“Advantageable for our dignity”: Teaching at Home and on the Road

I sometimes feel like a very spoiled educator. Most of the time, I get to teach students who really want to learn from me — the groups who come to the Blackfriars Playhouse for workshops and Little Academes are not only captive audiences, they’re generally self-selected enthusiasts with at least some interest in Shakespeare, theatre, and/or performance. Many of them are repeat customers, students I see multiple years in a row, not just passively interested but actively excited to stage a scene from Macbeth or to examine the rhetoric in Othello. Even when that isn’t the case, however, less-interested students still tend to be more respectful in our space. Maybe it’s because it feels a little like a church. Maybe it’s because they fear losing privileges if they misbehave on a field trip. Maybe it’s just that slight edge of discomfort that comes from being in a new location, but even the troublemakers tend to remain, if not actively engaged, then at least non-disruptive.

With AP Lit students in Salina, KS

With AP Lit students in Salina, KS

When we take residencies and one-off workshops into middle and high schools, the feeling is definitely different. We’re on their turf. They have the home court advantage, and they are generally not shy about pressing it. A visitor in class might be a disruption to the routine, but not so great that it shakes students from their normal modes of operation, whatever those may be. I often feel powerless to stop a student who is texting or sleeping during an in-class workshop — if their own teacher is letting them get away with it, what ground do I have to impose new rules? Sometimes we get brought in when a regular teacher is out, adding the hurdle of a substitute teacher’s impaired authority to the mix. If our workshop is not in an individual class but a large assembly, then crowd control becomes the challenge — even if the students are interested and enjoying themselves, the noise levels can rise somewhat incredibly, particularly as side conversations start splintering off, and it can feel like we spend as much energy re-focusing attention as we do teaching.

It’s also an unpredictable experience. When I first started attempting to do our Cue Script workshop using the assassination scene of Julius Caesar with high school sophomores, I was far from certain it would actually work — but it did, magnificently. On the other hand, what I thought would be an exciting, active exploration of Hamlet‘s play-within-a-play fell totally flat. An activity that works in one classroom might not in another. I’ve had senior AP students react with great enthusiasm to my rhetoric workshop, immediately able to find its cross-applications to other material for their AP exams and college essays, and I’ve had senior AP students fail to show even the slightest flag of interest. Engagement can vary wildly within a single class, and it’s easy to feel how teachers can struggle on a daily basis with keeping tabs on the disaffected while still rewarding the work of the attentive. The experience can be, admittedly, an exhausting one — but there are always little gems of moments that make it worth it, when the kid you thought wasn’t paying attention suddenly pops out with a great observation, when the students fall over themselves giggling during a scene, forgetting entirely that they thought this was hard, when someone looking at a cue script exclaims, “Oh! I get it!” The light bulbs make the effort worth it.

These on-site experiences are so valuable for me, and not only because they make me dearly wish to apologize to some of my own erstwhile high school teachers to whom I may have been less than respectful. (No one teaching me Shakespeare ever had a problem, but I confess that I was not always a model student when it came to learning physics at 7:30 in the morning). On-site workshops not only enhance my respect and appreciation for what teachers do every day, but they also give me insight into what really does work in the classroom. It helps me evaluate the ASC’s materials, in our Study Guides and in our workshops, so that I can build better activities for the future. How can we engage the most students? What tools can we give teachers to compete with the many distractions available to high school students? I know we won’t be able to convert every student to a Shakespeare scholar, but how can we at least help them find out that Shakespeare is fun, not a tonic? I can’t figure out solutions to those problems without knowing the given conditions of the classrooms they’re in.

Fortunately, Shakespeare gives us answers to these questions as well — or at least he presents us with characters facing the similar challenge of how to get through to someone. Henry V does his best to inspire and hearten his soldiers, but the skeptical Williams counters his every argument with a cold dose of pessimism. It shakes Henry enough that he lets himself be drawn into a quarrel, thus lowering his own status, and then he has to talk himself back up. Richard III has trouble moving his soldiers to high spirits and must in the end resort to focusing on consequences rather than rewards — a less satisfying pathway for everyone involved. Iago tailors his persuasion to his audience, using soft suggestion and leading questions with Othello, brute bullying with Roderigo, sly manipulation with Cassio — a tactic which works until all those moving pieces spiral out of his control.

We most often examine these scenarios in our Leadership Programs, but I think they’re applicable to teachers, too. It’s all about finding the right avenue of persuasion, the right technique, the hook that will draw the audience in. And sometimes, it’s about knowing how to take the hit and try again if your first attempt sputters out.