Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Part I: The Play’s Not The Thing, After All…

(Image: Tim Spitsberg)
(Image: Tim Spitsberg)

My Google calendar tells me that it’s been exactly 193 days since I said goodbye to my Folger Summer Academy cohort on a Friday afternoon filled with DC humidity, wine, conversation, and a palpable sense of loss.  Having spent nearly 60 hours together in less than a week, working at Hamlet, meant that I had an amazing new group of colleagues, co-conspirators, and friends, but as we reluctantly wound our way back to the real world, one by one, it dawned on me rather quickly that all of them lived hours away from me.  Even in an era where “HAGS”* in the yearbook has been replaced as valedictory by, “what’s your email? twitter? Facebook?” I knew that the magic of this brief idyll was, if not over, evolving, and that it would be my responsibility, alone, to re-create “the Folger experience” for my students in our classroom just outside Chicago, but far from the Reading Room, E Capitol St, and July in Washington.

As it turns out, though, there was no Shakespeare for me to teach this fall…after years teaching Hamlet, and a summer spent preparing, as is so often the case, fortune’s wheel had other plans for me, and I found myself instead back in the familiar territory of sophomore Honors literature, junior composition, and yearbook, with not a play to be found, let alone a Shakespeare play…so I went back to work, and began my second decade in the classroom, and while I didn’t forget my Folger experience, I didn’t live it either…

While others in my cohort posted excitedly to our Facebook page their lessons, their successes, their growth and challenges, I, uncharacteristically, stayed silent, appreciative such teachers were in the world, that they were my friends and colleagues, but, if I’m honest, feeling a bit left out: Chekov’s unfired pistol waiting impatiently for the next Act, but then drawn back into the business and busy-ness of every teacher’s Sisyphean “Act I” – the day, each day, and all it, and our students, need from us.

When the Folger asked me about blogging, my first thought, was, “About what?  I haven’t even taught Shakespeare this year, let alone Hamlet?” but after the minor pity party, and in the Folger spirit of forging on, I wondered if perhaps there were others like me who were primed and ready to do things the “Folger way” – who had taken part in a Summer Academy, read and been inspired by the blog posts of my compatriots, perhaps been spurred to action by something posted by Peggy O’Brien or the rest of the wonderful Folger staff – but felt that, like me, they had no venue in which to do so…

So I thought about that week last summer, I dragged the materials out of musty-drawered too-early retirement, and I asked myself, “What have I changed in my literature classes, in all my classes, because of what I learned at the Folger?”

It is perhaps charming about the Folger, or terrifying about our day-to-day life as teachers, or both, that I was surprised to find that amongst all my handouts from the Folger, all the blog posts, and websites, and books, and resources, that nowhere did I find anything announcing a, “How to Teach the Folger Way” – no mandates, no Danielson rubrics, no least common denominator, “do it this way, please.”

I was surprised by this lack of direct mandate because I left my Summer Academy those 193 days ago with a VERY clear sense of my obligation to students and at least of A right way of doing things, if not THE right way of doing things…something, that in my personal translation and recollection urged the following:

1) We learn to love texts, Shakespeare centrally, because of the time we spend with them, the intimacy of that investment, and the beauty (and sometimes difficulty) of the language…students NEED that experience; never take it away from them.

2) Shakespeare isn’t dead, and won’t ever be, because he lives in our performance, in our getting our hands dirty, not FOR our students, but WITH them…just as the Folger staff and wonderful expert teachers didn’t just SHOW us theater (cohorters, can you imagine Michael Tolaydo teaching us sword fighting, but never putting the dowel rods in our hands, or the reading room staff showing us those precious tomes through bulletproof glass, but never letting us touch a First Folio?), they helped US live it with them.

3) It doesn’t matter how much you know, it only matters how much you can help students DISCOVER.

I didn’t have any Hamlet to teach, but Hamlet and the Folger, it turned out, had taught me plenty.

Want to know what this approach looks like with authors other than Shakespeare? In my next blog post for the Folger (Part II: “The Readiness is All”), I’ll explicate more pragmatically and specifically how I put what I learned at the Summer Academy to use, not in the teaching of Shakespeare, but in my sophomore Honors literature course with Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony.

* “HAGS” = “Have a Great Summer!”

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)