Archive for December, 2012

~by Gregg Long

These days, Shakespeare has a rather furtive presence in my classroom. Like designer jeans smuggled behind the Berlin Wall, we pull out our copies of Hamlet or the sonnets on the side, with an eye cocked towards the door. Not out of any guilt on our part: you can use The Bard to teach any number of composition or grammar tips you can think of. But having juniors yell “Now God, stand up for bastards!” in order to cover the interjection, can be so easily misunderstood.

My material for my writing classes have more or less crowded out the file folders, packets and binders covering the Renaissance, poetic meter, interpretive exercises and, sadly enough, the plays of Shakespeare. But I am nothing if not subversive.

Because I’m in the midst of putting together a new binder: “Sneaking Shakespeare.”

I’ll add to it as I progress, but the idea is to find ways to use the Bard’s language that are copacetic with writing, grammar and mechanics instruction.

For example, once I realized that, in my lifetime, I had picked up more literature through simply being surrounded by it rather than force-fed the material, I decided to give the students a back door into the world of Shakespeare’s language, rather than giving them explicit instruction. So on the first day of class this January(my seniors have me one semester at a time), I’ll be sneaking in some Shakespeare by handing out small scraps of verse as they come through the door.

passing notesSome of the verse I hand out will be done completely arbitrarily, but for the students I know, I pick the lines with care. “But Brutus says he was ambitious, and Brutus is an honorable man,” perhaps, if I think the kid has a talent for irony. Or “Mad world! Mad kings! Mad composition!” for the guy who comes in yelling about having to write another paper.

Judy, in the second row, who has mentioned a preference for contemporary jazz, might get “Give me some music; music, moody food of us that trade in love.” And when Ruttiger, whom I was gracious enough to loan lunch money to last fall and who still has not paid me back, gets one of my favorites: “Base is the slave that pays.”

Once they have their slip of paper, I ask them to read it. Recite it. Share it with a neighbor. Share it with me. “Good,” I say. “Now, as to the course materials, here’s what you’ll have to…”

“But what does the line mean?” they ask.

“Never mind that,” I respond.

“Why’d we look at it in the first place?” asks another, not unreasonably.

“Never mind that either,” I respond breezily. It’s about now that they start looking at their schedules warily, wondering exactly what they were thinking when they signed up for the course.

And so we forget about Shakespeare for about a week, until we start in on the basics of argument, and how grammar and syntax helps prove our point. Or the week after that, when we cover claims and unstated warrants. Or powerful diction. Or figurative language. Or just about anything.

I can’t claim this is some miracle cure to restoring the humanities in the face of an overbearing preoccupation we have with an extremely narrow measurement of skills, but for my part, once they have the words down cold, the language of Shakespeare is easy enough to hone and polish lessons on the fundamentals of writing and communication. It’s pretty painless, actually.

For example, when covering modifying phrases, I have Judy recite her line and ask the class what the second part of the sentence is doing to the first part, and what would happen if it weren’t there.

And when we have to cover passive voice and when to use it, I call on Ruttiger (who still hasn’t paid me back  yet, the mooch) to read his line and try it in active voice. They inevitably prefer it in passive. So do I.

It’s an ongoing process throughout the semester, and it necessarily takes a back seat to many other components of the class: the persuasive essay, the modes of persuasion, the structure of writing and what to do when you’ve cut all your evidence from Wikipedia out of your research paper and have only a page left. But the funny part is, after about a month, when the students have their own and several others’ verse more or less committed to memory, some of it winds up appearing in their writing.

“Even a brief glance at how much hazing happens on campus is enough to make your ‘knotted and combined locks to part, and each particular hair to stand an end like quills upon the fearful porcupine,’” writes Lisa. (Yeah, I helped out. But it was her idea.)

“More money is needed to study ways to combat psychological stress experienced by soldiers home from these wars,” writes Ruttiger. “Until Congress loses the ‘base is the slave that pays’ mentality, the problem will not get better.”

The thing is, it’s rarely my idea for them to include such gems, and it almost always has them asking about the plays and stories that prompted such lines in the first place. And every once in a while, I wind up lending one of my copies of Hamlet or Henry V. I get the impression they think they’re doing me a favor by using and pursuing the language like this.

No matter. I’ll take it.

After a lackluster introduction to Shakespeare in high school, Gregg developed a love of the Bard through teaching his works to his high school students. He revels in teaching his students Shakespeare through modernizing themes and relevant analogies to make the works more accessible to a modern generation. He holds an MA in English from Northern Illinois University. Gregg currently teaches Journalism, World Lit, and American Lit at Lake Park High School.

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~by Josh Cabat

It is a trope with which we have become extremely familiar, from endless reality shows higher quality fare like Modern Family and The Office. A scene is played out, only to be interrupted by what in the business is known as a cutaway. Here, the character breaks the fourth wall, addresses the audience directly and describes what was going through his or her head while the action of the scene was happening. Perhaps they might offer some analysis of their own actions or comment upon the actions of others; perhaps they will reveal their deepest fears and wishes. Perhaps they will offer predictions and hopes for what is to come, and maybe even reveal plans for how they intend to accomplish those ends. Does this sound familiar?

Yes, it could be The Situation in Jersey Shore, or a conniving member of this season’s cast of Survivor. But this also describes the opening of Richard III or Macbeth’s dagger fantasia. It is a small stretch to say that today’s ubiquitous cutaways have their roots in the kind of intimate revelation to an audience that was essentially perfected, if not invented, by Shakespeare in his use of the soliloquy. So while I may not be entirely comfortable having Rosalind and Snooki this close together in a sentence, it is certain that our students’ familiarity with the cutaway is an easy path towards approaching the subtext of the plays and the rich interior life of Shakespeare’s characters.

To put this to the test, try this simple exercise, as I did with my 9th graders in our reading of Romeo and Juliet. You can begin in one of two ways; either have the students perform the scene themselves and film it, or rip a pre-existing scene (no longer than 3 minutes’ worth, if you please). We chose the latter approach in addressing the meeting of the play’s doomed lovers in Act I, scene v. Students in each group chose the roles they wanted to play, and as a group came up with the questions that they wanted each character to respond to. For example, the students wanted to know how Tybalt felt when he saw a Montague at his family party but was restrained by Capulet from doing anything about it, or what Romeo was planning to do once he realized the identity of his newfound love. The students playing the respective roles had to come up with answers, in modern English but supported by Shakespeare’s text.

Finally, the students filmed their answers to the questions. After editing them down, they loaded them onto iMovie and intercut them at the appropriate moments of the original clip they had downloaded. They added simple titles, such as the character’s name as their cutaways play out, and that was it. The beauty of this activity was that the students were forced, as any actor or close reader would be, to comb through the text to find support for their character’s responses. I invite you to check out the result, “Modern Families (Both Alike in Dignity)” on YouTube here. As a way inside their characters’ heads, using this trope with which they are so familiar was both intuitive and fun.

Josh Cabat is the Chair of English of the Roslyn, NY Public Schools. He was the co-founder of the NYC Student Shakespeare Festival, and is currently a Teaching Artist at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He is an alumnus of the Folger TSI from 1993, and earned his MA in English Literature from the University of Chicago and his BA in English Literature from Columbia University.

Josh has previously written for Folger Education in his post Vindication: Coriolanus and the Modern Audience.

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Twelve of Shakespeare’s plays, including Hamlet, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest, and Twelfth Night were made available in digital format earlier this month by the Folger Shakespeare Library.  The response has been tremendously positive.  Now that these twelve digital editions have been put online for free, the lesson plans on the Folger website for the plays are in the process of being linked to those digital editions, and should be completed by the end of the week.  Hamlet is up and ready to be used.  If you search our lesson plan archive for material on Hamlet, for example, you’ll be able to link to the digital edition of the act and/or scene from the play used in the lesson.  And the link is right in the lesson plan to make it even easier for teachers to access the material in digital format.  Take a look, use it, and let us know what you think. And stay tuned because once the rest of the canon is available online in digital format, the lesson plan archive will be updated and linked to those editions as well.

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~by Gina Voskov

My first experience with Shakespeare was in 4th grade. I was asked to play the part of Celia in As You Like It for a Shakespeare festival. I can safely say that at the time I had no idea what I was doing or who Shakespeare was or why I had been asked to be in a festival, but 20-something years later, I remember the experience vividly. I wore a red velvet dress with a white lace collar, white tights, and black patent leather shoes. They were the most Shakespearean things I had in my closet in rural Vermont and even though they were technically my Christmas clothes, I put them on in the springtime to perform:  “I pray thee, Rosalind, sweet my coz, be merry.”

I wish I could say that my 4th grade experience with Shakespeare set me on a course to love and study the Bard, but it did not. He quickly fell off my radar and didn’t appear back on it until my 9th grade year when we read Romeo and Juliet, and then again the next year when we read Julius Caesar. I think if it hadn’t been for Julius Caesar, I would have given him a chance, but the experience of reading that stupid play set me on a course to hate and avoid the Bard–we did worksheets and talked about caesuras and sat in our seats and read aloud. I vowed I would never again pick up a Shakespeare play, and was successful in keeping that vow. Until, that is, I needed to finish my English degree and the whole thing hinged on a single Shakespeare course. Do I really need to tell you about my anger when I realized I couldn’t graduate without taking a class about the one writer I hated more than anyone? Maybe it was my professor, or maybe it was the choice of texts she had us read or the way she led us through the conflicts and tensions and beauty of the plays, but that course changed everything. It was while sitting in our classroom on a spring day after reading Titus Andronicus that I realized I needed to be a teacher. Not because it was what all English majors would likely end up doing but because I needed to share Shakespeare. And the best way I could figure how to do that was by becoming a teacher.

After a decade of teaching, I’ve been at four schools each reflecting its own unique set of geographic and demographic variations, and each possessing varying opinions of how Shakespeare should be taught, and to whom. I now teach 6th and 7th grades in a large urban private K-12 school in New York City.

One of the courses I teach is 6th grade Humanities. In October we began our study of India and started reading a novel together that makes frequent reference to Gandhi and to his satyagraha movement: peaceful resistance using truth, or “truth force.” On one particular day, I had come from a frustrating meeting during which I’d heard, once more, that young students were not “ready” for Shakespeare and likely not able to “appreciate” it, especially a full-length play. I found myself biting my tongue, feeling my temperature rise, and resisting the impulse to roll my eyes. This is the standard argument I hear about why not to read Shakespeare with young students: kids aren’t ready for it. But I know that the younger the students are, the less inhibited they are–the more willing to play with the language and toss the words around in their mouths just to hear their sounds. As students get older, the pressure to understand and be “academic” about it increases. So if kids are young and playing with and doing Shakespeare, the better off they’ll be down the road–for all of the teachers who expect them to be academic about it!

So, reeling with frustration from this meeting, I stood in front of my class and told my students, “There are people here who think you’re not ready for Shakespeare and that you can’t do it, and this makes me really mad.” We talked about how they had already been doing Shakespeare–we began our year performing the “Cinna the Poet” scene from Julius Caesar alongside 12th grade IB (International Baccalaureate) English students who were reading the same play. We researched the real Cinna the Poet, discussed why there would be a character named “Cinna” in The Hunger Games, looked at artwork and made tableaux of the death of Julius Caesar, read and performed Mark Antony’s long speech, wrote eulogies for Cinna–a man wrongfully murdered and who would have been forgotten in history if not for Shakespeare writing him into Act 3 scene 3. My 6th graders were more than ready for Shakespeare. No, they wouldn’t be analyzing iambs and trochees, but they would be experiencing the words and sentiment and they would be asking questions about what happened next in the play. (And they would also, as a whole class, memorize the entire scene and shout it from the tops of their lungs one morning before class started, just as an administrator walked into my classroom to speak to me. “What is your name?” they shouted at her, grins achingly wide across their small, bright faces, and laughter bubbling around them as they continued:  “Whither are you going? Where do you dwell? Are you a married man or a bachelor?” Do I really need to tell you about my joy at hearing these 24 voices in impromptu unison?)

I told my students that day after the frustrating meeting that I was mad. And that being mad is sometimes a great way to be political. I said that I love proving people wrong when they don’t believe in me and the kids nodded in agreement, each remembering a particular moment in their own lives where someone said, “You can’t do that.” I told the kids that I wanted to film them performing “Cinna the Poet” and to show them off during my presentation at NCTE in November.  “And in that way,” I said, “We’re going to prove people wrong.” They began to chatter and one boy’s voice rose above the rest. He said, “Ms. Voskov, this is like satyagraha. This is like fighting with the truth.” He was right. The kids doing Shakespeare would be my weapons of truth in the fight for people, at my school and everywhere, to realize that Shakespeare is for everyone, no matter the age.

The truth is, these kids in 6th grade are ready to do Shakespeare. And the truth is that it’s not just these students in my class: It’s every young person who gets the chance to work with and experience and play with the language and get the words into their bodies. In 4th grade, “doing Shakespeare” meant memorizing Celia’s lines and finding the perfect Shakespearean dress to wear on stage. I claimed that play as my own back then, and now, 25 years later, I vividly remember the performance and how much I cared about getting in right–right down to my shoes. Now “doing Shakespeare” is an act of determination. When I hear from people that young children can’t appreciate Shakespeare’s works or that to “really get” Shakespeare they have to be a certain age, I dig in my heels and recommit to the fight. I think of my students united in voice and energy shouting, “Come brands, ho!” calling for a satyagraha of our own.

Gina is a middle school teacher in New York City. She earned a Master of Arts in Teaching Secondary English from Brown University and a Bachelor of Arts degree in English at the University of Rhode Island.

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~By Bill Parsons

As a warm up to this year’s Shakespeare plays, I had students read and perform Act 3, scene 3 — the scene where Cinna the Poet is confronted, attacked, and (possibly) murdered by a group of angry citizens.

This lesson is borrowed from one of the many resources available on the Folger Shakespeare Library’s web page.

So why take the time to act out a scene from an entirely different play?  Because this scene is a very short and very wonderful example of what makes reading Shakespeare such a valuable experience for students:  It forces the student to read creatively.


This scene is only about a minute long, and the language is very simple.  There’s nothing tricky about pronouncing the lines or understanding what people are saying to each other.

But in this scene, each line poses a choice for the person reading/acting it out, and there are many details that have to be added by the reader/actor.

So after having the students read the scene a line at a time, and then a sentence at a time — sitting n a circle — I asked them for some details:

§  The scene is a “street.”  That’s pretty vague; what details would you add?

§  What is it about Cinna that makes these four citizens confront him?

§  Where are the four citizens coming from?  What have they been doing?

§  Imagine that every character in the scene is holding an object.  What is it?

§  What happens to Cinna the Poet at the end of the scene?

The responses were all coherent and logical, and most importantly, they were all created by the students. One group imagined a group of thugs in a car pulling up next to Cinna as he waited to cross a street.  Another had the four citizens walking out of a bar.  Another added a mother with a baby to the scene.  One group had Cinna typing a text message, and one of the citizens snatched the phone out of his hand.

Reflecting on what the students did during these two classes, I realized that reading Shakespeare is an inherently creative activity.  As I explained to the students,

§  There aren’t any instructions on HOW the people are feeling

§  There aren’t any directions on WHAT to do while the lines are spoken

§  Every character has a back story.

And because of these “missing” pieces, the interpretation of every scene is up to the reader.  When students understand that they own the characters’ actions, then their reading becomes an act of creation. And if they create the meaning, they own the language.

Bill Parsons teaches grades 11 and 12 English at an independent boarding and day school in South Florida.  He spent last summer at Folger’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute, a life-changing experience that keeps giving new teaching ideas. You can read more from his “front lines” at http://englishparsons1112.wordpress.com

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We’re all talking about it, because we’re so excited that this resource is now available for the world to use! Folger Digital Texts are here!

Folger Digital TextsCurrently featuring 12 of the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays, over the course of the next year we’re planning to see all of Shakespeare’s plays and poems, and a few of his contemporaries make their way to this free resource page. The line numbers in the Folger Digital Texts lines up with the popular printed Folger Editions of Shakespeare’s plays, and are search-able by word or phrase, or jump-able by act, scene, or line number.

The meticulously crafted and embedded text code can even be downloaded for classroom use in project and app creation. We can’t wait to see what you can do!

Our developers are eagerly awaiting feedback as we launch this resource into the world, so please give it a look, try it with your class, play with it at home, and send your feedback to folgertexts@folger.edu.

We’re excited that this can now be counted among the many resources offered by the Folger Shakespeare Library, and hope to hear from you about them!

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It’s true that you never know the way(s) in which you’ll be affected by the works of William Shakespeare.  Last summer, the Folger Shakespeare Library hosted twenty-five teachers from around the country who participated in Folger Education’s Teaching Shakespeare InstituteThis four-week program where teachers explore four plays from the viewpoints of scholarship, pedagogy, and performance is consistently described by participants as “life changing”.  It is in many ways.  One of th0se ways can be seen in the recent writing by Gabriel Fernandez, a 2012 TSI participant.  His writing, Seeking the Bubble Reputation, is a deeply moving piece — reflective, instructive, and engaging.  Fernandez’s insights, his integration of Shakespeare as he explores those insights, his “visualizations” (as one reader noted) are remarkable.  “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” (Hamlet, 2.2). How have you been affected by Shakespeare’s work?  How has it influenced your own work? Your teaching?

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