‘Poison hath residence and medicine power’: The Placebo Effect vs the True Cure in Teaching Shakespeare

The friendly throwback app Timehop has let me know that on this week several years ago, I was in Sarah Enloe’s Pedagogy class, desperately trying to make my thoughts on teaching coalesce into an educational philosophy. I settled on a statement about the value of education for its own sake, rather than as a means to an end — a somewhat radical philosophy in a capitalist society, and even moreso in a troubled economy like ours has been during my formative years. But I stand by it. Education isn’t only worth the salary it brings you. An educated citizenry benefits society in so many ways. We need people who are curious for curiosity’s sake, who listen critically and analyze the information they receive rather than merely accepting what they see at face value, who have a command of language, who want to explore the world around them. A teacher, of whatever subject, ought to foster these desires and talents.

Little Academe students poring through text for clues for performance

Little Academe students poring through text for clues for performance

I still hold that idea dear to my heart, but over the past few years, I’ve learned that high-minded philosophy about education means little without a solid plan for practical application. As such, I’ve come to focus a lot more on the how of education than on the why. My philosophy there has a lot to do with making sure teachers have self-supporting tools to crack open Shakespeare’s plays.

When the ASC advocates getting students up on their feet while studying Shakespeare, we mean that students should get to explore scenes, make choices, make mistakes, discover new opportunities. What a lot of other approaches mean by “getting students up on their feet” is that you should play games in the classroom. Games which divorce Shakespeare’s words from their context. Sometimes games that would be appropriate for drama class warm-ups, but which don’t actually teach anything about Shakespeare. That approach yields to a prevalent attitude in some education spheres that learning should be fun, therefore if you’re having fun, you’re learning. But that doesn’t necessarily follow. A teacher’s job isn’t just to make the classroom fun. You could play games all day, let your students watch YouTube videos in every session, or tell them to surf Tumblr, and they would all find that fun, but it wouldn’t be educational. A teacher’s job is to make learning fun for the right reasons — the joy of discovery, the empowerment of agency. That’s a deeper and more lasting “fun” than the quick fix of a quirky game.

Those text-diminishing methods also sell students short. The “bits and chunks” approach, removing Shakespeare from its context and ignoring the fact that the words are instructions for actors, tells students that Shakespeare is, as many of them fear, too hard for them. That they’re not smart enough. That they won’t get it unless it’s dumbed down. And I really have no patience for that implication. I’ve watched 10th-graders, some of whom were English-language-learners, delightfully murder Caesar, understanding perfectly what was going on, once we started looking at embedded directions and thinking about the stage. I’ve seen 7th-graders make exciting, active choices about how to embody the Witches in Macbeth. I’ve seen AP students change their entire conception of Richard III based on a revealed twist of rhetoric. Students don’t need their Shakespearean meat cut into small bites for them — they’re more than capable of tearing in, tooth and claw, with the guidance and support that a confident teacher can give them.

That leads me to another big problem with the quirky-games pedagogical approach: While easily modeled by the right sort of person to the right sort of audience (say, a charismatic and engaging workshop leader at a conference with a willingly captive audience of educators), it isn’t always easy to apply in a classroom. Teachers will have fun taking part in a demonstration, but if they’re not getting the underpinnings and meta-teaching moments along with that demo, they’re not getting the structural support that will help them once they go back home. As such, if they try the activities they witnessed at a conference or seminar but they don’t go over well in the classrooms, the teachers are inclined to blame themselves. It’s easy to see how that could get really discouraging really fast. After all, it worked when the specialists did it, so if my students aren’t responding, then it must be my fault. And that makes me deeply sad. I hate to think of teachers getting discouraged and, perhaps, giving up.

Teacher Seminar participants exploring a scene

Teacher Seminar participants exploring a scene

All of that is why I call it that method the teaching placebo effect. The patient — or teacher — convinces him- or herself that it’s working because it feels good in the short term. Unfortunately, it’s not a real cure. It’s not improving anything, for the teachers or the students, in the long run. At ASC Education, we aim to give teachers a toolbox — not a prize-pack of gimmicks. Approaching Shakespeare’s texts through a combination of wordcraft and stagecraft allows us to give teachers both solid ground to stand on and the flexibility to engage in a world of exploration. When we do create game-like activities (some of which have been hugely popular in classrooms), they’re text-based, character-based, and stage-based. We make sure that teachers know what to do, how to do it, and why it’s beneficial — all of our seminars and materials are geared not just towards flash-in-the-pan excitement, but towards a deeper understanding and a sense of personal ownership, the things that will foster a lasting love of the material. Students absolutely have fun playing with Shakespeare this way — and they are absolutely learning, too.

But, in the words of LeVar Burton, you don’t have to take my word for it. Here are some testimonials from our teachers:

  • “It helps level the playing field as each student can refer specifically to the text to back up opinion.”
  • “The workshop was an extraordinary experience, not only because of the primacy of play as performance (rather than as a script that students sit and read), but because the process brings to vivid life the best teaching practices available.”
  • “I learned so much from one exercise about discovery, blocking, embedded cues, playing with the script to find answers, etc.”
  • “I am impressed with how comprehensive the Study Guides are.  Such a valuable treasure trove of ideas and the materials needed are ALREADY created, the greatest boon to busy teachers.”
  • “I find the performance techniques really valuable as another vehicle for textual analysis — deciding how a character might move or speak a specific line can really help students conceptualize the traits of that character.”
  • “My students LOVE reading Shakespeare and cheer when it’s time to ‘push back the tables’ and act.”
  • “I have been attending ASC teacher workshops for the past eight years, and every time I attend, I am sure to learn something that is fascinating and of great educational value when it is incorporated into my lessons.  Whether it is learning strategies for getting students up on their feet to perform the text, exploring historical connections to the text and Shakespeare’s time, or the myriad of other strategies that ASC personnel use to breathe life into the texts, the workshops have proved be exhilarating and rewarding for both teacher and students.”
  • “They are excited about starting Shakespeare next semester instead of dreading it.”
  • “Almost everything I do in the classroom with my Shakespeare teaching now comes from you guys. My students LOVE Shakespeare and get excited from the moment they see the classroom re-arranged.”

And even better, some testimonials from students:

  • “I learned so much about different styles of writing and the way characters talk in Shakespeare, and why that is.” — 7th grader
  • “I really liked the rhetoric workshop and finding the secrets in the characters’ lines.”  — 8th grader
  • “I genuinely enjoyed every lecture we had. Everything taught was incredibly interesting and something I want to carry with me.” — high school student
  • “I learned things about Shakespeare that I wasn’t even aware existed” — ASCTC Camper
  • “I found every master class and rehearsal useful to my overall theatre education in some way. Not only were lectures fun, they were packed with new and important information.” — ASCTC Camper
  • “This is without a doubt, my favorite spring break trip to date. I spent time with a fantastic theater family, learned more about Shakespeare than I could have anticipated, and got to watch professional actors do their stuff.” — Little Academe college student
  • “I really liked learning how to dissect the text and figuring out how to best use the natural rhythm of the text.” — Little Academe college student

The best thing about this approach is that it’s self-perpetuating. If you know how to work with the building blocks of Shakespeare, you can pick up any piece of text and make it exciting. It’s why I’m now incapable of holding a bit of text in my hand without starting to beat out the meter or searching it for prominent rhetorical figures. It’s why I can use embedded stage directions and audience contact to make a workshop out of any scene that a group requests to work with. It’s why teachers tell us that their students are now excited to apply meter and rhetoric not just in their Shakespeare units but throughout their classes, on everything from Beowulf to Dickinson to Ginsberg.

Does this approach take a little more time and effort on the front end than simply playing a game, removing Shakespeare’s words from their context? Yes. But the benefits are exponentially more rewarding. Teach a student a theatre game, and you’ll entertain her for a day. Teach her the tools of playmaking, and you’ll enrich her for a lifetime.

ASC Education wants to share these methods with as many teachers as possible. They’re the underpinnings of all of our Study Guides, they’ll be the focus of our Summer Teacher Seminar: Shakespeare’s Toolbox, and they’re what we showcase on the road, both through the workshops of the ASC on Tour and ASC Education’s appearances at conferences worldwide. We invite all teachers of Shakespeare to join us in this approach, empowering and explorative, uniting our philosophy with the practical reality of the classroom.