Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

How performance transforms reading comprehension in the AP classroom

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Guest post by Deborah Gascon – Dutch Fork High School, Irmo, SC

Performance in AP?  Didn’t think you had time with all the other pressures? Make time. Using Folger strategies in my AP classes has transformed student comprehension of difficult texts and improved their abilities to read closely–and has actually SAVED me time.

This week my AP Lit and Comp students completed poetry presentations.  There were several requirements but one of them was to make the presentation engaging–there is nothing worse than sitting through 57 poetry presentations, is there?

I was impressed and amazed at how many of my students incorporated some sort of performance in their presentations.  Josh taught Frost’s poem “Home Burial” and had 3 volunteers perform the different parts to show the contrast in mood.  Tyler assigned each of his classmates a line of a Plath poem and asked them to create a physical movement to express the tone in the line.

My students quickly realized that performance is key to understanding and chose to incorporate in all facets of our classroom.  I know that with performance my students are engaged, class is interactive, students aren’t insecure about delivering presentations and the senior slump hasn’t happened.

Here are the top 5 things I did (and suggest!) to incorporate Folger strategies in the AP classroom:

1. Start early.  On the very first day of class we studied Shakespeare’s  “Seven Ages of Man” — then we performed it. I asked students which helped them understand the poem more — sitting in desks and reading it or standing and moving?  You can guess which they chose (moving!).  They were hooked from day one.

2.  Take it to a new level.  Ask students not just to show plot with their performances but also tone and mood (and all the other AP Lit buzz words).  Tone and mood are tricky to teach and getting students to label facial expressions and motions with tone words has been helpful in eventually writing about and analyzing tone and mood.

3.  Tableaux the theme.  Theme is another one of those AP Lit buzz words and tableauxs can take as little as 5 minutes to pull together. I put students in groups, tell them to discuss the theme and find a physicalization of that theme then we FREEZE.  This is an effective way to get students to visualize the author’s purpose.

4.  Compare and contrast performances.  The AP exam could potentially have two poems on the poetry essay question (could this be the year it appears??) so we have spent a good chunk of time this year comparing performances which leads to comparing tone, theme and text analysis.

I’ve done this in a variety of ways:  compared actors’ performances (for example several versions of Hamlet), compared student performances of a scene (give the same scene to two groups of students and see how they interpret it) or compared how we interpret something to how a director interpreted it — and WHY.  While comparing we discuss the “why” a lot.  Why did you do that movement?  What in the scene made you think that?  What line from the text (evidence!) made you think that was the way to interpret that?

5.  Encourage performance.  I’ve found performing and earning the endless applause of classmates increases self esteem and confidence in close reading and analysis of text.  My students have the confidence and believe they WILL pass the exam–I truly believe that is half the battle.  They have been armed with strategies to make the poem come alive or the prose jump off the page.

Don’t be surprised if during the exam my students start acting out the lines! What will your students do on test day to guarantee a passing score?  What tricks have you taught them to be successful?


  • Performance has become a big part of many of my units, not just Shakespeare or poetry, but for the novels we do as well.
    I teach Moby-Dick in my AP Lit class which lends itself to much dramatic acting out, particularly chapter three when Ishmael and Queequeg meet at the Spouter Inn. As often as I’ve seen my students do it, it is always funny, sometimes intentionally! But for that particular novel, they are able to see Melville’s comedic side far better than if we just sat at the desks reading it. Getting up and moving around still seems to be unique to the students and, more importantly, it becomes something they take away from the classroom for quite sometime after they’ve left it.

  • This article makes a great case for performance-based teaching at every level. Too often, we think of performance-based learning as something for the weak at heart when it comes to Shakespeare (or poetry, etc.), but an “up on your feet” approach isn’t a gimmick to keep teenage boys focused; it’s a powerful analytical tool — just as much as, say, underlining a text, explicating a passage in an essay, and so on. In fact, I believe that performance is a far more sophisticated tool in some ways.

    I recently taught a course on Beckett and Chekhov, and, believe me, Uncle Vanya raises a whole host of anxieties — particularly when nothing seems to happen. From day one, we played the text, and what looked flat and static came to full life.

    Try it!!

  • I’ve heard MANY teachers – and I used to be among them – bemoan teaching through performance and label it a cop-out. Only when you actually present it in a way as more than a recitation, does it become a really powerful tool in the classroom; obviously you do this, Debbie! I love your idea about tying the performance to “buzz words” tone and mood – you can’t figure those out without analysis of the language no matter which text you’re studying. I’ve found performance in the classroom to absolutely provide variety, but also force student to understand not just how the character was written, but how to put said character, and the characterization, on its feet.

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