Debbie Gascon’s brilliant advice to start the school year with Shakespeare has made my hot, humid classroom one of the coolest places to be on the first day of school. This year, my freshmen and I
played a game of “Shakespeare in a Mug,” my modification of “Shakespeare in a Can,” an activity I learned from Michael Tolaydo and Caleen Jennings at the 2014 Teaching Shakespeare Institute. The results? A fun 45 minutes that taught me a lot about who my students are and what they need in the year ahead.
Here’s how it works:
- 3 mugs or small containers
- 2 sets of short lines from Shakespeare plays printed on small strips or squares of paper (I used insults from Romeo and Juliet, a play we will study in a few months. As Jennie K. Brown suggested in her post, compliments create an even more welcoming atmosphere.)
- 1 set of places/ situations printed on small strips or squares of paper (I chose places and situations that would be familiar to students (i.e. Green Bay’s own Lambeau Field, our local shopping mall, the principal’s office, the Oscars)
- Pair students and have them choose who will be partner “A” and partner “B”
- Partner “A” takes a line from one mug. Partner “B” takes a line from the other mug.
- Partner “B” also selects a location/situation from the third container
- Allow time for students to plan a small improvised scene that takes place in their location/situation and involves both of their lines. I also allowed students to add a line or two of their own to help set the scene if necessary.
- When time is up, students perform their brief scenes for the class, and everyone earns a round of applause!
What I discovered:
- My students need models. When they first received their lines and situations, my freshmen struggled to figure out what their lines meant, how they fit together, or why someone might utter them in their chosen situation, but after I modeled a quick scene with a brave volunteer (we were rival Packers and Bears fans who got into a scuffle at Lambeau), they understood what to do.
- My students are kind and brave. One line that made it into my mix was “Go thy ways, wench” (2.5.46) from a conversation between the Nurse and Juliet. It’s not an insult in that conversation, but it sounds like one. A boy who had been partnered with a girl picked the line from the mug and quickly asked to exchange it; his refusal to call a classmate “wench” made my heart melt a little bit. Later in the week, I asked students to write letters of introduction. A few students admitted to being very nervous about public speaking, but they took on the “Shakespeare in a Mug” challenge with gusto!
- Shakespeare on Day 1= Critical thinking on Day 1: Students had to puzzle out the tone of their performance by thinking about what words meant and what lines sounded like when read aloud. When groups weren’t sure about how to fit their lines into their situations, a few questions about the conflicts, meetings, or actions that normally happen in their location—a process not unlike using context clues to determine a word’s meaning—were all they needed to put the scene together.
“Shakespeare in a Mug” is open to interpretation. When I first played “Shakespeare in a Can,” partners kept their lines a secret from each other, but I modified the game to create more opportunities for conversation and collaboration on the first day of the new year. I’ve read about other versions of this activity that use small groups rather than partners. “Shakespeare in a Mug” also doubled as my classroom icebreaker; I required partners to learn fun facts about each other introduce themselves to the class prior to their performances.
Were the scenes perfect? No. Did we laugh a lot? Yes. Did my students learn that my classroom will be a safe place to collaborate, make mistakes, and be creative? I hope so. And did I get a snapshot of the funny, kind, shy, smart, creative, bold, goofy, determined, friendly, inspiring learners my students are? Absolutely.