Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Day 1 (for real): Teaching Shakespeare Summer Institute

Ah, the first day of the Teaching Shakespeare Institute.

First off, the Shakespeare Folger Library is beautiful. I'm not sure how I've missed visiting it in my seven years living in the Baltimore/DC area, either, because it's huge, and just steps from the capital. It's really pretty stunning, and I'm sure I'm going to drop a lot of money in the gift shop this summer.

Anyhow, the group is 25 teachers from all around the country, and I feel privileged to be a part of it. Our first full day started at 11am (3 hours later than normal), and went until 11pm, and I just arrived back in Baltimore a little after midnight. Still, it all felt really good today. The opening comments really made me think about my profession and what I hope to get out of my summers every year. Delivered by a woman who did the Teaching Shakespeare Institute first as a 26-year old inexperienced teacher in 1984, and now returning to instruct, she spoke of how the 4-week workshop changed her life, and how we needed to be open to that change. She spoke of the important work that teachers do, and how important our summers are for us to re-charge and revive, and how us giving up a month of our summers to do this institute in a city not known for its pleasant summer weather spoke well of our desires to grow as teachers. I loved hearing it all, and it really made me ready for the sessions.

We began with a lecture delivered by Dr. Gale Kern Foster, one of the leading Shakespearean scholars in the nation. It was my first lecture in several years - education grad school isn't known for lectures - and, as a fellow participant toasted to later, it was like being in college again, but without being so stupid about it. The lecture was intriguing and thought-provoking, and I was just so into hearing such a smart person deliver information that I longed to relive some of the literature courses I had in college. She also stated that Taming of the Shrew is, as a play, a bitter pill to swallow, and that made me happy to hear. I was really disgusted by that sexist and just plain mean play.

The rest of the day was very active, full of performance and improv and trust exercises and such. It was fun, and even though I kind of suck at stuff like that, it was a good reminder what's it like for my students when I ask them to exit their comfort zone and do something they don't want to do.

One very concrete thing I took from today's sessions involves performance during my Romeo and Juliet unit. With my big performance assessment, I wanted to kids to, in groups, take a scene and block it and act it out. For the most part, they went terribly. With us, though, the instructors gave a group of eight of us 25 lines to act out and block. A whole scene is just too cumbersome. Next year, I know exactly how I'm going to modify the assignment and still assess whether the students are understanding the language of Shakespeare.

Another important point was brought up by one of the instructors. "If you focus mostly on theme and plot and character when you teach Romeo and Juliet in the 9th grade, that's great and all, and it's good for kids to know the stories and understand what Shakespeare is saying about the human condition," he said. "But how is that going to help them when they have to approach Macbeth in the 10th grade? If you're not giving them the tools to understand the language, they have nothing transferrable for the next text." And he's so right, and I recognized myself in those comments. I spend so much time making sure my students understand Shakespeare and the plays that we study that I'm not sure if they are understanding how to find these ideas without my help. I think this year, as with most years, I have the students independently read Act IV of Romeo and Juliet and that's about it. Otherwise, it's a lot of reading aloud in class, questions, and then having them revisit the play in their acting companies for their performances. It's ponderous and I was a bit frustrated with it this year.

The same gentleman talked often about his methods course for prospective English teachers, and that also made me think, and wonder when or if I see myself doing something like that. I don't want to leave the classroom ever, or anytime soon, but would savor the chance to start to help new teachers with their craft. I'm not ready yet, but think I've developed some sound practices in the last few years, and I can see me heading possibly in that direction someday.

As a last note, sort of random, the Teaching Institute pays more than teaching actually does. I got my first check today, and it's a tax-free stipend, so, yeah, it's actually quite a bit more than I get for two weeks of teaching. Of course, the extra money will be spent on the commute ($210 for the four weeks, riding the MARC train) and eating lunches and dinners out that I normally wouldn't eat out, but I'll break even, or more than break even. That's pretty neat, and certainly not something I expected (I expected taxes to be taken out of the stipend, leaving me with not nearly as much as I got). Anyhow, thanks National Endowment to the Humanities!


jackie said...

That's a really interesting point about teaching ninth graders-- we do Macbeth in ninth grade, and I think I did the same as you-- a lot of focus on plot, theme, etc, but I don't know I did enough work with the more subtle literary devices at work. I had a similar thought when I took a workshop with my students on text-reading, and the leader did some really interesting stuff with the shifts from prose to verse in Hamlet, especially the "nunnery" scene.

Lauren said...

About Taming, maybe Shakespeare was trying to make a point at how his society was aweful to women, breaking their spirits and such.