Archive for February, 2012

Shakespeare is taught all over the world, both in English-speaking and non-English speaking countries. Suzanne Worthington, RSC Education has created the World Shakespeare Classroom Wiki for the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival in London that looks at how Shakespeare is taught around the world.   Here are a few highlights:

  • Algeria: Some students  from Ahmed Lamarchi High School discuss Shakespeare  and do a short choral reading.
  • Azerbaijan: 100% of pupils following the national curriculum will study Shakespeare at least once in their school career, generally in grade 8. They study a general biography and short introduction to his works.
  • Brazil: Shakespeare is usually studied in translation to Portuguese and mostly at the University level.
  • China: Pupils aged 15/16 study Act 1 Scene 4 from The Merchant of Venice in translation into Mandarin Chinese.
  • Denmark:  Shakespeare is studied both in original English and in translation to Danish. Because it is set in Denmark, Hamlet is a favorite play of the Danes.  Shakespeare’s Elsinore is widely acknowledged to be Kronborg Castle near Helsingor in the North-East of Denmark.
  • Georgia: Less than 15% of pupils following the core curriculum will study Shakespeare, and when they do, they are translated into Georgian.
  • Germany: 15 – 50% of pupils following the German curricula are likely to study Shakespeare in English at least once in their school career.
  • Greece: Shakespeare is not a named author on the curriculum, although there are options for teachers to use him. When they are taught, they are read in translation to Greek or modern English.
  • Hungary:  Shakespeare is usually studied in translation to Hungarian. Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet,  King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest are the most popular plays and 85 – 100% of pupils following the national curriculum will study Shakespeare at least once in their school career, mostly between the ages of 14 and 16.
  • India: Shakespeare is a compulsory or suggested author for pupils aged 14 to 16, depending on the state. Shakespeare is predominantly studied in English-medium schools. Popular studied plays include Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, and Othello.
  • Iraq: Less than 15% of pupils will study Shakespeare in their school career, usually the most academically able, between the ages of 16 and 18. The rest will probably leave school without knowing who Shakespeare is.
  • ItalyRomeo and Juliet is the most popular play for Italian students. Guess why? The plays are read in English.
  • Kuwait: An abridged version of Henry V, in a modern English translation, is taught at Year 12 (16 – 17 year olds)  because Henry V helps pupils reflect on history, politics and universal human values.
  • Mexico: All pupils follow the core national curriculum. Compulsory schooling ends at aged 16. Shakespeare is named on the curriculum.
  • Nigeria: Students in Nigeria are unlikely to study Shakespeare unless they are taking literature courses in private education or at university.
  • Pakistan: Less than 15% of pupils will study Shakespeare in their school career.
    Shakespeare is taught in elite private schools and occasionally at some middle-ranged private schools.
  • Poland: 85 – 100% of pupils following the core curriculum will study Shakespeare in Polish at least once in their school career, and most will study him more than once. Hamlet and Macbeth are the most-commonly taught plays.
  • Russia: Many of pupils following the national curriculum will study Shakespeare at least once. He is mentioned as a suggested author for 14 – 16 year olds. Shakespeare is read in the original English or in a modern English translation.
  • Serbia: Shakespeare is mentioned on the curriculum in Serbia and most children will learn about him before they are 16.
  • Slovakia:  Shakespeare is taught in either in English or Slovak  and is listed as a suggested author on the national curriculum for the 14 – 16 age group.

If you have anything to add to this excellent site, the Wiki directions are pretty clear.

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By this point, you know what the Folger Education stance on ‘No Fear’ and Translated editions of Shakespeare’s plays is. Don’t use them – they’re not Shakespeare. (See Here, Here, and Here if you missed that message.)

Pickens County public schools in South Carolina, USA, has given us another good reason not to use them:  Parents will complain. Just maybe not for the same reason as we would.

The linked article up there is about Parents discovering obscene definitions in their student’s “No Fear” translation of Romeo and Juliet – like the image below.

After awhile, we’re all fairly aware of the more bawdy of the bard’s puns (and if you’re not, the book above is a complete outline of every single one). But at the middle school level, it’s probably inadvisable to have this material available as part of middle school English. The ‘No Fear’ editions, however, by “translating” Shakespeare’s creative language and offering fixed definitions for key phrases like “falling backward,” take out the subtlety of those puns and leave relative obscenity in their place.

Now, this isn’t a conversation about what students in middle school should be exposed to regarding sex and violence – but whether or not translating Shakespeare makes his work less usable in a middle school classroom. What do you think?

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Only two weeks to go before “Experiencing Shakespeare”, Folger Education’s first electronic field trip, brings thousands of students in grades 6-12 to the Folger Shakespeare Library. Are you registered? If not, click here to register for this free one-hour program. I wrote about the program in a February 7th blog posting, and it occurred to me today that there might be teachers who read this blog who have participated in electronic or virtual field trips before who might comment on that experience. If you have been part of an electronic or virtual field trip, what was the experience like for you and your students? What was the benefit for you and your students to visit a place you physically couldn’t get to from your school? Where did you go on this trip? Our partner in this program, Alabama Public Television, recently conducted an electronic field trip to Mount Vernon, and thousands of students participated. Could electronic and/or virtual field trips make the world even smaller for teachers and students?

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Odds are that in a classroom of students who have never been taught Shakespeare before, the majority of them may already be at least a little familiar with some aspect of his work. I have no statistical proof to back that statement up, but it does seem likely that in a world where passionate couples are referred to as “Romeos and Juliets,” and the iconic image of a young man holding a skull is enough to make the brain jump to “to be or not to be,” that students are surrounded by Shakespeare already.

It’s an interesting conversation-starter, anyway. When I taught with SSO one of the first conversations was to ask the class what they already knew about Shakespeare. A lot of voices piped up with “He wrote stuff,” “Weren’t there some plays?” and some character recognition, “Romeo and Juliet, that was his.” Before they even get to a sit-down conversation about what they know about Shakespeare, they don’t realize the tidbits they’re picking up from pop-culture. I saw them relax before my eyes as they realized they already knew the subject, they just hadn’t been up-close yet.

I’m sure that by this point in the year, your students are already quite familiar with Shakespeare from your lessons, but it’s a fun conversation to have. Before there was a book and an audition, what did they already know?

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While there are many student Shakespeare Festivals all over the world, some teachers might feel trepidation at cutting, directing, casting, rehearsing and organizing a performance for their class.

One of our SSO teaching artists, and long-time Docent of the Folger, Amy Thompson, has been doing that very process for the last few years at Nottingham Elementary in Virginia. This year, she has decided to document her process of producing Macbeth with 5th graders, who will be performing in May.

Third Witch First Murderer

If you’ve never produced a student Shakespeare before, or have wondered how others are doing it, Amy’s blog is very specific to her process. The pain of cutting the text to less than half an hour, the creativity in doubling the cast, the process of auditioning 5th graders, and the excitement of beginning rehearsals.

It’s certainly worth keeping up with, and we’d love to hear about your experiences, too! Let us know how your rehearsals are going in the comments, or if you’ve ever kept a production blog for your classroom performances!

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In my January 5th  Blog entry, Shakespeare in Other Words,  I ranted against using “modernized” or “Shakespeare Made Easy” versions of the plays. But those well-meaning teachers who use those books are at least trying, and I suspect, with a bit of help and some quality professional development, they will toss those books and get to what Shakespeare actually wrote.

But an even bigger problem is those schools and ELA teachers who just don’t teach Shakespeare at all. So thousands of students are graduating from high schools across the nation having never experienced a Shakespeare play.

Here, I think, are the reasons:

  1. There is a lack of preparation in pre-service Methods courses in graduate and undergraduate programs.  Whenever I lead a Shakespeare Set Free Workshop for teachers, the first question I ask is “Who taught you how to teach Shakespeare?”  Most veteran teachers laugh at that question and most newer teachers get very nervous. The reality is that there are only a handful of university courses in Teaching Shakespeare and Shakespeare rarely comes up even in a basic English methods class. If any of my readers here have had some good college training in teaching Shakespeare, please add your comments below.
  2. The emphasis on testing (which doesn’t include specific texts) scares teachers, so they avoid Shakespeare if they can.
  3. Many school administrators actually discourage teachers from approaching Shakespeare except in AP classes for reason #2.
  4. Many ELA teachers had a bad experience with Shakespeare when they were high school students. When I poll my Methods students at Stony Brook University, most of them either have bad memories or no memories of learning Shakespeare in school. The very few who had a teacher who used performance and had them “doing” Shakespeare, report that they had a good experience.

Even though the Common Core State Standards are rather specific about incorporating Macbeth and Hamlet into 11th and 12th grade curricula, we suspect that some schools just ignore them.  Here’s what the Standards say (emphasis mine):

  • RL.11-12.4. Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful. (Include Shakespeare as well as other authors.) and
  • RL.11-12.7Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.
We know from so much research that reading and decoding rigorous texts has significant benefits that are lacking when we teach YA novels. Carol Jago makes a great case for Shakespeare and other difficult texts in With Rigor For All. And Kylene Beers, in an NCTE Report called The Genteel Unteaching of America’s Poor makes a more serious case for what she calls, “Segregation by Intellectual Rigor.”

So here we are, with so many students for so many reasons, never getting the opportunity that their AP colleagues get.

Here’s something relevant that was posted on The Daily Beast in December. See #18:
31 Ways to Get Smarter in 2012 “Reading the Bard has been shown to engage the brain more actively than most contemporary texts, but watching him can’t hurt either. This winter, go see Titus Andronicus in New York City or The Two Gentlemen of Verona in Washington, D.C.”

To sum up, I believe that all students deserve Shakespeare. So what should be done?

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Speak the speech, I pray you, … trippingly on the tongue,”  Hamlet’s advice to the players.

When teachers assign their students to perform a scene from a play by William Shakespeare, what should their students do to get ready?  How can teachers best support their students in preparing their scenes?  Steer them away from “translated” texts of the play, for starters.  Students can handle Shakespeare’s language.  Help them to understand the language. How can using a performance-based teaching approach help?  Performance-based teaching promotes getting students up and on their feet, speaking Shakespeare’s language out loud; it is a close reading of the text using intellectual, vocal, and physical exercises to make sense of it.

On March 6th, from 1-2 pm EST, teachers and their students from around the country will be able to visit the Folger Shakespeare Library without leaving their classrooms.  Experiencing Shakespeare is a free one-hour trip that will take students into the vault of the Library to see rare books and to talk with Dr. Michael Witmore, Director, about the treasures contained within it.  They’ll hear from scholar, Dr. Gail Kern Paster, about the ways scholars examine texts to look at language, watch students and actors engage Shakespeare’s text as they prepare to perform scenes, and they’ll have the opportunity submit their own performances of Shakespeare’s work to be included in the program.  In short, students and teachers will be involved in the intellectual, physical, and vocal exercises and activities they need to do in order to engage Shakespeare’s text and make meaning of it for themselves.

Join teachers and students from around the country on their journey to find out what they need to know to put Shakespeare’s language up on its feet in this hour-long electronic field trip.  Register by clicking here.

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To teach you gamut in a briefer sort,”
The Taming of the Shrew 3.1

students from Inspired Teaching PCS act out Shakespearean Insults

Recently, I was embroiled in a discussion of whether or not younger students could “handle” Shakespeare’s work. I, of course, insist that elementary school students can and will “get” Shakespeare. Another member in the discussion said that young students aren’t ready to deal with the entirety of any single play, and if that is the case then they’re not ready for any of it.

That is exactly the kind of thinking that we educators need to free ourselves from. When we’re teaching “Shakespeare” we don’t have to teach an entire play. “Getting” Shakespeare doesn’t mean you can recite whole passages by age 10. It means that you understood a line of text, learned a new word, engaged in dialogue between two characters. It starts with the little things. If you end with a classroom performance, the most you’ll definitely work on is 30 minutes of a 4 hour play. The rest is icing on the Shakespeare cake.

You wouldn’t hand  a student a violin and ask him to start playing without having first taught music notes. You wouldn’t ask a student to do addition if they hadn’t yet learned to count.  And you wouldn’t give a student a Shakespeare play and tell him to read without starting to play in class with unique words, with the rhythm of iambic pentameter, or with the plot of the play they’re about to work with.

Everything starts small. Learning Shakespeare does, too. For any level class – you never have to feel obligated to teach an entire play. This point has been echoed by both Scott O’Neill, one of our former Teaching Shakespeare Institute participants, and Andrea Jackson, Director of Education for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario. Links are to their Teacher to Teacher videos on our YouTube page.

What do you think? Where did you start with Shakespeare?

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