Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Evidence-Based Argument: Shakespeare and the Common Core

Guest post by Josh Cabat

Over the past few weeks, I have had the opportunity to attend both a week-long workshop on reading strategies at Teachers College and the week-long AP English Language and Composition prep course sponsored by the College Board.

In so many ways, these two activities are diametrically opposed, certainly in terms of the ultimate target audience and, in some fairly interesting ways, in terms of philosophy.

What I’m taking away from these two experiences, however, is how remarkably similar they are. While the levels of complexity were completely different, it turned out that I spent both weeks engaged in exactly the same two activities: teaching close reading techniques, and learning how to teach students to structure coherent arguments and support them with relevant and valid evidence.

Clearly, these activities are founded upon the changes wrought by the Common Core. And as we all know, Shakespeare is one of the few authors mentioned by name within the strictures of the Core. And as I was enjoying these two very different weeks of professional development, I thought a great deal about where Shakespeare might fit into all of this.

Close reading is not really an issue, of course; all of the performance-based activities promoted by the Folger are founded on exactly the kind of close reading demanded by the new standards. But what about the other strand, the idea of evidence-based argument?

My question to you, then, is if there are any ways to bring this essential activity into our study of Shakespeare. One choice might be to do a rhetorical analysis of arguments in Shakespeare’s plays; while this is possible, it seems that most of the important “argument” scenes in Shakespeare (think Kate and Petruchio or Beatrice and Benedick) are based more on emotion than on any tangible evidence.

A more interesting approach might be to analyze soliloquies that illustrate either the arguments that are happening within the mind of a character, (“To be or not to be” or “If it were done when ‘tis done,”) or effective rhetorical persuasion (think Portia, Marc Antony, Iago, or Richard III.)

The next level of activity would have to happen after students have read a large chunk of the play or even finished it. It would involve the kind of exercises that have been done by English teachers for ages, but not perhaps in this format.

For example, many teachers of Julius Caesar have had students conduct a mock trial for Brutus and the conspirators. You might be able to refocus this into an evidence-based argument by giving the students a simple prompt: Brutus is a traitor. From there, the process kicks in: choosing a side, combing the text for evidence, working with a partner and/or groups to sharpen your thinking, creating drafts and revising with help from teachers and peers.

Consider how many plays this might work for:  Hamlet is a coward; Henry V is a war criminal who had no justification to attack France; Romeo and Juliet have no control over their fate. The ultimate goal if you take this path, of course, is to have students create their own prompts based on what interested or intrigued them about the play.

These are some basic ideas, but I would love to know your thoughts. Have you tried something like this? Did it work well? What might you change the next time around? Whatever the case, we all need to “hear the argument”, and consider ways to bring this kind of Core-based writing and reasoning into our study of Shakespeare.

Josh Cabat is currently serving as Chair of English for the Roslyn (NY) Public Schools. For the preceding decade, he taught English and Film Studies at Roslyn High School in Roslyn New York. Previously, he taught in the New York City public high schools for more than a decade. He was the co-founder of the New York City Student Shakespeare Festival. He has published many articles on Shakespeare and Film in publications such as the English Journal. He earned an MA from the University of Chicago and a BA from Columbia University.