Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

“A thousand twangling instruments”: Using media production to teach Shakespeare

I work at a school for students with learning differences, so I’m always looking for ways to create multiple points of access for every text my students study.  One of my favorite ways of doing that is through multimedia creation.  In my experience, students learn immensely through making and doing.  Among other methods, video production offers a way for my kids to show me what they know–and learn more deeply about a piece of text in the process.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned about teaching Shakespeare is that in most cases, less is more.  It’s almost always better to dig deeper into a small excerpt than superficially survey a work in its entirety.  So when my students and I studied The Tempest recently, I assigned each of them a monologue from the play.  No student had more than twenty lines to consider, and most had closer to ten.  Their goal? Squeeze everything they could out of the few lines they had.

I wanted them to consider the context, look at the figurative language, the poetic structure, and the word choice.  I had them read their monologue aloud again and again, whispering, shouting, trying it in a Scottish accent (that was fun!), saying it to an invisible toddler, then an imaginary love interest.  I wanted them to consider their monologues in every possible light.  It was fun, but it was also enlightening.  By reading and listening to their monologue so many times, the students began to tease out new levels of understanding.

Next, they got writing.  They crafted an old-fashioned poetic analysis, explaining everything they had found in their inquiry.  When they were through, it was time to start conceptualizing.  They had pulled everything they could out of the monologue; now it was time to build it back up in a creative and original way.  I asked each of my students to create a “concept video” (think music video, minus the pop hit).  What were the big ideas?  How could they translate into a visual story?  How did the structural nuts and bolts play against the underlying message?  Where was the tension?  What called to them?  The results were incredible and really speak for themselves.

Kyle focused on Prospero’s goodbye to the island from Act 5.  In his paper, he made a tie between the structure of the monologue and the ebb and flow of a tide.  He included nature imagery in his video to mirror the monologue and used a film technique to make objects “disappear,” a nod to the magic present in the play and the idea of saying goodbye to things you hold dear.

Kendall was assigned the beginning of Ariel’s harpy monologue from Act 3.  She focused on dichotomies she found in her excerpt—darkness and light, life and death, calm and fear.  She used clips from YouTube of blooming and dying flowers to demonstrate those themes.  When she read her monologue for the voiceover, she used a distortion technique to capture the raspy tone she imagined for Ariel as the harpy.

Andrew was assigned Prospero’s famous monologue following the wedding masque in Act 4.  He saw Prospero’s remarks as the beginning of the end, so to speak.  He made links between Prospero’s retirement from magic and Shakespeare’s retirement from the stage.  As a result, his video features a montage of people saying goodbye to lifelong careers.

Dani worked on Ariel’s monologue in Act 1, in which Ariel describes his role in the shipwreck.  Dani was interested in moments of metatheatre and honed in on the idea of choreography throughout the play.  She saw Prospero as the director of the show, and subsequently created a video in which she paralleled a ship in peril with footage of herself dancing.

Take a look at these videos—they capture the “take-away” of each of their student creators.  They learned so much about The Tempest—and theatrical conceptualizing—by making them.  This activity works well with any piece of literature.  I’ve done this with The Odyssey and Their Eyes Were Watching God with fabulous success.  And don’t be scared by the technology.  My students created these videos on a range of platforms, from their computers to their cell phones.  I can’t recommend this activity enough!