Archive for the ‘Folger Library’ Category

Yeats is the guy who said that education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.  What I think about all the time is how that fire gets lit.  What’s the spark that turned you on to Shakespeare?  Who or what lit that fire or that fuse for you?

Why am I thinking about the fire and from whence it comes?  Since the beginning of March—a scant six weeks ago—here’s what’s been visible at this lively shoebox of a library:

  • 1500 middle and high school kids packed into our theatre performing Shakespeare scenes for one another to wild applause during the Secondary School Shakespeare Festival
  • The Folger Theatre’s sold-out run of Richard III
  • Our Shakespeare’s Birthday Open House brought thousands home to us–every age of  man (and woman) touring our spaces, performing on our stage, building coats of arms, taking a turn in Elizabethan clothing, speaking Shakespeare, and loving it all
  • Shakespeare and The Problem of Biography, a three-day conference at which 150 scholars from across the world wrestled with the concept of biography in general, and of Shakespeare’s and others in particular
  • A hefty pile of applications from teachers who wished to participate in Teaching Shakespeare Institute 2014, our NEH summer institute for schoolteachers
  • A growing pile of applications from rising tenth, eleventh, and twelfth graders who wish to be Folger High School Fellows during Fall 2014
  • A lovely slate of third through sixth graders from 30 elementary schools, all set to participate in our Children’s Shakespeare Festival in a couple of weeks’ time.

Kind of a roaring fire, no? We’re lighting some tapers for sure. At the same time, we receive the benefit of lots of sparks started by others. Will the little girls and boys rapt at the stage combat demo on our front lawn grow up with an appetite for Hamlet or Macbeth? Spark? What happened in the lives of their parents (or uncles or friends)–who brought them to our Shakespeare’s Birthday party–that caused us to be a destination on that great and wonderful afternoon? Spark? Check out even a handful of Teaching Shakespeare Institute applications from teachers across the country:  sparks for sure. Received from whom?  We’re not sure.  But now shooting out sparks to generations of students.  Thank goodness.

Who lit the spark for you? A teacher? A production? Your mom? Kenneth Branagh? Julie Taymor? Baz Luhrman? Denzell in those fabulous leather pants? (Especially when he’s speaking Shakespeare.)  Since teaching is the business of ignition, we’re all about sparks. Tell us about yours in the comments or send me an email at pobrien@folger.edu.

Peggy O’Brien is the Director of Education at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Follow her on Twitter at @obrienfolger 

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Guest post by Michael Klein

It didn’t take me long to rethink how to look at Shakespeare texts after listening to Dr. Ann Cook Calhoun compare them to a musical score.

“Reading texts sitting at a desk is like looking at musical notations without hearing the instruments” she said during the English-Speaking Union’s Shakespeare Teacher Intensive two-day, low-cost, non-residential institutes for teachers.

She went on to explain the performative nature of Shakespeare texts, which essentially serve as scripts. The idea behind the intensive institutes is to present a unique teaching methodology designed to help teachers put students “inside the texts, and get the words up on their feet.”  Dr. Calhoun’s message was clear, not only did I need to “play” the “music” in front of me, but also its meanings and beauty would be much louder and clearer with other “musicians” around to discuss the meaning, and then perform the score.

The workshops aren’t just lectures presenting nifty ideas either. The English-Speaking Union has partnered with the Folger Shakespeare Library, which provides a master teacher to present curriculum ideas using a variety of methods, most of which are included in the Shakespeare Set Free Toolkit teachers can take home with them. The Toolkit includes a flash drive with handouts, cut scenes, images from the Folger collection, 10-30 minute performance-ready versions of some of the plays, and a copy of Shakespeare Set Free, Teaching Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Macbeth.

Courtesy of English-Speaking Union

Courtesy of English-Speaking Union

Not only does the workshop create a collegial atmosphere among the teachers in attendance–sure everyone is there voluntarily, even paid to be there–but the workshop also allows a teacher to recreate the collegial atmosphere with students in his or her own classroom on two levels – scholarly and practically.

One scholarly lesson I employ in my classroom comes directly from a lecture from Gail Kern Paster, former director of the Folger Shakespeare Library. Her lecture dealt with the Humours – the Elizabethan physiological understanding of the bodily fluids and how their balance affects human emotional states. Her lecture has allowed me to address, naturally and in context of the play, Elizabethan belief systems as they come up in the texts; Hamlet, for example, when his “melancholy” is addressed. I am now able to enlighten my students to questions they bring up themselves instead of forcing information on them which only I may find interesting. When students see their peers engaging the text and asking questions and getting answers, they tend to be more responsive as well as inquisitive, providing a far more logical approach to teaching students about Elizabethan England.

Courtesy of English-Speaking Union

Courtesy of English-Speaking Union

Over the two days, I worked and performed with teachers from around the country, of different levels and from both public and private schools. We worked together first in cutting, then performing our scenes to the group. It wasn’t just two days of lectures; I was given access to lessons and exercises I could apply immediately and confidently in my classroom. It was two days of learning how we can make Shakespeare far less intimidating and far more fun in our classrooms every time we pass out a text to our students. Since I attended the workshop, I’ve frequently heard from my students “I never had so much fun learning Shakespeare before” and “Hamlet was my favorite work we did this year.” I always smile, because it never gets old hearing it.

This summer the Folger Shakespeare Library and the English-Speaking Union will be changing these programs somewhat by focusing on a single play: Romeo and Juliet. The ESU is hosting these 2-day Intensives on Romeo and Juliet at several locales:

For more information and registration you can go to the ESU’s Website.

Michael Klein teaches twelfth grade honors and AP Literature at Sachem High School North on Long Island in Lake Ronkonkoma, NY. He is a 2008 Teaching Shakespeare Institute (TSI) alum and has been involved in the FSL/ESU Shakespeare Set Free workshops since 2010. He teaches four Shakespeare plays a year – Hamlet, King Lear, Much Ado About Nothing, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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2013 Secondary School Festival. Folger Shakespeare Library.

2013 Secondary School Festival. Folger Shakespeare Library.

By Peggy O’Brien

Let’s make a date for another day to have a longer, more nuanced conversation about the many parts of the Common Core.

For now, I just want to say that if we could put politics aside and testing aside (and unfortunately, in our beloved field of education, we can put aside neither for long), the expectations for student mastery laid out in the Common Core are the same kinds of expectations that good teachers have had for their students for centuries. Centuries.

And what gets me going on about the Common Core at the moment is that our theatre is crammed this week and next with middle and high school students performing Shakespeare at the Secondary School Shakespeare Festival.

In their schools, they have been learning Shakespeare by getting up and doing it… and then they come to the Folger Theatre.

Eight schools are here each day; they each perform their 25-minute scene and are audience to the other schools. They comment on one another’s work.

The Mistress of the Revels orchestrates language games in between scenes, and during this year’s Festival, each day is ending with all 250 students, teachers, and parent-chaperones collaborating to produce a 20-minute version of Richard III. 

The solid gold under all of this high energy is that these students really know these plays, this language, these characters because they have been learning all of this from the inside out.

Get Shakespeare’s language into the mouths of students of any age, let them get a chance to feel it**, and what starts to happen? Students begin to make their own way through complex texts. How? Through intense close reading, serious analysis, disciplined collaborative work.

If you had seen the Cassius I saw a bit earlier today (thank you, Dakota Rosell from Walkersville High School, Walkersville, MD), you would have said what I did: That guy is Cassius.  Or that excellent, clearly motivated Theseus (thank you, Tatiana Chavez, Duke Ellington School, Washington, DC).

The deeper students go, the better they get at it. They’re learning Shakespeare by getting up and “doing” Shakespeare–in English class, in the hallways, in the gym, in a drama class, in an after-school drama club.

Will some of them go on to be actors?  Some. Mostly they will end up in other careers, and in lives where they hopefully will be unafraid to dive into a bit of compelling literature from time to time.

You can call that a good life, or you can call that knowing your way around a complex text.

Secondary School Shakespeare Festival. Folger Shakespeare Library, 2011 © duytranphotography.com

Secondary School Shakespeare Festival.
Folger Shakespeare Library, 2011 © duytranphotography.com

**To give students a chance to feel the language, try this:

  • Get out on an athletic field or in the gym or distribute ear plugs to your colleagues on either side.
  • Divide your class in half, and have them face each other in two groups.
  • One half should shout this line VERY LOUD at the other half:  You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!
  • The other half should respond VERY LOUDLY as well:  We are such stuff as dreams are made on!
  • Repeat.  Switch lines.
  • Bonus:  If you want to teach iambic pentameter, You blocks . . .  is a perfect line to start with!
Secondary School Shakespeare Festival, Folger Shakespeare Library, 2011 © duytranphotography.com

Secondary School Shakespeare Festival.
Folger Shakespeare Library, 2011 © duytranphotography.com

Peggy O’Brien is the Director of Education at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Follow her on Twitter at @obrienfolger or send her an email at pobrien@folger.edu.

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Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet

Drawing by John Austen for an edition of Hamlet (ART Box A933 no.2), 1890 painting by Ludovic Marchetti of Romeo and Juliet (ART Vol. f220). Folger Shakespeare Library.

Last week, we took a reader poll to ask which Shakespeare plays were being taught this semester. Top of the list (as of this writing): Romeo and Juliet, with more than 25 percent of the vote.

Macbeth took second place with 22 percent, and Hamlet third with 10 percent. Our write-in option was also quite popular, with Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing making multiple appearances.

Good news! We have a wealth of resources for teaching each of these plays. Here are a few highlights:

  • Romeo and Juliet – In December, Folger Education recorded an hour-long master class for teaching Romeo and Juliet. You can watch the archived version online, broken down into video segments on scholarship, performance, and the classroom.
  • Macbeth – Folger educators talk about surefire ways for successfully introducing students to the Scottish play in this podcast, Macbeth: The Teacher’s Edition.
  • Hamlet – Watch the Insider’s Guide to Hamlet. These videos highlight the play’s themes, characters, and plot—perfect for students encountering Hamlet for the first time.

Find more resources by downloading a curriculum guide for each of these popular plays. The guides include a brief synopsis, two lesson plans, famous quotes from the play, prompts for teachers, links to podcasts and videos, and a list of suggested additional resources.

Want even more? Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Hamlet are all included in our Shakespeare Set Free books, a series written by Folger Education’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute faculty and participants. (Today’s your last chance to apply for this year’s TSI, by the way!) Each book is packed with practical, specific ideas to use in the classroom.

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Last Thursday the Folger Education department took to Twitter for our second “office hours” session to talk with teachers about how they’re teaching Shakespeare.

We love having an informal time to interact with you, answer your questions, and find out what your students are working on.

Here’s a great question we received from James Evans:

The Winter’s Tale is a comedy with a happy ending, but there’s plenty of compelling drama along the way: murderous passions, man-eating bears, princes and princesses in disguise, and more.

Although this play may not be taught as frequently as Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, don’t let that discourage you from taking it on. The Folger has a curriculum guide put together by experts who believe, as the Folger does, that the best way to engage students in Shakespeare is to get them speaking the words and working with the language.

You can find more classroom ideas on the Folger website, where we have an entire page dedicated to The Winter’s Tale. Take a listen to our Insider’s Guide for the play, or explore a lesson plan that asks students to examine possible causes for Leontes’s jealousy by interpreting language and acting out scenes between characters.

Or have your students watch a behind-the-scenes interview with these two actors from the Folger Theatre’s 2009 production, as they discuss the play’s themes of love, forgiveness, and second chances:

Do you have more ideas for effective classroom activities related to The Winter’s Tale? Share them in the comments below.

And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter for information on the next #FolgerOfficeHours.

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Teaching Shakespeare Institute

What alumni are saying about Teaching Shakespeare Institute

We could tell you all about the Folger’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute–the intensity and rigor of our classes, the practical techniques that go on to prove their worth in the classroom over and over, the fun times and good memories with other like-minded teachers who becoming lifelong friends.

But we’ll let some of our alumni tell you about their experience in their own words:

“Transformative. Empowering. Delightful. Beguiling. The essence of what teaching and learning should be. Gets to the heart of why most of us got in this business in the first place. A necessity in these test-centric days.”

“Teaching Shakespeare Institute is intellectually stimulating, mind blowing, pedagogical food for the soul. The most intense, educational, informative and useful professional development I have ever had the good fortune to experience. The knowledge and resources I gleaned in one month surpassed my two years of education in graduate school for teaching!”

“Every lesson that I teach – every discussion, handout, idea, unit and poetic gesture that is found in my classroom – can be traced to the incredible summer that I spent at The Folger Summer Institute: It is all about the text.”

What are you waiting for? Submit your application by March 4.

And if you’re a TSI alum, you know exactly what we’re talking about. Give a shout-out in the comments and be sure to share this blog post with your teacher friends!

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Winners and runners-up from the 2013 Shakespeare's Birthday Sonnet Contest

Winners and runners-up from the 2013 Shakespeare’s Birthday Sonnet Contest, with poetry coordinator Teri Cross Davis (center), at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Each year, Folger Shakespeare Library invites students in grades 3 through 12 in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia to submit original sonnets for the annual Shakespeare’s Birthday Sonnet Contest.

We are now taking submissions for this year’s contest, marking Shakespeare’s 450th birthday!

All entries must follow Shakespearean sonnet form:

  • 14 lines of iambic pentameter
  • an ABAB-CDCD-EFEF-GG rhyme scheme

A judge will select the top sonnet in three categories: grades 3-6, grades 7-9, and grades 10-12.

Winners in each category receive a full set Shakespeare’s plays, and runners-up receive a copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Winners and runners-up are also invited to read their entries at Shakespeare’s Birthday Open House at the Folger Shakespeare Library on April 6.

Be sure to have your students send in their submissions by Friday, March 21. Please email submissions to Teri Cross Davis, at tdavis@folger.edu, or mail them to the address below.

Attn: Sonnet Contest/Poetry Coordinator
Folger Shakespeare Library 
201 East Capitol Street, SE,
Washington DC 20003.

Here’s an example of a winning entry from the grades 7-9 category, by Jennifer Owens, National Cathedral School:

A lonely figure stands beside the docks,
Not noticing the spray against her feet.
Her focus is on capturing the rocks
Where surf and salt and spray and stone all meet.

Her skillful brushstrokes toss and hurl the waves
Against the jagged outline of the sky.
Each speck of foam and breath of air she saves
No detail undetected by her eye.

The hours pass, she doesn’t seem to care,
Content to stand and paint beside the sea.
She brushes back a strand of fiery hair
That like the ocean tumbles loose and free.

And when at last the artist’s work is done,
Her two great loves have been turned into one.

Encourage your students to write sonnets of their own. We can’t wait to see what they come up with!

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Until earlier this fall, I was clearly the one in love with words, literature, classrooms, teachers’ lounges, theatre.  Math and science not so much.  OK, so my grade in Biology as a college freshman was D.  Not so interested in photosynthesis. Still not the least bit interested in photosynthesis, but now I am crazily interested in archaeology and genetics.  I still am in love with words, literature, theatre, and classrooms.

But my world has gotten a lot wider and more wonderful.  And I have been brought to this place by the divinely cramped up and misshapen corpse of that devilish king, Richard III.

In August 2012, the University of Leicester (in central England) began one of the most ambitious archaeological projects ever attempted:  a search for the lost grave of Richard III, the last English king to die in battle.

Image Credit: University of Leicester

Image Credit: University of Leicester

Here at the Folger, we have just had the great honor and huge pleasure of hosting Dr. Turi King and Dr. Mathew Morris, the geneticist and archaeologist who respectively made the DNA match and led the dig.

Their story is thrilling—intense, historical, modern, gut hunches, scientific data. It’s also a story about smart people doing smart, smart work against the odds. Turi says that at the beginning, it was a little like a missing person’s story: King Richard is missing and we’re putting together all that is known now, so we can go off to find him. She also says that, at the outset, they felt their chances of finding him were past slim.

Their sense that Richard was buried in Leicester’s Grey Friars Friary was strong, even though the story for centuries in Leicester was that, after his death in Bosworth Field, his body was thrown into the River Soar. So they figured if they found the Friary and located some of its different parts, they would have done well.

Incredibly, Mathew’s excavation uncovered Grey Friars and a battle-scarred skeleton with a pronounced spinal curvature.  Turi took over the long-odds job of working out the DNA possibilities. She worked with genealogists to find possible living matches;  they located two descendants of Richard’s sister, Anne of York. She compared mitochondrial DNA extracted from the skeleton with theirs . . . and she was able to prove that the skeleton was indeed that of Richard III.

Image Credit: University of Leicester

Image Credit: University of Leicester

Learn more about all of this amazing stuff at https://www.le.ac.uk/richardiii/. And share it with your history-teaching and science-teaching colleagues.

1485 meets CSI! Hard science meets the clearly hasty—“minimally reverent” as Mathew says—burial of an unpopular king.  Shakespeare meets history.  Popular colloquial history meets scientific fact.

Science class meets history class meets English class! Now we’re talkin’!

Peggy O’Brien is the Director of Education at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Follow her on Twitter at @obrienfolger or send her an email at pobrien@folger.edu.

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On Thursday, we hosted our first Folger “office hours” – a digital opportunity for you to bring your questions about teaching Shakespeare. And we got some good ones! The theme was Romeo and Juliet, but we also had some lively discussion going about more general topics, like iambic pentameter.

If you’re interested in seeing all the tweets from “office hours,” just search for #folgerofficehours on Twitter.

We tried to give what answers we could (in the moment and with the restriction of 140 characters), but we’d like to expand on some those answers here.

“Abridge” can mean changing Shakespeare’s words, or cutting the lines.  If you mean changing the language—using modern language instead of Shakespeare’s text–take a deep breath and don’t change the language.  Lots of material in Shakespeare Set Free gives you and your students the path to and through Shakespeare’s language.  And then your students won’t be deprived of  the opportunity–and the thrill–of experiencing and conquering Shakespeare’s language.

However, if you mean cutting lines to make a speech or a scene shorter–this is something that has been done since the very beginning with his plays, and is done all the time now by directors and actors.  We know, for example, that certain lines from Richard II offended Queen Elizabeth I and were outlawed during her lifetime.  And we know that Hamlet performed uncut would keep you in the theatre for four hours or more.  So judiciously cutting the plays is a part of almost every Shakespeare experience.  You do it too.

Knowing and understanding these plays is not just about reading every single line.  Students who experience the language in meaningful ways are likely to have a better experience and gain greater understanding than students who are made to slog through every line.

Here’s our cheat sheet. It helps if you say what’s quoted and bold out loud. Put the stress on the words in all caps.

a beat = a syllable = “da” in “da DUM” (just like your heartbeat)

foot/feet = the combination of two beats, one strong stress and the other weak = “DA dum” or “da DUM”

iamb = a foot that has an unaccented syllable followed by a accented syllable = da DUM”

pentameter = five iambic feet = “da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM”


Thanks to everyone who participated!

Keep an eye out for our next Folger Office Hours.

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Lots of buzz around the Folger these days because Janet Griffin, Artistic Producer of the Folger Theatre, and Robert Richmond, director of our upcoming production of Richard III, are taking a walk on the wild side.

You know about the theatre here, right?  Background in case you don’t:  Folks here sometimes call the Folger Theatre “an evocation of an Elizabethan theatre”… not a model of any one in particular but with features like galleries and an inner above that make you think of the Globe.

It’s a sweet little 250-seat theatre tucked right inside the Library building.  Janet and her team produce three or four award-winning plays a year, and if you haven’t seen a play here, put us on your New Year’s resolution list right this minute.

So how do we get from an Elizabethan theatre to the wild side?

Even though the set can look different depending on the play, the Folger Theatre has always, always looked like this:

FSL Interior: Folger Theatre View C

EXCEPT when Richard III opens next week, the theatre will look like this:


We’ve taken out all of the orchestra seats, built a platform stage in that newly available space, and put new seats on what has been the stage since it was built in 1932.

Wild side: for the first time ever, theatre in the round at the Folger.  (Below the platform stage, there are multiple traps and a trolley… a lot of bodies falling and ultimately rising in this play.)

The whole theatre in the round idea is anything but new… but it’s new here.  And I am fairly crazed about it because it’s that fabulous kind of change that forces us to abandon all of our assumptions and to begin to perceive differently.

Actors, audience, director, tech crews all have had to, or will have to, jettison all their previous ideas about that space and start anew.  Audience members will be much closer to the actors, and the actors must work in a 360-degree universe.

And that’s just for starters. To me—a future audience member—it feels risky and exciting, intimate and all about discovery.

So what does this have to do with teachers?  A few key things:

  • We’re eager to see how our actors do here, but really . . . teachers are always working in the round.  This close, intense kind of work where real learning happens. . . you do it all day every day.  You are working in the round always, and without a net.  Impressive.
  • Changing up the physical set-up in your classroom can be just as exciting as what’s happening at the Folger Theatre.  Encouraging new perspectives, and burying worn out assumptions.  (It’s worth thinking about, even though you might have to treat the teacher who shares your classroom to a dinner out.) Check out teacher Jennie Magiera’s perspective in Ed Week’s Teaching Ahead blog.
  • Overall, it reminds us about the huge importance of risk.  OK, so as teachers, we are all challenged with required tasks that threaten to sap our energy and innovation chops.  But if we stop taking risks, we open the door to losing our edge.  And that’s unthinkable.  For you or your students.

I’ll keep you posted on how the Folger Theatre’s big risk turns out.  Or better yet, come and see for yourself.  Click here to see a time-lapsed video of the Theatre’s transformation.

Most important: in the comment box, share a one-sentence description of the last risk that you took in your classroom. We can inspire one another this way, and none of us are ever beyond the need for inspiration.

Peggy O’Brien is the Director of Education at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Follow her on Twitter at @obrienfolger or send her an email at pobrien@folger.edu.

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