Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What Do We Expect Students To Get, Exactly?

While we fight it out over on that other thread over whether Romeo & Juliet is the best way to introduce Shakespeare, let me start a different thread on a similar topic. What, exactly, do we think that these kids are getting out of Shakespeare? More optimistically, what are we hoping that they get? Is it just for entertainment value? The history lesson? Simply for the accomplishment so they can say they've experienced Shakespeare?


This is the question that comes to mind when I hear the occasional teacher say that they've done King Lear at the high school level. I believe completely that teenagers can read the play, answer test questions on it, write essays about it, and even perform it. But do they *get* it? *Can* they get it?


One reason that Romeo & Juliet is defended as a good choice is that it's about similar ages experiencing similar issues - first love, hormones, etc... not to mention violence, and dirty jokes. After all, what are Romeo and Juliet if not horny teenagers? You could have many relevant conversations that start with "You're in love with someone your parents would not approve of. What do you do?"


On a related note I've often explained Hamlet to people this way: "Hamlet is the story of a kid whose father is out of the picture, and then his mom married a guy that he doesn't get along with. Gee, you think there's any high school kids out there that might be able to relate to that story?" Personally I was more like a freshman in college before I got into the whole "Wow, yeah, I see what Hamlet was saying...." existential phase, but I suppose that could happen at the high school level, too.


But Lear? How do *most people*, let alone teenagers who haven't yet experienced most of their lives, get Lear? I think I'm just barely beginning to appreciate the scope of Lear, and that only because a) I've got children of my own and b) my parents are at that age where every conversation eventually comes around to "...and here's what we're going to leave you when we're gone, we won't be around forever you know."


For me, personally, I like to ask "Having read/understood/absorbed/internalized this play, is my life different?" For Comedy of Errors? Nah, not really. For Hamlet, or Lear, or even The Tempest or Midsummer? Most definitely.


Am I aiming too high? Do we teach Shakespeare to change students' lives, or just to put that checkmark next to their name saying we did it?



15 comments:

Giulia Listo said...

Well, I'm not a teacher, but I would never teach Lear to teenagers, cause obviously is not something to be teached. They can understand what happens but it doesn't have an impact over their lives, at least not yet.
Of course, it depends on the life they had, there'll be some exceptions.

I hope that kids and teenagers get in Shakespeare the hole essence of life at it's different levels. If we put his plays together, we have there all the feelings that are inherent to the human being. I don't know if it's a very large load to throw at them, but I think it will work with some, like it works with myself. I just stepped out of adolescence.

Nora Manca said...

I think Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet are great choices because teenagers can relate to them easily.
I have loved Shakespeare since I was a child, and at thirteen Romeo and Juliet was the play I chose to start my first theater company with. At that age I also really loved Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night's Dream.
My current theater company has a program that goes into schools and performs a series of scenes from the above mentioned plays along with Hamlet and the Scottish Play. I started this program (called Shakespeare in the Classroom) because after seeing shows I directed, people would come up to me and say "I was always so scared to read Shakespeare aloud as a student in high school, so I always thought I didn't like Shakespeare; but seeing this play performed - I loved it." After hearing this a dozen times I realized that everyone's introduction to Shakespeare should be to see it performed.
Even if the first play you see is Lear, you'll understand it much better and like it much better than if you just tried to read the text, without ever having heard words used in that elegant way and without being familiar with the style scripts are written in, having to keep twenty or so characters straight with just their names to remember them by... it is no wonder students get frustrated. Only once you are familiar with Shakespeare's style, is it easy to pick up a script and read it through, laughing and enjoying it.
And yes, I agree that you understand his plays differently as you age.

Duane said...

JM? Nora. Nora? JM. You two should chat.

:)

Nora Manca said...

JM?

Nora Manca said...

I can be reached at Nora_Manca at twitter or Nora Manca on facebook (I'm very original).

catkins said...

You have started some very interesting threads, Duane.
I think Nora stated it well when she said "you understand his plays differently as you age." I think anyone can "get" Lear, but a younger person may get different things from those that an older person does. How old do you need to be to understand "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child"? Or "No cause. No cause."
There are many things we may expect students to get. I think if they get one-tenth, or one-twentieth of what there is in each play, much has been accomplished.
--Carl

Duane said...

Aha! So then, Carl - should we lower what we're teaching them and thus increase that 1/20th to something more impressive? Instead of pitching Shakespeare to kids with a heaping helping of "This is the greatest literature ever written, people spend their lives trying to understand this, if you're very smart and very lucky you make grasp 1/20th of it" should we tone it down a notch or ten?

Duane said...

That response by me, by the way, was supposed to be Devil's Advocate talking. I don't necessarily agree with lowering the bar. Though it is a logical question - if you only expect students to grap 1/20th the material, why not teach them 1/20th of it and hope they get it all?

In a way this is like trying to explain the concept of infinity to kids who are the age where you're still explaining how to count to 100. The concept's right there, just waiting for someone to ask "What is the biggest number?" But we don't expect their little brains to understand it. So we don't throw it down in front of them in the first place (at least, not last time I checked). If it comes up, that's one thing. But don't teach it and give a test on it on the off chance that a small percentage of the kids understand it while 99% of them are completely lost.

catkins said...

I think a lot has to do with one's concept of teaching. I don't think the best approach to teaching Shakespeare is to have students read a play and to "teach" what there is to learn from it. I think it is better to expose students to the play and see what they can learn from it. Show them, perhaps, some things that are there, and see what resonates.

Jonathan said...

I agree completely with Nora that any introduction to Shakespeare we present our students should begin with performance (and if at all possible, culminate in some manner of performance from the students themselves- be it scene study, staged reading in-class, or a full student production; check out the Hobart Shakespeareans). Shakespeare was, after all, a creature of the theatre- he produced, he sold tickets, he owned stock, and he played. It was a time when the English language was both expanding and coalescing, and yet illiteracy was rampant. The plays were not meant only to be read, whatever Charles Lamb or Dr. Johnson might have preferred.
That said- as to the choice of the material? Romeo and Juliet is an obvious one, for the reasons listed above. Another common "beginner" play has long been Julius Caesar- as I understand it this is largely due to it's lack of sexuality, and the concept that the violence in the play is enough to captivate young readers but not so much as to discomfit their parents (the blinding of Gloucester or the ravaging of Lavinia might be a tad more disturbing than the stabbing of Caesar, I guess?).
What I'm wondering is, are we underestimating our students? As human beings, our first experience with most taught concepts is theoretical. Can you understand Hamlet without truly grasping existential fear? Or the bewilderment and rage which attend grief? And yet how many teenagers are capable of that? Can you grab hold of the vast forces at work inside of Lear, or of Prospero, without having experienced the process of aging firsthand? Yet if we shy away from difficult material because we fear presenting our students with abstract concepts, are we depriving them of the seeds of a richer, fuller understanding later in life?
When I was in school, I recall vividly the experience of reading Native Son- I'm a caucasian. For me, the experience of being a persecuted minority will probably always be abstract. But I was disturbed and intrigued, nonetheless. That book had a profound impact on the expansion of my consciousness- I believe that is the first moment I perceived that there were vast expanses of the human experience to which I was entirely blind. Who is to say a student will not think back on Lear and consider it their first, fledgling understanding of human frailty? Or of the poetry, the anagnorisis, such an understanding can yield?
Perhaps in introducing students to the form of Shakespeare's plays, to verse, to his language, to some of his overarching themes, it's best to pick a play they can more readily identify with, or that they are interested in reading. But my hope is that once a teacher has laid the groundwork for approaching the plays in class, he or she will choose to teach the plays they are themselves most passionate about teaching. In my experience, passion is contagious- an excited teacher seems to be the best tool for helping children rise to the challenge of "getting" Shakespeare.

Jonathan said...

I agree completely with Nora that any introduction to Shakespeare we present our students should begin with performance (and if at all possible, culminate in some manner of performance from the students themselves- be it scene study, staged reading in-class, or a full student production; check out the Hobart Shakespeareans). Shakespeare was, after all, a creature of the theatre- he produced, he sold tickets, he owned stock, and he played. It was a time when the English language was both expanding and coalescing, and yet illiteracy was rampant. The plays were not meant only to be read, whatever Charles Lamb or Dr. Johnson might have preferred.
That said- as to the choice of the material? Romeo and Juliet is an obvious one, for the reasons listed above. Another common "beginner" play has long been Julius Caesar- as I understand it this is largely due to it's lack of sexuality, and the concept that the violence in the play is enough to captivate young readers but not so much as to discomfit their parents (the blinding of Gloucester or the ravaging of Lavinia might be a tad more disturbing than the stabbing of Caesar, I guess?).

Jonathan said...

Whoops, sorry for the duplicate. Google is being strange.

JM said...

Duane wrote:

"Am I aiming too high?"

---Not in the least.

"Do we teach Shakespeare to change students' lives,..."

---I can't speak for others, but changing lives is what it's all about for me. If exposing students to all that happens in Shakespeare doesn't change a life somehow, then I guess I've been wasting my time all this while. And having seen the results, I know I haven't been wasting my time at all.

"...or just to put that checkmark next to their name saying we did it?"

---At first, that may seem like an oversimplified and, thus, unfair comparison to the first part of the question. But judging from the negative responses I've gotten at first re: Shakespeare in general, from students in high school and even college, I'd say that it's probably accurate in some cases. I know it was in mine. There was no joy in the teaching of it TO me, therefore I had no interest in it. They put a check mark next to my name, but I got nothing much from it. I think this feeling, ensuing from the way it has been taught for so long, perpetuates itself. Some teachers hated it when it was taught to them, and having no other alternate forms of exposure to it since, therefore...

Carl wrote: "I think it is better to expose students to the play and see what they can learn from it. Show them, perhaps, some things that are there, and see what resonates."

And it's surprising to many just how much can resonate. Which brings us to Duane's question: "What do we expect students to get, exactly?"

A lot more than the status quo is willing to concede. We underestimate the conceptual capacity of students when we attempt to categorize them into capabilities vis a vis age groups set in stone.
Elementary students, for example, are fully capable of understanding any of Shakespeare's plays. It's all in the presenting and approach. Generating interest comes first, the rest will follow.

The only point I'd quibble with you on Duane, is the bit about the Comedies. Some very profound lessons about life are embedded in them. Again, it's all in the approach--how and why we might make something timely and/or relevant to a student.

David Blixt said...

Caesar was my first Shakespeare play, taught to me in 7th Grade. I HATED it. Of course, now I adore it beyond words, and have played Brutus, Caesar, and Lepidus in various productions (Antony is still eluding me).

I say R&J is the obvious choice - it certainly was for me. But not in 9th Grade when I had to read it. It was senior year when I was in the play itself that Shakespeare came alive.

Bringing Shakespeare to high schools is a big part of my life. My wife Jan runs two companies now - A Crew of Patches and the Michigan Shakespeare Festival - that tour Shakespeare to schools, one in the Chicago area, the other in Michigan. It is, as many people have said, the best way to introduce students to Shakespeare.

We do R&J, Caesar, and Mac, though in the past we've done 12th Night, Othello, Shrew, & Midsummer. Of these, only Shrew sold well enough to keep in the rep for a couple years. Teachers beg us for Comedies, but never ever book them. It's always R&J, Mac, and Caesar. Read into that what you will.

KLB said...

I'm normally a lurker on this blog, but I have to say this--I am a strong advocate of teaching King Lear to high schoolers. Earlier this summer, I went to a three-week class on Shakespeare with other thirteen and fourteen year olds, many of whom were still in middle school. We read and studied King Lear as well as three other plays and everyone, regardless of experience, genuinely enjoyed and learned from it (the levels of the students ranged from "I've read half of the canon" to "Wait, so you mean he wrote something BESIDES Romeo and Juliet?").
I definitely agree that you get different things out of Shakespeare, especially Lear, as your life passes. But so many of the themes and situations in Lear are perfect for teenagers. My class spent hours gleefully discussing sibling relationships, between the three sisters and Glaucester's sons. Most of us had siblings and could appreciate the problems presented by the play: Lies and power, or family loyalty and, at least temporarily, ruin? I'll freely admit that most of us had not experienced caring for our aging parents or anything similar, so that part of the play was not as easy to relate to. But the family relationships in Lear are so realistic that we could find parts of ourselves and our own families in all of the characters, and we definitely understood and were changed by that important aspect of the play.
Perhaps the most important theme to us, though, was the price of honesty. Over and over in the play--in the characters Kent and Cordelia, especially--people are punished for speaking their minds. Teenagers are halfway between childhood and becoming an adult. We are continuously reminded by adults of our freedom of speech, yet we are more often than not denied permission to use that freedom. We feel for Cordelia and Kent because we have been there too. We go there, every day, which is why we relate to parts of the play even better than adults can. Inside Lear's universe as well as ours, speaking as we feel merits punishment rather than reward. Far from being a play teens must read, King Lear is OUR play.