Tuesday, June 18, 2013

To be or not. To be that is the question.

I am currently struggling with my professionalism and future plans. I am a teacher (at least I purport to be) so I wrestle with this notion of teaching both in terms of presentation and choice of content. In one of my earlier posts (entitled "The Flipped Classroom"...read it) I discussed the general notion of technology in the classroom. This is a topic I have played with repeatedly and I have consistently come up with the same conclusion -- sometimes technology is great in the classroom. Sometimes, memorization is also great. But I have been dealing with a more local question so those of you who are tech advocates or English teachers, come on in.

I like Shakespeare. I don't mean that on a personal level -- truth is, I have never met the man, and I hear he can be really mean. Actually, by that I mean, really dead. He's dead. And his plays range from the incomprehensible to the delicious. Some of them make zero sense, and I honestly lack the motivation or need to plow through them. Others are brilliance beginning to end and each word is like a spot of genius secreted onto the page. Yummers. And a bunch are somewhere in between -- rewarding but flawed, like a tuna sandwich on pumpernickel bread. And you can guess which part of that I like. For years, I have been weighing the relative value of Shakespeare in the classroom (the plays I like) and I have come up with some arguments to ponder:

Shakespeare has value as...

1. a key to unlock references (cultural literacy)
2. a practice in deciphering language (when studied in the original)
3. nice stores with universal themes
4. experience with the theater

Each of these advantages can be countered

1. If we stop learning Shakespeare, we will stop using the cultural references -- is there anything in Shakespeare that hasn't or can't be derived from elsewhere? Other than perpetuating what we know, does a reliance on Shakespearean characters, phrases and stories enrich us in a unique way? As we read the Shakespeare made easy version or see an updated version, we lose the words and phrases as cultural referents anyway.
2. There are plenty of pieces of source material from various cultures and times that require deciphering skills -- from doctors' handwriting to actual foreign language texts to body language. And the more we see updated or "translated" Shakespeare because we feel that the themes and stories are important, the less we practice this skill of deciphering anyway.
3. The thing about universal themes is that they can be found elsewhere in the universe. I can spot evil characters, boys meeting and losing girls and mistaken identity from other stories.
4. Much of Shakespeare is acquired through text and movie so the actual theater experience is less and less relevant, and it can be replace by going to see another show if we still think that there is value in it.

I know all of these arguments but I still like to hold tight to teaching because I think that the process of investigation, and literary explication as it applies to a Shakespeare lesson brings out so many of the exercises and demands that good teaching should. I can look at words and etymologies, potential meanings and implications, thematic points and motifs, character motivation, or plot development. If we see value in the study of literature as a discipline, and see that close reading has a value which we want to keep pushing then the tight instruction of Shakespeare has value.

But if that is the case, then HOW should I be teaching it? Shakespeare was meant to be watched. But be watched by an audience which had familiarity with language, method and background. So to say that our students gain something by watching the play on its own seems over simplified. Even guided viewing requires an expert at the front to help students understand what they are seeing (when I show a video in class, I start and stop it frequently). To my mind, it is as senseless to assign a student to watch Shakespeare (in the original) for homework as it would be to assign a student to read it on his own. So how about we mix in technology and the applications which present the plays in parts and then explain what has been shown? Doesn't that take the place of the instruction in the classroom and allow us to then delve deeper into exploring meaning then next day? Can't I flip my classroom with said apps and free up my time for discussion, assured that students are interacting with authentic text, deciphering acquiring certain basic levels of meaning without me?

Nope. I don't think so.

Deciphering a text is not about building meaning, but about building meaningS. If I want a student to know simply what happens, then the original language (and the play form) is unnecessary. Remember, Shakespeare is dead and he can't tell me what he meant as a singular expression of his play, and that might not even be authoritative -- the study of English often hinges on finding unintended meanings and deconstructing text and wrestling definitive meaning away from the author. If we only want familiarity with culturally relevant points, we could just give a list (like the quotes at the back of the book). We could be using this and walk away. Reading Shakespeare is about opening up allowing for often contradictory meanings simultaneously, exploiting the form and seeing the context in order to create the many levels of meaning. Even assuming that a student can be entranced by a video'ed lesson and that the lesson can cover all the potential meanings that I can in the classroom, the communal building of meanings as we explore together, not in the privacy of our own homes and brains, makes for a new gestalt meaning that can be questioned and evaluated as and after it happens. After the fact, trying to explore ideas created in the intellectual vacuum that is a student's bedroom late at night falls flat. We need to stop the moment a new word or idea is confronted and, especially since students as readers don't know where the play is going, anticipate, guess, consider implications. Handing instruction over to an app is no different from handing it over to any other performance, but it presents the veneer of improvement because it attempts to replace one dimension of the teacher's presence in the pedagogical loop. And if we hand everything over, then we limit ourselves to that one dimension. A live teacher adds something to the mix that a fixed presentation (of simple text or a single understanding)can't. There is even damage done when a student is exposed to that single presentation or understanding without the guidance of a human who is trying to keep a student from coming to conclusions.

So I repeat -- I am wrestling with whether I should continue to teach Shakespeare in the classroom, but if my decision is that I should, then my decision is that I should.

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