Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

The Bard is Alive and Well

Ben Jonson once wrote of Shakespeare, “He was not of an age, but for all time.”  Now, almost 400 years after Shakespeare’s death, we live in a world where it gets more difficult every day to convince students of the Bard’s relevance. Cell phones, iPads, and video games seem to have taken center stage in the common teenager’s life.  Is it really as difficult as some suggest to engage today’s student in the study of Shakespeare and his play?  I would argue that Shakespeare is doing just fine in 2013.  In a recent Folger Education Facebook entry, there was a link posted about seven upcoming film or television projects that all involved Shakespeare.  PBS recently began their six episode series entitled “Shakespeare Uncovered” and the first episode examined my all time favorite play, Macbeth.  As someone who feels they have a strong grasp of the play, I was fascinated at all the little insights I gained from watching this episode.  It was especially thrilling for me to see Dunsinane Hill and possibly the remnants of Birnam Wood in the surrounding countryside. As I watched, I was already plotting which clips from the show I wanted to share with my students next year when we study Macbeth.

In addition, I am amazed at how many newspaper and magazine headlines, syndicated columnists, and television shows make references to the Bard’s works.  One recent example that comes to mind was an opinion piece about the US tax code and how it relates to Shakespeare.  On television, CBS’s The Mentalist had two episodes from 2012 where Shakespeare had a major role in the outcome of the show. In the episode, “Something’s Rotten in Redmund” the lead character Patrick Jane investigates a teacher’s death by hanging around rehearsals of Hamlet.  By the end of the episode, Jane is on stage playing the ghost of Hamlet’s father and let’s just say that this ghost has other things to reveal than a usurping uncle. In another episode, “Cheap Burgundy,” Jane catches a killer by misquoting lines from Macbeth that the killer supposedly knew nothing about, but who felt the need to correct Jane’s mistake.  In this week’s Sports Illustrated, there is a college basketball article by Luke Winn entitled “Cry Havoc and Let Slip the Dogs of Hoops.”  I love seeing references to Julius Caesar in my favorite sports magazine.

While this was a long-winded introduction to what I want to share, I think it is important that students be shown the numerous examples of how the Bard’s works are alive and well in the 21st Century.   With that said, I also think that, we as educators, need to embrace the technology of today and also get the students out of their desks and experience the plays on their feet.  In this blog, I would like to share two of the activities that I have done in my classroom over the past three years to make the Bard come alive and allow the students to use a plethora of the technology that they love.

One of my most popular classroom activities is the making of a movie trailer after we study a play.  With the majority of newer iPads and cell phones  possessing video cameras that are HD quality, many of the students can film these projects using their own devices.  Of course, actual video cameras may be used as well.  The simplicity of movie editing programs like iMovie, Windows Movie Maker, and other similar programs allow students to use edit the film and use effects that we could only dream of having at our fingertips ten years ago.  So far, my classes have done Hamlet and Othello.  None of them will earn Oscars, but they all have a special place in my heart and the students appear to really enjoy this particular week of my class.

Chris’s students act out scenes from HAMLET for their trailer project.

I will give you a general overview of what the students are responsible for, but if anyone has more specific questions feel free to contact me.  First, the students make groups of 7-10 depending on class size.  Together, we view some film trailers in class and have a short discussion on what was effective or ineffective about each.  Next, the students decide on which scenes or lines must make an appearance in the film.  I try and stress to them that short clips are most effective, but if you watch the links that I provide you will see that they don’t always follow those instructions.  Sometimes their disobedience was effective and other times not so much.  After building the script, Students also need to discuss scene locations(we are limited to our school grounds), costumes, and props.  We usually borrow clothes from the drama department closet, but you will see in the Othello trailers that some were just dressed in normal school clothes. Finally,  we begin the filming process.  Even though the trailer will probably be no more than one to four minutes long, it will probably take at least three or four days to film and we have the block schedule at my high school.  One can never underestimate how many times the “actors” will stumble over their lines, unexpected encounters with  students from other classes or cars that appear in your video backgrounds forcing a cut, or when the laughter bug hits and nobody can keep a straight face.  You can view the bloopers reel at the end of our trailer videos to see what I mean.

After all of the filming is completed, the editing process takes over. I usually do most of the editing with the help of a few students.  I think this is a mistake that I need to remedy.  There is a pretty slick trailer feature on iMovie that my dog could probably figure out with a little time.  My plan this year is to arm the students with iPads and allow them to use the iMovie app to create their masterpieces.  I have included links to our previous trailers here.  Hamlet #1 , Hamlet #2 , Both Othello Trailers.

Staying on the theme of video production, I’d like to quickly share a project that two of my students created on their own that I now plan on having my future classes do as a formal assignment.  They called it the “Shakespeare Infomercial”. Neil and Spencer picked a product to sell that played a role in a specific play.  In one Othello infomercial, they sell an Egyptian handkerchief complete with strawberry embroidery. If the customers acted soon enough, they would also throw in a complimentary scimitar and scabbard.  They finished the video with several satisfied customer’s remarks.  What I enjoyed most about the infomercials was how they threw in several references to the plays and the Bard that were very clever.  Watch the Othello informercial here and then check out their Macbeth infomerical where they sell witch cauldrons among other items.  The portion of the assignment that takes the longest is the writing out of the script. They filmed and edited the video on an iPad in under an hour.

I am out of space, but I hope to share some more activities from my classroom in the future.  Thanks for taking the time to read this and making your classroom one that makes the Bard come alive!

Chris Lavold has been  an English teacher and baseball coach at Mauston High School in Mauston, WI for the past 16 years.  As a 2010 Folger Library Teaching Shakespeare Institute participant, he learned many valuable techniques and insights about Shakespeare and the teaching of his plays.  He has spoken at the NCTE conference for the past two years on behalf of the Folger on topics specializing in technology and the use of film in the classroom. Lavold can be reached at clavold@maustonschools.org  or follow him on Twitter @Shakehitch.

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