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Archive for the ‘Humanities Education’ Category

Harvard University professor Stephen Greenblatt knows a lot about Shakespeare. He’s the author of “Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare,” and he came to the Folger Shakespeare Library this spring to participate in a research conference on “Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography.” But Greenblatt did not immediately latch on to the Bard in his student days. As he put it recently in an interview with the Harvard Gazette:

I was no child prodigy. In fact, I encountered “As You Like It” in Miss Gillespie’s eighth-grade class — and it seemed like the worst, most boring thing I ever read in my life. I can still remember the shudder with which I received the words “Sweet my coz, be merry.” I just didn’t get it at all. So it’s not like I awakened as a child to the wonders of Shakespeare.

Stephen Greenblatt

Stephen Greenblatt at the “Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography” conference at the Folger Shakespeare Library, April 2014. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Later in the Q&A, we learn which Shakespeare plays Greenblatt would rather have studied in middle school, how videos can make a difference in the English classroom, and at what moment the Bard was reclaimed in Greenblatt’s imagination. (more…)

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On a lovely spring afternoon in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s, I was sitting on one of the marble benches in front of the Folger Library. I was the Library’s head of education then, a high school English teacher from DC Public Schools creating and running the Library’s work for teachers of grades 3-12 and their students.

I was on this bench for a few minutes, waiting for a friend to pick me up for a lunch appointment. And as I sat, I looked up to see the Library’s front door open, and into the sunshine walked a woman of really grand stature and presence in a great-looking “grown up” suit. “OH MY GOD,” I thought, “WHY DO I THINK THAT’S MAYA ANGELOU?” Because it was Maya Angelou.

(more…)

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Folger Library Exterior: Bas relief: Julius Caesar

by Gina Voskov

One of the courses I teach at my school is 6th grade Humanities, and next up in our year’s curriculum plan is learning about Ancient Greece and Rome. I’m excited about getting the kids up and out of their seats for this class, and the best way I can do that is by getting them to interact with Shakespeare.

For this unit, I’ll be giving them some Julius Caesar, the Cinna the Poet scene in particular. This scene never fails to get all kids speaking, thinking, and moving. It’s also just about the easiest scene in the books with respect to language–there’s none of that stuff that turns so many kids away–the thee‘s and thine‘s and whatnot. I love giving this scene to groups of kids at the start of the year because it’s a great way to build community. But now that we are 3/4ths of the way through the year, I’m going to open our unit with performance. This scene will definitely have them asking questions about history, which is what we teachers hope for, right? (more…)

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The Folger Shakespeare Library is a hotbed of education staff, scholars, actors, directors, curators, librarians, docents, and digital geeks in Washington, DC, teamed up with teachers all over the country – in an endless collaboration focused on your teaching and your students’ learning.

What do we believe about teaching and learning? Read on:

1. We believe that teachers are the most important and the most powerful people on earth. Period.

2. All students should have access to Shakespeare’s rigorous texts and compelling ideas. Students at all levels of proficiency can and should engage deeply with these plays.

3. You and all of your students can dive into, engage with, and make sense of these complex texts with great success. This work will enhance your students’ close reading and analytical skills. Yours, too. And all of you will have an enormous amount of fun in the process!

4. It’s all about the language. Approach, connect with, and befriend Shakespeare’s language head on. Your students’ direct connection with his language is the key to unlocking the plays – and everything in them. We don’t mean you, as teacher, translating for them. And we don’t mean using those “made easy” books. We mean THEM speaking and moving and figuring out HIM… words, lines, scenes, plays. His language in the mouths of your students is splendid and exciting all on its own. And it is the essential step that results in sending his ideas into their brains.

5. So… if you are teaching Shakespeare the way you were taught, you might need to give that up. If you are teaching Shakespeare from those dumbed-down versions of the plays created by publishers who believe that both you and your students are not smart enough to understand the real thing, throw them out. Right now.

6. The Folger continues to produce – with and for teachers – ever-evolving sets of language tools, active close reading strategies, performance techniques, and pathways through the plays that are energizing and fun, and that relentlessly focus on text. In DC and all over the place, we teach teachers how to do this work. A poorly kept secret: teachers use these tools and strategies to teach all kinds of literature, and subjects way beyond English.

7. Using these tools and strategies, you and your students work in the plays rigorously and vigorously in the way that scholars and actors do. Your students make their way actively – reading closely, thinking deeply, and citing textual evidence all over the place. They build their skills and their knowledge. And you do too. Research has shown us that learning this way dramatically increases students’ confidence – in their ability to tackle something hard, to figure it out, to “own” this playwright and his plays – and boosts their enthusiasm for learning the next hard thing: August Wilson, reconstruction, Lear, calculus, Arabic.

8. Any teacher can teach this way. You don’t have to know anything about acting or directing or any of that stuff. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. He knew how to write. You know how to teach. And if you’re worried about this last part, we can help you with that.

Peggy O’Brien is the Director of Education at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Follow her on Twitter at @obrienfolger or send her an email at pobrien@folger.edu.

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At the end of last week’s Teacher Tuesday, I shared a link to a video, Interpreting Shakespeare, with our Master Teacher Sue Biondo-Hench. In one section of the video, around 3:10, Sue breaks her students into groups to interpret and perform a single passage from Henry IV, part 1. They each interpret how performing one character’s speech as a group lends them insight into the text. They don’t have to make natural performance choices as if it is their single moment onstage delivering a soliloquy – rather, they’re approaching the text chorally to show different ways of interpreting complex text with their voices, movements, and group dynamics. This doesn’t necessarily mean they read it all together in unison – they can assign individuals lines or words to make them stand out, whisper or shout, create tableaux (stage pictures) to set the scene or its tone, or anything else they deem necessary to their point.

Choral Reading

Students perform at the 2013 Secondary Festival

A choral approach like this can be especially useful for group discussions. It gets small groups discussing their interpretation, which they then share with the whole class. No group will make all of the same choices, after all, because there are so many different ways to say and do any passage or scene – why not try a bunch and see what works? Discussing everyone’s choices (and knowing that none are “wrong”) gives the students more control and less fear of interpreting the text.

We have a few examples of teaching modules which use a chroal approach:

Complexity of Character in The Merchant of Venice: In this play, especially, no one is wholly “good” or “bad.” In this lesson, high school student groups take on a character apiece and perform one or two passages of text for that character to determine what their character is like, and in what ways they are complicated.

Shakespeare Sound Out: Building Atmosphere: For elementary and ESL/ELL students, getting over the language together is especially easy when approached chorally. With text from Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, students use the rhythm and word choices in the text to determine the tone of the scene, and incorporate their choices into a performance.

Sonnet Performance: Shakespeare’s Sonnets as Scripts: The choral approach can even apply to poetry! As Louisa Newlin and Gigi Bradford say, “Breaking a sonnet down into parts for different speakers and presenting it dramatically can help students to listen carefully to the language and hear different “voices” in the poem.” Students shed some light on these sometimes ambiguous poems to create their own meanings.

How else would you use the choral approach with your class? Other plays, poems, or even books may be ripe fodder for a group to tackle. Have you used a chorus before? How did it go?

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Inspired, today, by David Tennant‘s affirmation in the power of performing Shakespeare, today we’re rounding up some of our favorite Teacher to Teacher videos about performance in the classroom. Getting students on their feet is one of the most important things we stress about working with Shakespeare’s language – they are, after all, plays!

Teacher to Teacher Title Screen - Performing

What can be nerve-wracking for everyone, though, is the thought of being”onstage.” In your classroom, though, it’s certainly not about putting up a full performance – perhaps not even a whole scene – it’s about saying the words out loud and discovering the action that supports the language and makes it more dynamic.

Some students like getting up to read in front of the class – but a lot may hang back. Get your audience involved as reactors and directors, as explained in these videos by Tory Virchow and Erica Smith:

Finally – see performance-based teaching in action with Sue Biondo-Hench and her students from Carlisle, PA. From group activities to personal reflection, her students find ways to bring Shakespeare’s language to life!

How do you incorporate action in your classroom?

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The amount of new technology springing up around us can be dizzying, especially when our students are picking it up so quickly. Much of their daily life is conducted online – so how can our classrooms extend into that area of their life?

Teacher to Teacher - Technology

In these Teacher to Teacher Videos, we’re highlighting some ways teachers are using technology and the internet to engage their students even more deeply in their Shakespeare studies:

Videos in class are tried-and-true, but sometimes might feel like a cop-out. In this video, Josh Cabat gives us several ways in which to use video effectively as a teaching tool with many active applications to try right away!

 

Why should you even consider using new technologies? “It’s collaborative, and it’s available 24 hours a day,” says teacher Robert Barker. Students can connect in their own time to their classwork and each other – strengthening their connection to the material.

 

Finally – you don’t even have to use the technology during class-time. Assigning online homework in a “flipped” classroom, according to Greta Brasgalla, gives you more time and more material to discuss in class.

You can hear more from Robert and Greta from their recorded “What’s Done is Done Online” webinar from last spring.

What technologies are you trying in your classroom? How are your students responding to it? Let us know in the comments!

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Teacher to Teacher Title Screen - Getting Started

For the next few weeks, we’ll be running a feature on one of our favorite online resources: our Teacher to Teacher videos! In these short clips, teachers share their favorite Shakespeare plays, ideas for teaching, and resources for the modern classroom. This week, let’s start generally with ideas for introducing your students to Shakespeare.

First things first: we know that the language can be a big hurdle for many students on Day 1. In this video, Joe Scotese describes how getting students on their feet to find the action in the words builds their confidence for the days to come. You can teach Joe’s own Tempest in the Lunchroom to try it out!

But where to begin? Leslie Kelly tells us that we don’t have to start with the opening lines of the play – instead, why not start with the characters’ deaths? Having fun with an overly-dramatic death scene will give them more ownership over performing the language, and give them a sense of play. Teach Leslie’s ESL/ELL-friendly Famous Death Lines.

Finally, are you stuck teaching only one play? Scott O’Neil gives his arguments for incorporating speeches from all over the canon into any unit. Not only will learning the speeches familiarize students with the language, they might never be exposed to certain plays, otherwise! Scott’s already compiled his favorite speeches from King Lear for his class. What speeches would you use?

 

What’s your favorite way to introduce Shakespeare? Tell us about your Day 1 experiences in the classroom in the comments below!

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Yesterday I stumbled upon this video from Australia’s ABC in 2011 about Shakespeare and his hip relevance to today’s audience. Excited, I started the video, and felt my face twist into a confused squint.

AU Shakespeare in Schools

A lot of their statements are great! Shakespeare was a great writer. His plays have survived for centuries. His language can be difficult because it’s very stylized, and once you “click in” it rolls more easily. However, they sort of veer off the point when they’re talking about these things for a modern audience. The stories are a part of what keeps Shakespeare alive, but the stories were all (or mostly) taken from other sources. Shakespeare’s language has survived, as well. It’s not just because we can make Romeo “emo” that we relate to the characters today, it’s because they are saying things that we think and feel as well.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [abridged] is a really fantastic show, but it – on its own – is not “Shakespeare.” I do love that show, and it adds an element of fun that students would respond to – but it’s not the only way to make Shakespeare fun!

What do you think? Why do you think Shakespeare is relevant, and how do your students find connections to his plays?

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Shakespeare’s plays are considered by many to be the pinnacle of high art – lovely language with high philosophy and idealized characters. But not everyone is ideal, and many words and turns of phrases are… well… not exactly dinner-table talk. 

Shakespeare was writing to be entertaining, and his Elizabethan audience was just as entertained by uncouth humor as our own modern audience – except now instead of playing on words about being “hung,” we now see Will Ferrell’s butt. Where today we have websites dedicated to parsing out each offensive moment in each movie or television show for our protection from smut, what could Shakespeare be censored for?

The government of Shakespeare’s time wasn’t so concerned about jokes with bad taste (though those jokes do abound!), but were rather more concerned with political uprisings and religious offenses. During Shakespeare’s own lifetime, playwrights were especially susceptible to suspicion from above as their words entertained masses of people, and could plant the seeds of an idea subtly. Every new play had to be approved for performance by the Master of the Revels, who looked the pieces over for any possible sedition. Shakespeare and his contemporaries were often questioned for their work, and sometimes it had very awful consequences. You can read more about 16th century censorship at PBS’s In Search of Shakespeare site.

William Shakespeare. Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, and tragedies. London, 1632. Folger Shakespeare Library.

William Shakespeare. Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, and tragedies. London, 1632. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Over time, different audiences have determined what is offensive to them in Shakespeare’s work. A second folio of 1632 in the Folger collection, seen here, bears the work of a censor for the Holy Office in Spain, Guillermo Sanchez. In the name of religious piety, Sanchez blotted out whole swaths of Shakespeare’s language, and cut Measure for Measure out of the book in its entirety. Nahum Tate rewrote a happy ending for King Lear in 1681 that wasn’t altered in performances for almost 200 years.

Outside of the realm of censorship, but just as famous for its alteration, David Garrick, a famous Shakespearean actor, rewrote the end of Romeo and Juliet so that Juliet awakes just after Romeo drinks the poison so that they briefly see each other alive before their final demise. You can see a comparison of these scenes in performance on the mobile tour video for the Folger’s next exhibit, Here is a Play Fitted.

Victorian audiences were so appalled by apparent homosexual overtones in the sonnets, that they dismissed the idea that Shakespeare even wrote them. Oscar Wilde, persecuted at that time for much the same reason, wrote a short story in which characters go mad over many years examining the sonnets for hidden meanings, The Portrait of Mr. W. HOthello has a long history of criticism, as well, being called “disgusting” by US  president John Quincy Adams for its depiction of a mixed-race couple. The Folger’s former exhibit, Shakespeare in American Life examines the experience of African Americans with Shakespeare.

Even today, there are just some things a modern audience would rather not see or hear when it comes to Shakespeare. We don’t want to see filthy humor mixed in with the glorious art – but some of the best art comes from being a mix like that, and Shakespeare was a true master of this mix of elements that both comfort and disquiet us – for whatever reason. Measure for Measure is still a difficult play to produce – after all, its plot hinges on a Puritanical political figure attempting to force a nun to sleep with him. As Michele Osherow said, this play and those like it are closer to modern drama in that it makes us ask harder questions of ourselves and our world – and that’s not always a comfortable experience, be we queens or commoners.

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