Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Getting into the Mind of Shakespeare in an IB Class

By Mark Miazga

The International Baccalaureate (IB) English Higher Level curriculum and assessments are still an ideal place for Shakespeare, even though the revision of the curriculum a couple of years ago no longer makes his inclusion compulsory. While he does not fit into Part I Works in Translation of the curriculum (at least in an English speaking school), he works well in Detailed Study (Part II), Groups of Works (Part III), or Free Choice (Part IV).

I’ve been an IB English instructor for seven years, and have used Shakespeare plays each year, including Much Ado About Nothing, King Lear, Othello, and Richard III. I currently use Shakespeare in Detailed Study, and Shakespeare is, of course, ideal for close study. Furthermore, IB is interested in students knowing the implications of the genres that they are studying: for example, how the study of a Drama is different than studying a novel or non-fiction. They are not interested, so much, in students being able to write essays about, say, celestial imagery in Romeo and Juliet or mirrors in Richard III. Instead, they want students to be able to analyze the choices that the playwright has made and how these choices create meaning.

With this in mind, putting students in the mind of the playwright – or a director or actor – is the best way to help students to do well on the IB assessments. The assessment for Detailed Study is a 10-minute oral discussion recorded with the teacher, and students will have to answer, without rehearsal or notes, authentic questions about the experience of reading the play. Therefore, putting students in authentic assessment experiences in the classroom – making them directors, letting them cut scenes, encouraging them to play around with the language and the setting, compelling them to think about and explain why they made the choices they made – is the best way to prepare students for an authentic 10-minute oral assessment about the play.

My students’ big project at the end of reading a play is planning, directing, performing, and recording an adaptation of a scene from the play. I encourage them to change the setting, to cut the language, to add music, to make it their own – without changing the original language (they can cut it, just not change or modernize it). Afterwards, they both write and explain their rationale for their choices: what elements of the play their performances and direction helped emphasize, what choices they made as directors and actors to convey ideas about theme, character, and other elements of the play.

It’s important to trust your students to get into the language. For the day of filming, I send them off around the school grounds with their smart phones to record, and check on them by rotating between groups. The conversations about which lines to cut, about what actions to include, about where to pause, etc., are what we want to hear when teaching Shakespeare; these conversations give them ownership of Shakespeare, and of their own learning. I’m attaching my assignment here (and including a couple of YouTube clips that resulted from this assignment below):

By putting them in the director’s and actor’s chair, students are compelled to get into the mindset of the playwright, which uniquely prepares them for the IB Literary Discussion. This is scored based upon knowledge of the text, interesting and insightful answers to the questions, and the student’s language. Here are a few sample questions that I use in the individual discussion with students about Richard III this year:

1)  What for you was the most riveting or satisfying moment in the play? Can you account for how the playwright managed to achieve that effect?

2)  Who was your favorite or least favorite secondary character in the play? Can you see how the playwright elicited such a response? Follow-up: Why is that secondary character included?

3)  If you were asked to direct ________________ (for example, the Richard’s death scene; or the wooing of Lady Anne scene; or another important scene), what choices would you make in your direction and what important ideas of the play would your choices help to emphasize?

4)  In a play about royal families, why are common everyday people included? If you were directing, how would you present these characters and why?

5)  Richard often talks directly to the audience in the play. What is the effect of this choice by the playwright?

6)  Sometimes parts are cut from this long Shakespeare play. What is a character that some directors might consider cutting? Can you give cases for and against cutting this character?

7)  This is the only play of Shakespeare’s to begin with a soliloquy, with a character alone onstage describing a long speech. What effect does this soliloquy have on both the audience and the ideas of the play?

8)  How does the dramatist use rhythm and breaks in meter to convey theme and character?

Lastly, I’ll include two of my students’ presentations from this year, including a film noir version of Clarence’s murder in Richard III and an all-female version of Act 4, Scene 4, the scene where Richard starts losing power. Note the the last 10 minutes of the first clip, which details the students’ choices in developing their scene (the other group had it as part of their presentation to the class). Not included were other groups who made it their own in other ways, such as setting Richard III in the Antebellum South or in a modern high school.

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).