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Saturday, August 28, 2004

Teaching Shakespeare

High school English teachers must teach many demanding texts. For most teachers the most difficult texts to teach are those of William Shakespeare. Most English teachers truly love the world of Shakespeare and the language used in it. But it is not an easy world to enter. It is even more difficult to help another person enter this world. English teachers must develop ways of showing meaning and methods of encouraging understanding. Following is a summary and synthesis of three articles, written by or about English teachers in the trenches, that deal with some of the problems encountered when teaching Shakespeare.

John S. O’Connor wrote an article titled "Playing with Subtext: Using Groucho to Teach Shakespeare." "Using Groucho Marx to explore Shakespeare’s plays may seem iconoclastic" (O’Connor 100). Indeed it is a little bit of a stretch to place Groucho Marx next to Shakespeare but then remember the line from Mr. Holland’s Opus where Mr. Holland says that he will use any thing from rock and roll to Beethoven to get through to his students. What O’Connor did in his class was to present a scene from a Groucho Marx movie in which the subtext is very obvious. He then related the element of subtext present in the movie to the subtext present in Shakespeare. When practicing the extraction of context O’Connor gives his students four points to consider: one, the social context of the scene; two, the goal of the character; three, the desires of the character; and four, the obstacles that are keeping the character from those goals and desires. Once the students have considered these questions about a scene he has volunteers act out the scene. The students insert asides that reflect the subtext, and after getting a couple different sub-textual readings, he has the students act out the scene without the asides to encourage the students to think like actors. He finds that this approach makes the students able to extract subtext while reading and it also makes the students more aware of the sub-textual elements of a performance. Problems, however, do arise when students develop an understanding of subtext. The biggest problem is that much of the subtext in Shakespeare’s plays would be deemed "inappropriate."

According to Vicky Greenbaum appropriateness is just a myth. Her article, "Censorship and the Myth of Appropriateness: Reflections on Teaching Reading in High School," attempts to quell the concerns of English teachers over appropriateness. Greenbaum cites a study by David Perkins which questions the Piaget theory that there are levels of appropriateness that develop at their own pace. This study proved that by implementing various teaching methods a child could be moved through the stages faster. Greenbaum’s stand is that it is the duty of English teachers to present difficult texts even though it may bring up questionable topics; moreover, she says that any text read with a trained eye will find such topics. Greenbaum also supports the teaching of critical thinking skills as opposed to simply enforcing reading comprehension skills. Teachers must connect what is being read with the outside world but also allow the student to decide how much of the text to actually take in; if a text is too painful for a student, the student can pull back from the text by exploring all the different readings of a text. These concerns might be true of the reader with normal reading skills who reads Shakespeare but what about the student who struggles with less than normal reading skills.

Kathryn King Johnson, in "Teaching Shakespeare to Learning Disabled Students," describes a year long class taught to learning disabled students that focused on not only reading Shakespeare but performing it as well. The makeup of the class was entirely learning disabled students. To help the students learn the lines a special approach was used to help each individual student. The visual learners were given various visual aids, the auditory learners were given audio tapes of the lines to listen to, kinesthetic learners practiced lines in association with the movements of the play so the movements and words became linked and mnemonics were taught to all students. The real challenge came in having the words create meaning for the students. To help students determine the meaning of words, etymologies, Latin roots, and prefixes and suffixes were taught to the students. A dyslexic student in the class was able to improve her reading scores by four grade levels. The real basis for learning and teaching was collaborative efforts and experiential elements. Students were involved in what ever aspect of the production that they wished. The roles they chose were based on their strengths. The students were also working toward the practical goal of performing the play. But what is the relationship of these three articles.

The most obvious relationship is that they all relate to the teaching of William Shakespeare. O’Connor's article deals with helping students read for sub-textual dialog, Greenbaum’s article deals with the "Myth of Appropriateness," and Johnson’s article is about teaching Shakespeare to learning disabled students. There is really no agreement or disagreement between the articles but there is a building up of ideas if they are read in the order presented (even though this is out of chronological order). By reading the articles in this order, there is first a question of how to teach subtext. O’Connor gives a solution to that problem and then Greenbaum questions the appropriateness of Shakespearean subtext and then refutes appropriateness as a myth. Finally, Johnson asks a more practical question of how to teach Shakespeare to learning disabled students and then presents one teacher’s solution to the problem. How will all this affect my teaching?

The most important article for answering my practical questions was O’Connor’s article about how to teach subtext. I think that it is a very good idea to present a simplified version of a concept before addressing the concept in a more difficult incarnation. This method can be used to help students understand many concepts. What was even more impressive about this technique was that it got the students physically and mentally involved. Asking the students to consider the four points (the social context of the scene, the goal of the character, the desires of the character, and the obstacles that are keeping the character from those goals and desires) would break the problem down into pieces the students could manage and consider. I can easily see using those four points while teaching Shakespeare.

Greenbaum’s article touched on a topic of much concern for me. I’m certain one of my categories in my portfolio will be on this topic. That is the idea of censorship. It has long been my belief that censorship is not only stifling ideas but growth. This article seems to support my long held belief. I also plan on advising the school newspaper or teaching a newspaper class where ever I wind up teaching and censorship must be addressed when teaching newspaper. But more importantly it must be decided how much censorship will be done. I do not believe that I could work with a student newspaper that was subject to unreasonable censorship. Of course there are some restrictions on what a student can write and publish (libel laws) but I don’t know how I would deal with an administrator who told my students that they couldn’t do a story on teen pregnancy (for example). I read a story last year that told about a teacher who was removed from her post as newspaper advisor because she allowed just such a story to run in her paper. Her position was that she was letting the students decide what they wanted to include in the paper while giving them guidance on the consequences of their actions. This is a difficult issue that I have not entirely figured out yet.

The final article does not really address a situation that I am likely to face. I’m certain that I will have students with learning disabilities but I do not think that I will ever be in a position to teach an entire class of learning disabled students. But something important to glean from this article is the practice of teaching to a student’s strength while still challenging the students. One criticism I have of this article is that the fact that there was a large number of outside professionals brought in to assist was played down. There are very few teachers who would be able to pull together the amount of assistance that the teacher presented was able to pull together. I guess that this is a vote for the importance of "networking."

While doing this assignment I was at first astonished by the lack of materials in our library. I printed off six abstracts that indicated an article of use to me. I expected to find four or five and have to exclude material. But instead our library only had three of the articles I was looking for (all of which came from English Journal which is published by the National Council for the Teaching of English). But the articles I found were useful and informative. The teaching of Shakespeare is a very real concern of mine. After observing a teacher with an acting background tackle the subject with such ease I feel that it will be difficult for me to get the reaction he did. This assignment helped me to calm some of those fears. As O’Connor said in his article, "Equally important when studying a play, we had fun" (100). I need to remember that when teaching any piece of literature.


[The bold items are the articles used in this paper.]

Batho, Rob. "Shakespeare in Secondary Schools." Educational Review 50 (1998): 163-72.

Gibson, Rex. "Owning Shakespeare: Teaching His Plays by Performance." International Schools Journal 18.1 (1998): 9-21.

Greenbaum, Vicky. "Censorship and the Myth of Appropriateness: Reflections on Teaching Reading in High School." English Journal 86.2 (1997): 16-20.

Johnson, Kathryn King. "Teaching Shakespeare to Learning Disabled Students." English Journal 87.3 (1998): 45-49.

Newlin, Louisa Foulke. "Nice Guys Finish Dead. Teaching ‘Henry IV, Part I.’" English Journal 17.3 (1996): 22-25.

O’Connor, John S. "Playing with Subtext: Using Groucho to Teach Shakespeare." English Journal 88.1 (1998): 97-100.

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