Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Part 2: Is the Play the Thing?

Part IIa: A Brief Narrative Interlude: Other Inspirations and a Metaphoric Preamble

On January 21st, I left you with a promise that I’d be back to talk about specific and pragmatic plans for applying the student-centered learning credo I learned, or at least had recharged, this summer at the Folger… but because I’m an English teacher, and a lover of stories, first a brief interlude, that I promise serves a specific, pragmatic purpose, at least.

As a pre-service teacher, like many, I was pretty sure the only thing stopping me was the state and its fussy mandate that I have a certificate and a degree…I knew what I was doing; I knew what kids needed; I was certain of many more things, or at least of very different things, than in my practice today 11 years later.

Thank heavens for Dory Domanowski. Dory had been teaching for as long as I had been alive, or at least it felt that way, and her blunt, but kindly ministrations are something that a decade of my students must now be grateful for…I’ll never forget a lesson where I truly DRAGGED 30 juniors through Wordsworth’s “London, 1802”…I didn’t want them to miss ANYTHING; I was EXCITED; so, like it or not, they got meandering lectures on the sonnet form, on British history of the 19th century, on celestial bodies as symbology, and god knows what else.

At the end of the lesson, the students scattered quickly and I was left alone with my very puffed-up ego, and with Dory…Dory took a second, and a deep breath, and then asked, “How do you think that went?”  I gave a long, self-satisfied answer that boiled down to, “I’m amazing…look at ALL I’ve TAUGHT them…I’m glad you were here to see that.”  She took another long breath and asked, “How much of that do you think they’ll remember?” and, “How much do you think it matters to them if you TELL them everything?”

I’d like to say that I immediately saw the error of my ways, but I fought with Dory for a whole lunch/planning period…they NEEDED to know these things and, after all, who else could and would tell them?  How could they be expected to get excited about literature if they didn’t know all the “cool” “extra” “secrets” that I did?

The temptation for a passionate, well-informed lover of literature to drag their students through Shakespeare, through any potentially challenging text, is ever-present.  When curricular demands mean we have less and less time for texts and so we shove more and more lines, pages, and acts into a day, we often focus on making sure students “get” the end result than focusing on the process and THEIR usage of the text, not our own – which is truly unfortunate because that practice is, in certain ways, one of the best gifts an English teacher has to offer.  Not only must the ANSWERS be theirs, but if we’re to really be fair to them, and to us, the QUESTIONS have to be theirs, too…otherwise it’s a scavenger hunt where we’re the only ones who have the map and we’re asking for psychics, not scholars.

Part IIb: The PLAY is the Thing, After All

What the Folger so urgently reminded me is that students learn from DOING their own questioning and digging, not from watching us in awe…Is Play Thing 2 - TS

So I take three days, sometimes more, to cover the first five pages of both Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood and Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko…we sit together, at the same physical level, and we read, and then talk about the ramifications of that reading a word, and then a line, and then a paragraph at a time…what’s abundantly clear? What questions can we answer immediately? What words need defining? Can context help? What questions don’t seem to have any answer at all YET? What theories can we build if we have almost an answer but not quite?

So we spend nearly a week together (re-)learning intellectual curiosity, realizing that I really DO mean it – that if they come to class without questions, doubts, of their own, everyone else will have the class and its amazing collection of brains available to THEM for assistance, but their questions will go unanswered because they’ll go unasked…

Eventually students start writing down their questions and bringing them to class as homework (they’re much more telling, and much less time-wasting than, say, a quiz…), but from the second we hit that major, potentially overwhelming novel for the first time, the focus is on what THEY want to know, what they can figure out.  I’m there as a questioning coach. I almost always work my discussions in small groups so even if I were tempted to insert my wisdom, it wouldn’t be logistically easy; I’d have to be sure it was worth it…

I tell students how important their choice of group is and that generally diverse perspectives get us closer to wisdom than repetition of the same perspective, and thus that they should choose folks Is Play Thing - TSwith whom they can work, but who are different from them, who see things differently…it takes weeks and months, and there is so much that they MISS, but there’s so much MORE that they FIND, and when they do find it, it belongs to them, it’s theirs, not someone else’s, regurgitated.

This method doesn’t mean that I stop being an expert or that my knowledge is lost or that any question or answer is equally valuable to others.  It does mean that my job isn’t to tell them the end conclusions, and that instead of providing them with answers I get to provide them with the same resources that I used that helped me become an expert…they get to play and discover and enjoy the whole process for themselves.

It is my hope that I’m helping to build scholars, not sycophants, valuing inquiry, not mindless parroting, and most importantly, that I’m helping students prepare to function without me, and to KNOW that they can and that they must live in text without a teacher’s guidance, and that, often, that individual inquiry is where ALL the fun is…Thanks so much to the Folger and this summer’s cohort for reminding me that it’s not about me, and in some ways, it’s not even about the text.  It’s about my students and what they can do…what could be more pragmatic, or specific, than that?