By Angela Ward
“Ay, is it not a language I speak?”
As a drama and US history teacher in Southern California, I use a cross-curricular approach to Shakespeare because of my passionate belief that Shakespeare connects us, to our past, to ourselves, and to each other. This acting centered, ELL-based approach to Shakespeare and history requires two to three class periods. The real quest for me is to inspire students to understand how and why Shakespeare is relevant. The overlying goal that I have as a teacher is to convince students that Shakespeare is universally important for everyone, and speaks to all of us, regardless of our home language.
In any language, students speak and learn at their best when they feel safe, connected and loved, so we connect with each other using basic acting/theatre warm up exercises. We warm up the facial muscles, especially the “articulators”, by making crazy faces, instructing students to chew imaginary bubble gum in various sizes, yawn, make noises by blowing air, and finally graduating to a “WOW” sound. When the students can put different meanings into the “WOW” sounds, I place them with a partner to learn a Shakespearean greeting, and then instruct them to put different actions behind their greetings. We’ll switch partners, and learn a word or phrase from the Shakespeare text I am introducing that day, using the same process.
This serves as a vocal warm-up, and a simple physical warm-up follows. We conclude the warm-up phase with a “rhythm exercise”, which involves clapping and stomping out a beat, then adding a new, longer text to the beat. If I am teaching a unit on slavery, I use Frederick Douglass’ favorite play: Othello. Students are “feeling” the rhythm of the text in their bodies while learning lines – without worrying about correct pronunciation or what the text is “supposed” to mean. They are focused on working together, and staying in rhythm. After succeeding, we look at the acting adage I have written in large letters on the white board: “IT’S NOT THE WORDS…IT’S THE ACTION BEHIND THE WORDS!” Students then choose an action, which they perform while speaking the text they’ve now memorized. Wild group applause (and laughter) follows each effort!
Next, the group assembles with highlighters, pencils, and graphic organizers. I provide a list of cognates, signal words, homophones, and synonyms students will find as we read together, along with a character map. There is no need to provide a vocabulary list for words in the scene: students use context clues, and, if necessary, glosses on the left-hand side of their Folger editions. If I am teaching a unit on slavery, as mentioned above, I pass out copies of a scene – or lines — from Othello, along with a class copy of the Folger Othello. Students are encouraged to highlight and mark up their texts. I introduce Frederick Douglass, with pictures and illustrations. I explain that Shakespeare was his favorite author and invite students to make connections between selected passages from both Douglass and Shakespeare.
Then we really dig into Othello. The scene we now read includes the lines they’ve memorized earlier. Working with a partner, students read aloud to each other. They speculate why Frederick Douglass loved the play. They analyze the scene and agree upon an “action behind the words”. We then look at pictures of Frederick Douglass, and his home – where a picture of Othello hung over his fireplace. We look at images of slavery in America, and read excerpts from Douglass’ autobiography. We consider the similarities and differences between Othello’s experience as an African in Venetian society and Douglass’ experience as an African American in antebellum America. We create a graphic of words and images from the Othello text that relate to our study of Douglass. Students draw character maps of Frederick Douglass’ life during the particular period we’ve studied from his autobiography, using the Othello character map as a blueprint.
Finally, students share their discoveries in a way that feels comfortable. They choose a performance, or they share their decorated map or graphic. The purpose of this lesson is to introduce big questions around slavery and identity, increase vocabulary, and improve critical thinking and reading skills. My greater goal is to inspire an appetite for Shakespeare and make connections with his work!
Angela Ward holds an MFA in theatre, and did post graduate work with the Royal National Theatre in London, and Playwrights Horizons, New York. She attended a Folger teacher training at the University of Nebraska, and runs a high school theatre department, in addition to teaching United States history, and various ESL classes at a Southern California high school.