Thursday, February 27, 2014

Teaching Shakespeare: Let Them Find It

Teaching Shakespeare to high school students can be both exhilarating and frustrating.  I love it every time. The key for me is to not force the play down their throats right away, but to slowly give them a taste.

I am trying Macbeth with mixed ability/multi- grade 9/10th graders this semester for the first time.  I have always taught Shakespeare to 11/12th graders, so I’m a little nervous about how it will go.  After a few days of our new unit, I’m enthusiastic. 

My clever, though sometimes obscure student explained to us in class today that the difference between hip hop and Shakespeare is that although both are like being given 500 bucks, hip hop is when you find it on the street, and Shakespeare is when someone shoves it in your face.  Huh?
What he was trying to say (I think) was that you gain a lot with both hip hop and Shakespeare, but it’s the manner of access that matters.  He’d rather find the money than have someone “shove it in his face”—even if he wants that money.

Even if that's not quite what he meant, I got the message—don’t force Shakespeare on them.  Let them “find it”.

Not an easy task.

I am grateful for the zillion (give or take) resources out there in Google-land to help me.  For instance, I was happy with a resource I found on Youtube that I used the first week as an introduction to the language.  It’s a Ted Talk with Akala:

In this 20-minute video, Akala impressively performs sonnets, but also shares an apt comparison between hip hop artists and Shakespeare, not only for the obvious use of rhyme and meter, but also because these artists took it upon themselves to be the “custodians of knowledge.”

His talk led nicely into a brief discussion in my class about what he meant by “a custodian of knowledge.” What is that exactly?  What does he mean by “knowledge,”  and who is the keeper of it today?  I asked my students to come up with a two-sentence summary of his main points.  From their summaries, we collaborated on figuring out what Akala meant. We decided that “knowledge” in this case isn’t necessarily about school learning or facts, but rather, people’s stories, struggles, and thoughts.  Why is this idea important as we move into Shakespeare?  I think it helped students to think of Shakespeare as just another guy trying to tell the stories of his time and people. Our discussion also touched on people’s --perhaps their parents’--perceptions of hip hop, and then I could (gently) point out how their own perceptions of Shakespeare could be skewed as well.  It’s all about allaying their fears, even if not all of them have trepidation.

Next time—some line "tossing,"  dialogue writing/performing with thou and thee, and maybe Elizabethan insults before we launch into Macbeth.  The time I spend warming them to the language will mean a smoother ride down the road, and more of a likelihood that they will find that 500 bucks.

Great resource: Folger Library's Shakespeare Set Free series (this is where "line tossing" comes from).