Bringing Shakespeare to Life: Performance in the Classroom

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In a previous blog post, I described my dramatic redesign of a unit built around Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. In that post, I mentioned that breaking the pattern of four rhetorical analyses of speeches from the play would be a couple of class periods devoted instead to studying and performing Caesar’s assassination scene from act three, scene one.

It has become an almost unquestioned cliche of teaching Shakespeare that the Bard’s work is meant to be seen and heard, not read. While reading Shakespeare’s plays still has a role of obvious importance in the study of Shakespeare, I think students certainly should get to see and hear his plays, too. There are a number of ways, all with their own advantages and disadvantages, that teachers around the world teach Shakespeare with at least some success: performing key scenes, watching the movie first (or while reading or after reading), reading the script at home and discussing in class, reading aloud in class, reading along with professional recordings, and so on and so forth.

You may recall from my previous post about my Julius Caesar unit, however, that my primary learning goals for these five weeks revolved around the appreciation and practical application of rhetoric and argumentation. Acting out a scene or two from each act, therefore, would not necessarily be the best way to get my students from point A to my desired point B. It seems a sin to me, though, to teach Shakespeare without any classroom performance. Continue reading

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The Power of a Teacher Pep Talk

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Dead Poets SocietyFreedom WritersStand and Deliver. Chances are good that if you’re a teacher, you’ve seen at least one of these movies and had one of two reactions. You were likely either stirred and inspired by the teacher protagonist in the film who seemed to achieve the impossible in their fictionalized classroom, or you were frustrated by the impossible standards for teachers created by a film you felt had little connection to the realities of teaching.

In a recent New York Times article by education reporter Motoko Rich (which I highly recommend), Rich explores the strange dichotomy that exists in teacher-centric movies: every Hollywood depiction of teachers seems to represent them as either a hero/savior figure or as an incompetent clown (Mr. Schue on the Fox series Glee was alternatingly inspiring and incompetent). Rich suggests that “neither cliché has much connection to reality,” adding that, unlike the doctors in medical dramas or the lawyers in legal dramas who are actually depicted doing their jobs, “movies and television rarely show teachers, well, teaching.”

Teaching in Dead Poets Society, for example, is reduced almost entirely to a matter of charisma (although I would argue there are some small moments of pedagogical excellence in that film, too). Extended footage of a teacher doing what we generally think of as teaching–working with a small group, giving a brief lecture, conferencing with a student–is not a feature of teacher movies. While Rich’s article is a fascinating read and raises provocative questions about representations of teaching in film and television and their effects on public perception of education, it also got me thinking about the role of charisma in our profession. Continue reading

“Monitor and Adjust”: Changing Course Mid-Unit

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As part of a group research project for an education policy class I took a few years ago at UC Irvine, some classmates and I interviewed Tim Jamison, who was the president of the Irvine Teacher’s Association. My most salient memory of that interview is still the suggestion he gave us as new educators: “Monitor and adjust.” I didn’t appreciate the profound importance of his pithy advice at the time, but I’ve since come to understand how central those two verbs are to the art of teaching.

I monitor my students’ learning and adjust my practice to various degrees on a regular basis. For example, I’ll notice that an explanation of a concept is met with confused faces, so I offer my students a new analogy to help them understand my instruction. Or, I might see from a formative assessment that more than half of my sophomores are struggling to integrate textual evidence into their expository writing, so I clear a few days to spend an entire class period each on two methods, breaking the skill down into small steps, modeling the process, and giving students plenty of practice and individual feedback. Very recently, I had occasion to put this mantra to use on a larger scale: substantially revising a six-week unit a week into teaching it. Continue reading