By Jill Burdick-Zupancic
This word always evokes a bit of panic in my mind. It feels like some kind of “super assessment” I’m expected to give to my students. Even in my seventh year as an educator, it’s a jarring word; however, the past three years, since my experience at the Teaching Shakespeare Institute at the Folger, I’ve started to look at this time of year a little differently.
Of course as English teachers, we want our students reading closely and analyzing text for something – characterization, big questions, effects of figurative language, etc… – and this is the time of year, through Shakespeare, that I assess how far we’ve come from those first days in September. If you’re familiar with the education department at the Folger, or you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve heard “close reading through performance” before. Every year, at midterm time, the power of this statement is solidified for me.
At the time I’m writing this blog, we’re through Act IV of Macbeth. I spend a lot of time with film versions of the play throughout our study, this year it’s Polanski, the Folger production, and Goold’s version for PBS, and while we never watch anything straight through, we’ll look at a specific scene (the opening witches scene, the “dagger” soliloquy, Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene) in each version.
I remind the students that each of these directors has made conscious and analytical decisions regarding anything from movement, facial expressions, pacing and pauses when delivering the lines, costumes, body language, and so on. Now through Act IV, the students do a stellar job identifying choices that these director’s make and discussing why, in the context of the play as a whole, they’re made.
This is the time of the unit that I reintroduce the mantra of “process over product.” The students will put a chosen scene from the play on the stage at our high school, and their peers and some of my colleagues and supervisors will be the audience. They get really excited and nervous about this, and mainly due to the latter, they really work hard to make the scene stage-worthy.
What I also ask them to do, at the suggestion of a guest speaker at TSI ’12, is to document the process that leads to the staged scene and the creation of the directors’ notebook. This is where the magic happens.
For the logistical components of the scene and notebook expectation, I rely heavily on the Macbeth Shakespeare Set Free text. These five- minute documentaries show edited versions of students from the beginning of the process, the creation of the promptbook (using Folger digital text) – editing and cutting, to the planning of costumes, the blocking, etc…. The students started these this past week and I’m so thrilled with how they’re engaging with the process so far.
The students think they’re only working toward this final project, but with their phones recording it all, the footage shows a deep consideration of the text – the language – and how it supports decisions the students are making. Of course I haven’t seen the final staging of the scene yet, but the “midterm” is happening through the process, the performance of that final scene is a celebration of all that was learned through the process.
Jill Burdick-Zupancic is in her sixth year of teaching and currently teaches Honors English and AP Art History at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, VA. She is a Teaching Shakespeare Institute (TSI) alumna from 2012 and can be reached at email@example.com.