Friday, May 01, 2015

Four Hundred Years of History

For the first time ever, I taught Shakespeare this year. Oh, I've read Shakespeare, both in and out of classes. (Yes, that's right, I've read Shakespeare just FOR FUN, what about it?) But teaching it was a new thing entirely. I couldn't just read it, I had to be prepared to explain it, and, gulp make it INTERESTING.

Believe it or not, some people, actually lots of people, don't find literature just inherently wonderful or read just for reading's sake. They have to be encouraged. Enter the English teacher.

I think the others in my department didn't quite know what to make of me this year. I would sit in our preliminary meetings discussing literature and lesson plans and ideas with them, while all the time they are thinking I'm a science teacher. And some days, when the English classes are really going great, I think, "I can't believe I'm paid to do this!"

But toward Hamlet I didn't feel quite so confident . . . Shakespeare is the holy grail of English teaching, and Hamlet is the holy grail of Shakespeare. I didn't want to do what Mrs. Forsberg did to Romeo and Juliet when I was in the ninth grade (can you say butchered?); I wanted to bring all the subtlety and complexity and beauty to it that Mrs. Reed did with Othello. I read and studied and forced my husband to watch varying versions on Friday nights for movie night. I agonized.

For four-hundred years these plays have been taught because they are just so good. So many other plots are based on Shakespeare stories; indeed, there are few original stories left. Shakespeare is foundational to our culture and to refining your language and understanding. We celebrate this man because he was, truly, a genius. Oh, how I agonized.

And then I got some good advice.

That I actually listened to.

A wise English teacher (I hesitate to say "old" as she might be younger than I am) shrugged at my dilemma and said, "Don't get caught up in the symbolism and the imagery and the making it GREAT LITERATURE, just let the kids play with it. It is a performance piece, after all. Just engage them in the greatest revenge story of all time with a protagonist that is just an emo teenager." Prince Hamlet is actually 30, but like, whatever, he seems more like an angsty 17 year-old. Believe me, I know what angsty 17 looks like.

And it worked. The kids, not all of them, but by in large, they understood it and connected with it. They grumbled at Ophelia's brother and father who thought it was their business to tell her whom to love and could see that it was their interference that set certain events in motion. They argued about whether revenge and justice were the same thing and which Hamlet was really seeking. They empathized with his actions, even as they didn't condone them. They saw that truly dark path that revenge takes you on. They discussed mental illness and suicidal thoughts and how sometimes really hard things happen in your life that make you wish you didn't have to deal with them. They laughed at Polonius' famous advice and brilliantly translated it into modern English. The played the final scene for laughs, even as they recognized the waste and irony of it all.

It wasn't glorious. But it worked . . . and they connected in some small measure as so many English students have before. And, I hope, as they will for generations to come.

Science fascinates me because it explains the how of life. But literature . . . literature gets us closer to the why.


Kimberly Bluestocking said...

I wish I could take your Hamlet class. It's been my favorite Shakespeare play for years, though I can't quite put my finger on why.

And while I can see how others might be surprised to find a science teacher at the helm of an English class, I don't find the idea odd at all knowing your love of books and writing. :)

Feisty Harriet said...

The other day a friend of mine posted on FB asking people to list their favorite and least favorite books that were required high school English reading.

Honestly, it seems everyone loved or hated all of the regular suspects. For me, I think that depending on HOW the book is taught, how relatable the teacher made it for the students, how the themes were addressed makes the biggest difference. I was usually in an advanced English class, and I ended up loving all of the books I was required to read, some I still list as favorites. And I credit my English teachers with a lot of this because they presented new and possibly tricky/dense material in a way that I was drawn to and appreciated, instead of in a way I saw as loathsome and irrelevant.

Also, Hamlet is *totally* an emo teenager.