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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.

My students’ big project at the end of reading a play is planning, directing, performing, and recording an adaptation of a scene from the play. I encourage them to change the setting, to cut the language, to add music, to make it their own – without changing the original language (they can cut it, just not change or modernize it). Afterwards, they both write and explain their rationale for their choices: what elements of the play their performances and direction helped emphasize, what choices they made as directors and actors to convey ideas about theme, character, and other elements of the play.

It’s important to trust your students to get into the language. For the day of filming, I send them off around the school grounds with their smart phones to record, and check on them by rotating between groups. The conversations about which lines to cut, about what actions to include, about where to pause, etc., are what we want to hear when teaching Shakespeare; these conversations give them ownership of Shakespeare, and of their own learning. I’m attaching my assignment here (and including a couple of YouTube clips that resulted from this assignment below):

By putting them in the director’s and actor’s chair, students are compelled to get into the mindset of the playwright, which uniquely prepares them for the IB Literary Discussion. This is scored based upon knowledge of the text, interesting and insightful answers to the questions, and the student’s language. Here are a few sample questions that I use in the individual discussion with students about Richard III this year:

1)  What for you was the most riveting or satisfying moment in the play? Can you account for how the playwright managed to achieve that effect?

2)  Who was your favorite or least favorite secondary character in the play? Can you see how the playwright elicited such a response? Follow-up: Why is that secondary character included?

3)  If you were asked to direct ________________ (for example, the Richard’s death scene; or the wooing of Lady Anne scene; or another important scene), what choices would you make in your direction and what important ideas of the play would your choices help to emphasize?

4)  In a play about royal families, why are common everyday people included? If you were directing, how would you present these characters and why?

5)  Richard often talks directly to the audience in the play. What is the effect of this choice by the playwright?

6)  Sometimes parts are cut from this long Shakespeare play. What is a character that some directors might consider cutting? Can you give cases for and against cutting this character?

7)  This is the only play of Shakespeare’s to begin with a soliloquy, with a character alone onstage describing a long speech. What effect does this soliloquy have on both the audience and the ideas of the play?

8)  How does the dramatist use rhythm and breaks in meter to convey theme and character?

Lastly, I’ll include two of my students’ presentations from this year, including a film noir version of Clarence’s murder in Richard III and an all-female version of Act 4, Scene 4, the scene where Richard starts losing power. Note the the last 10 minutes of the first clip, which details the students’ choices in developing their scene (the other group had it as part of their presentation to the class). Not included were other groups who made it their own in other ways, such as setting Richard III in the Antebellum South or in a modern high school.

Mark Miazga is in his 13th year teaching English and coaching baseball at Baltimore City College High School, the third oldest public school in the country. He teaches in both the Diploma and Middle Years Programs within the International Baccalaureate and is an IB Examiner.  A recipient of the Milken Educator Award in 2014, Mr. Miazga is also a 2008 Teaching Shakespeare Institute scholar and a 2013 Steinbeck Institute Scholar. He received his B.A. in English and Education from Michigan State University, and his Masters in Secondary Education from Towson University. He blogs about education matters at Epiphany in Baltimore (http://epiphanyinbmore.blogspot.com).

 

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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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We know that Shakespeare wrote at least 37 plays – though not all of them are taught in our classrooms. We love teaching the recognizable and easily-found HamletMidsummer, Othello, and Macbeth, but there are so many to choose from if you have the time and the inclination to dig deeper. In this week’s Teacher to Teacher videos, teachers like you make the case for the plays they enjoy teaching:

Image

You may remember Gina Voskov’s impassioned post on this very blog, “Fighting With Truth,” in which she described her students’ affinity for learning Shakespeare and her comparison of Titus Andronicus to modern events and other authors. Hear more from Gina in her video, below. 

 

Then, of course, there’s something to be said for a play that can generate fantastic discussions. One of Shakespeare’s more modernly controversial plays, The Merchant of Venice, provides us with ambiguous characters and tough questions. Four of our teachers chose this play, but Dr. Robert Thompson sums it up nicely:

 

Finally, you may already be teaching King Lear, but we love what Gabriel Fernandez has to say about how personally relatable this play is for everyone. It appeals to our love of fairy tales, but does not give us the resolution we want. What can we learn from that?

 

What is your favorite play to teach? Why so? Let us know in the comments!

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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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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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One of the things we regularly like to see is students taking command of Shakespeare’s language as they say it. Showing us what the words mean to them, and making the character saying these words their own.

William Shakespeare's Flying Circus, 2011. Photo by Duy Tran.

William Shakespeare’s Flying Circus, 2011. Photo by Duy Tran.

That doesn’t always mean seeing a whole play exactly as Shakespeare wrote it. We’ve seen ownership take many forms in our festival – including schools that pull quotes or scenes from the entire canon to tell their own story with them. Perhaps they collected scenes about friendship to explore the theme; or used quotes with keywords to re-tell another story. One particularly memorable festival group once parodied the entire Twilight saga using only lines from Shakespeare for a very funny 20 minutes. The year before that, they performed scenes from Monty Python’s Flying Circus the same way. And they were using Shakespeare’s language!

Below are two YouTubers doing much the same thing: Hank Green (singer, songwriter, vlogbrother), wrote a song using only insults from Shakespeare’s texts, and the channel Chicken Shop Shakespeare takes bite-size bits of Shakespeare’s words and performs them in their own world. (Their very first video, Romeo lamenting his banishment, was filmed in a fast-food chicken place.) These artists have taken Shakespeare’s words and made something of their own from them, and it’s awesome.

 

Have you done any projects like this with your students? Share them with us! We loved it when teachers sent in videos of their kids making Shakespeare their own for our “Shakespeare Remix” during our first Electronic Field Trip!

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As you’re probably well aware, there are bazillions of versions of Romeo and Juliet on film. From the silent era through the present day, the pair has inspired countless adaptations from the faithful to the fun-house.  Below I’m listing a few of my favorites, but please share your favorites in the comments!

R&J Animated

When I was growing up, one of my favorite tapes to rent from Video Scene was the BBC Animated Romeo and Juliet featuring several famous voices and gorgeous animation by Christmasfilms. Using an abridgment of Shakespeare’s text, adapter Leon Garfield unfolded the tragic tale in under 30 minutes. It’s available on DVD, now, but preview it on YouTube!

The BBC Television Shakespeare series from the 1970′s might not be the most engaging to watch in its entirety, but if you’ve ever wanted to see a young Alan Rickman in tights as Tybalt, well, this version is a treat! No matter which scene you want to focus on, this full-text version is sure to have it, too. Keeping with the traditionally set, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film is still held in high regard. It’s authenticity of setting and the leads’ ages, as well as the wonderful performances by the entire cast make it infinitely watchable, even today. (Though, of course, with at least one scene post-wedding edited out for classrooms!)

Romeo+JulietSome modern-setting versions have kept the original text, as well, most famously in Baz Luhrman’s 1996 version set in Verona Beach. Even while it pokes fun (the guns are named “Dagger” and “Longsword,” for example), the story, edited from Shakespeare’s text, moves with an intense urgency. Additionally, the independently conceived and filmed Private Romeo uses Shakespeare’s text with a group of army-school cadets left alone at their campus. While it falters in places, it’s beautiful to see these young men using Shakespeare’s words to express themselves.

Finally, there are some wonderful new stories inspired by Shakespeare’s inspiration to re-tell the timeless cautionary tale of two warring groups whose youthful innocents fall in love with each other. West Side Story is the most familiar along these lines, and is a theatrical hallmark in its own right. Comparing this musical to Shakespeare’s play when I was a kid is what led me to be so interested in adaptation as an art form. Potentially less-inspiring, however, it’s worth noting that both The Lion King II and Gnomeo and Juliet are also inspired by these themes, though with happier endings for their young audience.

Shakespeare in LoveThere’s not much room to mention Shakespeare in Love, but I’m going to have to. It’s a funny and touching imagining of how young Will Shakespeare was inspired to write this famous play from his own romantic experience . It’s totally laughably historically inaccurate, of course, but it does not claim to be so and is, instead, a whimsical love-letter to the Bard.

This could go on and on, of course. There are ballets, operas, TV mini-series, anime series, and so many other milieus into which this play has been re-imagined. Sometimes these adaptations illuminate different facets of Shakespeare’s play for consideration the next time we study it. Do these examples fit the bill? Not always, but at least we can enjoy the ride. What is your favorite example of Romeo and Juliet on the big screen?

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I was speaking with Folger Theatre’s resident Dramaturg, Michele Osherow, this morning as she prepared for an on-camera interview. While catching up, I mentioned that my husband would be working on a performance of Measure for Measure during his first year of graduate school - one of my least favorite plays. Michele replied that Measure for Measure is one of her favorites because it is so messy and unsettling, the same reasons I don’t like it.

Isabella (Karen Peakes), Mark Zeisler (Duke), Measure for Measure, Folger Theatre, 2006. Directed by Aaron Posner. Carol Pratt.

Isabella (Karen Peakes), Mark Zeisler (Duke), Measure for Measure, Folger Theatre, 2006. Directed by Aaron Posner. Carol Pratt.

Michele went on to point out that while her college students express distaste for Measure for Measure or Troilus and Cressida during her class, those complicated and uncomfortable plays are the ones they return to explore in their final papers and presentations. They’re the plays that stick in their minds because there’s so much to explore even as it discomfits us.

My favorite plays tend to contain comic banter. I like how the words intersect and dance around each other, especially out loud, in plays like Much AdoTwelfth Night, and Romeo and Juliet (before it becomes a tragedy). I also enjoy the bumbling comic characters in Midsummer, as you already know, because I feel so close to Shakespeare as a player in those scenes. I enjoy talking about the use of language and the playing with the several meanings of words in performance.

Kate Eastwood Norris (Beatrice), P.J. Sosko (Benedick), Much Ado About Nothing, Folger Theatre, 2005. Directed by Nick Hutchison. Photo: Carol Pratt. Carol Pratt.

Kate Eastwood Norris (Beatrice), P.J. Sosko (Benedick), Much Ado About Nothing, Folger Theatre, 2005. Directed by Nick Hutchison. Photo: Carol Pratt. Carol Pratt.

For Michele, those complicated plays are very close in nature to modern theatrical experiences. They make us question how we feel and what we think about the world we live in – just as Shakespeare’s audience must have felt and thought. Is marriage a reward or a punishment? Is your best friend a good or bad person – are you? Who do you relate to: the villain or the hero – or is there a character you can identify as either role?

This reminded me of several videos in our Teacher to Teacher series – especially ‘Beauty in Difficulty‘ from Kristyn Rosen on plays that will challenge her students. Additionally, there is a whole section of videos related to teachers responding to the question “What is your favorite Shakespeare play to teach?” They cite relatability, good discussions, fun, and playable moments as their best reasons for one play or another.

What is your favorite play to read, see, teach, or talk about?

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I’ve seen this activity done with many different audiences of students (and teachers), and it always makes me smile. The energy and creativity each participating group brings changes the activity slightly each time, adapting it to their interests and thoughts!

As seen in the opening moments of this video about our elementary outreach program, Shakespeare Steps Out, creating a physical language for a particular passage gives students the chance to make Shakespeare’s language their own:

Taking a vibrant passage like “O, grim-look’d night!” from the play-within-a-play of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ask students to create a physical movement for each word and punctuation mark. For example, The students in the video above choose to crouch for the “O”s and clap above their heads for the exclamation marks.

SSO - Physical Action

Coming to words they’re not familiar with or unsure of, ask them what it sounds like, and about the context of the sentence it’s in to determine how to physicalize it.

This is a really fun introduction activity, and is very flexible for different classes and plays. Have you ever tried something like this in your class? How did it go?

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~by Rick Vanderwall

My fall semester Introduction to Literature students were a great group. This course is a required, entry level lit course for first year students.  Everybody takes this course and instructors are encouraged to develop unique, engaging themes for the course. I came up with “Journeys through Danger, Temptation, and Violence”. Although this title may seem an exercise in the Sergio Leone (The Good, The Bad and The Ugly) school of curricular development, it has actually worked fairly well.  The course begins with Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD, moves to Capote’s IN COLD BLOOD, takes a left turn to Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL, then Shakespeare’s MACBETH, finishing up with Marlowe’s DOCTOR FAUSTUS. Students engage with these texts in a variety of ways, including writing the traditional literary analysis, branching out into multi-genre projects with the CAROL.  The final two works, Macbeth and Doctor Faustus work well together thematically and comparatively. Performance activities blended with in-class readings has connected students with these texts in a new and often deeper way.   With some groups and some students the performance activities can be intimidating.  While some students have experience with this way of working with dramatic literature, for some it is a first.  Students new or otherwise may find performing in front of the class is daunting.  I have always offered doing scenes in video as an option but few have selected that option, until this past fall.

From the beginning it was clear that these students were ready for whatever experience I was willing to give them.  They quickly demonstrated experience and competence in the writing of the traditional college literary analysis. They loved to discuss and pushed me for more adventurous explorations of the material. As we moved into Macbeth we simultaneously worked our way through the text and formed production teams.  Each team selected a scene from a teacher provided list.  I provided some training in the language of Shakespeare and helped the groups engage with the text for deeper understanding.  When given the performance choice most chose video production over live performance, the reverse of previous groups. The resulting scenes met my expectations for close reading and engagement.  The discussion that resulted as we watched the videos was rich.  The quality of the videos mattered less than the scene concept expressed.

Rick's students perform the text of Faustus in a video for a class project.

Rick’s students perform the text of Doctor Faustus in a video for a class project.

To View this Video, Click Here!

What I noticed as we moved into Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus was that the groups chose to stay together for the next performance project and expressed a desire to improve the films.  There seemed to be a competition among the groups to put forward an improved product. As the quality of the videos did improve, the level of the textual engagement became much deeper. One group in particular selected a complex task.  They wanted to do scenes from Doctor Faustus that included Good Angel/Bad Angel scenes.  I suggested they adapt several of these scenes into one. The act of adaption required a deep study of the text of these scenes in order weave them together.  The resulting video (linked below) opened an expanded discussion of the character of Faustus and speculation about author intent.  The culminating assignment was a paper comparing the two plays which seemed an afterthought compared to the high level of engagement of the scene production process.

I learned that alternatives to live classroom performance had potential for greater engagement. I have been aware for the past few years that more and more students came to class with experience in video production and skills with other technologies that could be utilized in performance activities.  Students reluctant to perform live in class were very willing to perform in video.  The level of engagement depended somewhat on my individual coaching of the groups and my facilitation of each group’s task/scene. I had to emphasize “process over product” and make sure not to become too focused on the success or failure of the technical aspects of projects. Instead, I commented on the concept students presented and how it addressed the text chosen.  With the videos all students, presenters and audience, were able to focus on the textual interpretation. We could easily replay all or part of the videos as comments or questions arose.

Some groups had issues with compatibility and portability of the videos.  I suggested as a backup that the videos be posted on YouTube.  Equipment varied from cellphone cameras to high end camcorders and use of Adobe Premier, iMovie, to Windows Movie Maker. Students were encouraged to use technology they had at hand.  I stated clearly that this project was not about the quality of the video but the depth of the textual engagement.  I set no “quality” standards but focused my attention on selecting challenging scenes and facilitating the groups as they addressed the task.

While this group was exceptional in their engagement, they did not seem unusual in the technology skills they possessed.  In written response following the completion of the project, they expressed surprise at the level of interest they developed in both Macbeth and Doctor Faustus.  They connected particularly with the moral dilemmas faced by both characters. As a result I am rethinking the culminating comparison paper.  Each semester informs the changes I will make for the next, that’s the one constant I have been able to count on over the course of my teaching career.

Rick Vanderwall is a faculty member in in the Department of Languages and Literatures specializing in English education At the University of Northern Iowa. He has been an educator in a middle school, high school for more than thirty-five years. He is still learning new things

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