“And, be assured, you’ll find a difference…” (HV): ASC Education’s work with teachers

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Teachers working in groups at our Fall King Lear Seminar

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.  

I know that “comparisons are odious” (Dogberry would probably have said “odorous”), but sometimes they are the “eftest” way to point out the essence of practice.  I have made a habit of attending my colleagues’ workshops whenever I can, of evaluating the materials they offer online and in print, and of thinking about the art of teaching.  What follows here is a basic statement of the ASC’s philosophy and how it differs from some work I have seen and studied elsewhere:  

Approach American Shakespeare Center The Other Guys
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 allow inquiry. We advocate for desks arranged around a playing space to invite 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. Frequently, our colleagues’ lessons require a wide open space so that all students can be up and active simultaneously.
Teaching assumptions 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. Many professional development programs spend a lot of time teaching 21st-century theatre techniques; these do not give insights into the works Shakespeare wrote and are limited in scope — even within professional theatres.  The time spent on those could be used to connect Shakespeare to his theatrical practices so that we understand the ins and outs of what his actors saw on the page, rather than giving English teachers modern day theories of how to instruct their students in the fundamentals of acting.
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. Many in our cohorts take lines out of context to “show that Shakespeare isn’t hard”, in arenas like “Shakespearean insults” games or “text lay ups”. We believe that removing surrounding text achieves the opposite goal and says to students that “Shakespeare is too hard for you to understand unless I take it out of the play.” We think that students will enjoy the connections between Shakespeare’s plays and his biography if direct lines connect them.  We avoid assignments that advocate for set or light design for a play, since those projects fight the nature of the continuous action in early modern theatres.
Teaching teachers 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. While many practitioners do provide outlines and handouts, the formatting and explanation is often insufficient for the busy teacher who is moving from teaching American Lit to Shakespeare or from one period to another.  Often, the handouts skip important steps, attempt to cover too much, or anticipate too much knowledge as a baseline.  Moreover, actor talkbacks and director discussions take a large percentage of the time in some seminars at other theatres, while these sessions can be fun, the bulk of the discussion does not translate to classroom practice or a better understanding of 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. Stating that a scene is “about” something or that a character is “some characteristic” and asking students to inhabit that idea features in many programs’ methodology.  These opinions may be related to an instructors’ take or experience; however such approaches prohibit exploration. Using film in the classroom can be reductive, as it may limit the students’ idea of the play to one interpretation.
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) I have seen handouts totalling 25 pages, with color, or difficult to read facsimiles or, worse, fluff activities (word finds, crosswords, quizzes — time killers, not enrichment activities) that do not bring students any closer to understanding Shakespeare’s work, nor its relationship to his life and theirs.

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.

–Sarah Enloe
ASC Director of Education

Impostor Alert

Never in my life could you have made me believe that I would teach anyone anything. Yet, here I find myself suddenly handed the authority to educate sixty eager young minds, to illustrate “how-to”s to professional actors and managers, and to lecture patrons more than twice my age and certainly twice as wise about Shakespeare’s plays and staging conditions. As I work through my notes, trying to remember to speak slowly and clearly, my panicked little brain is screaming, “Who put this authority here? I didn’t ask for it? Somebody else must have dropped it? Surely they’re now looking for it, this misplaced authority, because it’s definitely not mine? Right? Someone take this back.”

Hi! I’m Adrienne Johnson, the American Shakespeare Center hired me as the new (as in the position has never existed before) Company Manager and new (as in this position definitely existed previously and I’m a new hire.) Camp Life Coordinator in April of 2016 after I completed my second Masters in Shakespeare (because one definitely wasn’t enough). However, it seems that although I have these two incredibly specialized Master’s Degrees, I still suffer from what clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzzane A. Imes coined as “Impostor Syndrome.” In her book Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, Imes defined the syndrome as the inability of a “high-achieving” individual to accept the success of their accomplishments and a “persistent fear” of being exposed as a “fraud.” While I wouldn’t say I’m exactly afraid of being exposed a fraud, I can’t say that it’s high on my giant list of things to-do today.

When my “Company Manager” job was first pitched to me, it didn’t really have a job description as recognized in a usual hiring process. I got a short email from one of my supervisors with a list of duties that could be (and probably would, and now are) on my plate if I accepted this job. It included managerial things like maintenance and facilities of all of our apartment buildings and of the playhouse, arranging the housing and hospitality of all of our visiting guests, and tacked on the end of the list was “ASCTC Camp life duties.” I’ve been a stage manager for years and had been the co-company manager of my MFA company, and so felt nicely qualified for the new job that the ASC wanted to create. Prior to my position, all housing duties were tacked on to our Tour Operations Manager, even though it really didn’t have anything to do with her job. I was happy to help lighten her load and happy to have a job right after graduation. I accepted the job and felt fully qualified to do it. Additionally, because I had been a counselor for ASC Theatre Camp twice before, I felt qualified and excited to help the new ( “New” as in the position definitely existed previously but she is a new hire and they changed the title!) College Prep Programs Manager, Lia Wallace, run ASCTC this summer. What I wasn’t ready for was having to dive right into something I never even really wanted to try.

TEACHING.

 

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Photo by Maddie Buttitia

Although the part of my job that involves the ASC education department technically only happens for six weeks of the year (two three-week long sessions of summer camp), I found myself almost instantly observing the workshops and learning how to teach them, meeting with the other brilliant education artists weekly, and constantly discussing, brainstorming, planning, and executing great marketing for all of the ASC’s educational programs. This is when it became very obvious to me, but apparently to no one else, that my impostor-ism was showing. Any day now, I’m sure, I’ll be leading a workshop or giving a student feedback and they will laugh in my face and expose me for what I really am. A calendar-making, facilities-managing, hospitality-organizing fraud. I’m not a teacher! Look at this tool bag! No books in there at all! I can’t write on a board and talk in front of people at the same time! Delegate and don’t do all of the things myself, you say? No way!

 

In spite of my panic though, no teaching artist ever interrupted, “Oh hold on, you definitely can’t teach that workshop. Just kidding.” No parent ever complained, “My child learned nothing from you, they’re never coming back to camp again and it’s definitely your fault.” No Road Scholar ever scolded, “you’re definitely not Sarah Enloe! We want our money back!” But instead I got notes about how clear and personable I was during lectures, that I was a “model teacher” that responds thoughtfully to questions, how passionate I was when I really liked the topic, and how thankful our campers were for calm and individual guidance. In my four and a half months with the company so far, I’ve observed almost every workshop that we offer, taught and been approved to teach three of them, helped to develop one entirely new workshop, and helped to organize advertising and recruitment goals for both camp and other educational programs. But education can’t be my job… right?

 

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Photo by Lia Wallace

The great thing about being hired in a Frankenstein-position that never existed before means that I get to design what my job description looks like and what my daily duties include. So far, I’ve been pretty active as both a company manager and a full-time education artist, at my own pace, motivated by my own desire to not be exposed in this teacher-suit I find myself wearing more and more. Even though I’ve been “teaching” every age student we get here at the ASC for months now, I’ve definitely learned a lot more than I’ve taught. I’ve learned that even the best teachers say “um” sometimes. I’ve learned that our students want to learn from us, and that they will listen and ask questions to motivate the conversation. I’ve learned that doing and showing is always more interesting than talking. I’ve learned that group discussion is fun and exciting. I’ve learned that everyone has to teach a workshop with no prep sometimes. I’ve learned that teaching a workshop with no prep sometimes isn’t actually that scary. I’ve learned how to cook three meals a day for forty people. I’ve learned about HVAC units and how to do minor plumbing tasks. I’ve learned how to coordinate the comfort, lives, and education of any combination of thirty staff members and sixty young adults.

 

While my tool bag still has a multi-tool, plumbing tape, and a flashlight, it now also has rhetoric flashcards and cue scripts. I don’t need to write on a board to teach a lesson. Although I never planned to be a teacher, I’m in a community that trusts me and values my expertise. They want me to succeed and they encourage me to extend my comfort zone. And mostly they try to make sure I never feel like an impostor. I literally get paid for the thing I insist I “can’t do.” And I am so grateful to all of them for that love. (And that paycheck, amiright?)

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Photo from peopleiveloved.com 

Final Thought: As I was procrastinating writing this article by scrolling through Facebook, a friend’s post popped up on my newsfeed. I like to think it was serendipitous to come through my feed when I needed to see it most. I saved the picture (right) to my desktop, logged out, and continued writing instead. Writing the damned thing is a milestone for me and not just another educational duty I get to cross off of that ever-growing to-do list.

 

–Adrienne Johnson
ASC Company Manager & Camp Life Coordinator

New Study Guide Released: KING LEAR

This fall sees the release of a brand-new ASC Study Guide: King Lear. With this addition, we now have guides for twenty-one of Shakespeare’s plays, including all the major tragedies. I enjoy this play a lot, but it hasn’t been performed at the ASC since I started working here back in 2010, so this was my first opportunity to dive into it for ASC Education — and, boy howdy, did I dive.file_001

Weighing in at 273 pages, this is the longest Study Guide I’ve yet written. Admittedly, some of that is because I’ve provided quite a bit of text for comparative study — quarto scenes versus Folio scenes, scenes in Lear compared to scenes in other plays — but a lot of it is because I keep expanding on what I want to include. Every Study Guide now includes a Textual Variants section, which they haven’t always. Every guide now has information on cue scripts. Every guide going forward will have special, play-specific sections on both metrics and rhetoric. Lear also has fascinating stagecraft and dramaturgical angles to explore, so putting all the pieces together gives us a Study Guide with quite a bit of heft.

As always, the Basics sections provide a toolkit for examining text, with an eye towards performance and the questions that actors ask when putting up a play, using the first 100 lines as an example. As I’ve discussed before, the first 100 lines always teach me something interesting: I love looking at what Shakespeare chooses to reveal or conceal right from the start. In Lear, although he begins with the subplot, introducing Gloucester and Edmund before Lear and his daughters, he still gets right to the action quite quickly: the story progresses all the way to Cordelia’s explanation of her failure to flatter her father. What really floored me, though, was the word cloud:

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I would never have guessed that “love” would be the most-frequently-used word in the first 100 lines of Lear, but there it is — and by quite a substantial margin.

The play-specific activities mine the breadth of the fascinating themes and the intriguing stagecraft of King Lear. We begin by looking at the quarto and folio variations, since Lear is a play with a tumultuous print history. Our Staging Challenges sections focus on some of the most exciting things that can happen on stage: storms and combat. The storm in Lear is particularly interesting to examine since it goes on for most of an entire act. Language work continues in the Metrical and Rhetoric sections, where we examine verse-prose shifts and the linguistic patterns of madness. In our Perspectives sections, we connect Shakespeare’s world, the world of the play, and your students’ modern world by looking at family dynamics and the role of the fool. Finally, our Dramaturg’s Corner explores Shakespeare’s sources for Lear and the adaptations of the play that have occurred since his lifetime.

Intrigued? Here’s a sample activity for your perusing pleasure: Metrical Exploration.

file_000-1But King Lear isn’t all that’s new in the world of ASC Study Guides. The Merchant of Venice, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Romeo and Juliet have all received polishings this year. Of those, I’m most excited about the additions to the Romeo and Juliet Study Guide. A new Staging Challenges activity explores Juliet’s not-really-a-balcony, and a new Perspectives section applies Elizabethan and modern viewpoints on courtship, marriage, and familial interactions to Romeo, Juliet, and the Capulets. Romeo and Juliet has long been one of my favorite plays, and getting to return to it and develop a few new activities was such a delight.

If you want to dive deeper into the activities of King Lear, join us for the Teacher Seminar on October 7-8. Registration for the Winter Seminar on The Merchant of Venice and the Spring Seminar on Romeo and Juliet will be opening later this fall.

All ASC Study Guides are available as PDF downloads or print-on-demand hard copies from Lulu.com.

“Thy life hath had some smatch of honour in it”: Virtue, Politics, and Julius Caesar

The time has come once more for my annual Ides of March posting about Julius Caesar. This play always resonates particularly strongly in election years. I’ve talked before about how ideas of rhetoric connect across the centuries, but today, I thought I’d go for something a little different. Much of this year’s political debate has centered not on policy but on personality — on what makes someone “presidential”, on what behavior is considered above-board and what’s below the belt.

As it happens, that’s something I focused on in the Julius Caesar Study Guide, too — how Shakespeare balanced pagan Roman virtues with early modern Christian virtues and how students can then relate those concepts to their own modern sensibilities of what is right and appropriate, in public and in private. So this year, I’m sharing a snippet of that Study Guide, in the hopes of generating fruitful discussion both about Julius Caesar and about our own political tangles.


Perspectives: Honor and Virtue

Many of the characters in Julius Caesar are preoccupied – obsessed, even – with ideas of honor and virtue. They want to act in a way that is “right” and just, that will not bring shame upon them, and that will benefit not only themselves, but the nation of Rome. Concepts of honor and virtue, however, are not concrete. They change throughout time and from culture to culture. In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare has to balance the Roman pagan ideals of his historical subject matter with the Christian morals of the world in which he lived (and in which he had to get his play past the government censors). This activity will explore concepts of virtue both in Roman antiquity and in Shakespeare’s England, as well as examining ways to relate those ideas to modern frameworks of honor and morality.

This activity will also touch on the issue of suicide as depicted within the play. As this is a sensitive issue and possibly triggering for some teenagers, you may want to use this discussion as an opportunity to bring in a guidance counselor to speak to your students about suicide.

Roman Virtues

Roman virtues tended to spring from how a man related to society, based on qualities that formed a model for excellence in both private and public life. Attainment of these virtues was important because it allowed society to run smoothly. Some of the most important virtues were:

  • Auctoritas, the totality of one’s social standing built up through experience and reputation, a measure of clout and influence
  • Dignitas, a man’s good name and prestige, a sense of self-worth and personal pride
  • Gravitas, a sense of sobriety, responsibility, and earnestness, a sense of substance and depth rather than frivolity
  • Pietas, encompassing not just religious devotion, but a respect for the natural order of society and ideals of patriotism, as well as the sense of duty to the state and to one’s family
  • Veritas, “truthfulness,” honesty and respectability in dealing with others

These virtues had near-tangible currency for the Romans. They were not just abstract concepts; the Romans conceptualized them in a way that has no precise analog in modern society. For the Romans, it was almost as if each man had a jar for each virtue, and his actions (or those of his friends and family, reflecting on him by association) could either add beans to his jar or take them out. Though there was no actual record-keeping of a man’s virtuous standing, Roman men (particularly those with political ambitions) had a constant awareness not only of their own measures, but of the measures of their allies and opponents within the political system. A man with insufficient auctoritas could not hope to win high political office. A scandal could damage a man’s dignitas, making his social life considerably less pleasant.

  • Discuss:
    • Which of the virtues do the major characters display?  Ask your students to back up their opinions with examples from the text.
      • Example: Caesar displays great (even excessive) dignitas when walking through Rome for the Lupercalia festival (1.2).
    • When do these characters invoke these ideas of virtue (even if they don’t use the actual words for them) to influence or manipulate other characters?  Again, have your students find examples in the text.
      • Example: Cassius calls upon Brutus’s pietas to get him to join the conspiracy (1.2); Antony rhetorically questions Brutus’s veritas to get the plebeians on his side (3.2).
    • What happens in the play to make any characters gain or lose one of these virtues?
      • Example: Cassius’s shady financial dealings (4.2) call his veritas and dignitas into question; the idea that Caesar is afflicted with the falling sickness, possibly seen as a curse from the gods, might damage his auctoritas or pietas (1.2).
    • At the end of the play, whose “virtue-jars” are fullest?
  • Writing Prompt: In a journal entry or short essay, ask your students to choose which of the Roman virtues they think is most important in Julius Caesar and to defend that choice with quotes from the text.

Elizabethan Virtues

The major difference between the Christian concept of virtue and the Roman ideal is, essentially, one of private life versus public life, or, to put it another way, the idea of internal responsibility versus external. Honor and virtue in sixteenth-century England sprung from a Christian sense of duty to God and were concerned with a man’s individual soul, not with his relation to society. Dishonorable or unvirtuous conduct was most threatening to the individual, who would be held accountable for his actions in the afterlife; the only concern for others was that he might inspire similar inappropriate conduct. Christians also had a codified set of rules to obey, passed down in the Bible, the works of notable Christian authors, and the mandates of the Church. Though the universality of this code was less distinct in the decades following the English Reformation and the rise of Protestantism than it had been during the centuries of Catholicism’s unbroken dominance of Europe, many ideas of sin and virtue still carried over even with the advent of the Church of England.

Medieval tradition recognized Seven Heavenly Virtues with corresponding Seven Deadly Sins: Lust vs Chastity, Gluttony vs Temperance, Greed vs Charity, Sloth vs Diligence, Wrath vs Patience, Envy vs Kindness, Pride vs Humility.

For Romans, an individual’s responsibility was more to the state. Dishonorable conduct was a disruption of order that did not just threaten the individual, but the fabric of society. The afterlife was far less of a concern, because in Roman conception, nearly everyone ended up in the same underworld. Roman gods did not play by one codified set of rules, but were as fickle and contrary creatures as any human, subject to whim, persuasion, and bribery. Ideals of moral behavior came, instead, from philosophers, focusing more on ethics and being good for virtue’s own sake, rather than having anything to do with religion.

In a pluralistic society like ours, ideas of honor and virtue are no longer as concrete or well-defined as they were for either the Romans or the Elizabethans. We don’t have one overarching system demanding our compliance; instead, our society is a mixture of different influences and modes of thinking.

  • Discuss:
    • What are our modern virtues?  What makes a person today honorable?
      • Make a list on your blackboard, whiteboard, or smartboard.
    • Where do these ideas of virtue come from? Religion? Social rules and etiquette? Books and movies?
      • List as many origins for concepts of honor and virtue as possible.
      • How many of these institutions may come into conflict with each other?
    • What (or who) enforces these virtues? Peer pressure? Laws? Parents and teachers?
      • Again, list as many as possible and see where they may contradict or come into conflict with each other.
      • Discuss the idea of enforcing morality. How effectively is this done in the United States? What about in other countries?
  • How can you mate these concepts of modern virtue to the ideas of virtue portrayed in Julius Caesar?
    • Are any of the Roman or early modern ideals of honor and virtue still relevant today?  Do we think of the same or similar concepts by different names or within different parameters?
    • Consider how a production of Julius Caesar might draw on these ideas for costuming, makeup, or props.

You can download the full “Honor and Virtue” activity here, or you can buy the full Julius Caesar Study Guide — discounted 15% in honor of the Ides! — from Lulu.com.

Apprehend a world of figures: Rhetoric and the SAT

ROADS boxA recent feature on NPR’s The Takeaway discussed changes to the SAT exams (which many students will be taking tomorrow), and it included a reference to the fact that rhetorical analysis is now a component in assessing a student’s verbal skills.

This was news to me, but also delightful. I’ve been arguing for the inclusion of rhetorical studies in high school classrooms for years now, and as I did some research into the new SAT’s format and focus, it became clear to me that the ASC’s R.O.A.D.S. to Rhetoric materials are designed specifically to give students an entry-level understanding of precisely what the test now seems to be looking for:

  • From the College Board’s SAT study guide: “Analyzing word choice: Understanding how an author selects words, phrases, and language patterns to influence meaning, tone, and style; Analyzing text structure: Describing how an author shapes and organizes a text and how the parts of the passage contribute to the whole text”.
  • From Five Tips for a Top Essay on the New SAT: “For a high-scoring essay, don’t forget to use some rhetorical flourishes of your own: big words, literary devices, and even statistics and quotations you’ve memorized as part of your test prep. Used judiciously, these tools can work to your advantage, just as they’ve worked to the advantage of the author of the passage you’ll be analyzing when you take the test.”
  • From BodSAT’s News: “Any good rhetorical analysis process includes the head as well as the heart. Good English teachers know the importance of having students engage with the text before they analyze it.”
  • From Montgomery School of Maryland’s SAT prep: “Reading: The student needs to analyze the passage’s word choice and text structure, along with analyzing the author’s point of view, purpose, and argument (how the author builds, structures, and supports the argument)…. Writing: These questions focus on revision of text to improve the use of language to accomplish particular rhetorical purposes.  While reading, the student needs to ask him/herself questions like… – How is the author using phrasing and word choice to accurately, clearly, and concisely state the intended message? – How does the wording and sentence structure affect the style and tone of the passage?”
  • From Study Study Tips for the 2016 SAT Essay: “Point out specific rhetorical devices that strengthen the argument and connect the author to the reader. Common examples are word choice, hyperbole, figurative language, rhetorical questions, and emotional appeals – devices that you’ve probably learned in school.”
  • From Persons for the People: “An overview of Aristotle’s appeals: Ethos: The Ethical Appeal, demonstrates credibility, author is trustworthy/fair, emphasis on morality, right v wrong, considerate of both sides; Logos: The Logical Appeal, author uses reason, facts, evidence, charts, graphs, figures, general thoughtfulness; Pathos: The Emotional Appeal, taps into audience’s feelings, passion and possibility, pity, sympathy, sadness, seeks the ‘gut’ reaction, about the ‘experience’.”

This is right in line with everything we say about rhetoric and how it can help actors and students mine information about character, expression, intent, and action out of the text. (Plus, as I discussed last month, it’s pretty sexy stuff and totally fits with modern media). But it’s not enough just to be able to regurgitate definitions: students have to experience it in ways that are vital and visceral in order to learn how writers use rhetoric to shape critical thought and emotional affect. That’s where the application comes in — and there’s no better lens than Shakespeare for exploring rhetoric-in-action.

Here’s a snippet of what I encourage students to look for once they’ve got a basic grasp of rhetorical patterns:

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So, if you’re a teacher wondering how to approach this new requirement of the SAT exam, I encourage you to join us at an upcoming Teacher Seminar, or, bring your class in for a R.O.A.D.S. to Rhetoric workshop. We’re also happy to travel to you for classroom visits or in-service training. Whether or not you study the play we’re covering — or even if you don’t teach Shakespeare at all! — our methods of rhetorical analysis are cross-applicable across all language studies and will help to make your students better readers, writers, listeners, and thinkers.

And if you’re a student looking to get a leg up on the SAT exam? Try our Rhetoric Flashcards, available in the Box Office and through our online gift shop. Your classmates may all know what alliteration is, but you’ll be the one walking home with 800s when you drop terms like antanaclasis, polysyndeton, and anthimeria into your essay.

Blackfriars Conference 2015 — Colloquy XVII: Teaching Shakespeare as an Integrated Process

Heidi Snow of Principia College chaired the colloquy session on pedagogy which included presenters Chrissy Calkins Steele, also with Principia College, and Alicia Huber, an independent scholar.  Three Principia students, Anna, Kelsey and Nathalie would be presenting their papers, Professor Snow informed her session participants, and she also announced her  intention to open up the floor to expand the conversation to encompass everyone in the room.

Mary Baldwin College Shakespeare & Performance alumna Alica Huber was the first to present after the Chair’s introduction, discussing how pedagogy relates to a subject she teaches to undergraduates, Theater History.  She told the session’s group that she meets many faculty members at the university where she is an Adjunct Professor who are skeptical of the need to teach Theater History.  She then projected a slide which read, “Theater History: We can Do Better.  Let’s science on pedagogy.”  She related a personal anecdote of a student show she directed which, although a modern play, incorporated elements of classical Greek Tragedy.  She expressed her student actors’ antipathy towards the subject she teaches even though, she noted, they enjoyed performing in the play.  She researched through Rosetta Stone the subject of adult pedagogy, the science of how adults learn.  She recommended three books, the first of which was Ken Bain’s, “What the Best College Teachers Do.”  Daniel Willingham is the author of the second book she recommended, “Why Students Don’t Like School?”  The third book Huber named was,  “The Absorbent Mind” by Maria Montessori.  “We teach Theater History via the traditional “Sage on the Stage” model,” or, fact dissemination, which is largely ineffective and is not engaging, she contended.

“The process is what’s interesting,” Huber continued: “Pull back the curtain on the process.”  How do Theater History teachers and educators find engaging and thought-provoking questions to begin with? she asked.  The student, she explained, may not know much history, theater history or in general, but they usually know something about theater itself.  She begins teaching her course by asking her students, “What is theater?”  Huber then read a paper from one of her students she had taught who expressed in her answer that in thinking about her definition of theater, as she wrote her paper, the student began to ask herself deeper questions, and ultimately confessed that the more she thought about it, the less and less sure she knew what theater was.

Textbooks, Huber explained, contain “received expertise.”  She projected then a slide reading, “We must empower our student to become experts.”  How do we know what we know? she asked.  Much of our understanding of Early Modern Theater is from the attempted reconstruction based on what little evidence still exists today.  She then recommended, “Let’s not learn history, let’s learn to be historians.”  Evidence comes first.  She teaches history with such evidence including texts, physical evidence which she presents to her class in the form of photos of Hellenic Theater at Epidaurus, and she also utilizes movie clips to help frame her textbook chapter readings.  She encourages her students to challenge what they read in the textbook after she has presented them with historical evidence in the classroom.

People learn by doing, Huber continued. Students learn to become critics in her class.  She stated she is committed to learning in a studio space: How can teachers create an environment in which the students themselves can make discoveries?  “Discovery is the best teacher,” she explained.  Huber comes from a background rooted in laboratory research, referring to her work with Rosetta Stone while she completed her M.Litt degree. She conducts experiments in her class with masks.  She informed the members of the session, that Chinese Theater Works, NYC, and The Greek Theater at Randolph College, in addition to The Blackfriars Playhouse, also incorporate original practices.  We must remember that Theater History is a narrative because people love stories, she stated in conclusion.

The Chair next proceeded to discuss the study abroad program she and her colleague Chrissy lead, “Shakespeare’s England”  The course includes seven-and-a-half weeks of students engaging in research at the Globe Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, and also with the Lake District.  The course proceeds with another seven-and-a-half weeks on campus where students put on a full play.  The campus course students take are, Cultural Studies, Acting Shakespeare, Shakespeare in England, History of English Drama, and Voice for the Actor.  Students create artistic journals.  Professor Snow called upon her student Anna to display her artwork which she produced in class.  Her student Anna also displayed the theater program she worked on.  Professor Snow stated she uses Wordsworth Trust for teaching primary source material.  She said that she has her students conduct research at the British Museum as well, including making use of the Museum’s Rare Book Room.  Two weeks at the Globe follow this research, and there students learn movement, work with the text, and learn about costumes.  And of course, Snow, informed the group. students also view Globe productions.  Her students then design what they are going to teach as schoolteachers to their pupils.

Anna next presented her paper, “How to Handle Old Books and Papers,” providing the student perspective.  She wrote an in-depth dramaturgical paper on jailers in “The Winter’s Tale” which she researched at the British Museum.  Her paper addressed the question, “How does the jailer’s depiction in Shakespeare’s play vary from what we know from recorded evidence about how jailers behaved in real life?”

Next to present her paper was Kelsey, a Senior at Principia, who played Paulina in the student production of “The Winter’s Tale”  She read what she’d written about her experience at The Globe and of the Birthplace Trust.  The latter resource is the recipient of the Royal Shakespeare Company archives.  “There isn’t one answer,” she said she learned.  Shakespeare’s Globe Education Center Director Michael Gold immerse the students in Shakespeare’s language.  “Why the play’s character might be off-balance, she explained, “iambic study reveals clues to such characters.”

Nathalie, also a Principia student who went through the same Shakespeare course with her fellow actors Anna and Kelsey, read her paper on her course experience.  All three students then performed a scene from “The Winter’s Tale,” demonstrating for session attendees how much they had learned in the study abroad course.

The Chair then concluded the session by opening up the floor for questions.

Bill Leavy

Blackfriars Conference 2015 — Colloquy VIII: Practical Rhetoric

How can rhetoric help students?  How can actors use it?  Colloquy Chair Cass Morris, Academic Resources Manager with the American Shakespeare Center introduced the session’s format as a conversation, as she put it, rather than that of a lecture, and she then had the presenters seated around the meeting room table introduce themselves and state exactly what it is that they do with rhetoric.  Tom Delise with the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory teaches his students fifteen rhetorical devices to help them in their acting.  Marshall Garrett, Mary Baldwin College Shakespeare & Performance MFA candidate mentioned how his thesis on “Measure for Measure” focused on rhetoric, and stated that he is interested in helping actors who are not familiar with rhetoric to be aware of it and be able to work with it.  Sign language interpreter Lindsey D. Snyder of Gallaudet University said she is interested in making rhetoric understandable for the hearing-impaired.  Annette Drew-Bear teaches Shakespeare courses at Washington and Jefferson College, and she said she wants to discover more effective teaching techniques, including ways to improve her students’ assignments.  The other presenters included Collin Bjork with Indiana University, Scott Crider with the University of Dallas, and Kathleen Quinlan, English Teacher with Stonewall Jackson High School.  

The Chair then talked of methodology and strategies in rehearsal and in the classroom.  Delise distributed around the room his “Rhetorical Devices Worksheet,” explaining that he gives this to his students/actors to help them prepare for a role.  The worksheet calls upon the student to name the rhetorical device, give an example of it from the text, and then asks the question, “How Can It Inform an Acting Choice?  What Questions Does It Raise?”  Garrett discussed his work on “Measure for Measure.”  He said he discovered that the flow of rhetoric in Shakespeare’s play reveals that the prison characters use almost no rhetorical devices at all, while by contrast, the character of Isabella uses rhetoric to render her antagonist Angelo speechless.

The Chair next proceeded to the topic of Dramatization of Rhetoric, mentioning that Crider’s paper in particular explored the “performativity” (performance conventions and audience perceptions) of rhetorical devices.  Some of these, such as “epizeuxis,” or the immediate repetition of a word, are definite cues for the actor.  Snyder demonstrated through signing how different words and expressions utilize different hand signs.  She also discussed how the meaning and the meter of the verse are affected by the actor’s breathing.  Crider asked the sign-language interpreter if she had worked in gesture and if so, how it relates to Early Modern acting.  Gesture, Snyder replied, didn’t appear in print until sometime in the mid-1600’s.  There is some documentation which still exists today, she added, but there is not much writing on how it was used on the stage.  She suggested that some actors were not as declarative as we now believe they were, and that the practice of using gesture became more established over time.  Snyder continued on a related subject, stating that physical training and classroom training should not be separate and distinct from one another.  Instead, rhetorical instruction should synthesize both of these approaches.

Garrett discussed Shakespeare’s use in “Measure for Measure” of the rhetorical device known as “anadiplosis,” which is the repetition of a clause or sentence’s last word or phrase at the beginning of the next line, clause or sentence.   “Do we stop Angelo’s action to try to get a word in,” Garrett asked, “or do we just let him keep on going in the scene?”  Rhetorical devices can be translated into actors’ actions as well as into words and emotions, he explained, as when one character in a scene mirrors the posture of another, indicating to the audience love and attraction between two characters.  “Souls and hearts start beating together; characters start to move in tandem,” he noted.

Quinlan shared her insights as an English Teacher on the performativity of rhetoric as well.  The character of Iago in Shakespeare’s “Othello” uses a device known as “aposiopesis,” or a sudden breaking off in mid-speech, as a kind of innuendo, she explained, to imply to Othello his wife Desdemona’s fabricated infidelity.  Quinlan also discussed another kind of omission, “ellipsis,” in storytelling.  Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Tell Tale Heart,” she illustrated for her listeners, intentionally leaves out the names of the characters.  Her students comment on this omission in her class, remarking that the narrator refers to his antagonist/victim simply as, “The Old Man.”  The reader is left to fill in the blanks by using his or her imagination.

Garrett in addition discussed his staging for “Measure for Measure,” particularly in ways to communicate to the audience a sense of balance and also the sense of miscommunication.  Bjork then shared an anecdote from his days as an actor.  He was rehearsing a scene in which his character uses alliteration, in this case it was a repetition of ‘f” sounds.  His director explained to him that the rhetorical device informs the actor’s face in performance.  The director told the actor, “You are making a kissy-face!”  Bjork said the repeated ‘f’ sounds in his character’s language was his cue to pucker up to his lady scene partner.

The Chair then asked her presenters the question, How does rhetoric figure in writing and composition?  Crider mentioned that rhetoric helps his students in their composition, and that learning rhetoric develops them into better readers of Shakespeare and in general.  Morris next asked, “Students may learn the correct term, but how can an actor use it onstage?”  The Chair proceeded to describe as an example of practical rhetoric, how emphasis on rhetorical usage in ASC’s leadership workshop helps workshop participants, who have included leaders in the business community as well as in politics, become more persuasive leaders through its use.

The Chair opened up the floor to “gallery” questions shortly before the session concluded.  Lia Wallace, ASC Educator, talked of how she taught rhetorical devices to younger kids, such as “anthimeria,” or nouns as verbs.  Wallace remarked how younger children are able to learn rhetorical devices and their names with great facility because they haven’t yet learned from cultural bias that it is supposed to be so “hard.”

Morris admitted to the colloquy’s attendees that what it is she needs to know now is what is the “next step” in the practice of rhetoric as she brought the session to its conclusion.

–Bill Leavy

‘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.

Evolution of a Study Guide

Since starting work with the ASC in June of 2010, I’ve created Study Guides covering 19 of Shakespeare’s plays, along with our From Class to Cast guide to production. Each year’s new Study Guides typically cover the shows which are our Student Matinees at the Blackfriars Playhouse. These are usually major curriculum shows such as Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, though not always, as my guide for The Two Gentlemen of Verona can attest. This year, however, all of our matinee shows are plays I’ve already created Study Guides for (Macbeth and The Comedy of Errors in the Fall, The Taming of the Shrew in the Actors’ Renaissance Season, and Hamlet and Much Ado about Nothing in the Spring). This has given me a few different wonderful opportunities.

IMG_1491First, I’m getting a chance to do a Version 2.0 on each of those guides. This process has been a revelation to me, since it’s a tangible representation of how my pedagogical thoughts have shifted and expanded over the past four years. Some of that has come from observation, some from things I’ve learned at conferences (our own Blackfriars Conference or others), and some of it has been simple trial and error. Working with teachers in our seminars has helped me see which activities take off like shining stars and which need a little extra boost to hit maximum efficacy. In the guide for The Comedy of Errors, for example, I’ve updated the section on the rhetorical device of stichomythia based on an activity that really fired everyone’s imaginations in a later year, when we were working in Much Ado about Nothing (see the picture at right — and if you’re curious what that’s about, join us Oct 3rd-5th for the Fall Seminar!).

Since updating the guides doesn’t take as long as writing one from scratch, however, it also frees me up to expand our offerings in new ways. By the Spring, I’ll have a Marlowe guide to add to our Shakespearean shelf, focusing mostly on Doctor Faustus, to help teachers who look at these two early modern heavyweights in conjunction with each other. I’m eager to find out where the similarities and differences will lie in building a guide for Kit instead of Will.

I’m also starting work on something in an entirely new format: a scansion workbook. This is in early stages yet, but I’m excited to develop it. I’m hoping to create a hands-on, step-by-step guide to the mechanics of metrics and their application for actors. This guide was partly inspired by watching our actors in their tablework rehearsals this summer. Since we so strongly believe this is a tool that all students and actors of Shakespeare should have at their disposal, it makes sense to add a scansion-focused workbook to the resources we offer. If all goes well with that, next year I’ll build a similar workbook for rhetoric.

We’re also looking into ways to build more multimedia into our educational resources. Over the next year, the Education Department hopes to produce a series of short videos sharing exciting discoveries, tips and tricks, and demonstrations of activities.

One of the best things about Shakespeare, I think, is that you can never stop learning from the plays. Dr. Ralph has been teaching for forty years, and I still get to watch him make brand-new discoveries in the middle of workshops, when some nuance of rhetoric or staging strikes him in a way he’s never thought of before. It’s that energy that drives me when I’m building and rebuilding these Study Guides: the idea that however many discoveries I make, however many activities I create, I’ll never be done. There’s always something else to explore — and that’s the energy I most want to pass on to classrooms.

–Cass Morris, Academic Resources Manager

“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.