Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!

Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!
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Teaching is the profession that teaches all the other professions. ~ Author Unknown

My goal is to reveal one teacher's humble journey of self-reflection, critical analysis, and endless questioning about my craft of teaching and learning alongside my middle school students.

"The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called 'truth'." ~ Dan Rather

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Oh what fun it is to see students unleash their inner artists!

Mention the mere word "Shakespeare" to your typical 8th grader, and most will cringe, whine, moan, or ask, "But why do we have to read what this dead old white guy wrote?" The same reaction was evident with my students early on this quarter when they realized there was no escaping the greatest playwright of all time. Luckily, the focus in our eighth grade curriculum is on characterization and theatrical interpretation of the Shakespearean comedy, As You Like It, rather than a literal dissection of every line of his iambic pentameter verse.

Now, I have to be honest. While I may be a middle school English teacher, Shakespeare and I have always had a rocky love-hate relationship. He frustrated the heck out of me during most of high school, but I still managed to fall in love with Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet (Perhaps the 1998 film version of R&J with Leonardo DiCaprio had something to do with that? Hehe). In college, I had one of the most knowledgeable and passionate Shakespearean scholars alive teach me during junior year, and while the class was impossibly hard, I walked away with a newfound appreciation and admiration for this man who lived four hundred years ago.

So, how can I possibly transfer true passion and hunger for Shakespeare to my students with such a volatile past experience with his works? Simple. I have to remember my own personal struggle with understanding Shakespeare's plays, particularly his crazy use of pronouns and antecedents, obsolete but ever-entertaining vocabulary, original new words he coined for the English language, and the endless puns -- and often obscure allusions and references to historical events and people of his time -- within his 5-syllable words and lines. At no point did I easily understand what Shakespeare was saying, and at no point was I ever truly comfortable with his language.

Add this complexity to trying to teach Shakespeare to students who have learning disabilities, ADHD, autism, emotional disturbances, and/or are just learning English as a second language, and you've got a whole new set of problems. The solution? In our on-level classes, my co-teacher and I introduce the play with a graphic novel/comic book version of As You Like It written in more modern English. We have the students choose character roles and read through the book aloud. This process not only gets the students feeling comfortable performing in front of one another (which will come in handy later on), but it immediately increases their engagement and reduces their anxiety about having to tackle a Shakespeare comedy, particularly as it relates to his characterization, plot, and language.

After presenting the graphic novel to students, we show bits and pieces of key scenes from the play on-screen to help students visually see the acting and plot. We also identify and analyze common film shots used and why the director chose to use certain camera angles. At this point, the students feel much more comfortable breaking into groups and focusing on one key expert scene from the play.

Another true motivator for the kids? Giving them the freedom to decide the costumes, gestures, blocking, lighting, and venue for their scene performances. I assign students to directorial roles who are natural leaders but may not have had the chance to fully showcase their leadership potential yet in the class. I raid our theater teacher's wardrobe for a collection of silly, serious, and just plain "Shakespeare" costumes. My co-teacher and I assign character roles ahead of time to minimize time wasted or arguments within groups. We summarize the scene for the students and constantly check-in with them during scene rehearsals to make sure they understand the plot, character, vocabulary, and purpose of the scene.

The end result? Each student has the chance to play a vital and pivotal part in a Shakespearean scene without being afraid or intimidated. It is always refreshing to see each student's creative interpretation of a character and witness how many students come alive on stage. Sometimes, all they need is the confidence to know they can understand a hard text and portray characterization originally -- and well -- in front of their peers in a safe and supportive environment.

We have only begun our scene performances, but I continue to look forward to witnessing true student creativity and artistry on stage. Such imagination and performances are now all-too-difficult to find time for in our classrooms. What can we do about that?

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