Monday, November 22, 2010

The DaVinci Michelangelo Question

When our kids study history they'll no doubt hear about great works of art throughout the centuries - the Mona Lisa, the Sistine Chapel, the statue of David. It's a fairly safe bet that most students, regardless of what they are studying, will be exposed to these works are part of their general education, yes?


At what point do we start quizzing them on the kind of brush strokes that were used, and why? Or the political and economic climate at the time they were created?


If you're a student of art history, then sure. if you're destined to become an artist yourself, then absolutely. But for the most part, isn't it important to understand that these great pieces exist, have a little bit of an idea about who created them and how and why they came into existence? Do we really need to analyze them into the ground from the moment we expose our kids to them?


You see where I'm going with this, right? How come we make them dissect Shakespeare until they hate it, then? A great deal of their education in this arena goes strictly to the items I mentioned, no doubt - understanding its existence and some concept of why it is important and how it came to be. Fair enough. But I monitor homework question sites. Most of the questions are of the "Compare and contrast the themes that Shakespeare expresses through specific use of anaphora in the following scenes and cite examples....." blah blah blah.


Am I making a mountain out of a molehill on this one? I've been thinking a lot lately about Shakespeare as a lesson in history, rather than in literature, and this is the idea that struck me this morning. Should we teach Shakespeare as part of history class?



20 comments:

Phil said...

I've often wondered about the teaching of Shakespeare in school. Is there any better way to make kids hate something than to force them to a) read it b) read it out loud c) answer esoteric questions about it. I remember the kind of questions I used to get asked about Shakespeare in high school, and I hated them. After studying Shakespeare as an actor, I hated them more. They are meaningless questions that really aren't relevant to shakespeare's writing.

Maybe Shakespeare needs to be taken out of the English class. Or at least seriously review how it is taught.

JM said...

I agree with everything except the reading out loud part, Phil. If more focus was put on actual speech, kids would be better off possessing an ability to freely express themselves--Shakespeare is an enormous help in this area; it can truly empower them. BUT, the venue has to be the right one. English class, as you've suggested, is not the place; theatre class IS. But we've lost the sense of how important rhetoric (the non-political kind) is as a tool of communication. And try to get more focus for anything "artistic". In that dept. we're seriously backward in this country.

Andrew Huntley said...

I can speak from both the student and teaching perspectives. As a student, I absolutely hated Shakespeare, and didn't quite "get it" until I started working as an actor. I think this is due largely to the incredibly dry way it's taught. It's analyzed to death, and told from the "Once upon a time..." Perspective. The way it's taught currently all of the life, vitality, and passion is sucked out of it. Essentially, Shakespeare is turned into something that isn't Shakespeare.

From the teaching perspective, I can sort of understand it. In the current PC climate, especially for schools, a lot of the bawdiness, and surprisingly enough the violence needs to be toned down. It's a delicate balancing act. (Trust me, we just had Romeo and Juliet for a class of middle schoolers, I fully admit glossing over *a lot* of what Mercutio says.) That being said, the first thing about teaching Shakespeare is that if it's dull or boring, it's not being taught right. Shakespeare is about life and vitality, and that needs to be embraced.

Mark said...

I agree and disagree with you guys. I understand that at a young age, the intellectual aspect doesn't appeal to students. And I think Andrew phrased it perfectly when saying that certain methods of teaching take the life and vitality out of the plays. They're living, energetic, relevant texts. So perhaps specialization should be left to the specialists, and grade school Shakespeare study should focus on appreciation, not analysis.

But I think Phil takes it too far. Now, I'm a little biased, because my passion for Shakespeare is driven by the literary aspect as much as by any other. But to say that literary analyses "are meaningless questions that really aren't relevant to shakespeare's writing" is way off-base. Shakespeare was as much a poetic genius as he was a theatrical genius.

I run a Shakespeare podcast (click my name if you're curious), and my co-host is a theater director. One of the first things we talked about in our first episode was the fact that both literary and theatrical scholars tend to downplay the signficance of the others' work, and it's bad for both disciplines. If, at a university level, they worked together and had dialogue, both disciplines would benefit.

I'm going to blog about this later in more detail. Thanks, Duane. :)

Ed said...

Mark, well stated, especially your notion about the differences between the two scholarly camps.

I have also taught Shakespeare in high school, for over 30 years. Over the last 21 I've also taught Shakespeare to seniors as a separate course. Since 1999 I've also directed students in one, and occasionally, two Shakespeare plays a year.

Those students are not drawn from the top tier of the senior class, either (In fact, over the years those students have not signed up as much as they used to. They've convinced themselves that Shakespeare can't compare in value on their resume as one more AP class will.); it's an elective open to all.

And I've had them all over the years in class and on stage: valedictorians, ESL students, special needs kids, jocks, nerds, fifth-year seniors, foreign exchange kids,some who are now doctors, some who are now in jail.

Not to sound corny or Bardolatrous about this, but Shakespeare's plays are one of a precious few literary works that are truly universal in their appeal and in their adaptability to virtually any audience. (I'd include on that short list the Greek myths, btw, especially the Odyssey.)

As an English teacher, I do understand what JM is saying about Shakespeare belonging in Theatre classes, because I am ashamed at times by the unwillingness of too many of my colleagues to reduce the study of drama -- and not just Shakespeare -- to "Read Act One tonight, answer the ten questions, and be ready for a quiz tomorrow."

It is a battle to get English teachers to see themselves as theatre appreciators, let alone as theatre teachers. So JM is right when that case applies. However, English teachers have to realize that any Shakespeare play is a treasure chest of any and everything we do in English, and that making Shakespeare come to life through performance can allow you to discuss any topic you want from grammar, to vocabulary, to any aspect of writing.

One of my great frustrations with many of my colleagues is that they ask millions of piddling questions about literature, but fail to ask themselves the biggest one:"Why am I teaching what I am teaching?"

Too often, if that question is asked, the answer involves some variation on "They need it to get into college," or, "It's in the curriculum." No fair. Those answers, along with any that translate into a material or monetary result just plain suck. They scream avoidance, ignorance and complacency, and are indicative of the problem JM suggests: we've lost any sense that there is a place for thinking, questioning, and the artistic in our public and private lives.

Ed said...

Mark, well stated, especially your notion about the differences between the two scholarly camps.

I have also taught Shakespeare in high school, for over 30 years. Over the last 21 I've also taught Shakespeare to seniors as a separate course. Since 1999 I've also directed students in one, and occasionally, two Shakespeare plays a year.

Those students are not drawn from the top tier of the senior class, either (In fact, over the years those students have not signed up as much as they used to. They've convinced themselves that Shakespeare can't compare in value on their resume as one more AP class will.); it's an elective open to all.

And I've had them all over the years in class and on stage: valedictorians, ESL students, special needs kids, jocks, nerds, fifth-year seniors, foreign exchange kids,some who are now doctors, some who are now in jail.

Not to sound corny or Bardolatrous about this, but Shakespeare's plays are one of a precious few literary works that are truly universal in their appeal and in their adaptability to virtually any audience. (I'd include on that short list the Greek myths, btw, especially the Odyssey.)

As an English teacher, I do understand what JM is saying about Shakespeare belonging in Theatre classes, because I am ashamed at times by the unwillingness of too many of my colleagues to reduce the study of drama -- and not just Shakespeare -- to "Read Act One tonight, answer the ten questions, and be ready for a quiz tomorrow."

It is a battle to get English teachers to see themselves as theatre appreciators, let alone as theatre teachers. So JM is right when that case applies. However, English teachers have to realize that any Shakespeare play is a treasure chest of any and everything we do in English, and that making Shakespeare come to life through performance can allow you to discuss any topic you want from grammar, to vocabulary, to any aspect of writing.

One of my great frustrations with many of my colleagues is that they ask millions of piddling questions about literature, but fail to ask themselves the biggest one:"Why am I teaching what I am teaching?"

Too often, if that question is asked, the answer involves some variation on "They need it to get into college," or, "It's in the curriculum." No fair. Those answers, along with any that translate into a material or monetary result just plain suck. They scream avoidance, ignorance and complacency, and are indicative of the problem JM suggests: we've lost any sense that there is a place for thinking, questioning, and the artistic in our public and private lives.

Ed said...

Mark, well stated, especially your notion about the differences between the two scholarly camps.

I have also taught Shakespeare in high school, for over 30 years. Over the last 21 I've also taught Shakespeare to seniors as a separate course. Since 1999 I've also directed students in one, and occasionally, two Shakespeare plays a year.

Those students are not drawn from the top tier of the senior class, either (In fact, over the years those students have not signed up as much as they used to. They've convinced themselves that Shakespeare can't compare in value on their resume as one more AP class will.); it's an elective open to all.

And I've had them all over the years in class and on stage: valedictorians, ESL students, special needs kids, jocks, nerds, fifth-year seniors, foreign exchange kids,some who are now doctors, some who are now in jail.

Not to sound corny or Bardolatrous about this, but Shakespeare's plays are one of a precious few literary works that are truly universal in their appeal and in their adaptability to virtually any audience. (I'd include on that short list the Greek myths, btw, especially the Odyssey.)

As an English teacher, I do understand what JM is saying about Shakespeare belonging in Theatre classes, because I am ashamed at times by the unwillingness of too many of my colleagues to reduce the study of drama -- and not just Shakespeare -- to "Read Act One tonight, answer the ten questions, and be ready for a quiz tomorrow."

It is a battle to get English teachers to see themselves as theatre appreciators, let alone as theatre teachers. So JM is right when that case applies. However, English teachers have to realize that any Shakespeare play is a treasure chest of any and everything we do in English, and that making Shakespeare come to life through performance can allow you to discuss any topic you want from grammar, to vocabulary, to any aspect of writing.

Ed said...

Part Two:
One of my great frustrations with many of my colleagues is that they ask millions of piddling questions about literature, but fail to ask themselves the biggest one:"Why am I teaching what I am teaching?"

Too often, if that question is asked, the answer involves some variation on "They need it to get into college," or, "It's in the curriculum." No fair. Those answers, along with any that translate into a material or monetary result just plain suck. They scream avoidance, ignorance and complacency, and are indicative of the problem JM suggests: we've lost any sense that there is a place for thinking, questioning, and the artistic in our public and private lives.

I can't tell you what a privilege it is to teach Shakespeare to young people. It's a perfectly respectable way to discuss what might be considered subversive ideas by some. They may seem nothing new to those who've read and studied Shakespeare for years, but for young people, they're brand new and exciting...

Twelfth Night: What really attracts us to others?

Henry V and the Presidency of both Bushes: a godsend!

Hamlet: Ohmigod! Where do I start?

And on and on.

Ed said...

Sorry about the over-posting. I was trying to get a large post divided into a couple of messages and I screwed up.

Better I should just shut up, I guess.

If you want to delete the extra ones, Duane, please do.

My apologies.

Ed said...

Part the Last (I promise.)

We here know this, but kids don't, not without plunging into the text through performance. Once you do that, the metaphors become apparent, the poetic devices are less artificial, the rhythm comes naturally, and the ideas are undammed.

Sorry to ramble: I know I sound like someone who's seen "Shakespeare in Love" too many times. When I write or talk about the many rewards to all of us who study Shakespeare together (no one really teaches it),I always wind up feeling like some guy who's seen the other side, but can only babble about the rapture he feels.

I tell students constantly that each one of them will find him or herself somewhere in Shakespeare. I tell everyone, "Put a hat on a kid, and you have an actor." Get them up on their feet, reading those words aloud, and they will find something to love and keep with them always. He speaks to all of us, no matter who or where we are on our journeys. We just have to listen.

And he makes us think as no writer does.

JM said...

Ed: You are the man.
I left this post also on Mark's site. It pretty much sums up, (in a very small nutshell)--anyone who has read anything about how I feel about this subject knows I too can go on and on about it) what I feel.

I had no time for Shakespeare in high school. No one made it interesting enough. Dry literary assessments alone won’t work. I think we have proof enough for that. But the entrenchment of these values as the sole method of dissecting the work is very strong in the education system.

In my opinion–and I have proof for this–the approach is everything.
It’s the DOING that generates the interest. Combine it with the Energy and Inspiration naturally created from proper vocalization and breathing (speech) and something magical can happen.
Elementary and high school students–and even the professionals– I’ve taught eventually learn what they need to know at the time about the process of the poetry, parts of speech, what alliteration and assonance, etc., etc. are, and how to USE them. The “literary” aspect is incorporated as an integral part of my teaching process. If approached correctly, an actor soon learns all about the virtue and absolute necessity and utility of the literary connection. He has to in order to do the work justice.
But until the work comes alive as it was intended to do, the sum of its parts can’t equal their own great value as separate entities. I believe the combination has to be applied in an ongoing process. In the end, it’s all about the joy of expressing the Language that is OURS. Until we employ and understand the multiplicity of its functions, and thus its value and rewards, we cannot come to appreciate it for the Gift it truly is.

“Speake the Speech I pray you, as I pronounc’d it to you, trippingly on the Tongue” :
The rest will eventually follow. (note the capitalized words in Hamlet's line)

Duane said...

Happy Thanksgiving, J! :)

Let me ask you a question, since I know this whole subject is, obviously, kinda your thang. Are you describing how to teach *Shakespeare* or how to teach *drama* in general? In your approach, is Shakespeare simply the best at a craft that many many other people tried, or is he a completely unique entity? You know what I'm saying? Could you take everything that you just said about Shakespeare and post it over at, for example, BeckettGeek or ONeillGeek? Wherein lies the "Shakespeare was different from all other playwrights because X, and therefore we teach him in the following Y different ways."

I'm running out to turkey day at the in-laws so maybe I rushed that, but hopefully you get the idea. I'm not trying to debate the issue - on the contrary, I'm trying to extend the already rather lengthy discussion.

I'd sum up like I tend to do, but instead I'll repeat a question so it doesn't get buried in the middle : Is Shakespeare simply the best at a craft many others have attempted (and continue to attempt), and therefore what we say about Shakespeare can also be said about other dramatists to a lesser extent ... or is he an entirely unique entity?

Ed said...

I'll try to be brief and give the proviso that my heart says, yes, there is no one like Shakespeare...no one.

But my head says it, too.

Duane, not only are the approaches I wrote about valid for drama, they apply to literature in general. Kids need to hear great stories, not just read them silently to themselves. If they do hear great poetry, great fiction, great non-fiction, they'll start to appreciate the craft and the art of good writing.

If a teacher does not read out loud at least the opening lines of great stories:

"Call me Ishmael."

"In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice I've been turning over in my mind ever since."

"You don't know 'bout me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly."

If you're a teacher who loves good writing, you can spend an entire period talking about any one of those lines: tone, word choice, syntax, dialect, foreshadowing, et al.

Great writing holds up to that kind of scrutiny and lures you in even deeper.

Shakespeare, though, to answer the key question, is both the best ever and a unique entity. I'm prepared to defend both positions anytime.

Well, except right this moment. :)

But I'll be back after Thanksgiving.

JM said...

Happy Thanksgiving Duane & Ed. Ed has beaten me to it.

Ed wrote: "Duane, not only are the approaches I wrote about valid for drama, they apply to literature in general."
[...]If they do hear great poetry, great fiction, great non-fiction, they'll start to appreciate the craft and the art of good writing.

Ditto, Ed.

Every great writer HEARS/FEELS what his/her characters are saying, how they're saying it, and what they mean. Because of his focus on the dramatic AND the literary means to produce it, Shakespeare is the penultimate of this.

Dickens is a good example, in the strict literary vein. Look at the richness of his characters, how they come alive, how Dickens manipulates the language through them. They're so good he was compelled to go around "acting out" his own stuff.--OUT LOUD.
As one of my fifth grade students said to a reporter covering his performance:
"I had to practice hard. I really winged it my first day, but I learned how to look at words before reading them."

He did that DOING the words AND talking about what they do and mean.

Have a great day, All.

Haley said...

Hey, I comment with some frequency, but yeah. I teach a Shakespeare class, grades 10-12, usual GPA is 3.0. Shakespeare is typically covered in core English at Indiana at grades 9, 10, and 12.

In my Shakespeare course, I focus on language, comprehension, staging, and adaptation.

Teaching Shakespeare is entirely from perspective. It easily has a place in English, theater, or history. Each focus adds a new perspective, only a TRUE Humanities class and teacher can unify all three.

Hi. I do that too. I teach a freshman honors English/Humanities class. We cover Othello. We study the setting itself and the time in which Shakespeare wrote it. (Note: I have a BS in English ed with a minor in theater and a partial MA in Writing.)

How about this: There is no one RIGHT way to teach Shakespeare.

Or Orwell, or Fitzgerald, or Faulkner, or Eliot, or Plath, or Homer, or Twain, or Austen....

To say there is one way is offensive to teaching itself.

And to devalue these "esoteric" questions or the "one act a night" approach is also offensive. You should be happy Shakespeare is covered at all in light of pressure from standardized tests, budget cuts, and pressure to "create a valuable workforce." (Surprise, Shakespeare doesn't fall under that category; I HAVE been lectured when I reveal I teach a high school Shakespeare course.)

Note: Indiana does not REQUIRE Shakespeare in core English. It is merely on the recommended reading lists. It also comes prepackages in textbooks. By that light alone, we should be happy it's even covered.

Ed said...

I do understand what JM is saying about Shakespeare belonging in Theatre classes, because I am ashamed at times by the unwillingness of too many of my colleagues to reduce the study of drama -- and not just Shakespeare -- to "Read Act One tonight, answer the ten questions, and be ready for a quiz tomorrow."

Stupid typo I just noticed: this should read "willingness," not 'unwillingness." Sorry.

Duane said...

Hi Haley,

This whole topic of conversation sprang up a little something like this: I want to promote early Shakespeare education. As in, crazy early - I want kids to know The Tempest like they know Snow White. So I put out the question on a bunch of forums (facebook, twitter), "As a parent, how much value do you put on Shakespeare education? Do you want your child to have more, or less, or do you not care?" Sounds like your Indiana crowd might fall pretty squarely in the "Less please" category. That may be a shame, but it's not necessarily wrong - it's an opinion. One that I happen to disagree with.

Which leads me to where I will disagree with you strongly, and that's your repeated use of the term "We should be happy that we get it at all." No, we shouldn't. That's like saying the children will only get math 1 day out of 5, and we should be happy that we get that 1 day. Forget that.

If we think that Shakespeare education is valuable (and we all have our own ideas about how, and why, and when to teach him), then it's important that if we are not happy about it, we do something about it. If it's not part of the curriculum, start an after school program. If the teacher's union won't let you run such a thing, find parents who will and become the academic advisor. Maybe neither of those is an option in our situation, I don't know. But I do know that "Just accept the situation and be thankful it's not worse" is not an answer I'm willing to accept.

Ed said...

Haley, there may be no one right way to teach Shakespeare, but there are quite a few wrong ones. Teaching it as if it's one more item on the academic bucket list, one more topic to be gotten through, one more spoonful of bad-tasting medicine that will eventually be good for you, is one of them.

Which "esoteric questions" are being devalued in this discussion? Sorry if it's I who seemed to do so. Did you mean the questions a student might be answering after being assigned an act to read for a nightly assignment? If that's what you mean, fear not: the type of teacher who assigns a high school student an act of Shakespeare to read overnight will not be assigning esoteric questions to go along with it. Mundane ones, yes. insignificant ones, yes. But esoteric ones, no.

I'm disheartened by a teacher saying that we should be happy Shakespeare is covered at all, as though we should simply be grateful that the educrats, or the ubiquitous "they" have allowed Shakespeare into the curriculum, never mind be concerned with how it's taught. "Covered" is just the kind of word we don't need to use in reference to any subject that we want students to learn. It suggests slapping on a thin coat of paint, patching a hole, or otherwise making something appear as if it's in good shape.

Please don't tacitly concede their point that Shakespeare is some acquired taste meant only for the effete, an irrelevant little bit of decoration that gives the joint some class. We all must constantly be looking for ways to show how important Shakespeare is.

It sounds like you are doing it right: your students perform; they appreciate the beauty of the language and how Shakespeare created that beauty, and you show how Shakespeare spans so many areas of knowledge. Keep it up. Show everyone that there is a life beyond standardized tests and the checklist approach to education, and that Shakespeare can reach and inspire all kinds of kids -- and adults.

JM said...

I think maybe we've reached a sort of consensus here, even amidst the seeming conflict. And that is that Shakespeare is too expansive to be left to the narrow confines of any one discipline.

Duane, you asked about the possible difference between teaching Shakespearean 'drama" as opposed to general dramatics. To be more specific, there is a difference. And that difference has everything to do with the literary aspects embedded in the work. I may have mentioned something having to do with this before.
Too many times, those of my profession treat the work as though it could be any other piece of theatre. They approach it from a modern methodology that, in my opinion, has the great potential to not only make it inaccessible to an actor, but to also muddy it to the extent that it becomes impossible to understand and therefore boring to an audience.
Recently I attended a high school production directed by someone who I thought had a pretty good handle on directing standard theatrical productions. Except this time, this director decided to do a Shakespeare play. I could tell from the beginning that the piece had been approached like any other piece of theatre. BIG mistake.
The students all acted as though they might be doing a Noel Coward play, or some drawing room comedy where languidly smoking cigarettes (and they didn't even have any) played a great part in character definition, had no energy, dropped every line ending, could not be understood AUDIBLY even with amplification (which even made it more difficult to hear what they were saying), and acted as though they were embarrassed to have to be saying these "stupid things" they had to say. Everyone, parents and teachers, congratulated one another as though they'd witnessed some successful negotiation of trial by fire. They should have asked the high school student sitting next to me who was seeing her first Shakespeare play and admitted that she had absolutely NO IDEA what was going on. Quite frankly, if I hadn't known the play, I wouldn't have either.
Further disturbing to me, this kind of skewed approach is solidified, and tends to be the standard in college programs--don't get me started on that.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that yes, there is a kind of "special" way to approach the dramatics of Shakespeare. And yes, as I think we've all agreed upon, the "academics" of the work, for want of a less incendiary term at the moment, play a huge role in understanding what's actually going on. But separating the focus of those disciplines, as I said before, in my opinion, is a BIG mistake.

Mark said...

JM:

My director once (long before I was affiliated with her) did a production of Richard II that relied on classical verse form: Speak a whole line of poetry without pause, pause before speaking the next one. She tells me that somebody came up to her after the production and asked if she'd updated the language, because it was so clear and easy to understand.

As JM says, we seem to have reached a consensus. But I want to just reiterate (because I don't think I made the point well enough in my first comment) that we don't learn the history of the play for history's sake. It's to make the play more alive, not less. For example, consider Othello. Students should learn a little bit about the conflict between European Christendom and the Ottoman Empire -- not because the history is interesting on its own, but to learn just how significant it would be not only for a Moor to live amongst whites in Europe, but to have a position of power and respect amongst them and even to marry one of them. The play has so much more edge when that's made clear.