On April 23rd 2016, while the whole world seemed to be celebrating the life and work of William Shakespeare for the 400th anniversary of his death, I was in mourning. I did not expect to be. After all, experiencing grief for the four-century-dead is certainly what Claudius would call, “obsequious sorrow.” However, I wasn’t so much lamenting the fact that the Bard’s pen had gone still, or that his fifty-two years had come to an end—embarrassingly enough, my reason was far more trivial than all of that.
On that Saturday morning, I had woken up to either the best or worst poetically timed email of my career, with the curt subject line reading: “elective.” It was sent to inform me that my Shakespeare: Comedies & Tragedies course would not be running in the following academic year.
I admit that “mourning” may be too severe of a reaction to learning my teaching schedule. Intellectually, I understand that boards of education giveth and boards of education taketh away. Yet, knowing this did not stop my strong emotional response: my students and I had been lucky enough to experience a whole year devoted to the reading of, the teaching of, the living of Shakespeare’s language.
Though it was never said to me—not in any official manner, anyway—I believe that I was given the privilege of teaching my Shakespeare class because in the same month that electives were being assigned, I had been accepted into the 2015 Folger Shakespeare Library’s Summer Academy. I owe an awful lot to that acceptance letter. In fact, it is difficult to put into words how exceptional and transformative the one week of intense study, research and joy it granted me, was. At the risk of (once again) sounding hyperbolic, it marked a moment of awakening in my teaching career.
The Folger Library is spectacular. However, this “awakening” owes a lot to the other teachers I encountered in my time there. I had never met such a dedicated group of professionals, with such brains or such a palpable sense of devotion to their vocation. On one of the last days of the week, after a particularly intense morning and afternoon session in the reading rooms, where we had all been doing research with primary sources and rare documents in order to create teaching modules that we were going to be presenting to one another, a small group of us got caught in the rain, looking for a place to eat dinner.
We filed into a small Mexican restaurant, near the Capitol, sat elbow-to-elbow at a long table and talked about books and fantasy syllabi and what this week together was doing to each us. Over the course of the conversation, we stumbled onto the topic of “owning” language and somebody mentioned how important it was to have a few great lines memorized. Somebody else said how great it would be if all year long, they had asked their students to scour all that they had read for their favorite lines. Somebody else wondered aloud, what if the students did this with everything that they read and when they were finished with their reading they recorded these lines somewhere in the classroom. Somebody else suggested that this would be a great thing to do every year, especially if you kept the records, and lined them all up around the classroom until every class you taught was just surrounded by great and well loved words.
This rapid-fire accumulation of ideas seemed to take place all week. Yet, this idea had a particular impact on me. After every single play that the eight students in my Shakespeare class read this year, they each took a gold marker in their hands and recorded their favorite lines on a gigantic piece of black poster board that will hang in every classroom I ever have.
At the Folger, I was shown the inherent value of student-centered learning, of assignments that do not seem “traditionally academic,” of performance-rich instruction and performance-based assessments. Because the eight students in my Shakespeare elective were also fulfilling their graduation requirements with traditional English classes, I did not feel obliged to assign them research papers or paper-and-pen tests and quizzes. Instead, my students wrote plays, and staged debates, and delivered soliloquies and manifested characters in strange and beautiful ways. This was a special group.
For their last assignment, I asked them to respond (in any way they saw fit) to a horrendously vague question: “Why Shakespeare?” Any other class would have bristled at the announcement of such a task, but these eight jumped right in.
One student wrote a short one-act play called, “Why, Shakespeare?” In it, he imagined that he was a documentarian charged with the responsibility of interviewing Will. Another student decorated a jewelry box and filled it to the brim with tiny scraps of paper, upon which she recorded lines, moments from plays, and things she realized about herself because of Shakespeare. Another student delivered an impromptu speech in which he said (I’m paraphrasing, here): “If you ever feel foolish, remember, you have Midsummer. If you ever feel terribly brilliant and terribly alone, remember, you have Hamlet. If you ever feel robbed and crazy and like all you can do is scream in the storm, remember, you have Lear. If you ever feel abused and mad with jealousy, remember, you have Othello. If you ever feel like you’ve lost it all, remember, you’ve got good old Shylock. When you have Shakespeare here (he pointed to his heart) you are not alone.”
It took hearing it from them to finally understand that though our school years are filled with beginnings and ending—with Shakespeare, there are only beginnings.