Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

TSI Reflections: "I remember the brainstorming and encouragement that everyone shared with each other."

As we anticipate our 2014 Teaching Shakespeare Institute, which starts on June 29, we’re spending some time reflecting over the last 30 years of the program, from when it first began in 1984. To celebrate this 30-year milestone, we’re doing a series of interviews with TSI graduates.

We got in touch with a TSI graduate from 2010 to see where he is now and to hear how his TSI experience has changed the way he teaches.

Geoff Stanbury
Geoff Stanbury

Geoff Stanbury currently teaches at St. Mark’s School of Texas and just finished his sixth year of teaching 7th grade humanities. Next year he’ll be teaching 9th, 11th, and 12th grade English. He says he’s “planning on imbuing classes with as much Shakespeare as possible” and hopes to launch a Shakespeare elective class.

Here are his answers to a few questions we asked:

1. How did TSI change the way you teach?

TSI got me to internalize the fact that it’s fun and productive to ignore convention within the classroom. As long as I can imagine how students could benefit from any particular activity, no matter how weird, than any such activity is a good one.

2. Can you share a favorite memory from TSI?

So hard to choose just one! Here’s the most recurrent good memory: I remember the brainstorming and encouragement that everyone shared with each other. At such times when I would feel overwhelmed by the pressure to do quality work, someone else would always remind me that TSI wasn’t a trial; that, rather, we were all there to appreciate and celebrate Shakespeare, and to learn how to help kids do the same.

Some really great friendships emerged from these sorts of repeated exchanges (as well as from the frequent informal field trips to Capitol Hill bars.)

3. What’s been the most rewarding part of teaching Shakespeare? Was there a moment that felt particularly meaningful?

Teaching Shakespeare through performance has allowed many of my students to showcase certain character traits that had not previously emerged in school. It’s so easy for kids to peg themselves as flat archetypes: the quiet one, the disruptive one, the one who struggles with reading, etc. Because my Shakespeare curriculum is so different from most of what they’ve had in their previous years of school, I always have some students who let go of the roles that they’ve established for themselves.

This past spring, I gave a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to a class that had a lot of squirrely, inattentive kids. Eschewing conventional wisdom, I let my students establish their own groups. Sure enough, six distraction-prone boys globbed together — and proceeded to read, collaborate, debate, and experiment with the scene with incredible focus. The kid who struggles with reading was the most thoughtful Francis Flute I’ve ever seen in a student, and the kid who never could focus at his desk was a rock-solid leader of his peers throughout the process. In the end, they said that they didn’t just love the activity; they loved “doing Shakespeare.”

Geoff Stanbury, very excited about the First Folio.
Geoff Stanbury, very excited about the First Folio.

4. Can you share a practical classroom tip or a favorite activity that you use for teaching Shakespeare?

When we’re reading a play, I sometimes select a short excerpt from the middle of a scene — usually no more than 100 lines — and have the class figure out how to stage it. I give them as little context as possible and have them focus on movement, gestures, and inflection. Then I try to connect the excerpt up with a non-Shakespeare part of the curriculum, like a grammar or literary concept.

This broadens the scope of things, which can give the kids a fulcrum for when they go back and read the entire scene. Or maybe I won’t even have them read the rest of the scene, and instead just give them a synopsis. Either way, the kids are able to locate the meat behind that overall part of the play.

5. What’s one piece of advice that you would share with English teachers who are teaching Shakespeare for the first time?

Set up mini-performances right off the bat, using some fun warm-ups, and be totally casual and confident about it. Give your kids the sense that they’ll be doing these performances often, and that no one should worry about arbitrary things like gender assignments, which kid plays which role, or who’s paired up with whom (even if you have a secret plan for any of those things).

There’ll be many more chances for all students to have a variety of roles, so there’s no pressure for kids to worry about whether they’ll earn their Tony award before the end of the class period. When making a scene is as common as correcting vocab homework, then kids will be better prepared to run with it.