By Corinne Viglietta
We just wrapped up our (exhilarating!) 2014 High School Fellowship, dubbed affectionately by its 16 participants as “Varsity Shakespeare.”
Since September, local high schoolers gathered here every Monday to take on big questions and deep learning around Shakespeare and the humanities.
They saw productions of King Lear and Julius Caesar and performed their own cutting of Twelfth Night. And they conducted original research in the Folger collection. It was a blast, and they were fabulous!
As first-time head teacher of the Fellowship (I was teaching 8th and 9th grade English here in DC until recently), I wanted to pause and share what I learned—and how it might connect to any classroom.
Use community resources.
The basic idea behind this program is to connect students with the Shakespeare resources around them. The Folger is a buzzing universe of scholars, teachers, artists, and staff—and we’re lucky that, years ago, super-teacher Louisa Newlin founded the Fellowship to bring local students right into this universe.
This year’s Fellows “geeked out” and asked for autographs and photos when Dr. Barbara Mowat, co-editor of the plays we’d been studying, gave a guest seminar. Their reaction was similar when they got to chat with conservators, librarians, and the cast of Folger Theatre’s Julius Caesar. As one Fellow put it, “It’s cool to see all the different pathways that a love of literature can take.”
The web counts, too. Since we met at the Folger just once a week, we did a lot of online learning. In addition to posting comments on the app Edmodo, Fellows made some fascinating findings from Folger Digital Texts and LUNA Image Database, two free online resources.
Bring together lots of different voices and perspectives.
Differences and surprises enriched the learning. We had students from 8 public schools, 2 public charter schools, 4 independent schools, and 2 home schools. Some had met Shakespeare, others knew him pretty well, and still others were meeting him for the first time.
We had different visiting faculty each week, and they took all kinds of theoretical and pedagogical approaches. Often, one reading of a text challenged another—and it was glorious. A strange line like Lear’s “my poor fool is hanged” really opens up and sprawls out under the light of all these different minds!
High school kids can handle scholarship.
Shakespeare scholar Dr. Sandy Mack became famous for pushing against the tidy labels of “tragic hero” and “tragic flaw.” He had us folding folio and quarto pages and poring over primary source documents.
When we wanted to call something a “theme,” he reframed it as a question. Just when we became comfortable with our circle performance of that beautiful barge passage from Antony and Cleopatra, he asked us to change our emphasis and try again. Scholarship helped us interrogate our own assumptions, and the Fellows didn’t just learn this way—they loved learning this way.
When the Director of the Folger, Dr. Michael Witmore, came to teach, he introduced the class to an emerging “sport” in the world of digital humanities: competitive antedating. Within weeks, a team of Fellows used this tool to find earlier, non-Shakespearean instances of 95 words wrongly attributed to Shakespeare in the Oxford English Dictionary (“bedroom,” “bedazzle,” and “varletry,” to name a few).
I learned that if you give students a real chance to create new knowledge—not that dusty old essay prompt on celestial imagery in R+J—they’ll jump at it and amaze you.
Corinne Viglietta is Assistant Director of Education at the Folger. She has taught English in DC, Maryland, and France.