For the past week, I’ve been a busy little bee trying to teach my 12th grade students the Ways o’ the Bard. We began with an informative and Halloween-themed powerpoint which reviewed some of the less-fascinating data points. Shakespeare’s background, a very abbreviated history on Elizabethan theatre, pictures of the reconstructed Globe theatre, etc. All well and good.
I thought I had them when I introduced some of the themes of Hamlet (the particular play we’re reading): madness, murder, suicide, revenge! Also, I made sure to mention the pirates, but my students were not at all impressed. (C’mon! PIRATES!)
Then, I thought, okay. Maybe they’re not too interested, but we’ll relate it to modern dysfunctional family drama and as soon as the Ghost asks Hamlet to AVENGE ME! then, they’ll get into it.
Now, pretty much since the time I started teaching, I hear mostly whining every day in class.
“Why are we reading this?”
“This is boring.”
“I don’t understand.”
Now, I understand that for people who are not literature geeks, the material that we’ve been covering has been not only challenging, but maybe not that interesting. I know that as their teacher it is my job to make it interesting, and I try. The Gods above know that I try.
I try to get students engaged with my own enthusiasm. We go over scenes in class and then I break it down in modern day language. I ask questions that gets them to think about their own lives, asking students to put themselves in the story and share their points of view.
Sometimes it’s hard to gage student engagement. Being quiet does not mean their engaged. It means they’re quiet. Then, you always have the inevitable hand that goes up: “What did you just say? I don’t get it.”
I ask, “Did you read the text?”
Me: “You have to read.”
Student: “But it’s hard.”
Me: “Yes, it is.”
Homework is a big issue at my school. After my first failed attempt and advice from my cooperating teacher, I stopped giving students homework because they didn’t bring it back. I’m not trying to set the students up to fail. I want them to succeed, so I started giving them in class assignments. Still, not everyone does them and occasionally, even if you keep asking a certain student or two to get to work, it doesn’t always happen.
With Hamlet, I decided that the students needed to take more responsibility. Part of having high expectations is not babying them. I also had them sign up for reading presentations. I gave everyone the same set of questions to answer, the who, what, where, when and how, of their assigned scene. Each day I’m having students present. Today was the first day, I had students who were prepared. It was a good day.
The majority of the class is still not reading, but we’re working through it. For two of my classes, I took them through a scene and told them to read the next scene in class and I gave then four questions to answer and turn in by the end of class. I went around the room and answered questions. Students were finally able to comprehend because they were actually reading the book.
I know Shakespeare is hard. I’ve always been a literature nerd, but I didn’t always get Shakespeare. The first time I read Romeo and Juliet, I barely knew what was going on. The second time, I understood a little more. The third time (Yes, I’ve read it that many times. All three times were before 9th grade and that year I read it two more times. I switched schools midway through the year and one school taught it first semester and the second taught it second semester. As a result, I know this play better than any other Shakespeare play.), I was finally able to understand and laugh at the jokes. So, yes, I understand that Shakespeare is hard and Hamlet is the hardest (IMO) of the plays. However, reading it is a requirement for the 12th grade curriculum.
So, I gave the students options. I gave them the cliff notes, spark notes and the No Fear Shakespeare websites. I have four free periods during the day. I told students to stalk me. I stay every Wednesday after school to teach night school. I said, please come see me. Today was the first day that anyone came and talked to me. One person came and we discussed her reading presentation and we were able to get through quite a bit of the scene before the bell rang.
So what more could I do? How can I make this better?
I’ve already decided that I’m not going to lower my expectations for students. They have to do the reading and they have to present on the reading. I’ve given them plenty of options to help them. If my test scores are any indication, students are having trouble analyzing the text. They can’t tell the difference between what is important and what isn’t. They have difficulty thinking in the abstract and focus entirely on the literal. If they don’t start grasping these skills, they are not going to do well in college and some of my students really want to go. I have to prepare them for that.
Still, I’m not trying to set them up to fail. I think there are some more things I could do to help them out.
First, comprehension. That’s key. If they don’t know the basics of what is going on, then they can’t understand the larger themes. We’re going to start Act 2 on Monday. A lot of the students (some of it is for lack of reading, but not all) still don’t understand who the main characters are and their relationships to each other. I had to draw a little map on the board for one of my classes showing the characters’ relationships to each other. I think that I’ll do the same for my other classes next week. It’s something that they can write down and take with them.
Also, my professor, who observed my class on Wednesday suggested watching each Act of the play on video as we finish it rather than just waiting until we’ve read the entire play. I’m going to see if I can get the video this weekend, watch it and see how I can fit periodic viewings into the already tight schedule.
Time is another factor. I have a research project due next month. In order to complete it, there are certain assignments that I have to give the students as part of my data collection and we can’t get too off track or I won’t be done on time and I won’t graduate on time.
So I have to balance student needs with my own needs as a student teacher. It’s not a decision that I want to make, but I have to. Next week, I have to give the first assessment. It won’t be until the end of the week, but still. Whether students are ready or not, that’s what’s happening. If I have my way, we’ll be halfway through Act 3 by the end of the week.
Students will have an opportunity to redo the essays, though not the quizzes. So, how do I get them ready?
Study guides. That’s what I’ll be doing with my weekend. Making study guides. I’ve made one already and, while challenging, I kinda liked it (clearly, I’ve chosen the correct profession, no?).
So, yes. I’m frustrated and stressed. I know that my students are, too. I’m going to do my part and try to do a better job of putting things together for the students and making it relevant to their lives. But the students are going to have to do their part, too. They have to read (and after today, I’m hope they realize I’m serious about that) and ask questions and come to me when they need help.
Teaching Shakespeare is hard. But I’m hoping that, together, the students and I can survive this.