How We Teach Teachers

Google “Shakespeare on your feet” and the first page of search results will reveal that entities from libraries like the Folger, media outlets like PBS, and theatres like the Actors Centre advocate teaching Shakespeare through “play” or “up on your feet” or “actively”. At the ASC, we certainly use that language as well, but the driving idea behind our approach is more about context than the work we see elsewhere.  Context is a term we take very seriously; it involves more than asking students to build models of the Globe or talking about Elizabeth’s life during the era. It really comes down to teaching our teachers and students to think like Shakespeare’s actors did when they approached the text.  Look around you and see the wooden platform, the audience in the light, the clues in the text (for those who don’t have a lot of time to rehearse), so that performance of the words is at the top of students’ minds.  

ASC’s approach to teaching teachers and students is rooted in fundamentals of classroom practice and an understanding of the demands placed on teachers’ time, students’ interests, and Shakespeare’s plays.  We consider setting, context, methodology and materials and address assumptions teachers may have as well as the unique world of the Shakespeare classroom.

Setting: The ASC acknowledges that most of the teachers we work with operate in English classrooms which feature desks, and that there is some difficulty in getting open spaces in many schools.  So our lessons work within those parameters. We believe that learning is individualized, so students can learn most deeply in situations which invite inquiry. We advocate for desks arranged around a playing space to encourage the exploration of scene, arranged in thrust so that students are closer to Shakespeare’s theatre’s architecture.  We advocate for avatars and actors to demonstrate and help define the information but do not advocate that all students must be on their feet at the same time — something that is difficult to do in an English classroom and is not conducive to all students’ engaging with the text in context.

Context: We believe that context is everything. Context means we believe in treating the plays as plays, plays that were written for specific theatrical conditions that students benefit from knowing, and leaving the text in place in the lesson. This means that we do not employ “insult generators” or pull lines out of speeches to “throw them at each other”.  We do not advocate for separate lessons on Shakespeare’s biography, but fold the fact that he was a working actor into every exploration and note that his monarch and the political climate of early modern London may have had an impact on this character or that scene, as it arises. We consider the staging conditions he considered, as a means to get the students and teachers we work with closer to the performance Shakespeare imagined as he wrote the plays.

Inquiry (infinite variety): We create a world of many, many right answers, and we suggest a method of inquiry-based learning — where each student’s answer may differ.  Shakespeare wrote incomplete works; he needed the actors he worked with and the audiences he played for to finish them.  Students are the actors and audience, and they can answer the questions that lead to the infinite variety of choices that continue to make his plays fascinating 400 years later. We encourage students to consider a number of choices — if video comes into our lesson, we use several clips from many different productions to emphasize how many choices are available.

Materials: We provide teachers with materials that are complete and formatted for ease of use in the typical English classroom (black and white, because most schools copiers are not color; few pages dense with information to save paper; and we are working to envision more in the digital classroom — white boards, etc)

Teacher Experience: The ASC realizes that the vast majority of teachers working with students on Shakespeare’s plays have had few classes on the subject and are not versed in theatrical techniques (nor do many want to be; they teach English because it is their passion). We believe that teachers desire to deepen their own learning and knowledge in order to deepen their students’. We recognize that they have limited time in which to add to their knowledge, so we strive to make every minute that they spend in our professional development programs immediately applicable to classroom practice and to their own and their students’ enrichment.  We take the approach that if teachers know more about how these plays work and worked on the stage, they will have a richer understanding of why the plays are worth studying and be able to communicate to a diverse body of learners

Respect:  We believe that teachers’ time is precious and that they learn the most from fellow educators — educators who have the time to prepare detailed and specific lessons and handouts that they can immediately deploy in their classroom. We model those lessons so that teachers can see one approach and adapt each activity to their own style and purpose.  We arrange the lessons in an accessible way so that they can teach the unit in any order and blend the lessons together as they choose, but also provide a scaffolding section (The Basics) so that teachers have a baseline of knowledge from which to begin. We test the lessons and conduct focus groups, then we adjust them as needed, constantly improving the materials we provide and our approach to them. And, we enhance the lessons with feedback and input from our actors and the events that transpire in a rehearsal room, so that we are speaking truth and giving students and teachers the very important insights our actors share in classroom applicable ways.

In short, we aim to create an atmosphere of learning that makes gaining knowledge and engaging in exploration irresistible.  A space in which students dread the final bell because they will have to leave the topic, a room filled with voices and opportunities to state one’s thoughts — while realizing that difference of opinion is beautiful and can be shared respectfully.  A place where the learner can become the teacher and the teacher learns something every time the class convenes.  We believe the way to do that is by empowering teachers, giving students agency, and providing them with tools to examine words and meaning that stretch well beyond the classroom walls.  Even to a 400 year-old theatre, perhaps.

You can learn more about each of these and participate in an active and hands on model of practice at our teacher seminars offer 4 times annually at the Blackfriars in Staunton (the next one is August 3-4) or on site in your district.  Contact sarahe@americanshakespearecenter.com for more information.