Teaching Shakespeare Mini-Institute

Michael LoMonico let me know of a change in this summer’s Teaching Shakespeare mini-institute in Georgia.  The event will now take place at Glennwood Academy in Decatur from June 9-13 and includes a trip to the Atlanta Shakespeare Tavern on Thursday the 12th to see Much Ado About Nothing. The workshop is free, and teachers attending will receive a $500 stipend.  Hurry and register!  The deadline is this Friday, May 9.

Register here.

If I can get approval, I’ll see you there.  I will have to miss two days of post-planning.

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Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare

Today is William Shakespeare’s birthday—at least we think it is. Some awesome ways to celebrate:

Read Shakespeare’s sonnets, or read a Shakespeare play.

Peruse lesson ideas at the Folger Shakespeare Library‘s web site and create a Shakespeare lesson for your students.

Watch an adaptation of a Shakespeare play or the wildly historically inaccurate but fun Shakespeare in Love.

Take up historical fiction based on Shakespeare’s life. I’m reading Nothing Like the Sun by Anthony Burgess, but other options include The Shakespeare Diaries: A Fictional Autobiography by J.P. Wearing, The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary Blackwood (YA), or Shakespeare’s Sister: A Novel by Doris Gwaltney.

If you can’t be in Stratford, be there in spirit while viewing this photo essay on Shakespeare’s Birthday Celebration.

Image source: Yelnoc.

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Memorizing Literature

Did you ever have to memorize literature for English class?

I did.

My luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June
My luve is like the melodie
That’s sweetly played in tune

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I
And I shall love thee still, my dear
Till a’ the seas gang dry

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my luve
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun
I shall luve thee still, my dear
While the sands o’ life shall run

And fair thee weel, my bonnie luve,
And fair thee weel a while
And I shall come again, my luve
Though it were ten thousand mile.

If you check out Bartleby, which I did after typing this from memory, you will see I don’t have it 100 percent, but I learned it in 1990 — 18 years ago now — in my 12th grade British literature class.

I know it’s considered passé, but I do ask my students to memorize literature. When I initially make the assignment, the reactions are all pretty much along the lines of What’s the point of doing this? This is crazy! This is impossible! I can’t do it… no, you don’t understand, I really can’t do it.

After my students figure out I mean it, they buckle down and start memorizing. My students who read Macbeth last semester memorized “Out, out, brief candle.” My students reading Romeo and Juliet are in the midst of memorizing (some recited today, and others will tomorrow) Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech, and my students studying Hamlet are memorizing “To be or not to be.”

Once they realized it wasn’t going away, I really admired the way my 9th grade students reading R&J attacked the text. They made sure to tell me what they thought of Mercutio’s delivery of their lines when we discussed the play yesterday. One of my favorite moments in the play was when Mercutio paused dramatically on the line “And in this state she gallops night by night / Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of…” One of my students impulsively called out “love!” The good-humored actor playing Mercutio pointed and nodded at my student and agreed, “Love!”

Years ago when I last taught A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I asked my students to memorize Titania’s “Set your heart at rest.” The next semester, one of my students showed me the speech, written decoratively and inserted in the cover of her binder. She was really proud of having memorized it, and that speech displayed on her binder was her way of saying she owned that piece of literature.

Ultimately, that’s what memorization does. It’s a gift of ownership over literature. It’s being able to say that poem, that speech, that monologue, that soliloquy is mine. I have read and taught Romeo and Juliet so many times that I have many of the lines memorized, and it makes me happy to be able to recite. Please understand I don’t mean that as a boast. I mean that reciting literature, rolling those words around without having to look them up, makes me feel power over them. It makes me love them and understand them. It makes me feel like a part of the literature as much as the literature is a part of me.

And maybe I’m old fashioned (and that’s OK), but that’s a gift I want to give my students. I’m not naive enough to think all of them accept this gift and keep it, the way I did with the literature I have been required to or have chosen to memorize, but if even one student can say in 18 years “That Queen Mab speech? Yeah, I own that,” then I’ll be satisfied. Of course, I hope more than one student will say that.

That Robert Burns poem? Yeah, I own that.

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Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet

I just finished writing UbD units for Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet at the UbD Educators wiki.  As I finished writing the unit for Hamlet and saved the page, I lost half the work I had done, and I am still not sure how it happened, so I had to re-do it.  Word to the wise — when working with anything you’re doing online, save and save often.  When, oh when will I learn to do that?

Shakespeare Set Free: Teaching Hamlet and Henry IV, Part 1In order to successfully steal the Hamlet unit, you’ll need to purchase a copy of Shakespeare Set Free: Teaching Hamlet and Henry IV, Part 1.  I have the edition published in 1994, and I haven’t seen the latest edition, so if you know the difference between the two editions and would care to share in the comments for interested parties, I would appreciate it.  I think the Shakespeare Set Free series is a great resource for educators, but I don’t do all of the performance activities.

While we’re discussing good resources for teaching Shakespeare, don’t forget the Folger Shakespeare Library’s website, which has a large repository of lesson plans contributed by teachers.  If you can get them for your classroom, the Folger Shakespeare editions of the plays have pretty good explanatory notes and glossaries, too.  A Way to Teach has a great selection of Macbeth lesson plans and Tempest lesson plans.

If you are looking for Shakespeare video, you might check out Shakespeare and More over at YouTube.  They have a large selection of Shakespearean video.   Speaking of video, if you were looking at older posts about teaching Romeo and Juliet, you will have noticed the videos don’t work.  I’m sorry about that.  I’ll need to go back and revise the posts so that the video isn’t necessary, as the videos are no longer available at YouTube.

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Geoffrey Wright’s Macbeth

Geoffrey Wright's MacbethEnglish teachers looking for a good version of Macbeth to show their students in conjunction with a study of Shakespeare’s play should avoid Geoffrey Wright’s 2006 production. Like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet before it, this modern Macbeth seeks to lure in the younger set; however, unlike Luhrmann’s production, in the case of Macbeth, the update doesn’t work.

The play’s setting is moved from Scotland to modern-day Melbourne, Australia. The cast, starring Sam Worthington as Macbeth and Victoria Hill as Lady Macbeth, is Australian. The play opens as the three witches, who look more like deviant schoolgirls, are defacing a cemetery. Duncan is the leader of a gang, rather than King of Scotland, and when the witches predict that Macbeth can take over the gang, Macbeth murders Duncan and begins his inexorable march toward doom.

The director’s choice to turn the kingdom of Scotland into underworld Melbourne makes the story go awry. Romeo and Juliet makes sense as a gang story as it is essential a story of two warring families. I didn’t buy it with Macbeth, especially when Macbeth’s title of Thane of Cawdor is still applied. I didn’t like any of the characters, and I really didn’t care what happened to any of them.

Pluses:

  • This film might appeal to today’s youth. I read a review describing it as Macbeth for the Quentin Tarantino generation, but I think that’s an insult to Quentin Tarantino.
  • The characters sport cool leather jackets and artfully mussed hair.
  • The opening scene with the witches is truly scary, in my opinion, and the Ghost Banquo scene is superb.
  • The murder of the Macduffs is shocking; the director pulled no punches, though thankfully didn’t show us the poor child’s murder.

Minuses:

  • Nudity and sexual content — Macbeth has sex with all three witches in a bizarre rendition of the second witch scene (“Beware the Thane of Fife”).
  • Butchery of the “Out, out, brief candle” soliloquy.

Bottom line: I wouldn’t recommend showing this one to high school students. Though the film is not rated, the sexual content alone would have earned it at least an R-rating (never mind the violence). None of the actors is a standout, and the modern setting has only minimal appeal in light of the film’s flaws.

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Prison Performing Arts

My local NPR station broadcast a rerun of This American Life last night that made me stop cold and listen.  The episode, entitled “Act V,” centered around a drama program that serves prisons, exposing inmates to Shakespeare through performance.  Click on the plus sign to listen to the program.

Download link

Stories like this are why I wanted to teach literature.

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