Guest Post: E. J. Saul, Galax, VA

Periodically, the ASC Education blog will offer guest posts by teachers of Shakespeare, to show how educators across the country are applying Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions in their classrooms. If you are interested in contributing a guest post to the blog, please contact Academic Resources Manager Cass Morris.

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One of the perks of raising a child is that you have a socially acceptable reason for re-reading your favorite children’s stories. One of the drawbacks of raising a child is that you sometimes wind up reading children’s stories that you don’t like over and over and over and over again. And for a good number of years, my nighttime family reading was haunted by a dark creature named Amelia Bedelia. Amelia Bedelia was a storybook maid with a strange sort of disorder; she was completely incapable of comprehending figurative language. Amelia’s employers would tell her to do something like punch the clock, and she would shrug and walk off and start hitting the grandfather clock in the living room. That kind of thing. And it might be that one reason I found these relatively inoffensive stories so annoying is that I am an English teacher in the age of the multiple choice test, and I seem to find myself with an increasing number of students who hate any answer that isn’t simple or any language that isn’t literal.

The most extreme case was a student I had a couple of years ago, and while I don’t think she would mind if I talked about this, I will call her Yvette instead of her real name anyhow. Yvette was not Amelia Bedelia – she was a very smart young woman and could recognize time honored expressions perfectly well – but she had some kind of difficulty and/or mental block about thinking metaphorically that was a pretty big deal because Yvette was a straight A student until she took my class (something she reminded me of quite frequently), and Yvette actually got a C when we spent six weeks on a poetry unit. Clearly some kind of apocalypse was in the making, and I was its prophet.

I’m being kind of flippant about it, but Yvette’s anger and panic and frustration were quite real. Yvette was a grade A memorizer. She took meticulous notes. She was always the first person to raise her hand and ask a question, and that question was almost always: “Is this for a grade?” The thing was, Yvette was an anxious person, and she hated English class because she didn’t like questions that didn’t have one right answer, or assignments that did not have completely controllable outcomes.

Now opinions may vary, but even though I’m an English teacher, I’m really not some psychic vampire who feeds off emotional anguish and suffering. It is also true that it offends me when I see a student working hard and not achieving what they want to achieve, if only because I also have students who don’t work hard for the barely passing grades they’re content with. And it seemed likely to me that Yvette’s really good grades were going to land her in a really good school with a really good freshman English class that she was going to do really badly in. So I made helping Yvette think critically a kind of personal quest, with an emphasis on exploring symbolism.  I thought that if Yvette had some small successes and built up her confidence a little, she might stop fixating on that shrill voice in the back of her head going: “I have to get an A I’m not going to get an A how do I get an A just tell me what I have to do to get an A so I can study something that actually matters!” And then she would be fine and stop using my classes as therapy sessions.

Since there are supposedly seven styles of learning (visual, aural, physical, logical, social, verbal, and Google), I tried a variety of approaches. Besides just explaining that symbolism could work on a visual or logical level, I tried to illustrate that point with songs, charades, Rorschach blots, epigrams, anthropocentric sketching exercises, talking while tossing a ball back and forth, and so on.

One time I played “The Yellow Rose of Texas” for Yvette and asked her what the titular yellow rose represented.

“It’s a woman,” Yvette said.

“Excellent!” I exclaimed. “Why?”

“Because he calls it a her,” Yvette said.

“Great!” I enthused. “But the singer doesn’t really call a yellow rose a her. He calls a her a yellow rose. Why does he call this woman a yellow rose?”

“I don’t know!” Yvette said. “She smells nice?”

“She probably does,” I agreed, “What else?”

“She’s pretty?”

“Good! What else? What kind of pretty? How is a rose pretty? Especially a yellow rose in Texas?”

Yvette never did really suggest anything else. Instead, I did that thing that teachers do and made the mistake of giving Yvette increasingly specific questions trying to get her to state the answers that I already had in mind. Eventually we questioned and answered our way around the possibility that the woman might be a blonde and might be named Rose, but seemed rare and precious to the singer in any case because a yellow rose in a Texas climate would be a rare thing. But when I asked Yvette to apply that kind of questioning and thinking for herself, it didn’t seem that I had helped her at all.

“Can you think of something else rare and pretty and precious that the singer might have compared this woman to instead of a yellow rose?”

“A purple rose?”

“…”

“Oh God, I suck.”

“No, that answer’s just probably a little too similar to a yellow rose. Can you—”

“A purple violet?”

Yvette finally got symbolism for herself, by herself, at a random moment. Yvette’s class was studying Hamlet, and we were doing an exercise where the students had to stage the play within a play that Hamlet writes in order to trap Claudius, the only proviso being that they couldn’t use any words, words, words (this was the very first exercise I ever did at one of the ASC’s educational seminars by the way, so there’s a plug). Yvette was watching another group do this scene, and a student was pretending to pour poison into another student’s ear, and I would like to lie and say that Yvette suddenly got really excited and stood up and interrupted the scene with a big dramatic moment, but that didn’t happen.

Instead, Yvette came up to me after class with this kind of shy smile on her face and asked me if the poison that the actor poured in another actor’s ear was gossip. And she was beaming and kind of excited. And I didn’t really know what she was talking about, so I asked her what she meant, and Yvette mentioned a scene where Claudius refers to gossip as poison in the ear. And Yvette went on to say that Claudius killed his brother with poison in the ear, and gossip went in the ear, and Claudius was afraid that gossip about Claudius killing his brother would be just as deadly to Claudius as the poison Claudius used on his brother.

“Actually, you’re wrong,” I said. “He referred to gossip as a kind of infection in the ear. Get out.”

No, just kidding. I was thrilled. It was a pretty sophisticated argument once I untangled it, and it came out of the blue.

That’s one of the things I like about teaching Shakespeare. It always provides moments that take me completely off guard (and often in a good way). That’s good for the students, and it’s good for me because it keeps the class from feeling like a factory floor. (I just had a mental image from that Pink Floyd “The Wall” movie where kids are being marched into a sausage grinder by the way.)

I’m not claiming that Shakespeare is some kind of miracle cure for everything that ails public education, or that Yvette went on to love English and later became Poet Laureate. I’m not even claiming that teaching Shakespeare is always fun — though it can be. I love Shakespeare, but the bard is actually kind of hard for me to teach sometimes because I don’t like sharing something I love only to have it ignored, put down, complained about, or dismissed. I had a year where I taught MacBeth to my 4th period class and it was MacDeath. I would then teach the same play the same way to my 5th period class, and it was like a fresh MacBreath. There are no guarantees.

What I am claiming is that teaching high school is a lot like dropping coins in a slot machine. Just doing the same thing over and over doesn’t guarantee the same result every time, big tangible pay-offs that draw a lot of attention to themselves are rare, I have to keep plugging away while groping around for change, and I’m no longer allowed to do it in the state of Nevada.  (Ummm…again, just kidding about that last part). And Shakespeare’s writing provides lots of coins to work with because when you add the performing aspect it makes Shakespeare personal and fun and pretty much uses all of the learning styles. Kids who are visual can see the lines performed. Kids who are kinetic learners can jump around and play with staging and body language. Kids who are aural can play with soundtracks or sound effects or just listen to the different intonations when they try lines different ways. Kids who are social learners can enjoy the play as the thing. Kids who are logical can puzzle out the language, and so on. If nothing else, playing with Shakespeare takes those lesson plans where teachers have to document what standardized state objectives they are accomplishing and lights them up like Christmas trees. But that’s a cynical and pragmatic note, and Shakespeare is not about nothing else, or even what else. It can be about everything and anything else once you unclench a little and let the words speak through you.

So that’s my piece, my Shakespeare teaching moment. If any here I have offended, content yourself, my blog is ended. Piece out. 🙂

EJ Saul teaches English at Galax High School in Southwest Virginia.  He is a Leo and likes walks on the beach, warm sunsets, puppies, and Jazz. Oh, and Shakespeare.