Teaching Shakespeare With 21st-Century Technology

—Mark Abramson for Education Week

See what it’s like to teach “Macbeth” with digital technology and join an interactive chat

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Tablet computers in hand, Albert Cavalluzzo's 10th grade students swipe through the opening act of "Macbeth," turning digital pages with quick flicks of fingertips on screens.

The famous William Shakespeare play was first published on paper nearly 500 years ago. But in English classrooms across the country, such traditional texts are now colliding with new technologies, leaving educators scrambling to figure out how to teach classic literature in the midst of a digital revolution.

"A lot of us are connected to certain books, and we're hesitant to deviate from how we've always taught them," said Cavalluzzo, a 20-year classroom veteran.

"We have to figure out how to make the technology work for us, instead of against us," he said.

Over the past decade, America's classrooms have been flooded with computers, tablets, software, platforms, and apps. On the whole, the impact on teaching and learning has been far more limited than proponents had hoped. Often, the tools are used to ease administrative burdens and drill students on basic skills, rather than to create new, more powerful learning experiences.

When it comes to teaching a play such as "Macbeth," most teachers say the "what" and "why" remain largely unchanged: Whether using paperbacks or iPads, their aim is still to help young readers decode Shakespeare's original language, wrestle with his complicated themes and characters, and learn to ask big questions about themselves and the world around them.

What's shifting, though, is how teachers pursue such goals. New technologies mean both new challenges and new opportunities.

Read This Article Interactively!

We’ve annotated parts of this article using a tool called Genius. Click the highlighted text to read excerpts from a Twitter chat with teachers on using technology to teach Shakespeare. Add your own annotations as well using Genius. You can also watch embedded videos to see how it’s done at Mineola High School.

Here at Mineola High School, for example, many of the teenagers say they'd rather read Shakespeare in print—a preference at least partially backed by an emerging body of research that suggests comprehension and the ability to dive deep into a text may suffer when using screens. Expert teachers are frequently irked by new digital tools that focus on the quantifiable aspects of literacy instruction, such as improving students' reading levels, rather than on fostering a love of great books.

And then there are more banal technology-related hurdles, such as spotty Wi-Fi connections.

But from audio recordings to document cameras, teachers have long used classroom technologies to deepen students' engagement with classic literature. Social media, YouTube, digital reading platforms, kid-friendly computer-programming languages—they're all just new ways to make old texts come alive, educators across the country told Education Week during a weeks-long Twitter conversation that was part of the reporting for this story.

The beauty of Shakespeare is that his works remain vibrant and relevant even as the world keeps changing, said Mary Ellen Dakin, a literacy coach at Massachusetts' Revere High School, a former master teacher with the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, and the author of Reading Shakespeare With Young Adults.

" 'Macbeth' is a highly unstable, incredibly complex, very dynamic text," Dakin said. What could be better suited to the 21st century tools we have at our disposal?"

'Macbeth' Goes Digital

With its hospital-green tile floors and cinder block walls, Cavalluzzo's classroom at Mineola High probably doesn't look all that different from the way it looked back in 1962, when the school was built.

But the technology now available to the 31 students in his 5th period English 10 Honors class was scarcely imaginable 50 years ago.

As the students settle in, Cavalluzzo instructs them to turn on their school-issued tablets, then open Edmodo, a Facebook-style "social learning community" through which teachers, students, and parents can share assignments, feedback, and other communications.

The class is a week into its new unit on "Macbeth." The students have met the play's main character, a Scottish nobleman and warrior who has received a prophecy that he will ascend to the throne. Today's lesson will dive into a famous soliloquy from Act 1, in which Macbeth ponders killing Scotland's sitting king.

First, though, Cavalluzzo wants to give his students—14- and 15-year-olds whose families hail from Germany, India, Italy, Korea, Montenegro, Pakistan, Portugal, and other countries across the globe—a reason to care.

He uses Edmodo to pose a broad, open-ended task. "This is the question I want you to think about: Does guilt motivate you to be moral? Have a conversation with your partner, just for a minute or two," Cavalluzzo told the students. "Then together you can post your response on Edmodo."

As the students finish, their responses populate a feed on Cavalluzzo's iPad, which he in turn projects on to a smartboard at the front of the class. The idea is that the technology will push even the shyest students to contribute, then allow everyone in the class to quickly share in each other's thoughts.

"I can get instant feedback from 25 kids, rather than just hearing what one or two kids think," he said. "That fits my philosophy."

Next, Cavalluzzo wants his students to get more comfortable with the playwright's gloriously complex early-modern English, full of unfamiliar pronouns, inverted sentence structures, and deliberate obfuscations.

It's the primary challenge facing anyone teaching Shakespeare, said Peggy O'Brien, the director of education at the Folger Library.

"You have to teach students to get inside the play and find their way around," she said. "There is power in knowing you have a process by which you can unlock language that is hard and complicated and dense."

The best way to do that, O'Brien and many teachers contend, is to get students on their feet and performing.

Multiple Ways In

They say it's also important to give students multiple opportunities to listen and watch as a play like "Macbeth" is being read aloud or performed.

That's another area where basic technology can help.

Cavalluzzo, for example, plays a CD with an audio recording of an actor reading Macbeth's soliloquy.

"All I want you to do for the first time through is hear it," he told the class.

Then he invited a student to read the same soliloquy aloud. The rest of the students followed silently on their tablets.

Next, Cavalluzzo told the class their real work for the day was finally ready to begin.

"You know something about Macbeth's character," he said. "Let's really look at how Shakespeare uses language to get us there."

Ultimately, said Dakin, the literacy coach and master teacher, it's important to consider the reason why schools still teach classic literature at all.

"It has this amazing ability to make us question ourselves and wonder and remain unsure," she said. "I think that's where we need to be sometimes."

With Shakespeare, teachers say, getting students to that place requires "getting tangled up in complexity." That often means reading and discussing and writing about the same scenes and characters multiple times, in multiple different ways, from multiple different points of view.

Like many teachers, Cynthia Lombardi, another 20-year veteran of the Mineola High English faculty, believes such work happens best when students can hold a printed book in their hands and commit their own thoughts to paper.

"I'm old school," she said. "My resources are a notebook, a pen and pencil, and a brain."

The results of her approach are archived in spiral-bound journals that each of Lombardi's students creates. Included are pages and pages of "deep thoughts" that emerge from creative-writing activities. Lombardi might ask her students to write their own eulogy for the king that Macbeth ultimately murders, or make dueling masks decorated with words that describe their outward appearance versus their inner reality. They decorate their pages; her handwritten comments pepper the margins.

"The way to understand a text is to develop an emotional connection with it," Lombardi said.

But holding that ground on print text hasn't been easy. Mineola High is in the second year of a 1-to-1 iPad initiative. All English teachers are expected to use a digital reading platform called Lightsail.

Launched in 2012, the company now claims 250,000 student users across roughly 700 U.S. schools. Schools pay $12 per student per year for access to the platform, which includes 1,800 free titles, from "Macbeth" to Diary of a Wimpy Kid. The focus is on connecting struggling readers with a steady stream of texts that match their interests and ability in order to help them rapidly improve their reading levels.

That kind of adaptive technology doesn't work for Shakespeare. But Lightsail founder Gideon Stein said the product's other features—from on-screen annotation tools to embedded quizzes to technology that tracks how fast students are reading each page—present new opportunities for teaching such classic texts.

Like Lombardi, Cavalluzzo was initially skeptical.

During his first test run last school year, there were a number of problems: Getting students logged into their own accounts was a headache. When Mineola's Wi-Fi didn't cooperate, the class ground to a halt. A Lightsail security feature meant that students frequently got logged out of the system, interrupting their reading experience. The assessment questions embedded into the digital text have a "study-guide feel" that was a turnoff for students and teacher alike, Cavalluzzo said.

But there have also been revelations.

"Students like being able to make comments, see [each other's] comments, and answer questions that I have posed," he said.

"Whether it's electronic or paper, it's their book, and they want to own it."

For some teachers, that process is helped along by letting students use digital tools—including cameras and editing software, multimedia presentation packages, and computer-programming tools such as Pencil Code—to create their own versions of "Macbeth."

On this day, though, the final task before Mr. Cavalluzzo's 10th grade students wasn't quite so ambitious.

The students paired up at their desks. One student opened Lightsail, and the other opened a worksheet that Cavalluzzo had posted in iTunesU, a course-management tool from Apple that Mineola High uses to host digital content.

Their job was to dive into the text of Macbeth's soliloquy, looking for examples of how Shakespeare used language to communicate subtle messages about his characters and raise big questions about the human condition. Key vocabulary and lines were highlighted in distinct colors.

Upon finishing, students came to the front of the room, connected their tablets into the class projector, and talked the class through their thoughts.

In the broader public discussion around educational technology, today's teenagers are often referred to as "digital natives."

'Forever Young'

But while many of the students in Cavalluzzo's class expressed excitement about Shakespeare, they're not yet sold on the value of reading his works on an iPad.

"We've grown up with books," said 16-year-old Hareem Siddiqui. "I feel like it's better. I could have Post-it notes and highlight [on the paper] directly."

For Cavalluzzo, such sentiments are another sign that the path ahead for English teachers will still contain the occasional pothole and wrong turn.

But big picture, said both he and Dakin, there's plenty of reason to be encouraged.

A century from now, they believe students will still be grappling with "Macbeth" in its original language, if not its original medium.

"My sense is that we're not going to lose Shakespeare," Dakin said. "He'll remain forever young because of technology."

Vol. 36, Issue 12, Pages 17-20

Published in Print: November 9, 2016, as Teaching Shakespeare the 21st Century Way
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