Teaching Shakespeare!

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What Does Fun Have to Do with Lifelong Learning?

One thing I try to remain conscious of on a day to day basis is my students’ demeanor when entering the room. I try to greet them, smile at them, start a conversation, etc. However, inevitably everyday someone asks the question that I hate to answer: “Mr. Nissly,” chirps some well-meaning, enthusiastic student, “can we do something fun today?”

I hate this question because too often the answer is, “no.” Don’t get me twisted, I want to have fun, but ‘fun’ is hard to do in a classroom, because ‘fun’ is not an academic vocabulary word (believe me, I’ve searched every common core standard, and I can’t find it anywhere). The tragedy of all of this is students LOVE to have fun, like all the time. It’s one of the few things about teenagers that actually makes sense to me. So on days when I’m asked this question, and I’ve planned something fun, I join my students in a feeling of genuine hype about what lays ahead. However, on days when I say “no, not really,” knowing we are about to take a perilous journey down the path of close-reading and written response questions, a road that only the strong and “on grade-level” can stomach. I find myself wondering the same question they are: “why not?”

The concept of having fun, as elusive and subjective as that word is, is one of the greatest learning objectives I can have in a lesson (it’s surprisingly easy to measure too, no formative assessment required). It is also extremely useful in making meaning for any content you may teach. Allow me to offer a few examples. Last week, I was teaching an on-level eleventh grade English class. We were reviewing The Great Gatsby, which we had finished before break. So how did I initiate an in-depth dialogue about the novel, after a two week hiatus? Easy, I did the ol’ teacher standard: Jeopardy.

Now you may scoff at this (I actually was observed that day, and I think I heard a scoff coming from that direction) but my students were not scoffing. They were collaborating, searching the text and shouting answers about the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, Daisy’s “money-like” voice, and explaining why Gatsby’s mind could no longer be free to “romp” like God’s after kissing Daisy. In between Jeopardy questions (when the shouting, pouting, and celebrating over meaningless points subsided) I would pose textually-based, higher-level thinking questions to the class, and cold-call for responses, each time sparking a lively discussion about Fitzgerald’s diction, repetition, and other forms of craft he used to convey the novel’s symbols and themes. My students were so into the discussion that I found myself saying “okay, gang if we keep talking about this we’ll never finish the game.”

Now don’t misunderstand me, classroom fun does not always have to be a game, nor is it reserved for review. Earlier this year I introduced The Scarlet Letter to my AP Language class using “The Scarlet Letter in 20 Minutes.” This is a Folger strategy I learned at the Teaching Shakespeare Institute 2014, and it’s perfect for pre-reading or review. In my class, students kicked off The Scarlet Letter by participating in an interactive, modernized summary of the novel—and here’s the cool part: the summary has them doing dramatic readings of direct lines from the text.

So, for example, the narrator (can be a teacher or a student volunteer) reads, “Finally, Hester realizes Chillingsworth has been doing some really twisted manipulation to her baby’s daddy, and she decides to reveal Chillingsworth’s true identity to her mystery lover.” At this point I yell, “Group 11” and three giddy high school students enter the circle trying to hold back laughter, and recite “Ha! What sayest thou? An enemy! And under mine own roof!” All the while pointing menacing fingers, curdling the word “enemy” and creating a roof with their arms. This comes off as simple tomfoolery to the class; however I know that they are really close reading, inferring, and building prior knowledge for this quote down the line.

There are many examples of these deceptively fun, yet complex learning activities sprinkled through my lessons throughout the year, but not nearly enough. When I step back and assess my best classes, I realize that they always are the ‘fun’ ones—the ones that connect the individual student directly with the content, the ones that show the spark of real learning.

‘Fun’ may never garnish the same academic prestige of words like ‘rigor,’ ‘testing,’ ‘growth’ or ‘textual evidence.’ ‘Fun’ may never have its own Common Core anchor standard, or be allowed within a posted academic learning objective, but in the words of the Bard himself “a light heart lives long” (Love’s Labour’s Lost, 2.2). So it seems to me if our aim truly is to create life-long learners, we ought to do our best to lighten the hearts of those learners.

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