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Archive for the ‘Shakespeare’ Category

By Josh Cabat

It happens every time I give a presentation on performance-based teaching or on using student-created projects to assess understanding of Shakespeare. After the session, two or three people come over to me privately and ask the same question. These sound like wonderful activities, they say, but how do we assess students’ performance on them?

The answer I want to give, naturally, is that these activities transcend anything that could be marked on a scale of 0-100 or A to F. In the real world, however, where classroom time is so precious and students (and parents) are often grade-conscious to a fault, dodging the question or rising loftily above it is not acceptable.


#NCTE14: Join us for a workshop on Shakespeare and the (Common Core) Assessments this Friday, November 21, at 4pm. It’s one of five Friday sessons we’re leading on teaching Shakespeare.


One simple answer, of course, is the use of rubrics. In the Folger’s Shakespeare Set Free series, there are several excellent examples of these assessment tools. Some relate to smaller activities along the way. For example, in her unit on Romeo and Juliet in SSF, Sue Biondo-Hench includes a grading guide for her Shakespearean Snapshots exercise for Act 3, scene 1. Another example in SSF that anticipated the CCSS is an exercise where students are responsible for learning vocabulary based on context. This might lead to short traditional vocabulary quizzes, or using apps like SurveyMonkey and Quizzam to assess comprehension in digital classrooms.

Most of the rubrics in SSF, not surprisingly, relate to culminating student performances. Among the categories that are included in these assessment tools are understanding of plot, character and language, use of blocking and costumes and some wiggle room for “something extra.” This is an excellent place to start, but there are many variations on this basic theme.

One such possibility, which dovetails with elements of the CCSS very nicely, is to create an original performance rubric along with the students in the class. Start by asking them what the elements of a well-performed scene are; chances are they will come up with a list exactly like the one above. Then, within each category, discuss what high, medium and low results might look like for that element, and you’re ready to go.

In my experience, student-created rubrics work because they afford students a sense of agency in their own assessment, and because expectations are clearly laid out from the beginning of the assignment.  The use of rubrics, of course, extends to student-created projects like videos, trailers, digital storytelling, soundtracks with liner notes, graphic novels and the many other such projects that have been detailed elsewhere in these pages. One thing about assessment is clear: it is self-defeating for a teacher to give performance-based or creative assignments without clearly laying out the expectations for that project as early as possible and in the context of a rubric.

As useful as rubrics are, they may not alone suffice. An additional form of assessment that is essential to the success of activities mentioned above is having students write about process. For my students, every scene they put on and every creative project they hand in must be accompanied by a brief (4-5 paragraph) essay describing their process and tracing the progression of learning that happened throughout. This kind of writing, which should itself be assessed with a rubric, is critical for several reasons. First and foremost, it gets students thinking in a metacognitive way about themselves as learners, an awareness that will prove extremely valuable down the road. And considering that the CCSS puts progress above pure achievement as an aim, the student piece will enable both teacher and student to get at least an anecdotal account of that progress.

The next step in assessment employs variations on a more traditional exam. In New York, we are gearing up for the implementation of the new CCSS-based Regents test. This exam reflects the trend towards making upper-level exams similar in form to the AP Language and Composition exam; it features text-based multiple choice, a synthesis essay and a rhetorical analysis essay.

Now imagine creating an exam such as this to give to students at the end of a unit where the central text is a Shakespeare play; let’s say that play is Romeo and Juliet. Your multiple choice questions could be based on excerpts from the play that you have paid particular attention to in class. These questions, as with most assessments based on the CCSS, would be focused on inference, authorial purpose and rhetoric/structure; the excerpts themselves would be included on the exam, since this is an assessment of skills and not of memorization. For the synthesis essay, you might put together a series of four or five non-fiction articles that reflect how, as in the case of a joint Israeli-Palestinian production from a few years ago, the play has been used in performance to explore the power of love to transcend cultural and ethnic differences. Finally, you might use an excerpt from a critical piece on the play as the foundation for the rhetorical analysis essay. Since the essence of approaching any text via rhetoric is, “What is the argument of the piece, and how is language used to promote that argument?” the students’ strong knowledge of the play will help them understand the critical piece and argue either for or against it in essay form.

In employing these creative approaches to teaching Shakespeare, we might agree with Lear when questioned by doubting administrators and say, “O, reason not the need!” In the age of data, accountability and the CCSS, we as teachers must justify and quantify. The good news is that we can still push the boundaries of Shakespeare in the classroom using performance and student-created projects while also being able to walk away with useful data that measures achievement and progress.

Josh Cabat is currently serving as Chair of English for the Roslyn (NY) Public Schools. For the preceding decade, he taught English and Film Studies at Roslyn High School in Roslyn New York. Previously, he taught in the New York City public high schools for more than a decade. He was the co-founder of the New York City Student Shakespeare Festival. He has published many articles on Shakespeare and Film in publications such as the English Journal. He earned an MA from the University of Chicago and a BA from Columbia University.  

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Folger Shakespeare Library

Folger Shakespeare Library

By Mark Miazga

When I started my career, Shakespeare intimidated me. I became an English teacher in part to share my love of reading with students, but I never had loved reading Shakespeare.

I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but my entire 13 years of public and Catholic schooling in both southwest Michigan and suburban Detroit yielded just one Shakespeare play: a reading of Macbeth in the 10th grade.

And, even though I devoured books and mainly loved English classes, the experience with Shakespeare wasn’t a good one; I remember sitting in rows, reading the play aloud, my teacher explaining lines afterwards. Nothing else.

Flash forward a few years, and I’m a high school English teacher on my own in a large urban school in Baltimore City. I held my own, for the most part, but my teaching of Shakespeare felt like the weakness in my game.

Even though I used the Shakespeare Set Free series at times, I didn’t feel confident enough to take many of the risks that the series entailed. I spent way too much time trying to make kids understand the plot, and devoted much of my energy to explaining lines, just like that uninspiring teacher I had in the 10th grade.

By the end of the unit, I think my students could probably describe some foreshadowing or celestial imagery in Romeo and Juliet, but were they any more confident in reading Shakespeare the next time they picked up a play? Would they be going to a Shakespeare play on their own when it one was being performed around town? What would they remember about their experience with reading Shakespeare 10 years from now? It was definitely “not much”.

So I applied to the 2008 Teaching Shakespeare Institute, describing much of what I just told you: that Teaching Shakespeare was a bit scary to me and I wanted to be a better Shakespeare teacher.

And the four weeks here at the Folger changed my teaching life and continue to have an impact on my students and me every single unit that I teach.  (more…)

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By Sara Lehn

Teachers have long taken advantage of students’ love of music as a tool for the classroom, writing catchy tunes to act as mnemonic devices, playing educational songs and music videos, and so on.  Watch students in the hallway or cafeteria and you will inevitably find them with headphones blaring, blocking out the world.

As a singer, music speaks to me because of how it reflects the raw emotion of the human soul, and had you asked me at the age of seventeen what song best defined who I was, I could have answered quickly and without hesitation with a choice that clearly illustrated my mindset at the time.

I find that many of my students have an equally personal connection to their music. As a result, I have started to consider the ways that music can be used in the classroom as a tool to reflect the most human part of literature: the characters.

I ask students a simple question: what song represents this character the way your “anthem” represents you?  There is no wrong answer to this question, but a thoughtful response requires careful character study and exploration of textual evidence.  Students need to consider questions such as:

  • What does this character want?
  • What matters most to this character?
  • What emotions does this character most prominently feel?
  • What are the most significant personality traits that the character exhibits?

These questions can instigate a thoughtful and deep exploration of characterization within the text.  Students may also decide that more than one song choice is necessary, as characters frequently change and develop from one moment to the next. (more…)

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Shakesbear the mascot

Shakesbear, the club mascot.

By David Fulco

After-school programs find a way to weave themselves into the fabric of a school. At my school, all sixth and seventh grade students participate in after-school activities from 2:15-4:30pm, five days a week.

It has been more than evident during the school day that students are not only enjoying their after-school activities, but also building an appreciation for them.

Students in “Fit Club” ask for apples instead of candy at lunch. Students in “Computer Technology” build radio-controlled robots and walk them from class to class. There is a buzz and an energy in the air after school that is palpable.

And what of the Shakespeareans working through A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

The work my seventh grade Shakespeare troupe is doing after school is also starting to permeate the rest of their school day. In ELA, students are writing crossover pieces in a dystopian unit in which they choose 2-3 characters from different tales to create mash-ups of plots and themes. Titania has made an appearance in a story with Maleficent – the connection between the Indian boy and Aurora perhaps supplying the crux of the story arc.

“Helena from the Bronx” is now a popular drawing for the students to doodle in their notebooks. Helena wears her hair in a tight bun with a midriff shirt and a belly button ring, with a speech bubble saying, “The more I love, the more he hateth me”. (1.1.204)

But perhaps the most influential… (more…)

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The High School Fellows program at Folger Shakespeare Library. Photo by Corinne Viglietta.

The High School Fellowship Program at Folger Shakespeare Library. Photo by Corinne Viglietta.

We often feature the voices of teachers on this blog. But today, we hear from a student…

By Mikaela Ruiz-Ramon

The Folger Shakespeare Library High School Fellowship Program is a 3 month-long course offered to Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area high school students.

I am part of a group of 16 Fellows that meets every week for 2 hours to discuss and explore the wonderful world of Shakespeare’s works with the help of Folger staff and guest lecturers. Topics so far have included the nature of cruelty in King Lear, editing Shakespeare’s plays, and analysis of the sonnets.

I applied to the Fellowship Program because I love Shakespeare and I wanted to explore him with a community of like-minded learners.

I also wanted the opportunity to delve deeper into the Bard’s texts than what I’ve been offered in English classrooms, where units on Shakespeare tend to be dull and dry. Luckily for me, the Fellowship program has met and exceeded those desires by making Shakespeare a tangible, relatable subject with more applications than I could dream of.

In my mind, the best part of the program is that it places Shakespeare in context with so many different elements, which makes it much easier to get through his often challenging plays.

For example, the language in King Lear looks less alien when you understand the fluid nature of Elizabethan spelling, the edits publishers would make to ensure text fit properly on a page, and how the editors of the Folger edition pulled from both the Quarto edition and the First Folio. Learning how to decode Shakespeare’s plays for myself has been challenging but so much more satisfying than being told their meaning by someone else.

I found comparing Shakespeare’s texts with other pieces of writing helps draw out Shakespeare’s meaning. Shakespeare can confuse me and the meaning of different passages is quite often lost on me. However, when we used Michel de Montaigne’s essay “Of Cruelty” to look at the theme of cruelty in King Lear, things began to click! I found that each piece of writing helped me understand and draw out meaning in the other, so that even if I didn’t understand either one completely by the end of our lecture, I was still much better off than I was before.

(more…)

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Karen Peakes (Emilia) and Janie Brookshire (Desdemona) in Othello, directed by Robert Richmond, Folger Theatre, 2011. Photo by Carol Pratt.

Karen Peakes (Emilia) and Janie Brookshire (Desdemona) in Othello, directed by Robert Richmond, Folger Theatre, 2011. Photo by Carol Pratt.

By Deborah Gascon

I set a goal this school year to include several, less time-consuming (but equally as meaningful), mini-research projects into my teaching of literature. Enter resident experts!

This quick strategy to get students researching more frequently scaffolds the skills they need to complete the big, scary research paper we assign in the spring.

The research also provided another opportunity to delve deeply into the text and study Shakespeare’s language. I started using resident experts with Othello, but this project is universal to anything you teach.

I provided my students with a list of possible research topics regarding Othello and Shakespeare and the time period.

Topics included, but were not limited to, Moors, Cyprus, Venice, maps, naval officers, interracial marriage laws of the time period, rights of women, love tokens, willow trees/the willow song, sumptuary laws–the list goes on.

Some students added topics while we read: one student researched the psychology behind jealousy (after reading Iago ironically boast “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-ey’d monster”) and another student asked to research the symbolism behind strawberries. The topics were vast and self-selected.

After students chose a topic, they were given time to research during our reading of Othello.  I told my students to find the five most interesting points about that topic related to the reading and then to back up those research topics with evidence from the text, combining Shakespeare’s language with their research. (more…)

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75thMacbeth508F-WeirdSisters-small

“Double, double, toil and trouble / Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”: The Weird Sisters (Andrew Zox, Cleo House, Jr., and Eric Hissom) in Macbeth at Folger Theatre (2008). Folger Shakespeare Library.

By Chris Lavold

If you are a fan of Folger Education, you are well aware of the focus on performance-based teaching and how getting kids up on their feet is an effective way to understand and appreciate Shakespeare’s plays.

I have found that an excellent complement to this is to view film clips of performances to generate intelligent class discussions. Some of the most interesting and insightful days of my ninth grade Macbeth unit were the days we watched multiple interpretations of the same scene. This also fits the Common Core Standard RL.7  perfectly:

Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production…), evaluating how each version interprets the source text.

The clips I mostly use are from the Folger 2008 production and the Polanski 1971 film. For certain scenes I might use the 2006 Australian version, the 2010 BBC version starring Patrick Stewart, or the 1948 Orson Welles film.

On  video analysis days, my class uses Michael LoMonico’s video expert sheet. I break the students up into four or five groups. Each group has five individual jobs, and each student in the group will do their task while watching the film clips.

  • The screenwriters follow the text and write notes about which lines were omitted or rearranged.
  • The cinematographers watch the camera angles and lighting. They ask questions such as  “Is the lighting trying to portray a theme?  Does a low camera angle tell the viewer someone is in an authoritative position?”
  • The sound editors are not allowed to watch the clip. They must have their backs to the screen and write down sounds they hear. Examples would be natural background sounds like a dog barking or the wind blowing. They also observe what the music tells us about what may be taking place on the screen.
  • The set and costume designers pay attention to the location, costumes, and props. This is always fun to talk about during the opening witch scene in Macbeth or the banquet scene where Banquo’s ghost appears.
  • The last group are the actors who concentrate on an actor’s performance paying close attention to accents, tone, subtext, and emphasis on certain words or lines.

(more…)

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