the full text of the plays and poems with the entire Glossary database, allowing you to search for any word or phrase in Shakespeare’s works. David Crystal even has a video on YouTube in which he reads excerpts of his “play” written mostly with Shakespeare’s Idioms.

So please leave comments and tell us what resources you use in your classroom and how you use them.

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In addition to teaching Shakespeare as part of school curriculum, teachers sometimes find themselves working with the Bard outside of class. I recently received an inquiry from a teacher who works with students in grades 6 and 7 who has been assigned the task of creating a Shakespeare club – the catch is that not all of the students will be volunteering to join; some will be required to participate in the club.

We have several resources that can help make the study of Shakespeare fun and rewarding, and might even turn reluctant students into enthusiastic learners. The key is to approach the subject with an active, curious, and open mind – look at the experience as a way to share the learning process with your students.

1. Make it about them. When students have ownership of the process and the work, their creativity has an opportunity to shine. Interpreting Character is one example of an effective exercise to get students actively thinking about characters and motivation. It’s also an excellent technique for introducing a play, and you don’t have to start with Act 1, Scene 1.

2. Make it unexpected. Surprise your students by asking them to create podcasts or short videos as part of their Shakespeare study, or to present their own version of a key scene.  Technology and being asked to do something new and different can often win over students who aren’t sure that they like literature. Remixing Shakespeare shows you how to make audio mashups with your students.

3. Make it participatory. We believe that the best way to learn Shakespeare is to do Shakespeare. Our Shakespeare for Kids webpages have proven very successful with teachers, so that’s a good place to start.  You’ll find activities, games, and ready-to-use scripts, as well as other resources about Shakespeare and the Folger Shakespeare Library.

And now, I open the floor to other suggestions.  If you have a Shakespeare Club that you are currently advising, what suggestions do you have for getting a club off the ground and hooking students from a variety of backgrounds into the wonders of the Bard?

- Bob Young

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Teachers often ask me how to justify teaching a Shakespeare play in an American Literature class.

My answer is simple: Teach The Tempest. Many scholars believe that The Tempest was inspired by the real-life shipwreck of the Sea Venture off the coast of Bermuda in 1609 on its way to Jamestown. The account of that incident written in a letter by William Strachey  reached England in 1610. Scholars believe that Shakespeare wrote The Tempest soon afterwards. In addition, the plays deals with different views of Colonialism–a good stopic for classroom discussions.

You can hear Sam Waterston and scholars talk about the storm and the survivors in this Podcast from our series, Shakespeare in American Life.

There are plenty of teaching resources for The Tempest on our Play-byPlay section of the Folger Education site.

If any of you teach The Tempest, please add your comments below.

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One of the most difficult parts of teaching a Shakespeare play is simply getting started. For generations, we began by teaching all the biographical facts about Shakespeare that exist–when he was born, when he married, how many children he had, the missing years, etc. Then we discussed Shakespeare’s home town of Stratford-upon-Avon, what London was like at that time, and finally, what people “back then” ate and how they dressed. But what we most often taught (and tested) was about every nook and cranny of the Globe Theatre. Now with the addition of  Shakespeare’s Globe in London, we could even have our class take a virtual tour of the building.

I am convinced that none of this has much to do with a student’s appreciation or understanding of Shakespeare.

Plus, they get the same facts from each teacher who teaches them a Shakespeare play.  And they still can’t recall those facts. And why should they?

So how should we begin?  Here are a few simple ideas.

  1. Begin by looking at language-based activities. You might explore denotation and connotation, stress, pauses, or inflection. There are plenty of good activities in our Shakespeare Set Free series. Here’s a sample lesson  from our Website to get started.
  2. Use some fun activities. Using insults or compliments gets words into students’ mouths and makes them more comfortable with the language.
  3. Start with a short scene–not necessarily act 1, scene 1. Every play has one of these. It’s usually short, has several actors in it, and can easily be read several times in one lesson. I like to use act 1, scene 1 from A Midsummer Night’s Dream because it is written in prose and it is about a bunch of guys who know nothing about performing and they are preparing a play. Hmm. Sounds like my class.
  4. Before you get started, consider leaving some scenes out. The only way to do performance-based teaching and not take up an entire semester is to leave out those difficult scenes. Here’s one in Macbeth my students never figure out.
  5. Drop in those factual items about Shakepeare when they pop up in a play. For instance, a character in MND says, “Let me not play a woman. I have a beard coming.”  That’s the perfect time to discuss the absence of women on the Elizabethan stage.

I hope this helps. I welcome other ideas and suggestions for starting a play. Please add your comments and tell me how you start a Shakespeare unit.

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Welcome to “Making a Scene: Shakespeare in the Classroom.” We’re extremely excited to launch into the blogosphere, and hope you’ll join us as we collaboratively share ideas and strategies about what’s working in your classrooms. 

Our founding Head of Education, Peggy O’Brien, has often said, “Teachers do the most important work in the world.” As your educational partner, we certainly believe that’s true. 

In addition to offering online resources from lesson plans to podcasts at www.folger.edu/education, we’ll be using this blog to let you know what’s new at Folger Education, give perspective on national trends, announce new resources, and have an ongoing conversation with you on how to make studying Shakespeare fun and successful for students of all ability levels.

In March of this year, we partnered with PBS to present a webinar on “Classroom 2.0” and ways that technology can be integrated with the study of Shakespeare. Hundreds of teachers from across the country participated and confirmed what we’ve already seen to be true: learning is a dynamic process. When technology is used in conjunction with our performance-based teaching philosophy (“learning by doing”), the results are often dramatic and very successful. Watch our “Remixing Shakespeare” video for just one example of this approach in action.

How are you planning on using technology in your classrooms this year? What obstacles do you face? For those of you who have already tried it, what results have you seen? Is it an effective hook for students who may think they dislike literature, but love making YouTube videos?

We look forward to hearing your responses. Learning is all about discovery, and we hope that you’ll share yours and your students’ throughout the year ahead.

- Robert Young
Director, Folger Education

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