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By Mark Miazga

The International Baccalaureate (IB) English Higher Level curriculum and assessments are still an ideal place for Shakespeare, even though the revision of the curriculum a couple of years ago no longer makes his inclusion compulsory. While he does not fit into Part I Works in Translation of the curriculum (at least in an English speaking school), he works well in Detailed Study (Part II), Groups of Works (Part III), or Free Choice (Part IV).

I’ve been an IB English instructor for seven years, and have used Shakespeare plays each year, including Much Ado About Nothing, King Lear, Othello, and Richard III. I currently use Shakespeare in Detailed Study, and Shakespeare is, of course, ideal for close study. Furthermore, IB is interested in students knowing the implications of the genres that they are studying: for example, how the study of a Drama is different than studying a novel or non-fiction. They are not interested, so much, in students being able to write essays about, say, celestial imagery in Romeo and Juliet or mirrors in Richard III. Instead, they want students to be able to analyze the choices that the playwright has made and how these choices create meaning.

With this in mind, putting students in the mind of the playwright – or a director or actor – is the best way to help students to do well on the IB assessments. The assessment for Detailed Study is a 10-minute oral discussion recorded with the teacher, and students will have to answer, without rehearsal or notes, authentic questions about the experience of reading the play. Therefore, putting students in authentic assessment experiences in the classroom – making them directors, letting them cut scenes, encouraging them to play around with the language and the setting, compelling them to think about and explain why they made the choices they made – is the best way to prepare students for an authentic 10-minute oral assessment about the play.

My students’ big project at the end of reading a play is planning, directing, performing, and recording an adaptation of a scene from the play. I encourage them to change the setting, to cut the language, to add music, to make it their own – without changing the original language (they can cut it, just not change or modernize it). Afterwards, they both write and explain their rationale for their choices: what elements of the play their performances and direction helped emphasize, what choices they made as directors and actors to convey ideas about theme, character, and other elements of the play.

It’s important to trust your students to get into the language. For the day of filming, I send them off around the school grounds with their smart phones to record, and check on them by rotating between groups. The conversations about which lines to cut, about what actions to include, about where to pause, etc., are what we want to hear when teaching Shakespeare; these conversations give them ownership of Shakespeare, and of their own learning. I’m attaching my assignment here (and including a couple of YouTube clips that resulted from this assignment below):

By putting them in the director’s and actor’s chair, students are compelled to get into the mindset of the playwright, which uniquely prepares them for the IB Literary Discussion. This is scored based upon knowledge of the text, interesting and insightful answers to the questions, and the student’s language. Here are a few sample questions that I use in the individual discussion with students about Richard III this year:

1)  What for you was the most riveting or satisfying moment in the play? Can you account for how the playwright managed to achieve that effect?

2)  Who was your favorite or least favorite secondary character in the play? Can you see how the playwright elicited such a response? Follow-up: Why is that secondary character included?

3)  If you were asked to direct ________________ (for example, the Richard’s death scene; or the wooing of Lady Anne scene; or another important scene), what choices would you make in your direction and what important ideas of the play would your choices help to emphasize?

4)  In a play about royal families, why are common everyday people included? If you were directing, how would you present these characters and why?

5)  Richard often talks directly to the audience in the play. What is the effect of this choice by the playwright?

6)  Sometimes parts are cut from this long Shakespeare play. What is a character that some directors might consider cutting? Can you give cases for and against cutting this character?

7)  This is the only play of Shakespeare’s to begin with a soliloquy, with a character alone onstage describing a long speech. What effect does this soliloquy have on both the audience and the ideas of the play?

8)  How does the dramatist use rhythm and breaks in meter to convey theme and character?

Lastly, I’ll include two of my students’ presentations from this year, including a film noir version of Clarence’s murder in Richard III and an all-female version of Act 4, Scene 4, the scene where Richard starts losing power. Note the the last 10 minutes of the first clip, which details the students’ choices in developing their scene (the other group had it as part of their presentation to the class). Not included were other groups who made it their own in other ways, such as setting Richard III in the Antebellum South or in a modern high school.

Mark Miazga is in his 13th year teaching English and coaching baseball at Baltimore City College High School, the third oldest public school in the country. He teaches in both the Diploma and Middle Years Programs within the International Baccalaureate and is an IB Examiner.  A recipient of the Milken Educator Award in 2014, Mr. Miazga is also a 2008 Teaching Shakespeare Institute scholar and a 2013 Steinbeck Institute Scholar. He received his B.A. in English and Education from Michigan State University, and his Masters in Secondary Education from Towson University. He blogs about education matters at Epiphany in Baltimore (http://epiphanyinbmore.blogspot.com).

 

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Guest post by Deborah Gascon - Dutch Fork High School, Irmo, SC

Performance in AP?  Didn’t think you had time with all the other pressures? Make time. Using Folger strategies in my AP classes has transformed student comprehension of difficult texts and improved their abilities to read closely–and has actually SAVED me time.

This week my AP Lit and Comp students completed poetry presentations.  There were several requirements but one of them was to make the presentation engaging–there is nothing worse than sitting through 57 poetry presentations, is there?

I was impressed and amazed at how many of my students incorporated some sort of performance in their presentations.  Josh taught Frost’s poem “Home Burial” and had 3 volunteers perform the different parts to show the contrast in mood.  Tyler assigned each of his classmates a line of a Plath poem and asked them to create a physical movement to express the tone in the line.

My students quickly realized that performance is key to understanding and chose to incorporate in all facets of our classroom.  I know that with performance my students are engaged, class is interactive, students aren’t insecure about delivering presentations and the senior slump hasn’t happened.

Here are the top 5 things I did (and suggest!) to incorporate Folger strategies in the AP classroom:

1. Start early.  On the very first day of class we studied Shakespeare’s  “Seven Ages of Man” — then we performed it. I asked students which helped them understand the poem more — sitting in desks and reading it or standing and moving?  You can guess which they chose (moving!).  They were hooked from day one.

2.  Take it to a new level.  Ask students not just to show plot with their performances but also tone and mood (and all the other AP Lit buzz words).  Tone and mood are tricky to teach and getting students to label facial expressions and motions with tone words has been helpful in eventually writing about and analyzing tone and mood.

3.  Tableaux the theme.  Theme is another one of those AP Lit buzz words and tableauxs can take as little as 5 minutes to pull together. I put students in groups, tell them to discuss the theme and find a physicalization of that theme then we FREEZE.  This is an effective way to get students to visualize the author’s purpose.

4.  Compare and contrast performances.  The AP exam could potentially have two poems on the poetry essay question (could this be the year it appears??) so we have spent a good chunk of time this year comparing performances which leads to comparing tone, theme and text analysis.

I’ve done this in a variety of ways:  compared actors’ performances (for example several versions of Hamlet), compared student performances of a scene (give the same scene to two groups of students and see how they interpret it) or compared how we interpret something to how a director interpreted it — and WHY.  While comparing we discuss the “why” a lot.  Why did you do that movement?  What in the scene made you think that?  What line from the text (evidence!) made you think that was the way to interpret that?

5.  Encourage performance.  I’ve found performing and earning the endless applause of classmates increases self esteem and confidence in close reading and analysis of text.  My students have the confidence and believe they WILL pass the exam–I truly believe that is half the battle.  They have been armed with strategies to make the poem come alive or the prose jump off the page.

Don’t be surprised if during the exam my students start acting out the lines! What will your students do on test day to guarantee a passing score?  What tricks have you taught them to be successful?

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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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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:

Folger-Theatre

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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Guest post by Jessica Lander

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, after the murder of Duncan. R. T. Bone. Courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library.

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, after the murder of Duncan. R. T. Bone. Courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library.

The large dented cauldrons of spicy green curry, red curry and duck soup were cloaked in hovering fog and steamy air of the monsoon season.  It was evening at the Gate Market in the heart of the old city of Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand. As I slurped a bowl of noodles so spicy it induced tears, all I could think about was Macbeth.

Three days fresh from college graduation, I had boarded a plane bound for a one-year teaching fellowship at the prestigious Chiang Mai University.  Growing up, my favorite musical was Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s The King and I, the story of Anna, hired by the King of Thailand to tutor the royal children. I was forever singing the lyrics to Getting to Know You, beginning with Anna’s declaration that “When you become a teacher, by your students you’ll be taught.” Now, heading to classes as a young teacher, I could not help but think of Anna.

By day I guided a hundred and fifty university students in my elementary-level English classes through the intricacies of usage between “say” and “tell”.  But, I wanted something more: I wanted to teach theater.  So, I approached my colleagues in the English Department with an ambitious plan. The students in the university’s English Club staged an annual play in English – Cinderella last year.  Hesitantly, I proposed to direct Macbeth – my favorite Shakespeare ever since I played the First Witch and Macduff’s doomed son in a 7th grade production.  The department was dubious – the language would be too difficult.  I persisted.  Auditions were set.

But our real challenge was not the play’s language, but its content. In one of the last countries with a revered king, I was preparing to stage a regicide.

While monarchies worldwide have become nearly obsolete, the Kingdom of Thailand’s ruling line remains robust.  King Bhumibol Adulyadej, or Rama IX, has sat on the throne longer than any other current ruler.  He is the great-great-great grandson of the famed monarch who had hired Anna.

Arriving in Chiang Mai, I discovered that The King and I was banned. The king is endowed with near-divine status, and is protected from slander by strict lese majeste laws: Anna’s irreverence to the king crossed the line.  Adapting Macbeth would not be as simple as robing Shakespeare’s characters in traditional Lanna-style sarongs.

I found that Thai students were reluctant to engage in open political discourse. In college classes in the U.S., I had been inspired by the boundary-defying nature of theater. I wanted to draw my students into political discussion, to have them think critically about the parallels and differences between East and West.  Yet it was crucial we remain respectful of the monarchy and of Thai cultural traditions.

We began adapting Shakespeare.  Macbeth, the Thane of Cawdor, and the other thanes would be Thai politicians. The ghostly apparitions would be conjured through Thai shadow puppetry.  The witches became street children, who sell jasmine garlands at night across Chiang Mai.

We erred on the side of caution.  We nixed the colors red and yellow, being too closely associated to the two rival political parties, and opted for a neutral orange. We modified the traditional Thai sword on our poster, because it resembled the weapons favored by the monarchy.  When I suggested that the play end with Macduff placing a foot on the severed head of the Scottish tyrant, the actor, an otherwise modern and outspoken junior, refused.  In Thailand the head is the most sacred part of the body.  The feet are the lowliest. I dropped the idea quickly.

In the jungle gardens of the university, we discussed modern politics – twenty college students debating thanes and politicians.  One girl brought up corruption, relating how she had been offered bribes for her vote in a local election.  Another girl drew an analogy between the recently ousted Thai prime minister and Macbeth. After one rehearsal, a student caught me on the way out: “I hardly ever have these discussions with anyone but a few close friends.”

The night of the first performance arrived. The lights dimmed on Thai rock music, and three street children ran giggling onto the stage, asking: “When shall we three meet again?”

The following Monday, I met with my freshman English class who I had assigned to see the show.  I asked them to identify the Thai elements in the production – expecting such responses as: the attire, the puppetry, the traditional Thai greetings.

One girl raised her hand: “Macbeth’s final speech.”  She was referring to Macbeth’s final soliloquy: “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day… Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player…It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Confused, I pressed her to explain. “He’s describing the teachings of the Buddha.” Macbeth had finally realized the insignificance of his vaulting ambition – a first step toward enlightenment in Buddhism. I was dumbfounded.  I had read Macbeth, studied Macbeth and acted in Macbeth – never once had I drawn the parallel.

Miss Anna had gotten it right. I had set out to teach my students Shakespeare.  But, in the end, by my students I was taught.

 

Jessica Lander is a teacher and writer in Cambridge, MA.  She has taught, among other things, Shakespeare and critical thinking to college students in the Cambodian Capital of Phnom Penh and the northern city of Chiang Mai, Thailand. Closer to home she has taught math and Shakespeare to 6th graders in the Boston inner city.  She has written for the Boston Globe Magazine and keeps an education blog, Chalk Dust: http://jessicalander.blogspot.com

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Giving life to one of Shakespeare’s plays is as easy as speaking his words aloud. Actors, however, become their parts – making a human character breathe out of words on a page. You don’t have to be Derek Jacobi or Helen Mirren, though. To be a thoughtful actor, you just need to have an idea of what the character wants. Who are they?

Students in Macbeth have varying character reactions to Duncan's arrival.

Students in Macbeth have varying character reactions to Duncan’s arrival.

Today’s teaching modules all give students the opportunity to explore the life behind their character’s lines (even if they don’t have any lines!). By putting their minds to who the character is while they’re playing them, they’ll discover new depths of relationships in the plays, and speak or react on their feet as though they are that character.

In Imagining Back Story, students select a character from Measure for Measure (though this could be done for any play) then closely read the play to glean clues about their character’s life before the story. They then write a journal entry for their character which gives more detail to their life leading up to the events of the play.

Similarly, A Boxful of Character has students closely reading the text to discover their characters’ hints at who they are in order to curate a handful of everyday items that their character would have. What goes into Hermia’s purse? What five things would Iago want on a desert island? Have fun with it and discover what your students interpreted about their characters!

Finally, in The Secret Life of Minor Characters, the play’s leads are put aside in favor of the individuals in the crowd. Using the assassination in Julius Caesar as an example, this module outlines how students can apply their creativity to the people in crowd scenes who may not explicitly state their motive, but should have one nonetheless.

These sorts of approaches are done every day by actors taking on Shakespeare’s plays. There’s no definition for who these characters are – they’re different for everyone playing them! Discover new ways to illuminate these plays in performance with your students, and let us know how it goes!

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reposted with permission from the Folger Theatre Blog

“Grumble, Grumble.”
“Snort”
“Whine”
“Complaint”
“But it’s soooo eeeearly!”
“This is ungodly.”
“Oh, no…I’m going to need a nap!”
“Is there coffee?”

And so it goes…

It’s a student matinee of our Romeo and Juliet at the Folger Theatre and our call is practically the butt crack of dawn. We have to be at the theatre no later than ELEVEN o’clock. I mean, in the MORNING! What?!

What is this, Prison?

See, a bunch of actors naturally gravitate to later and later bedtimes. We don’t crash at the median of the group, we all push our bedtimes later so that we go to bed towards the time the person who goes to bed last goes to bed. For me, that’s a little before 4am. Which isn’t as crazy as it sounds. We come down at 10:30 at night, amped on that show adrenaline, we calm down, have a drink or two, nosh a bit, catch up on sports news, maybe play some cards and then I go upstairs to my room to get a bit of work done. (I’m currently writing an opera and a play.)

Which all works out swimmingly. My earliest call for most matinees is 1:30.

But not STUDENT matinees.

Don’t you totally feel sorry for us actors?

Now, the upside:

Because, I guess, the theatre understands the eye-blearingly earliness of the hour, they provide bagels, croissants and muffins at these matinees. And coffee. There’s always coffee.

And the kids are fantastic.

No, really. Fantastic!

I have been in shows where we had to dodge skittles, M&M’s, spitballs, and (at worst) pennies flying in from the student audience. I have heard slurping sounds coming from the audience during a kiss. I’ve heard two comments from the same kid before and during a sword fight. The first, “They’re just a bunch of sweet boys in tights…” Which, admittedly, entertained not only the audience around him, but the actors as well. The second, after an early head swipe with a rapier, “Nope, they serious…” I have been surrounded by 1,100 students while doing a production of “The Scottish Play” in the round (at 10:30) and when they decided to converse, we had a tough time hearing each other.

But these groups? These groups are heavenly.

I don’t know if it’s the relatively small size of the theatre, the quality of the production, or the intrinsic good manners of these particular students, but they are a joy to play for. And not just because they aren’t making it hard, but because they make it so easy.

These are groups who laugh out loud when something is funny (sometimes adult audiences have to be convinced it’s all right to laugh – after all, this is a tragedy.) The kids are involved in the drama when it arises. (After all, every play is a comedy, until the play can’t hold it anymore. Maybe more on that in a later blog.) These have been my favorite audiences we’ve played to…just joyful and appreciative and open and, let’s be honest, some of them don’t even know how the play turns out.

I have a friend who was going to see a production of All’s Well That Ends Well and he’d never seen it, so he decided to read it first. He’s an actor who’s done a good number of Shakespeare’s plays so I reacted to this news, “Are you crazy?” After all, here he had one of his final chances to see a play written by Shakespeare as if it were a “new” (at least to him) play. Plays, after all, are written to be performed, not read (or at least not read silently). These audiences get to watch Romeo & Juliet, probably for the first time. Now, of course the vast majority of them know the story…but the language spoken by professionals has got to be a first for that same vast majority.

And they have been wonderful.

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At the end of last week’s Teacher Tuesday, I shared a link to a video, Interpreting Shakespeare, with our Master Teacher Sue Biondo-Hench. In one section of the video, around 3:10, Sue breaks her students into groups to interpret and perform a single passage from Henry IV, part 1. They each interpret how performing one character’s speech as a group lends them insight into the text. They don’t have to make natural performance choices as if it is their single moment onstage delivering a soliloquy – rather, they’re approaching the text chorally to show different ways of interpreting complex text with their voices, movements, and group dynamics. This doesn’t necessarily mean they read it all together in unison – they can assign individuals lines or words to make them stand out, whisper or shout, create tableaux (stage pictures) to set the scene or its tone, or anything else they deem necessary to their point.

Choral Reading

Students perform at the 2013 Secondary Festival

A choral approach like this can be especially useful for group discussions. It gets small groups discussing their interpretation, which they then share with the whole class. No group will make all of the same choices, after all, because there are so many different ways to say and do any passage or scene – why not try a bunch and see what works? Discussing everyone’s choices (and knowing that none are “wrong”) gives the students more control and less fear of interpreting the text.

We have a few examples of teaching modules which use a chroal approach:

Complexity of Character in The Merchant of Venice: In this play, especially, no one is wholly “good” or “bad.” In this lesson, high school student groups take on a character apiece and perform one or two passages of text for that character to determine what their character is like, and in what ways they are complicated.

Shakespeare Sound Out: Building Atmosphere: For elementary and ESL/ELL students, getting over the language together is especially easy when approached chorally. With text from Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, students use the rhythm and word choices in the text to determine the tone of the scene, and incorporate their choices into a performance.

Sonnet Performance: Shakespeare’s Sonnets as Scripts: The choral approach can even apply to poetry! As Louisa Newlin and Gigi Bradford say, “Breaking a sonnet down into parts for different speakers and presenting it dramatically can help students to listen carefully to the language and hear different “voices” in the poem.” Students shed some light on these sometimes ambiguous poems to create their own meanings.

How else would you use the choral approach with your class? Other plays, poems, or even books may be ripe fodder for a group to tackle. Have you used a chorus before? How did it go?

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Inspired, today, by David Tennant‘s affirmation in the power of performing Shakespeare, today we’re rounding up some of our favorite Teacher to Teacher videos about performance in the classroom. Getting students on their feet is one of the most important things we stress about working with Shakespeare’s language – they are, after all, plays!

Teacher to Teacher Title Screen - Performing

What can be nerve-wracking for everyone, though, is the thought of being”onstage.” In your classroom, though, it’s certainly not about putting up a full performance – perhaps not even a whole scene – it’s about saying the words out loud and discovering the action that supports the language and makes it more dynamic.

Some students like getting up to read in front of the class – but a lot may hang back. Get your audience involved as reactors and directors, as explained in these videos by Tory Virchow and Erica Smith:

Finally – see performance-based teaching in action with Sue Biondo-Hench and her students from Carlisle, PA. From group activities to personal reflection, her students find ways to bring Shakespeare’s language to life!

How do you incorporate action in your classroom?

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~by Jessica Lander

Students giggle together during a theatre game at the 2013 Folger Secondary School Festival.

Students giggle together during a theatre game at the 2013 Folger Secondary School Festival.

On the grass behind the theater – once a fire station – two teenagers embraced each other and slow-danced.  They wore sheepish grins as they took each other’s hands, swaying and revolving to the music.  Iron & Wine and Graffiti6 and Elliot Smith floated from my portable speakers.  Curious dog walkers with waddling pugs and sweaty joggers threw sidelong glances.

It was week four, opening day, only hours before curtain.  Our Romeo and our Juliet were nervous.  Would their performance be believable?

The three of us met behind the theater to explore the act of falling in love.   The two teenagers began by locking eyes, standing quiet for twenty minutes without once letting their glances dart sideways.  Most students would feel too awkward to dance along the streets of Charlestown.  But these two seventeen-year-old actors were willing to try.

In theater such willingness is called “saying yes.”

Saying yes is the number one rule of improv.  If your improv partner says: “That soup you’re eating looks delicious!” and you respond, “I’m not eating soup,” the skit falls flat.   In our converted black box theater saying yes became the first rule and promise of our ensemble.

Last summer, as a teaching artist for Actors Shakespeare Project, my July crackled with witches and Scottish thanes.  This year we – ten students and four teachers – took up residence in the bloody streets of Verona.   Our students were a demographic chart of the Boston area. Our ensemble came from the suburbs and from the heart of the city; from public schools, from exams schools and from private schools.  Some had previously lived in youth detention centers.  Some had years of acting experience in camps and school plays and some came with no formal theatrical training.  What set them apart from their peers was that these ten teenagers were willing, even eager, to say yes.

Saying yes can be challenging in any setting, particularly in the confines of a traditional school classroom.  Raising your hand, offering up the answer to a math problem, sharing a poem, proposing a hypothesis – they all open you to vulnerability.  I have had 6th graders and college students of mine say no.  I have had students as far as Thailand and Cambodia and as close as Charlestown say no.  School textbooks and tests are lined with “right” and “wrong” answers and school halls are varnished in peer pressure and the shine of social status.

The black box exists outside this norm.

Over the course of four weeks I watched as ten teenagers chose instead to just say yes.

They said yes to playing improv games that required them to squirm like jello and row furiously like Viking warriors.

They said yes to walking and running and crawling through our theater to explore the space.

Two young men said yes to locking hands and attempting to push each other across a room while yelling their lines and furrowing their brows.

One young woman said yes to chortling like an old man with a beer belly and then cooing like a baby girl.

Everyone said yes to playing games of Mafia every day (four weeks straight) during lunch, holding heated debates and flinging accusations, in each subsequent game, about who might be suspect.

One young man said yes to swinging his arms in the air for an entire monologue.  Another young woman said yes to trying not to smile (a real feat for her).

In four weeks our students said yes to dancing in the rain, to singing, to arguing about character backstories, to fake punching each other in the nose, to sharing painful stories, to laughing out loud and crying out loud.

It is not easy saying yes.  You need three things.  You need peers that won’t snicker, you need teachers who won’t seek “correct” answers, and you need a space wide open to allow students to spin and floors strong enough to encourage students to leap.

And if you are lucky enough for such a convergence, then Romeo and Juliet waltz in a park, while dog walkers stare and at least one teacher smiles.

What can you and your students say YES to? Let us know in the comments!

Jessica Lander is a teacher and writer in Cambridge, MA.  She has taught, among other things, Shakespeare and critical thinking to college students in the Cambodian Capital of Phnom Penh and the northern city of Chiang Mai, Thailand.  Closer to home she has taught math and Shakespeare to 6th graders in the Boston inner city.  She has written for the Boston Globe Magazine and keeps an education blog, Chalk Dust: http://jessicalander.blogspot.com

 

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