Teaching Opinion

Shakespeare Sparks Engagement, Deep Learning

By David B. Cohen — February 02, 2016 5 min read
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There’s a healthy tension between the old the new in our study of the humanities. As an English teacher, I enjoy sharing the classics with my students, introducing new generations to great works and great ideas. At the same time, I want to find ways to keep the course work fresh and relevant, adding new content and new lessons each year, as some others are set aside.

As a classroom veteran, I have a depth of curricular and pedagogical experience that can make my planning more efficient, as I can draw upon materials and methods that worked in the past and update them in minutes rather than spend hours on something new. At the same time, I’m tempted to ditch some of my lessons and assignments, even though they work well for students, because I feel myself aging as I read the same kinds of arguments and analysis about the same texts. Again. By the dozens. Year after year.

However, there’s one classic element of the curriculum, with a time-tested project at its core, that I’ve used with only slight modifications for over twenty years, enjoyed by students and teacher: whenever I teach a course that includes a play by Shakespeare, I have students perform scenes from the play. We study the entirety of the play, but the in-depth focus on a single scene leads to mastery of concepts that are larger than a single play, and more instrumental in students’ understanding of Shakespeare and their own roles as learners.

The first time I tried a version of this assignment, I was student teaching, and the classroom results were rather mediocre. (My apologies to those Cupertino High School juniors and seniors in my Brit. Lit. class in 1994!). I dissected and analyzed my instruction and materials as part of a case study in my graduate school coursework, and now it’s one of the highlights of each year, whether I’m watching students rehearse Romeo and Juliet, mimic Macbeth, or master The Merchant of Venice. Last year I even had the privilege of observing my former student, La Quinta High School teacher Stephanie Smith, using a similar (though not identical) approach with her students as they studied A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

One reason that the performance assignment works consistently is that students enjoy a challenge, as most of us do, if it’s worth taking on, and if conditions allow for success. Each year, from the very beginning of this unit, I emphasize to students that Shakespeare’s plays are not books. I consistently use the verb “study” in place of “read,” as in, “Let’s study this scene today,” or later, “Your homework is to study Act Four.” We study the plays because in a very real sense, they demand performance in order to be complete, and performance demands interpretation. In that respect, plays are unique among the literary arts (especially plays written before it was conceivable to mass produce and sell copies in order that plays might be read as well as performed). The challenge of performing a scene then is worthwhile because it’s essential to the genre, and not merely an engagement strategy.

Another reason this approach succeeds is that students learn how it’s possible to be simultaneously constrained by text free to use their imaginations. I make sure students see as many performances as possible, using clips from various films and stage productions to emphasize the concept of interpretation and the variability among productions. Why not transplant the action to another place, another time, to see if the old ideas and old words still work? Even if the setting is traditional, Romeo could say a given line laughing or crying, or both. Lady Macbeth might be standing behind her husband, hands on his shoulders, suggesting her control over him, or she might be at his feet trying to build him up. When Portia goes to court pretending to be a legal scholar, does she have an endgame in mind all along, or is she risking Antonio’s life in a dangerous improvisation? And given that Shakespeare’s lines stay the same, how do actors and directors convey these types of interpreations to an audience? How will you add your interpretation to this centuries-long artistic collaboration between playwright and players?

Once students understand what it means to interpret Shakespeare’s text through performance, they’re generally willing, if not eager, to give it a try. The experience offers a pleasant change, while couched in the oldest and most classic element of the curriculum. Students are used to looking for The Answer, The Meaning, The Theme - the ones in the text, or failing that, the ones they think we want them to repeat back to us. In Shakespeare, I try to offer them The Possibilities instead.

Step into the text. Try it out for yourself. See what works.

And with the right structure in place, wonderful happenings abound in the classroom. I see quiet students step up to new challenges. I see friends having fun working as a cast of characters, and new partnerships bringing students together. I hear students using the terms “motif” and “theme” correctly, and pushing each other to connect performance ideas to thematic interpretations; then, having arrived at a perfectly good approach, they start over to see if the next one is better or worse. I overhear someone suggesting “jazz hands” for one of the witches’ scenes with Macbeth, just for laughs... I think. A student sees the clock and exclaims with disappointment, “Oh! Only one minute left!” (yes, I verified that it was disappointment!).

Somehow, the oldest and most traditional text in my course is the freshest and most exciting part of the year. It never feels tired to watch students tackle the challenge of Shakespeare, seeing not only how they learn about the text and the concept of dramatic interpretation, but also learn something about themselves, their participation in learning and culture. The challenge for me is to keep finding ways to spark interest, connections, and new learning for my students and for me, finding the balance between classic and new material, proven lessons and novel pedagogy.

Photo: La Quinta High School students prepare a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream; by David B. Cohen

The opinions expressed in Capturing the Spark: Energizing Teaching and Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.