By Mark Miazga
When I started my career, Shakespeare intimidated me. I became an English teacher in part to share my love of reading with students, but I never had loved reading Shakespeare.
I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but my entire 13 years of public and Catholic schooling in both southwest Michigan and suburban Detroit yielded just one Shakespeare play: a reading of Macbeth in the 10th grade.
And, even though I devoured books and mainly loved English classes, the experience with Shakespeare wasn’t a good one; I remember sitting in rows, reading the play aloud, my teacher explaining lines afterwards. Nothing else.
Flash forward a few years, and I’m a high school English teacher on my own in a large urban school in Baltimore City. I held my own, for the most part, but my teaching of Shakespeare felt like the weakness in my game.
Even though I used the Shakespeare Set Free series at times, I didn’t feel confident enough to take many of the risks that the series entailed. I spent way too much time trying to make kids understand the plot, and devoted much of my energy to explaining lines, just like that uninspiring teacher I had in the 10th grade.
By the end of the unit, I think my students could probably describe some foreshadowing or celestial imagery in Romeo and Juliet, but were they any more confident in reading Shakespeare the next time they picked up a play? Would they be going to a Shakespeare play on their own when it one was being performed around town? What would they remember about their experience with reading Shakespeare 10 years from now? It was definitely “not much”.
So I applied to the 2008 Teaching Shakespeare Institute, describing much of what I just told you: that Teaching Shakespeare was a bit scary to me and I wanted to be a better Shakespeare teacher.
And the four weeks here at the Folger changed my teaching life and continue to have an impact on my students and me every single unit that I teach.
Yes, those four weeks were magical. Professional Development in modern education is often pretty bad, an assortment of Powerpoints read to teachers while we try to sneak-grade papers.
But the Teaching Shakespeare Institute was a magical and envigorating four weeks that transformed my teaching practice. I loved how well-organized the weeks were, equally drawing from the three tenets of Folger Education: Scholarship, Performance, and Pedagogy.
In terms of scholarship, I studied literature for, really, the first time since I was an undergraduate, listening to world-class scholars deliver lectures in the morning. Then these same scholars led us in small group discussions, and later offered feedback on our ideas and papers produced after research in the esteemed Folger Library.
In the afternoons, I acted for the first time in my life, learning what it means to embody lines and perform the language of Shakespeare on the famed Folger stage. On alternating days, we learned about how to incorporate all that we learning into our classrooms.
Immediately upon return to my school for the 2008-2009 school year, prepared with knowledge and scholarship about plays I never would have had the confidence to teach before the institute — King Lear, Richard III, Much Ado About Nothing — my instruction of Shakespeare, as well as other pieces of literature, was transformed.
As we read Richard III I was no longer working to make sure every kid understood every symbol and every element of the plot, but was working to compel the kids to be comfortable with Shakespeare’s language.
All my lessons now consisted of a strong focus on the language. We would compare clips of two different actors interpreting Richard’s soliliquy, analyzing their performance of the language and then evaluating how their interpretation of the lines showed different interpretations of the character and scene.
We would use choral readings and extended pauses to examine the wooing of Lady Anne, examining how Shakespeare’s language and meter drives character and motivation. We would look at some of the longer monologues and scenes — such as the closing scene of the play — and cut the language, just like directors and actors do today, which compel students to evaluate and consider author’s purpose with the language.
These three lessons are just the tip of the iceburg. The Teaching Shakespeare Institute came at that point in my career where I sort of knew what I was doing but was also becoming progressively aware that the job of teaching is one that always needs revision and refocusing.
TSI helped propel me from a teacher-centered Shakespeare classroom to a student-centered Shakespeare classroom, one that gave students tools to investigate and explore Shakespeare’s plays rather than just filling them with information about the Globe Theater and Iambic Pentameter.
At TSI, I learned that performance can be, and should be, a centerpiece of assessment because it facilitates interaction between the student and Shakespeare’s language.
——> Read more on Mark Miazga’s blog, Epiphany in Baltimore.
Mark Miazga is in his 13th year teaching English and coaching baseball at Baltimore City College High School, the third oldest public school in the country. He teaches in both the Diploma and Middle Years Programs within the International Baccalaureate and is an IB Examiner. A recipient of the Milken Educator Award in 2014, Mr. Miazga is also a 2008 Teaching Shakespeare Institute scholar and a 2013 Steinbeck Institute Scholar. He received his B.A. in English and Education from Michigan State University, and his Masters in Secondary Education from Towson University. He blogs about education matters at Epiphany in Baltimore (http://epiphanyinbmore.blogspot.com).