By: Anna Ziemniak
Every English teacher knows the groans, the sighs, the grumblings and the disdain heard every year when we begin our Shakespeare units:
“I hate this!”
“What the heck is this saying?”
“This is boring.”
“Why should I care about this?”
As a teacher, hearing these words can be upsetting – how have the Bard’s stories in their timelessness, complexity, and humanity elicit such responses? Let’s face it: English Teachers, past and present, have failed. We’ve heightened these books to a level where they are inaccessible and elitist instead of considering the humble beginnings of Shakespeare’s works. His stories are for the masses and reveal the struggles of human existence in their most vulnerable state. We have failed to get students to see that, but how do we do it?
In the summer of 2016, I had the opportunity to be a part of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Bardcore Program, a professional development series aimed at empowering CPS educators to create, inspire and motivate young people to love, embrace and appreciate Shakespeare’s works in a relevant way. During these sessions, we learned strategies from several theater and education professionals, from teachers, to scholars, to actors, to principals and writers. Much of our emphasis was on how to make Shakespeare’s words physical and malleable in a way that helps students to better understand and analyze a text. “Line Dancing” is one particular Bardcore strategy that I used with Sophomores as they started their unit on Othello. Students were placed into partners and provided with a line from the play – no context, no character to assign to the line or any other supports. Students worked together to break down what they thought the line meant – reading and re-reading it several times. Afterwards, students had to select two words from the line that stood out to them most and assign a physical gesture to accompany that word as they performed the whole line for the class.
This activity not only helps students to better understand what is being said in a smaller chunk, but it also helps them to give meaning to Shakespeare’s words. As we begin to read the play, students are excited when they recognize the line that they did during our line dancing activity in its actual context. Many will, without noticing, do their “gestures” after the line is read and become instantly engaged in the work. Students are also asked to think back on their line now, having seen it in the play. I ask them to consider if they would change their gesture, or how they would read the line differently now having read it in context. It becomes a great opportunity to reflect and defend ideas with evidence in the play. By giving students a preview of what is to come in a Shakespeare play while giving it meaning in the physical world, they are able to dive deep into analysis and move into the complexity of characters, plot, and themes in a play.