Archive for January, 2013

We’ve been thinking a lot about the benefit of having students listen to Shakespeare’s language.  With the recent release of the digital edition of Othello, we are in the process of producing an audio recording of the play that follows the Folger edition.  The goal is to enable students to read and hear the text at the same time.  Our current production of Henry V is going to give us the opportunity to do an audio recording of the Chorus speeches, and we’re thinking this might be helpful for students to have available to listen to, as well.  In the middle of considering all of this, it occured to us that it might be helpful to blog about it and see what kinds of responses we’d get to asking about how teachers use audio recordings of plays in their classrooms.  We’re not talking about passive listening. Rather, actively engaging students through a guided listening exercise or activity, for example.  So, do you use audio recordings of Shakespeare’s plays, or of any plays, in your classrooms? How do you use them?  Do you find the option to be a valuable one, based on your own classroom use?

Read Full Post »

Shakespeare Uncovered

Image from PBS

Designer: Kevon Greene.

Image by Kevon Greene for PBS

By now, many of you readers have probably watched or recorded the first two episodes of Shakespeare Uncovered on PBS. As Caitlin Griffin wrote in her blog entry on January 17, the broadcast details are:

January 25th, 9-11pm EST: Macbeth with Ethan Hawke and The Comedies with Jolie Richardson.

February 1, 9-11pm EST: Richard II, with Derek Jacobi and Henry IV, and Henry V with Jeremy Irons.

February 8, 9-11pm EST: Hamlet with David Tennant and The Tempest hosted by Trevor Nunn.

Designer: Karen Brazell.

Image by Karen Brazell for PBS

But the good news is that each of the hour-long shows will be available for streaming at the Shakespeare Uncovered site after they are broadcast, so if you missed the Macbeth or Comedies episodes, stream away.

But what you probably don’t know is that several Folger Education folks served on WNET’s Education Advisory panel. I was lucky enough to be part of this panel along with Peggy O’Brien, Kevin Costa, Josh Cabat, and Sue Biondo-Hench. We were joined by Joan Langley from Oregon Shakespeare, Chris Anthony from LA Shakespeare Center, and Bill Heller from Teaching Matters.

In addition to previewing all six episodes and spending a day at WNET’s headquarters in NYC, several of our group created lesson plans for the PBS site. And Peggy O’Brien has written some fabulous Teacher Viewing Guides for all six episodes (as of now on the first two are available.)

The PBS site also has a two activities: “Which Shakespeare Character are You?” (Apparently, I am Rosalind?) and “Anatomy of a Scene.”

So now we’d like to hear from you. Tell us what you think of the shows, and more importantly, how you might use the videos and lesson plans with your students.

Image from PBS

Designer: Karen Brazell.

Image by Karen Brazell for PBS

Read Full Post »

During a particularly bad Idaho winter in 1996, my 10 year old niece visited me for the weekend.  She accompanied me to a meeting of my Shakespearean troupe, Stage of Fools.  Only one other brave soul dared to trek through the snow to rehearse that day, so we abandoned our show and read a scene that allowed my niece to play along.  We chose the Lady Macduff murder scene…what 10 year old doesn’t love to die a dramatic death?

Amy's niece and her friends play out a scene from Macbeth.

Amy’s niece joins a scene from Macbeth.

We started our exploration of the text by reading through the scene.  I was amazed at how quickly she picked up the language.  There were only a few words that she needed help defining, and after the second reading, she fully understood the action of the scene.  This is when the fun began…we got the scene up on its feet.  With every reading, she became more and more animated and died with dramatic flourish.  It made me wish that she lived closer so that she could join the Stage of Fools!

I could have performed the scene with her all night, but the weather made me nervous, so we donned our winter wear to make the slow trip home.  Before leaving the theatre, she asked me if she could borrow Macbeth for the week and give it back when I visited her the following weekend.  Of course, I said yes.

The next weekend, I attended her 11th birthday party.  To my surprise, she and her friends took turns enacting the scene for our entertainment during the party.  It turns out that she had read the entire play that week and taken the script to school so that she and her friends could practice during recess.  As you might imagine, I was one proud aunt.

A few years later, I was able to take her to the Folger Shakespeare Library.  It was a very special trip for us.  Today, she is an adult who still has a passion for Shakespeare.  In fact, she has our favorite quote tattooed down the back of her leg, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

"Lord, what fools these mortals be!"

“Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

Over the years, as the owner of the Shakespeare High website, I’ve been asked by parents and educators how soon we can expose our children to Shakespeare.  I always cite this anecdote as evidence that young children are more than capable of reading, understanding, enjoying, and embracing Shakespeare’s language.  While attending the “Shakespeare for All” workshop at the 2012 NCTE conference, Folger educators shared that “cognitive psychology tells us that adolescents have a harder time with language acquisition and dialect differences.  Start with grades 3-6 because they are ready.”  By introducing our younger students to Shakespeare’s language in small chunks, they will soon be ready to tackle a full play, and 9th grade teachers will no longer hear moans and groans when they introduce Romeo and Juliet for the first time.

Although I don’t teach elementary school, I enjoyed learning about the performance-based methods used when teaching Shakespeare to younger children.  If I didn’t live in the “other” Washington, I would attend the Folger Shakespeare Library Conference on Teaching Shakespeare in the Elementary Classroom June 24-26, 2013.  The conference theme is Sharing Our Stories.  I’m thankful that I was able to share my niece’s story with you and hope you will share your stories with me by leaving a comment below.

Amy Ulen is a TSI 1996 Alumni. After 20 years of teaching English and theatre, she moved into technology education.  She created the Shakespeare High website and eventually plans on updating it again. She continues her passion for incorporating technology into the study of Shakespeare both online and in face-to-face workshops.   

Read Full Post »

~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

Read Full Post »

Last summer, the BBC aired a six-part series exploring Shakespeare’s plays with interviews from actors, directors, and scholars interspersed with clips from movies and recorded stage performances of the plays being discussed. On this side of the pond, at least, those of us without higher-listed cable waited patiently for either a DVD of the series or for its American airing.

The latter, at least, is here!

PBS will air all six episodes on Fridays starting January 25th in two-hour segments:

January 25th, 9-11pm EST: ‘Macbeth’ and ‘The Comedies’ hosted by Ethan Hawke and Jolie Richardson.

February 1, 9-11pm EST: ‘Richard II,’ ‘Henry IV,’ and ‘Henry V’ with Derek Jacobi and Jeremy Irons.

February 8, 9-11pm EST: ‘Hamlet’ and ‘The Tempest’ hosted by David Tennant and Trevor Nunn.

What’s especially exciting about this series is that far from being a definitive account of what these plays are or mean, the hosts discuss their passion for the play, and consider the plays’ many interpretations and long histories. Hopefully these hours can stimulate discussions about the plays, and give new perspectives for approaching the texts from different points of view.

The DVD set will be available by April, and can be pre-ordered from PBS, if you’re interested in that.

Read Full Post »

~by Carol Kelly

A “centos” is a poem that has been created using lines from the works of other writers and is a form that has been around for almost two thousand years. The word cento comes from the Latin word for patchwork and allows creative opportunities for celebrating the beauty of language and poetry. An example, quoted on the British TV channel, BBC Two over the holidays shows how the lines can blend to from an organic unit:

Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,

And many goodly states and kingdoms seen (John Keats, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer)

But still I long to learn (Alison Chisolm, award-winning poet)

Tales, marvelous tales,

Of ships and stars and isles where good men rest, (James Elroy Fletcher, The Golden Road to Samarkand)

How others fought to forge my world. (Alison Chisolm)

What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? What wild ecstasy? (John Keats, Ode to a Grecian Urn)

How far the unknown transcends the what we know. (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nature)

We are the music-makers, And we are the dreamers of dreams (Arthur O’Shaughnessy, Ode)

Step forward, (Walter Savage Landor, Interlude)

To feel the blood run through the veins and tingle

Where busy thought and blind sensation mingle. (Percy Bysshe Shelley, Fragment)

Come, my friends, ‘tis not too late, (Alfred Lord Tennyson, Ulysses)

For we are movers and shakers

Of the world for ever, it seems;( (Arthur O’Shaughnessy, Ode)

To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.(Alfred Lord Tennyson, Ulysses)

beatles as shakespeare

Reading this reminded me of a classroom activity recently demonstrated by one of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s teacher/facilitators, Chris Shamburg.

Students are given a speech from Hamlet and then given the lyrics to Thriller by Michael Jackson which they then have to blend using fifty percent of each. The results are fascinating!

Check this activity out HERE!

As an alternative or extension, give the students a monologue and a selection of  popular songs (The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, etc) from which they can choose one to blend with the monologue, again fifty percent from each. Read the directions for this activity HERE.

This activity is most suitable for high school students, many of whom may well be able to suggest contemporary/popular songs to include in the choices!

Carol Kelly is Folger Education’s Festivals and Programs Manager. She arranges workshops for teachers around the country, and organizes our Secondary School Festival each spring, as well as our appearances at National Conferences like NCTE.

Read Full Post »

~by Julia Perlowski
(title quote from Henry IV, part 2)

In my high school honors English class, my well-meaning teacher decided to have us read Macbeth.  I was thrilled.  I had been in classes where teachers played records of famous Shakespearean monologues read by famous people with thick British accents.   Who can forget “Oh, pardon me thou bleeding piece of flesh that I am meek and gentle with these butchers!” out of the mouth of Marlon Brando?   Yikes!  If that is not enough to scare a child, I don’t know what is!  However, in this honors class we sat in desks in neat little rows and were asked which of us would like what part.  I wanted Macbeth!  I really did.  I had some fIuency with early modern English as I heard it from my mother’s mouth at bedtime and read it aloud in our family den when no one was looking.  The part initially went to Bruce Holsinger, who was the smartest boy in the school, now Professor of Music and English at University of Virginia. When Bruce needed a break and it was discovered that there was not another great male reader in the class, the part went to me.  I had a blast, and was quite pleased with myself, as was Bruce, that we were granted the coveted parts.  As a teacher of drama, reading and English, teaching Shakespeare in all of those classes since 2006, I now know that only 4 out of 35 kids “covet” those parts.  The rest are scared stiff or could not care less.  And, the kids who have a mild interest in Shakespeare don’t have much to do until they are finally prompted to say…”Here’s knocking indeed!”

I want to share a simple method, learned at the Folger and use extensively in my classrooms, to get ALL kids reading Shakespeare in a relatively short period of time, even with scenes where only two or three characters are speaking, even with monologues and soliloquies. Here it is:  Number the text.

That’s it!  A bulk of the good teaching methods with performative text relies on numbering lines in such a way that most kids get to have a go!  Most of my classes contain 30 students.  Most of my planning time consists of solving math problems in order to configure groups:  15 groups of 2; or, 2 groups of 15; or, 6 groups of 5, as well as numbering dialogue for maximum student performance time.  Consider this bit of dialogue from  Act 1, Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet:

1 ABRAHAM:  Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?

2 SAMPSON:  I do bite my thumb, sir.

3 ABRAHAM:  Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?

4  SAMPSON:  [Aside to GREGORY] Is the law of our side, if I say ay?


6 SAMPSON:  No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I bite my thumb, sir.

7 GREGORY:  Do you quarrel, sir?

8 ABRAHAM:  Quarrel sir! no, sir.

9 SAMPSON:  If you do, sir, I am for you: I serve as good a man as you.

10 ABRAHAM:   No better.

11 SAMPSON:  Well, sir.

12 GREGORY:  Say ‘better:’ here comes one of my master’s kinsmen.

13 SAMPSON:  Yes, better, sir.

14 ABRAHAM:   You lie.

15 SAMPSON:   Draw, if you be men.



(1) Rebellious subjects, enemies to peace,
On pain of torture, from those bloody hands
Throw your mistemper’d weapons to the ground,
And hear the sentence of your moved prince.
(2) Three civil brawls, bred of an airy word,
By thee, old Capulet, and Montague,
Have thrice disturb’d the quiet of our streets,
If ever you disturb our streets again,
Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace.

With the script numbered in this way, here are some possibilities for enactment in a class of 30 where all are involved:

1.  LINE VOLLEY:  Half the class can enact the EVEN numbered lines, the other half, the ODD numbered lines.  Lines will be spoken alternately between the lines.   One or more students can intervene as the Prince.

2.  ENSEMBLE SCENE:  Two groups of fifteen students can enact the scene each having their own line.   The part of the Prince may be read by all in unison…or by one person if one of the students takes two lines.

3.  3-D SHAKESPEARE:  Four students may perform the speaking parts of this scene with the rest of the class serving as directors with the teacher  facilitating between the actors and the audience asking the hard questions.  Who is here when the scene starts?

One of the most effective teaching days I had with this particular bit of numbered script consisted of a line volley with 45 students.  There were so many bodies that we “staged” the scene in two aisles of the audience across the middle orchestra seats.  Students delivered contentious lines as they climbed over seats brandishing rolled up scripts, eyeballing the enemies from the other side.


In another part of the country, two 3rd grade boys share the Prince’s speech:

How do YOU do the math?

Read Full Post »

In a recent article in The Guardian (1/1/13), Brian Cox talks about his first performance for the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing the lead character in Titus Andronicus which, if you’ve read some of my other blog entries, you’ll remember is my favorite Shakespeare play. Cox notes that the role of Titus was “… the most interesting thing I’ve ever done in the theatre.”  That’s no small observation given the wealth of experience Brian Cox has had on the stage.  Deborah Warner, one of the first women to direct for the RSC, did an incredible job directing the play.  She gave it a life I had never seen before , and I had seen several productions of the play.  I traveled with a group teachers, part of an NEH summer institute, that summer, and I remember some of the participants laughing when I said the play was one of my favorites and that I was looking forward to seeing it. They did not share my enthusiasm.  The other Shakespeare play, Twelfth Night, was really good, but Titus is what I recall most vividly from that summer.  I remember sitting in the audience at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1987 and being mesmerized by the play. It is still one of the most engaging theater experiences I have ever had. I stayed in Stratford an extra weekend just to see it a second time.  Reading the piece in The Guardian brought back great memories of a terrific summer studying Shakespeare’s plays in Stratford. Is there a performance of one of Shakespeare’s plays that stands out for you?

Read Full Post »

~ By Kevin J Costa

Late this fall, at McDonogh School where I teach drama and run the Institute for Shakespeare and Renaissance Studies, my Institute students and I were talking about AP exams. And then one junior asked, “would it be acceptable to write about Shakespeare on an English AP exam?”

You just smiled while reading that question, right?

The rest of my class and I did, too, when we heard it. “Of course,” I said, quite surprised at the notion that Shakespeare might be off limits. But then it struck me, although she beat me to the punch, saying, “well, I just think of Shakespeare as theatre.”

writing exam

The joke, in other words, was on the rest of us. I mean, isn’t this the whole point? If we teach Shakespeare through performance, we do so in order that students will have a deeper, more personal relationship with his work. Yes, we want students to read closely, to think in “literary” ways about Shakespeare — to meet, in other words, the objectives of an ELA classroom — but, I guess, it’s more important that we understand that goal. The beauty of learning Shakespeare through performance is that it provides students a deeply rigorous interaction with a complex text at the same time that it stimulates their creativity and their ability to problem-solve collaboratively. Oh, and yes — it’s a ton of fun.Think about it: this is the kind of thing kids will do on their own time — the school play, football, chess club. It’s real work, but compelling work because it puts them at the center of their learning.

It’s understandable that, for teachers new to this approach, this can be somewhat uncomfortable territory. “If I’m not talking all the time,” a teacher may say, “am I really doing my job?” And what about quizzes, passage identifications, and critical analyses? After all, these are more objective assessments than grading a group of students performing a scene. This is true. But the simple point is this: what do you want your students to learn (and not just what someone thinks they should know)? If it’s a deep appreciation for language, for an understanding of why Shakespeare helps us to comprehend ourselves, and a respect for collaboration (and yes, to meet Common Core objectives), then performance-based learning is the very best way to meet these goals.

You don’t act or direct yourself? No worries — you don’t need this experience. Print the Folger’s one-page handout, “How To Stage A Scene,” move the desks out of the way, and you and your students are good to go. You don’t want to grade the performance? That’s fine. Have them write an essay on what they discovered by staging a scene, and you can work on their writing with them. I think you’ll find a more authoritative, confident voice in that kind of writing than a traditional analysis, for students will have first-hand experience doing Shakespeare. In other words, they’ll be talking about how they made meaning with Shakespeare texts rather than thinking they need to find hidden meaning in them.

One of my juniors wrote the following about a scene she performed in class: “The fact that I needed to make my own choices prompted me to look deeper into the text to determine the best ways to say each phrase to make the story clear to the audience and look for any clues in the text where Shakespeare might have indicated a stage direction.” Not only do good actors and English students do this, good thinkers do this. The world will always welcome better thinkers!

I’m proud to say that the English department at McDonogh School, where Macbeth is taught to the tenth grade, all engage in performance-based teaching. When that unit is on, it’s no surprise to find groups of students all over the school clutching at daggers, sleepwalking, or shouting at a bloody Banquo. It’s a thrill to see.

And yes — some of them even write about the play on their AP exams!

Kevin J. Costa is a TSI 2010 Alumni. In addition to being an English teacher at McDonogh School, he is Director of the school’s Institute for Shakespeare and Renaissance Studies, Head of the Drama Department, and Director of Fine & Performing Arts. He also serves as the Director of Education for the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company and is former Chair of the Shakespeare Theater Association’s Education Committee.

Read Full Post »