Any good teacher knows that there are a variety of ways students can demonstrate their understanding of a reading. Projects that prescribe students to create original posters, board games, models, etc. based on a class reading are all great methods to get students to engage with literature. As many teachers who use Folger’s performance-rich curriculum know, having students stand up and perform a scene from any of Shakespeare’s plays is “a close reading on your feet.” But as wonderful as all of these modes of knowledge are, it behooves us as English instructors to not only show students how to understand complex literary works, but also to teach them how to respond to and make arguments about them in writing. Fortunately, good projects and performance based activities are easy to supplement with meaningful writing assignments.
What I love about project- and performance-rich curriculum is that it gets students actively learning by doing. However, teachers must be mindful to ground these types of activities in textual evidence. If I have students create a poster, I expect that every artistic choice they make is informed by a specific passage from the piece we are reading. By asking students to cite specific textual evidence in project and performance based learning, we encourage analysis, inference, and synthesis through close reading. We can take this learning further by adding a writing assignment.
Currently, I offer my students three options for their final projects during my Shakespeare unit: 1.) Performing a scene (in a group or alone) in which they have memorized all of their lines, added blocking, and created/coordinated costumes; 2.) Creating a box set in which they build a miniature stage, draw costumes, make props, add lighting and sound, and block five movements for their token actors within 1 scene; 3.) Writing an essay in which they analyze and interpret a film’s mise en scène and choices of the director and then explain how these elements contribute to and influence overall meaning of the play. With all three projects, students must read the scene closely to justify their ideas, but the third option is the only one in which writing is inherent to the assignment. As such, with projects one and two, I require students to provide a written justification of their creative interpretations that includes textual evidence from the plays they are portraying.
For example, one of my students created a box set and used rose-colored lighting to signify when the characters in a Midsummer Night’s Dream were under the influence of the magical love nectar. She argued that the lighting supported Helena’s assertion, “Things base and vile, holding no quantity,/ Love can transpose to form and dignity./ Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind” (1.1.238-40). In other words, love does not change the content of what we see but rather our perception of it. This student went on to write that the rose-colored lighting showed the characters’ changes in perception because it affects the way the audience sees the scene without altering anything physical in it. Splendid!
I have found that by accompanying performances and projects with writing assignments, my students have become far more intentional with their creative choices because they slow down and read the plays more closely. Even better, students see the value of this writing because it helps them create better interpretations of the reading through the mediums with which they are most comfortable. Ultimately, a project or performance paired with a good writing assignment pushes students to perform higher level thinking and to make more meaningful connections between and within disciplines.