By Gina Voskov
NYC teacher and Folger National Teacher Corps member Gina Voskov is back with the second installment in her series “Inside the Classroom,” which takes us into her middle school classroom during a Shakespeare unit.
Today, we hear Gina’s perspective as teacher, and Thursday, we’ll hear from her students. You can read the first installment here.
So we’ve begun our unit on Twelfth Night, a play I love but haven’t taught before. My colleague and I are looking through the Shakespeare Set Free teacher book for ideas, but, like much of what guides what I do in the classroom—as I imagine it does for you, too—this most recent idea came from a student.
I asked everyone to buy copies of the Folger edition of the play. Our end goal is to perform a scene of students’ choosing, so I wanted them to own the book to write in. As we were looking over the opening lines, I noticed one boy slyly holding his copy up higher and more awkwardly than everyone else. Snaking my way behind him, I saw he had a brand new copy of the “No Fear Twelfth Night” hidden inside the Folger edition. When he saw I’d discovered his not-so-sneaky antics, I asked him if I could hold onto the book: there was some studying I needed to do.
First of all, I know he (and later, I’d discover, his parents—they bought TWO copies) got this book out of fear—and the good intention to do well in this unit. How will we understand this play without the “plain English” available to us? How will we learn what’s happening if we can’t see through the poetry and fancy stuff? This is a common fear, and completely understandable! And how easy it is to buy a copy of a book that boils down the language into words “anyone can understand”! Second of all, I knew it would be important to show him why I was taking that book from him.
So here was my next lesson. After determining with the class what it means to be lovesick, sharing ways that people might act when they’re in love, and looking at Orsino’s opening lines for clues about how he might be feeling, we settled on the idea that Orsino is totally lovesick. I gave them Act I scene 1 from No Fear that has Orsino learning from Valentine that Olivia is going to be incommunicado for the next seven years. I also copied out a page from a Shakespeare glossary that I have—the page that has the word “bowers” on it. (Kids know to “Look to the Left” when they read the Folger version—the left page is where the glossary is—but not all the words are defined for them.) So we looked again at the last 15 or so lines of the scene.
It’s here that Shakespeare’s Valentine uses the word “cloistress.” Because celebrating and exploring Shakespeare’s original word choice is the key to unlocking this play, we talk about that word “cloistress” and all its meanings and connotations. When we determine that a “cloistress” is a “nun” by looking to the left, we realize that Valentine is talking about Olivia’s reverence and piety in missing her brother. But, as impulsive young adults are apt to do, one student yelled out, “Yeah, but nuns are virgins, too!” Kids laughed, then looked at me to see my response. “Yes,” I agreed. “They are. And that word was used on purpose.”
And this is where the lesson gained momentum. We looked up the word “bower” in the photocopied page of the glossary. It means, “leafy glade, arbor; boudoir.” We plugged those two definitions of the term into Orsino’s final speech of the scene.
“Hm,” I thought aloud. “Why would Shakespeare use a word like ‘bower’ here if it means these two really different things? Do we ignore the second meaning? Or do we use it to give us some insight about what Orsino’s really thinking about and who he really is?” Likewise with the (ahem) imagery of a certain line in that same closing speech that references Cupid’s arrow—we come to learn that Orsino is just a regular guy with regular thoughts about a woman he’s interested in. He’s also pretty arrogant, we learn: he calls himself the one and only “king” who occupies Olivia’s “thrones” (her passion, reason, and feeling.)
Without going into too much detail about the possible implications and inferences we can make about Orsino’s active imagination—but which kids in their whispers and giggles to one another are happy to do—we then turn to the No Fear version where it is safe to say there are zero double meanings in the interpretation. In the No Fear version, Orsino simply says, “Take me to the garden. I need a beautiful place to sit and think about love.” But because we have already done a super close reading of those same lines, we know he’s not just thinking about love. One student shook her head after we finished reading the No Fear version and said, “But this doesn’t have any of that good stuff.”
Importantly, students can see that in working through the language Shakespeare gives them, they will be able to see a far more complex character in Orsino than just the guy who was “lovesick” in the beginning of the play. Since this play is about gender and explores the various sexual/social/emotional “permissions” between and within genders, we must really give permission to Orsino to be a guy experiencing attraction—all kinds of it. This will set us up for all of the “raised eyebrow” moments when Cesario enters the mix.
Each time I am tempted to reach for a No Fear version or to Google up a meaning of a puzzling line, I have to remind myself that when I use those short cuts, I’m not studying Shakespeare any longer. What makes it Shakespeare is the language. It can be really daunting—but word by word, meaning by double meaning, I can show my students little windows into these characters’ identities which, in the end, make the characters that much more believable, three-dimensional, memorable.
Gina Voskov is a 7th grade English teacher at the United Nations International School in New York City. She has taught English and Humanities for eleven years in public and private schools, in Connecticut, Brazil, and New York City. She is a Folger National Teacher Corps member and attended the Teaching Shakespeare Institute in 2012.