Archive for November, 2014

In honor of #ThrowBackThursday, we’re sharing one of the more popular videos from our Teaching Shakespeare series.

Sue Biondo-Hench, a curriculum specialist (and alumna) of the Folger’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute and an English teacher at Carlisle High School for more than 29 years, often starts off a new Shakespeare unit by having students explore character and motive using a key passage of text—sometimes just a single line.


“What makes Interpreting Character such a successful exercise,” says Biondo-Hench, “is its multiple points of focus. Students explore a play-specific character, engage in performance-based methods for interpreting the text, and learn how Shakespeare’s language allows for multiple meanings”.

Interpreting Character uses scenes from Henry IV, Part 1  and centers on Prince Hal, but the exercise works equally well for any Shakespeare play—or any other play!

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By Josh Cabat

It happens every time I give a presentation on performance-based teaching or on using student-created projects to assess understanding of Shakespeare. After the session, two or three people come over to me privately and ask the same question. These sound like wonderful activities, they say, but how do we assess students’ performance on them?

The answer I want to give, naturally, is that these activities transcend anything that could be marked on a scale of 0-100 or A to F. In the real world, however, where classroom time is so precious and students (and parents) are often grade-conscious to a fault, dodging the question or rising loftily above it is not acceptable.

#NCTE14: Join us for a workshop on Shakespeare and the (Common Core) Assessments this Friday, November 21, at 4pm. It’s one of five Friday sessons we’re leading on teaching Shakespeare.

One simple answer, of course, is the use of rubrics. In the Folger’s Shakespeare Set Free series, there are several excellent examples of these assessment tools. Some relate to smaller activities along the way. For example, in her unit on Romeo and Juliet in SSF, Sue Biondo-Hench includes a grading guide for her Shakespearean Snapshots exercise for Act 3, scene 1. Another example in SSF that anticipated the CCSS is an exercise where students are responsible for learning vocabulary based on context. This might lead to short traditional vocabulary quizzes, or using apps like SurveyMonkey and Quizzam to assess comprehension in digital classrooms.

Most of the rubrics in SSF, not surprisingly, relate to culminating student performances. Among the categories that are included in these assessment tools are understanding of plot, character and language, use of blocking and costumes and some wiggle room for “something extra.” This is an excellent place to start, but there are many variations on this basic theme.

One such possibility, which dovetails with elements of the CCSS very nicely, is to create an original performance rubric along with the students in the class. Start by asking them what the elements of a well-performed scene are; chances are they will come up with a list exactly like the one above. Then, within each category, discuss what high, medium and low results might look like for that element, and you’re ready to go.

In my experience, student-created rubrics work because they afford students a sense of agency in their own assessment, and because expectations are clearly laid out from the beginning of the assignment.  The use of rubrics, of course, extends to student-created projects like videos, trailers, digital storytelling, soundtracks with liner notes, graphic novels and the many other such projects that have been detailed elsewhere in these pages. One thing about assessment is clear: it is self-defeating for a teacher to give performance-based or creative assignments without clearly laying out the expectations for that project as early as possible and in the context of a rubric.

As useful as rubrics are, they may not alone suffice. An additional form of assessment that is essential to the success of activities mentioned above is having students write about process. For my students, every scene they put on and every creative project they hand in must be accompanied by a brief (4-5 paragraph) essay describing their process and tracing the progression of learning that happened throughout. This kind of writing, which should itself be assessed with a rubric, is critical for several reasons. First and foremost, it gets students thinking in a metacognitive way about themselves as learners, an awareness that will prove extremely valuable down the road. And considering that the CCSS puts progress above pure achievement as an aim, the student piece will enable both teacher and student to get at least an anecdotal account of that progress.

The next step in assessment employs variations on a more traditional exam. In New York, we are gearing up for the implementation of the new CCSS-based Regents test. This exam reflects the trend towards making upper-level exams similar in form to the AP Language and Composition exam; it features text-based multiple choice, a synthesis essay and a rhetorical analysis essay.

Now imagine creating an exam such as this to give to students at the end of a unit where the central text is a Shakespeare play; let’s say that play is Romeo and Juliet. Your multiple choice questions could be based on excerpts from the play that you have paid particular attention to in class. These questions, as with most assessments based on the CCSS, would be focused on inference, authorial purpose and rhetoric/structure; the excerpts themselves would be included on the exam, since this is an assessment of skills and not of memorization. For the synthesis essay, you might put together a series of four or five non-fiction articles that reflect how, as in the case of a joint Israeli-Palestinian production from a few years ago, the play has been used in performance to explore the power of love to transcend cultural and ethnic differences. Finally, you might use an excerpt from a critical piece on the play as the foundation for the rhetorical analysis essay. Since the essence of approaching any text via rhetoric is, “What is the argument of the piece, and how is language used to promote that argument?” the students’ strong knowledge of the play will help them understand the critical piece and argue either for or against it in essay form.

In employing these creative approaches to teaching Shakespeare, we might agree with Lear when questioned by doubting administrators and say, “O, reason not the need!” In the age of data, accountability and the CCSS, we as teachers must justify and quantify. The good news is that we can still push the boundaries of Shakespeare in the classroom using performance and student-created projects while also being able to walk away with useful data that measures achievement and progress.

Josh Cabat is currently serving as Chair of English for the Roslyn (NY) Public Schools. For the preceding decade, he taught English and Film Studies at Roslyn High School in Roslyn New York. Previously, he taught in the New York City public high schools for more than a decade. He was the co-founder of the New York City Student Shakespeare Festival. He has published many articles on Shakespeare and Film in publications such as the English Journal. He earned an MA from the University of Chicago and a BA from Columbia University.  

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Folger Shakespeare Library

Folger Shakespeare Library

By Mark Miazga

When I started my career, Shakespeare intimidated me. I became an English teacher in part to share my love of reading with students, but I never had loved reading Shakespeare.

I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but my entire 13 years of public and Catholic schooling in both southwest Michigan and suburban Detroit yielded just one Shakespeare play: a reading of Macbeth in the 10th grade.

And, even though I devoured books and mainly loved English classes, the experience with Shakespeare wasn’t a good one; I remember sitting in rows, reading the play aloud, my teacher explaining lines afterwards. Nothing else.

Flash forward a few years, and I’m a high school English teacher on my own in a large urban school in Baltimore City. I held my own, for the most part, but my teaching of Shakespeare felt like the weakness in my game.

Even though I used the Shakespeare Set Free series at times, I didn’t feel confident enough to take many of the risks that the series entailed. I spent way too much time trying to make kids understand the plot, and devoted much of my energy to explaining lines, just like that uninspiring teacher I had in the 10th grade.

By the end of the unit, I think my students could probably describe some foreshadowing or celestial imagery in Romeo and Juliet, but were they any more confident in reading Shakespeare the next time they picked up a play? Would they be going to a Shakespeare play on their own when it one was being performed around town? What would they remember about their experience with reading Shakespeare 10 years from now? It was definitely “not much”.

So I applied to the 2008 Teaching Shakespeare Institute, describing much of what I just told you: that Teaching Shakespeare was a bit scary to me and I wanted to be a better Shakespeare teacher.

And the four weeks here at the Folger changed my teaching life and continue to have an impact on my students and me every single unit that I teach.  (more…)

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By Sara Lehn

Teachers have long taken advantage of students’ love of music as a tool for the classroom, writing catchy tunes to act as mnemonic devices, playing educational songs and music videos, and so on.  Watch students in the hallway or cafeteria and you will inevitably find them with headphones blaring, blocking out the world.

As a singer, music speaks to me because of how it reflects the raw emotion of the human soul, and had you asked me at the age of seventeen what song best defined who I was, I could have answered quickly and without hesitation with a choice that clearly illustrated my mindset at the time.

I find that many of my students have an equally personal connection to their music. As a result, I have started to consider the ways that music can be used in the classroom as a tool to reflect the most human part of literature: the characters.

I ask students a simple question: what song represents this character the way your “anthem” represents you?  There is no wrong answer to this question, but a thoughtful response requires careful character study and exploration of textual evidence.  Students need to consider questions such as:

  • What does this character want?
  • What matters most to this character?
  • What emotions does this character most prominently feel?
  • What are the most significant personality traits that the character exhibits?

These questions can instigate a thoughtful and deep exploration of characterization within the text.  Students may also decide that more than one song choice is necessary, as characters frequently change and develop from one moment to the next. (more…)

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By Dana Huff

Act IV, Scene 1 of Macbeth is great fun: the three witches are brewing a “hell-broth” which they will use to conjure the apparitions that talk to Macbeth.

The scene contains some of the most memorable lines of the play and lends itself well to choral reading activities. When I teach this scene, my students create a radio play using podcasting software.

Shakespeare Set Free – Volume 1: Teaching A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth shares a fun lesson plan for teaching this scene, assigning speaking parts and sound effects to students. Podcasting software adds dimensions to this lesson that were not possible when Shakespeare Set Free was originally published.

Chris Shamburg presented a method for using podcasting software and Foley art to create sound effects as part of the Folger’s series of presentations at an NCTE conference in San Antonio in 2008.

Chris brought volunteers up to play the roles of readers and Foley artists. One volunteer broke potato chips in a bowl to mimic the sound of crunching leaves as the witches approached the cauldron, while another volunteer splashed water when the ingredients hit the cauldron.

Two popular options for recording podcasts are Audacity and GarageBand. With software such as Audacity, which is free and can be used on both Windows and Mac machines, students will first need to brainstorm ways to make sound effects. Some ideas include wind blowing, owls hooting, dogs barking, and liquid sloshing as the cauldron stirs.


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