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Guest post by Josh Cabat

Over the past few weeks, I have had the opportunity to attend both a week-long workshop on reading strategies at Teachers College and the week-long AP English Language and Composition prep course sponsored by the College Board.

In so many ways, these two activities are diametrically opposed, certainly in terms of the ultimate target audience and, in some fairly interesting ways, in terms of philosophy.

What I’m taking away from these two experiences, however, is how remarkably similar they are. While the levels of complexity were completely different, it turned out that I spent both weeks engaged in exactly the same two activities: teaching close reading techniques, and learning how to teach students to structure coherent arguments and support them with relevant and valid evidence.

Clearly, these activities are founded upon the changes wrought by the Common Core. And as we all know, Shakespeare is one of the few authors mentioned by name within the strictures of the Core. And as I was enjoying these two very different weeks of professional development, I thought a great deal about where Shakespeare might fit into all of this.

Close reading is not really an issue, of course; all of the performance-based activities promoted by the Folger are founded on exactly the kind of close reading demanded by the new standards. But what about the other strand, the idea of evidence-based argument?

My question to you, then, is if there are any ways to bring this essential activity into our study of Shakespeare. One choice might be to do a rhetorical analysis of arguments in Shakespeare’s plays; while this is possible, it seems that most of the important “argument” scenes in Shakespeare (think Kate and Petruchio or Beatrice and Benedick) are based more on emotion than on any tangible evidence.

A more interesting approach might be to analyze soliloquies that illustrate either the arguments that are happening within the mind of a character, (“To be or not to be” or “If it were done when ‘tis done,”) or effective rhetorical persuasion (think Portia, Marc Antony, Iago, or Richard III.)

The next level of activity would have to happen after students have read a large chunk of the play or even finished it. It would involve the kind of exercises that have been done by English teachers for ages, but not perhaps in this format.

For example, many teachers of Julius Caesar have had students conduct a mock trial for Brutus and the conspirators. You might be able to refocus this into an evidence-based argument by giving the students a simple prompt: Brutus is a traitor. From there, the process kicks in: choosing a side, combing the text for evidence, working with a partner and/or groups to sharpen your thinking, creating drafts and revising with help from teachers and peers.

Consider how many plays this might work for:  Hamlet is a coward; Henry V is a war criminal who had no justification to attack France; Romeo and Juliet have no control over their fate. The ultimate goal if you take this path, of course, is to have students create their own prompts based on what interested or intrigued them about the play.

These are some basic ideas, but I would love to know your thoughts. Have you tried something like this? Did it work well? What might you change the next time around? Whatever the case, we all need to “hear the argument”, and consider ways to bring this kind of Core-based writing and reasoning into our study of Shakespeare.

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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This year the NCTE Annual Convention will be right in our backyard. The convention space at National Harbor in Maryland is less than 10 miles away from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. So mark your calendars for Nov. 20-23!

NCTE has just released the convention schedule, so let’s go ahead and highlight the sessions sponsored by Folger Education.

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2013 Secondary Festival

As the 2014 Teaching Shakespeare Institute approaches the end of its third week, we return to Dan Bruno’s NCTE High School Matters blog, where he has been busy sharing some of the insights he’s gleaned from TSI sessions.

Here’s an excerpt from a blog post in which Dan reviews some maxims for guiding students through performance-based learning in the classroom.

This scene is your whole play: this further reinforces the Folger philosophy that close reading on one’s feet does not require the teaching of a whole play; focus on what the scene shows us about the people in it, etc.

All plays are contemporary: despite the original context of the play, students bring their own cultural contexts and personal contexts to the plays they are reading; validating those contexts validates the student and builds confidence

Characters are defined by what they do, not what they say: helping students focus on action eases some of the anxiety with the foreign quality of the language

Words can convey many meanings: What do you mean when you say it?: this one reminds students that they have choice and ownership over their readings of the text while validating that there is no one way to play it

What does the script tell us, NOT what would we like it to tell us?: this one reminds students that everything they need to know is on this page; there is no secret code to reading Shakespeare

Dialogue is action-oriented: all utterances have a goal behind them, even if that goal is to be left alone; understanding these helps link performance movement choice to how the line is read

Good plays are about human behavior: this one links to the previous one; how do people behave when they are in specific contexts attempting to gain specific desires

You cannot play themes or literary tropes: these things are great for the world of literary analysis, but alien to the world of the actor; people don’t consider themes when they are trying to bed lovers or destroy rivals; themes arise from our reflection on those events

Do you have anything to add? What are maxims that you communicate to your students when they are doing performance-based, language-centered learning? Tell us in the comments.

Read the full blog post at NCTE High School Matters.

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Justin Adams (Laertes) and Graham Michael Hamilton (Hamlet), Hamlet, directed by Joseph Haj, Folger Theatre, 2010. Photo by Carol Pratt.

Justin Adams (Laertes) and Graham Michael Hamilton (Hamlet), Hamlet, directed by Joseph Haj, Folger Theatre, 2010. Photo by Carol Pratt.

The Shakespeare’s Globe production of Hamlet is on tour–heading to every country in the world–and it’s stopping at the Folger Shakespeare Library later this month.

Therefore, we thought this would be an opportune time to revisit an invaluable teaching resource created by the Folger, the Insider’s Guide to Hamlet.

The Insider’s Guide is a multimedia experience with video clips from actors that accompany the featured lesson plans. These videos, which are based on Folger Theatre’s 2010 production of the play, highlight Hamlet‘s themes, characters, and plot–perfect for students encountering the play for the first time or those seeking a refresher course.

Here’s the video playlist for the Insider’s Guide, but visit our website to see the associated lesson plans.

What are the resources you use to teach Hamlet? Let us know in the comments.

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William Fox presents Theda Bara in William Shakespeare’s masterpiece Romeo and Juliet, 1916. Folger Shakespeare Library.

William Fox presents Theda Bara in William Shakespeare’s masterpiece Romeo and Juliet, 1916. Folger Shakespeare Library.

By Julia Perlowski

If the use of Shakespeare’s early modern English is under attack in some “regular” and “honors” English classrooms, just think about what the reaction might be to the use of such rigorous text in an Intensive Reading class!

At Pompano Beach High School, I am not only the ONLY drama teacher, I am also the ONLY reading teacher. I teach all levels of reading from grades 9-12. While I am producing Romeo and Juliet in the auditorium during fourth period with my drama students, I am reading the same texts way out in portable 3 during first and second periods with my striving readers.

I believe that a text does not have to be changed among students of a variety of abilities… just the TASKS! One may “perform” Shakespeare by acting it out or by engaging in ANY activity that requires one to read closely and critically to execute the task. With struggling readers, there is great power in reading and re-reading and re-reading, for that is how even the best of readers grasps meaning, nuances, and depth.

Here is the “performance” task around the R&J Prologue for my Intensive Reading Class:

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By Sue Biondo-Hench

My students have told me that studying and performing Shakespeare has made them better readers of all literature and better writers, stronger individuals and stronger leaders.

But how do we assess this growth?

There is no standardized assessment that truly measures this type of learning. And that’s an issue that challenges the credibility and viability of performance-based instruction.

When I was first asked to provide a workshop on Shakespeare and assessment last fall, I was a bit disappointed. I mean, assessment isn’t what gets me to school in the morning. But truthfully, I think about assessment all the time as I work with students and performance; it is at all stages of what I do with students. I just didn’t realize it until I began to think about what I wanted to share at that workshop.

One of the realities of assessment is that it has the power to scaffold, stabilize, justify, and transforms the performance piece for the students, for the classroom, for the audience, for administrators, and for me.

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By Kevin Costa

Whenever I begin a Shakespeare play with my students in my two-year course, The Institute for Shakespeare and Renaissance Studies at McDonogh School, I get the class working on text from just about Day One. I don’t spend a lot of time setting up with talk about Shakespeare’s life or with the history of the period — there’s plenty of time for that later, if at all.

Owiso Odera (Othello) and Ian Merrill Peakes (Iago), Othello, directed by Robert Richmond, Folger Theatre, 2011. Photo by Carol Pratt.

Owiso Odera (Othello) and Ian Merrill Peakes (Iago), Othello, directed by Robert Richmond, Folger Theatre, 2011. Photo by Carol Pratt.

When I first started this course, I would choose the play we’d cover for two years, but this fall I took a different approach. My students and I looked through the Complete Works, and we read bits and pieces of plays that I thought they might like. This year, I think we may have looked at the moment in Othello where Iago helps convince Othello that Desdemona has been unfaithful (3.3). Then we also read through the two scenes in Measure for Measure where Angelo propositions Isabella to sleep with him (2.2 & 2.4).

If you have a choice of play from which to chose, this is a compelling way to have students own their experience from the get-go. In other words, get students hooked by offering some of a play’s “greatest hits.” Once they have a taste of something they like, they’ll certainly want more since a well-chosen scene can really awaken their curiosity for the whole work.

If you don’t have a choice in play, that’s no problem at all. Here are some ideas for some of the most-taught titles.

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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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By Mark Miazga

The International Baccalaureate (IB) English Higher Level curriculum and assessments are still an ideal place for Shakespeare, even though the revision of the curriculum a couple of years ago no longer makes his inclusion compulsory. While he does not fit into Part I Works in Translation of the curriculum (at least in an English speaking school), he works well in Detailed Study (Part II), Groups of Works (Part III), or Free Choice (Part IV).

I’ve been an IB English instructor for seven years, and have used Shakespeare plays each year, including Much Ado About Nothing, King Lear, Othello, and Richard III. I currently use Shakespeare in Detailed Study, and Shakespeare is, of course, ideal for close study. Furthermore, IB is interested in students knowing the implications of the genres that they are studying: for example, how the study of a Drama is different than studying a novel or non-fiction. They are not interested, so much, in students being able to write essays about, say, celestial imagery in Romeo and Juliet or mirrors in Richard III. Instead, they want students to be able to analyze the choices that the playwright has made and how these choices create meaning.

With this in mind, putting students in the mind of the playwright – or a director or actor – is the best way to help students to do well on the IB assessments. The assessment for Detailed Study is a 10-minute oral discussion recorded with the teacher, and students will have to answer, without rehearsal or notes, authentic questions about the experience of reading the play. Therefore, putting students in authentic assessment experiences in the classroom – making them directors, letting them cut scenes, encouraging them to play around with the language and the setting, compelling them to think about and explain why they made the choices they made – is the best way to prepare students for an authentic 10-minute oral assessment about the play. (more…)

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Find this quote in context at folgerdigitaltexts.org

Guest post by Josh Cabat

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

While the average ELA Chair or Director has little to fear in terms of civil unrest in the Northlands, we have all, as did Henry IV, struggled with internal resistance to change.

How often have you found a great idea at a conference or in a journal, and then presented it at a department meeting only to have it greeted with smiles and nods and subsequently ignored? Reflecting on and changing our own process is challenging enough; to get others to do so is often a steep mountain indeed.

This is even more true when it comes to Shakespeare. Resistance to new ideas in teaching Shakespeare usually comes in two flavors. One comes out as “You expect those students to do Shakespeare?” which usually signifies the teacher’s own insecurity with the material. The other is the complete opposite: “You’re telling me how to teach Shakespeare?” Take heart, though; there are many ways over, around, and through these walls. (more…)

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