By Aleksander Zywicki
This past July, I had the great fortune of attending the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Summer Academy in Washington, D.C.
There, I attended lectures given by master teachers and scholars; I played the part of the Ghost in a performance of Act One of Hamlet; I held—in these two hands—Walt Whitman’s copy of the Sonnets, a letter written and signed by Henry David Thoreau, and an authentic First Folio; though, mostly, I learned in a way that I had not, in years.
I cannot honestly say that I have ever learned during the typical professional development opportunities that I have been offered. I have never been inspired by a webinar, nor have I been pushed towards daring, original thoughts during a mandatory workshop. I have been informed of products. I was told about strategies.
However, teachers know what learning looks and feels like and it does not resemble the buying and selling of a gimmick. It requires a seemingly impossible level of concentration, desire, fear and motivation. It demands that a person grow comfortable with continuously dismantling an intricate and delicate level of understanding that had once been declared, “finished,” only to be rebuilt again, and again.
Throughout my education I was taught to want to learn and that experience made me want to teach others to do the same. When I left Washington, I felt confident in my ability to do so, in a way that I had never known before.
What had convinced me so thoroughly that the skills I was learning at the Folger could lead to authentic learning for my students, was that they emphasized student engagement with Shakespeare’s words—not a watered down alternative to his words; not theories that attempt to unravel his words; just his words.
One of the lessons I appreciated most is titled “3-D Shakespeare.” It gets students right inside a scene, and puts that scene on its feet.
Begin by giving students a scene from a Shakespeare play. Students need not know which play this scene is from—whether it is a comedy, history or tragedy—and even the footnotes and stage directions ought to be removed from their copies.
The students are asked to read the text aloud, usually three times. On the first reading, each student is asked to read only to stopping punctuation (periods, question marks, etc.). During this cold reading, the teacher should not correct any mispronunciations.
I gave my students copies of the first Mechanicals scene in Act 1, Scene 2, of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. On their first reading, they struggled. Stopping at the right punctuation and transitioning from reader-to-reader, was, at first, difficult. Also, because my students are from New Jersey, they pronounced (to my private amusement) the name, “Pyramus,” as, “Paramus.”
During the second reading, the students alternated reading by role (first student read Quince, second student read Bottom, third student read Quince, etc.). According to my students, their comprehension levels had risen to responses ranging between six and eight. I tested these numbers with some questions but never interfered to explain anything.
To my pleasant surprise, they knew that these men were actors—though, not professional. They knew that they were planning a performance for, “the king of Greece.” They knew that Quince (Quincy) was supposed to be in charge, but that, “this Bottom guy keeps messing with that.” They knew that there was humor to be found here. They figured it out on their own.
On the third reading, the students performed the scene. Each student was responsible for a role, all their own; and in this reading, their understanding was obvious. Bottom’s voice went up three octaves when he promised to read the role of Thisbe in a, “monstrous little voice;” Quince attempted to assert his dominance over the other actors with a didactic finger wagging gesture; and throughout the entire scene, there was appropriately timed laughter from the whole class.
Though I did not feel the need to ask at that point, the students volunteered that they, “understood it all.”
Readers of Shakespeare, and life-long-learners alike, know that there is plenty more to be understood than what my students could have possibly walked away with after only three readings of this scene. They will need to dismantle and rebuild their understanding over, and over, again. Yet, on that day, I learned how to teach others to want to learn and to read Shakespeare, on their own.
Aleksander Zywicki is an English teacher at Bayonne High School. He lives and writes in Jersey City, N.J and is an alum of Summer Academy 2015.