The Play's the Thing

Teachers Try Livelier Ways To Bring the Bard to Life for the MTV Generation.

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Teachers try livelier ways to bring the Bard to life for the MTV Generation.


A freshman boy sinks in his chair, his eyes fixed nervously on the text before him. At his teacher's prompting, this typically boisterous teenager struggles to speak. A blush rushes across his cheeks and, ever so softly, this bland Romeo drones out his line with none of the passion and poetry the Bard of Avon had intended when he wrote: "But soft! What light through yonder window breaks. It is the East, and Juliet is the sun."

The boy reads the script quickly and in a monotone. He is visibly relieved when he finishes, embarrassed and hopeful that he will not be called on again.

It is a scene played out year after year in classrooms nationwide. Studying William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," a standard in the freshman English curriculum, has been a dreaded rite of passage for decades.

Shakespeare is the greatest writer of all time, students are told, but many don't understand why.

Despite its timeless themes, studying this classic tale of teenage love and angst is as tedious as a twice-told tale for many students. Instead of arousing the passions of youth, "Romeo and Juliet," as well as other works introduced in later grades, often exasperates high school classes.

And after five or six weeks of analyzing a play line by line, suffering through language that is foreign to them, and trying to figure out why they will ever need to know this stuff, students gladly put Shakespeare aside--disdain fixed in their memories, perhaps for all time.

"I hated Shakespeare in high school. ... He was dry as dust," says Hilary Stanton Zunin, an English teacher at Napa High School in Napa, Calif. "I hated Shakespeare so much I looked for a college where I could major in English without taking any courses on him. From the time I was 17 I didn't read another line until 10 years later."

Zunin eventually had to take a course on the bard, as nearly all aspiring high school English teachers must. She still hated the task of reading the texts, but when she stepped into her first classroom to teach Shakespeare's prose and verse, she vowed not to put her students through what she went through.

"I asked myself what would have worked for me. What would have excited me about these plays?" she says. "I said, that's it. They're scripts and not books. And what do you do with a script? You get up and perform it."

It may seem obvious; plays are not intended to be read as texts. Yet teachers constrained by 400 years of tradition and scholarship have typically felt a responsibility to lead students through a serious analysis of the language and structure of Shakespeare's works without ever delving into the theater he created. It has been the rare student who walks away with a lifelong appreciation of his plays, sonnets, and other poems. But there is a movement afoot to change. Partly in response to research on different learning styles and the trend toward collaborative learning, and prodded as well by the challenge of engaging the MTV generation, many teachers are taking a more active approach to teaching Shakespeare.

"The trend is toward getting people up on their feet, to experience the language through performance," says Mary T. Christel, an English teacher at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill. "Memorizing a speech or a passage is out of date."

'When they start to understand it, it empowers them.'

Dana Des Jardins,
Niles West High School

More than 500 English teachers recently attended the Second International Teaching Shakespeare Conference here to learn how to engage their students in the complex material.

Christel helped organize the conference, which was sponsored by the National Association of Teachers of English and brought together university professors, master high school teachers, and actors from the local repertory theater. In session after session, teachers were coaxed up on their feet to act out a word, a line, or a scene in a way that put it into context, that gave it meaning.

Even the most stoic among them slowly let down their defenses.

In one rousing session demonstrating practical activities for the classroom, Rex Gibson, the director of the Shakespeare and Schools Project at Cambridge University in England, brought dozens of teachers to their knees.

As Gibson cued half the participants with a few lines from the script, they froze into statues, creating still pictures, or tableaux, of that moment in the play. The other half analyzed the images, studying facial expressions, and body positions for clues to which lines or scenes they represented.

That is just one of dozens of ways teachers are breaking away from the tradition of explaining Shakespeare, to helping their students experience it.

Such activities work well in Dana Des Jardins' classroom at Niles West High School in Skokie, a suburb north of Chicago. Students shout Shakespearean insults, search for the irony in Shakespeare's jokes, and act out the fight scenes as ways to warm up to the playwright.

And down the hall, Sally Moore's students might don makeshift Elizabethan-era costumes to act out scenes. Other teachers use the latest videos and CD-ROMs to draw students in to the power of the plays.

"Every year, I do more and more acting and less playing of tapes," Des Jardins says. "A lot of kids approach it with trepidation, but that disappears after a while. When they start to understand it, it empowers them."

But teachers who try to bring Shakespeare to life for their students face daunting challenges.

"The teacher who wants to do active methods is certainly subject to all kinds of constraints, assumptions, and traditions," Gibson of Cambridge University says. "The academic, literary-scholarship tradition of Shakespeare lies like a heavy weight on school Shakespeare."

Gibson, who has conducted numerous workshops for teachers in the United States--including several packed sessions at the NCTE conference--said teachers should not expect their students to approach Shakespeare as a scholar would. Much of the scholarly analysis of his writings is irrelevant for the average student.

"For many years, the only editions of Shakespeare available for the classroom were written by university scholars for university scholars," he says. "You would find six lines of Shakespeare followed by 60 lines of explanation." Those texts, Gibson says, encouraged the study of Shakespeare from "the Adams apple upwards."

The tradition of the text has not been the only restraint for teachers. In a curriculum that is becoming ever more crowded by new requirements, and with a push toward studying more multicultural and modern authors, the time-intensive activities that put Shakespeare into context for students often eat up a larger chunk of class time. And in a setting that often encourages students to be quiet in class, the noise level generated by such activities is often frowned upon.

But there are even greater hurdles, educators say.

Most teachers, with only their own experiences to guide them, don't know any way to teach Shakespeare other than the traditional approach. Few colleges offer methods courses in the subject for aspiring teachers. Invariably, teachers end up teaching as they were taught.

"In the past, the general method for teaching Shakespeare was lecturing on the period, close reading of the text, playing an audio of a British actress reading a script, and then stopping it after every few lines to ask students what it meant," says Janet Field-Pickering, a former English teacher who is the director of education at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. "I remember circling the room and jogging the desks of students who had fallen asleep."

Without some guidance, however, teaching any other way is too great a risk for many teachers.

For 14 years, veteran teacher Joette Conger has taught Shakespeare the way it was taught to her. She admits her classes at Downers Grove High School in Downers Grove, Ill., have been a little dull. "My classes have been very text-based. My students were reading Shakespeare; they weren't experiencing it," Conger says. "Until recently, that was enough for me, but now I want something more."

But at Gibson's session at the NCTE conference, Conger sat on the sidelines while more than 70 of her peers from across the country mimicked characters in various Shakespearean scenes. "I am not an actor, so this is quite a stretch for me," she explains. But Conger says she is willing to break out of the old ways that have bound teachers for decades. "I think I can do this, but I will have to do it in small steps."

More teachers are starting to get the guidance they need.Many Shakespeare festivals and theaters, which have proliferated in cities large and small, have launched education campaigns. The Shakespeare Repertory Theater here has been one of the leaders, inviting thousands of students and teachers each year to productions and workshops designed to foster understanding through performance.

Instructional materials that help teachers put theory into practice also are more readily available. The recent NCTE conference on teaching Shakespeare drew more than twice the number of teachers as the first one two years ago in Louisville, Ky. And teachers such as Napa High School's Zunin travel throughout their home states sharing their ideas.

The Folger Shakespeare Library has put on workshops each summer for the past decade with the help of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. The handful of teachers selected for the workshops are encouraged to go back and work with colleagues in their schools and districts to help others incorporate the techniques.

"Once you get to a teacher, you get to all that teacher's students forever ," says Peggy O'Brien, who started the Folger workshops and other education programs in the early 1980s when she was the library's director of education.

"For a long time, teachers have been translating this stuff for their kids. Now, teachers realize the kids have to learn to translate it for themselves," adds O'Brien, who is currently in charge of education programming for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in Washington.

The Folger produces guides designed to enhance classroom instruction, including one called Shakespeare Set Free, that can be purchased from the library. And new editions of texts geared toward high school and middle school students have appeared in recent years. Among several offered by Cambridge University Press, Gibson's Teaching Shakespeare provides explanations and activities to help students understand the complicated language and structure of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets. The Internet has provided dozens of other resources.

Lessons on Shakespeare are even gaining favor in younger grades, with more middle and elementary schools including some of the playwright's more comical works in the curriculum.

"Younger children still have a sense of wonder about language, so they're not as overwhelmed by Shakespeare," Field-Pickering says. "They view these plays as musical, rhythmical, and magical."

Even the older students seem to have a soft spot for the increasingly popular active teaching methods.

Gilberto Hinojosa, by his own account, is a tough guy. Although generally a good student, the 17-year-old says he would rather tell jokes in class than ponder the value of fine literature. So there was no way he would appreciate the passion and poetry of Shakespeare. Or so he thought.

Almost against his will, Hinojosa was sucked into the carefully prepared lessons his teacher, Mark Onuscheck, designed for his class of seniors at Waukegan High School north of Chicago. Starting with hands-on activities that had students exploring the meanings of unfamiliar words and phrases, and exercises that warm up the voice and body for lively readings of the scripts, Onuscheck has won over his students.

And Hinojosa has become a spokesman of sorts for the power of the plays.

"From this different view, I really feel what Shakespeare was trying to get across," he says. "It's no longer just a jumble of weird words. It's no longer irrelevant to me."

Despite Shakespearean literature's standing in the curriculum, some teachers had begun to understand why students found it irrelevant. Why should this long-dead white man dominate English courses, many teachers wondered, when there is a proliferation of great literature from a more diverse group of writers?

"I was really beginning to question whether it was still relevant for today's students," says Patty Slagle, the chairwoman of the English department at Seneca High School in Louisville, Ky. "But then I'd see those same students who dreaded coming to class watching the local Shakespeare company perform in the park, and they had a ball."

Slagle helped organize the NCTE conference, knowing that many of her peers also doubted the value of the centuries-old texts for today's students.

Many of the nation's universities have pondered the same politically and culturally charged question, with some going so far as to eliminate the requirement that English majors take courses dedicated exclusively to Shakespeare and other masters.

Georgetown University's announcement a few years ago that English majors could sidestep Shakespeare and choose from a wider array of courses on more-modern writers and issues of popular culture sounded an alarm for some critics of the efforts to revise the curriculum.

"If a guy wants to be a doctor, anatomy isn't an optional course," says Jerry L. Martin, the president of the National Alumni Forum in Washington. The conservative think tank was so alarmed by the move at Georgetown that it conducted a study of other top universities to compare requirements.

Its 1996 report, "The Shakespeare File: What English Majors Are Really Studying," found that most of the 67 institutions surveyed no longer required English majors to take courses devoted to Shakespeare. Although students are likely to study the bard's works in general-literature classes, they could forgo more-specific courses on the works of the Elizabethan age to focus on popular literature.

The result, according to Martin, could be a new generation of English teachers who step into the classroom without ever studying Shakespeare.

"The implication for schools is that they are hiring English teachers who may or may not have ever read the most important author in the language," Martin says. Universities "need to tell students that this is important."

But English majors don't study Shakespeare because it's required, argues Gary Taylor, a Shakespearean scholar. They study it because they love literature and understand Shakespeare's influence on later authors, he says.

"There has been no decline in the numbers of students taking Shakespeare," says Taylor, the director of the Hudson Strode Program in Shakespeare Studies at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. "Shakespeare should be able to compete on the free market. If he is for all time, we should be able to make him interesting to the next generation of students so that they want to study him and not have him shoved down their throats. Most scholars believe Shakespeare can make it without being compulsory."

Indeed, old Will is far from dead. Pick up any newspaper, watch a popular television show, look around any town, and there is likely to be a reference to some Shakespearean work. Headlines, advertising slogans, and shop names all are apt to steal a word or phrase that has garnered universal understanding. Few will deny Shakespeare's enduring influence.

Last year, even students who weren't enrolled in Des Jardin's class at Niles West High were begging entrance because of the carrot she held out to them: At the end of the unit she showed the latest film version of " Romeo and Juliet," a modern-day tale with gun-toting gang members set in the seedy fictional Florida city of Verona Beach. Rising stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes made the 1996 film a blockbuster in theaters and a favorite rental for home and school.

Profit-minded Hollywood has embraced Shakespeare in the past few years. Just as Laurence Olivier inspired renewed interest in the works through his classic film versions of "Henry V" and "Hamlet" half a century ago, Kenneth Branagh and other contemporary filmmakers have spawned a new Shakespeare chic.

In the past few years Branagh and fellow actors Mel Gibson, Al Pacino, and DiCaprio ensured the popularity of Shakespeare's plays among a variety of age groups with high-cost film versions. Teachers have used those movies to reel in their students.

And though some scholars might balk at such use, those pushing more-active methods of teaching think they have hit their target.

"Only fuddy-duddy, dyed-in-the-wool textual scholars would turn up their noses at these films," says Cambridge's Gibson. The latest version of " Romeo and Juliet" is "done with joy," he says. "It's done with passion. It's a splendid example of using that language and presenting it through a different culture."

The latest media and instructional ideas engage students visually, physically, and intellectually, the advocates of an updated approach say. The most effective activities are not fluff, but project a deeper understanding of the language and themes, they say.

"This is not about dummying the scripts down; we are using better pedagogy," says Zunin. "Because they are the MTV generation, these students are used to a lot of visual stimuli; they are ready to get up on their feet. But that shouldn't be the reason we're doing it. We're doing it because it makes more sense to treat these works as plays."

For students such as Hinojosa, it's about time.

"I don't know who ever thought of just reading the lines. It's a script. It's so obvious," he says "You can't learn to play baseball by just watching it. You have to do it."

Vol. 17, Issue 30, Page 29

Published in Print: April 8, 1998, as The Play's the Thing
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This story credited the wrong federal agency with financing the Folger Shakespeare Library's institute for teachers. The National Endowment for the Humanities underwrites the program.

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