‘Poison hath residence and medicine power’: The Placebo Effect vs the True Cure in Teaching Shakespeare

The friendly throwback app Timehop has let me know that on this week several years ago, I was in Sarah Enloe’s Pedagogy class, desperately trying to make my thoughts on teaching coalesce into an educational philosophy. I settled on a statement about the value of education for its own sake, rather than as a means to an end — a somewhat radical philosophy in a capitalist society, and even moreso in a troubled economy like ours has been during my formative years. But I stand by it. Education isn’t only worth the salary it brings you. An educated citizenry benefits society in so many ways. We need people who are curious for curiosity’s sake, who listen critically and analyze the information they receive rather than merely accepting what they see at face value, who have a command of language, who want to explore the world around them. A teacher, of whatever subject, ought to foster these desires and talents.

Little Academe students poring through text for clues for performance

Little Academe students poring through text for clues for performance

I still hold that idea dear to my heart, but over the past few years, I’ve learned that high-minded philosophy about education means little without a solid plan for practical application. As such, I’ve come to focus a lot more on the how of education than on the why. My philosophy there has a lot to do with making sure teachers have self-supporting tools to crack open Shakespeare’s plays.

When the OCS advocates getting students up on their feet while studying Shakespeare, we mean that students should get to explore scenes, make choices, make mistakes, discover new opportunities. What a lot of other approaches mean by “getting students up on their feet” is that you should play games in the classroom. Games which divorce Shakespeare’s words from their context. Sometimes games that would be appropriate for drama class warm-ups, but which don’t actually teach anything about Shakespeare. That approach yields to a prevalent attitude in some education spheres that learning should be fun, therefore if you’re having fun, you’re learning. But that doesn’t necessarily follow. A teacher’s job isn’t just to make the classroom fun. You could play games all day, let your students watch YouTube videos in every session, or tell them to surf Tumblr, and they would all find that fun, but it wouldn’t be educational. A teacher’s job is to make learning fun for the right reasons — the joy of discovery, the empowerment of agency. That’s a deeper and more lasting “fun” than the quick fix of a quirky game.

Those text-diminishing methods also sell students short. The “bits and chunks” approach, removing Shakespeare from its context and ignoring the fact that the words are instructions for actors, tells students that Shakespeare is, as many of them fear, too hard for them. That they’re not smart enough. That they won’t get it unless it’s dumbed down. And I really have no patience for that implication. I’ve watched 10th-graders, some of whom were English-language-learners, delightfully murder Caesar, understanding perfectly what was going on, once we started looking at embedded directions and thinking about the stage. I’ve seen 7th-graders make exciting, active choices about how to embody the Witches in Macbeth. I’ve seen AP students change their entire conception of Richard III based on a revealed twist of rhetoric. Students don’t need their Shakespearean meat cut into small bites for them — they’re more than capable of tearing in, tooth and claw, with the guidance and support that a confident teacher can give them.

That leads me to another big problem with the quirky-games pedagogical approach: While easily modeled by the right sort of person to the right sort of audience (say, a charismatic and engaging workshop leader at a conference with a willingly captive audience of educators), it isn’t always easy to apply in a classroom. Teachers will have fun taking part in a demonstration, but if they’re not getting the underpinnings and meta-teaching moments along with that demo, they’re not getting the structural support that will help them once they go back home. As such, if they try the activities they witnessed at a conference or seminar but they don’t go over well in the classrooms, the teachers are inclined to blame themselves. It’s easy to see how that could get really discouraging really fast. After all, it worked when the specialists did it, so if my students aren’t responding, then it must be my fault. And that makes me deeply sad. I hate to think of teachers getting discouraged and, perhaps, giving up.

Teacher Seminar participants exploring a scene

Teacher Seminar participants exploring a scene

All of that is why I call it that method the teaching placebo effect. The patient — or teacher — convinces him- or herself that it’s working because it feels good in the short term. Unfortunately, it’s not a real cure. It’s not improving anything, for the teachers or the students, in the long run. At OCS Education, we aim to give teachers a toolbox — not a prize-pack of gimmicks. Approaching Shakespeare’s texts through a combination of wordcraft and stagecraft allows us to give teachers both solid ground to stand on and the flexibility to engage in a world of exploration. When we do create game-like activities (some of which have been hugely popular in classrooms), they’re text-based, character-based, and stage-based. We make sure that teachers know what to do, how to do it, and why it’s beneficial — all of our seminars and materials are geared not just towards flash-in-the-pan excitement, but towards a deeper understanding and a sense of personal ownership, the things that will foster a lasting love of the material. Students absolutely have fun playing with Shakespeare this way — and they are absolutely learning, too.

But, in the words of LeVar Burton, you don’t have to take my word for it. Here are some testimonials from our teachers:

  • “It helps level the playing field as each student can refer specifically to the text to back up opinion.”
  • “The workshop was an extraordinary experience, not only because of the primacy of play as performance (rather than as a script that students sit and read), but because the process brings to vivid life the best teaching practices available.”
  • “I learned so much from one exercise about discovery, blocking, embedded cues, playing with the script to find answers, etc.”
  • “I am impressed with how comprehensive the Study Guides are.  Such a valuable treasure trove of ideas and the materials needed are ALREADY created, the greatest boon to busy teachers.”
  • “I find the performance techniques really valuable as another vehicle for textual analysis — deciding how a character might move or speak a specific line can really help students conceptualize the traits of that character.”
  • “My students LOVE reading Shakespeare and cheer when it’s time to ‘push back the tables’ and act.”
  • “I have been attending OCS teacher workshops for the past eight years, and every time I attend, I am sure to learn something that is fOCSinating and of great educational value when it is incorporated into my lessons.  Whether it is learning strategies for getting students up on their feet to perform the text, exploring historical connections to the text and Shakespeare’s time, or the myriad of other strategies that OCS personnel use to breathe life into the texts, the workshops have proved be exhilarating and rewarding for both teacher and students.”
  • “They are excited about starting Shakespeare next semester instead of dreading it.”
  • “Almost everything I do in the classroom with my Shakespeare teaching now comes from you guys. My students LOVE Shakespeare and get excited from the moment they see the classroom re-arranged.”

And even better, some testimonials from students:

  • “I learned so much about different styles of writing and the way characters talk in Shakespeare, and why that is.” — 7th grader
  • “I really liked the rhetoric workshop and finding the secrets in the characters’ lines.”  — 8th grader
  • “I genuinely enjoyed every lecture we had. Everything taught was incredibly interesting and something I want to carry with me.” — high school student
  • “I learned things about Shakespeare that I wasn’t even aware existed” — OCSTC Camper
  • “I found every master class and rehearsal useful to my overall theatre education in some way. Not only were lectures fun, they were packed with new and important information.” — OCSTC Camper
  • “This is without a doubt, my favorite spring break trip to date. I spent time with a fantastic theater family, learned more about Shakespeare than I could have anticipated, and got to watch professional actors do their stuff.” — Little Academe college student
  • “I really liked learning how to dissect the text and figuring out how to best use the natural rhythm of the text.” — Little Academe college student

The best thing about this approach is that it’s self-perpetuating. If you know how to work with the building blocks of Shakespeare, you can pick up any piece of text and make it exciting. It’s why I’m now incapable of holding a bit of text in my hand without starting to beat out the meter or searching it for prominent rhetorical figures. It’s why I can use embedded stage directions and audience contact to make a workshop out of any scene that a group requests to work with. It’s why teachers tell us that their students are now excited to apply meter and rhetoric not just in their Shakespeare units but throughout their classes, on everything from Beowulf to Dickinson to Ginsberg.

Does this approach take a little more time and effort on the front end than simply playing a game, removing Shakespeare’s words from their context? Yes. But the benefits are exponentially more rewarding. Teach a student a theatre game, and you’ll entertain her for a day. Teach her the tools of playmaking, and you’ll enrich her for a lifetime.

OCS Education wants to share these methods with as many teachers as possible. They’re the underpinnings of all of our Study Guides, they’ll be the focus of our Summer Teacher Seminar: Shakespeare’s Toolbox, and they’re what we showcase on the road, both through the workshops of the OCS on Tour and OCS Education’s appearances at conferences worldwide. We invite all teachers of Shakespeare to join us in this approach, empowering and explorative, uniting our philosophy with the practical reality of the classroom.

Finding Shakespeare in ‘Serial’

In November, I read a blog post by Mike Godsey, a California teacher who became so frustrated by teaching Shakespeare to his students that he decided to ditch the world’s most prolific playwright, structuring his English class instead around Serial, the recent hit podcast spinoff of NPR’s This American Life.

Serial is a 12-part podcast in which listeners hear part of a single story told week by week – in a serial format. The first season featured a journalistic investigation of a 1999 Baltimore murder case. Hae Min Lee, a popular student at Woodlawn High School, disappeared after school one day. Police found her body in a park several weeks later. The cause of her death was manual strangulation. A jury found her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, guilty of her murder. As the podcast reveals, however, the evidence against Adnan was scant. Along with the podcast, the Serial website provides digital copies of various pieces of evidence, timelines, maps, and call logs.

I came across Mr. Godsey’s post while I and the rest of our OCS Education team were attending the National Council of Teachers of English conference in Washington, DC. We were surrounded by thousands of English teachers, hundreds of whom were clambering for resources and professional training in how to revitalize their love of teaching Shakespeare, while also finding methods for reaching their students on a different level – a level that would engage them as much as Serial intrigued millions of attentive weekly listeners.

My reaction to the post was one of both delight and disappointment. My husband and I dedicated our Thursday evenings to Serial, turning our living room into a classic radio-listening den à la the days of FDR’s fireside chats. I was delighted that another teacher had found in Serial the same qualities that I admired in the podcast and had taken steps to introduce his students to the riveting journalism of Sarah Koenig and her producers. I didn’t go one day without wondering whether Adnan was innocent, if we would hear more about Jay’s testimony during the next episode, or if an entirely new twist would surface from the legal team’s research at the University of Virginia, just 40 minutes from our own Blackfriars Playhouse.

What disappointed me, however, was that this teacher did not seem to make the connection that we love Serial because we also love Shakespeare. Shakespeare may not have been a journalist trying to solve a twisted murder case, but he knew how to keep an audience’s attention through the swelling drama of his tragedies and the laugh-‘til-you-burst scenarios of his comedies, and the true-to-life circumstances when tragedy and comedy collide. Ira Glass might not be a fan, but we certainly owe all due credit to the playwright from Stratford for the drama craze that is so ingrained in our culture and modern media.

Mr. Godsey outlined 8 reasons behind his syllabus overhaul:

  1. The teacher (me) doesn’t know how the story ends
    Whenever I teach a novel for the first time, the students believe they might be answering my questions and solving problems in original ways. No matter how much I fake it, however, they can tell when I’m teaching Hamletfor the eighth straight year. TeachingSerial is even better than teaching a book for the first time – the story is literally not finished yet, so they know I don’t know the answers.
  2. The non-fiction “murder mystery” genre makes it more conducive to problem-solving
    We want our students to be critically thinking problem solvers, and Reading Standard 7 of the Common Core State Standards specifically asks students to combine multiple sources to solve a problem or question. “How much should we believe Jay’s story?” is an interesting, real-life question that could literally be solved; student engagement with this question is much higher than, say, “Should Hamlet listen to his father’s ghost?”

Any well-prepared teacher will know the ending of the story they are teaching, but knowing the end of the story is not the same as knowing the answers to questions about the story. Students may respond positively to questions about Serial that they can explore on their own by listening to the podcast: “How does Serial expose the flaws of our justice system?” or “What possible motives does Sarah propose to explain the inconsistencies of Jay’s testimonies?” Teaching students to mine the text for clues, like actively listening to the podcast, will empower them with the tools they need to decipher questions about the play without the teacher having all the answers.

When students encounter Shakespeare for the first time, they have just as many opportunities to make new discoveries and to propose original solutions to the play’s problems as their teacher does. Teaching Shakespeare using his original Staging Conditions allows students and teachers to examine the text in ways that demand innovative solutions and problem-solving strategies. Your students will surprise you every time they start to reevaluate characters based on subtle shifts in Shakespeare’s verse, or when they propose five different ways to stage the first scene of Hamlet after they learn to recognize embedded stage directions. Our co-founder and Director of Mission Ralph Alan Cohen has been teaching Shakespeare using these methods for over 40 years and still makes new discoveries about the plays he teaches.

  1. Serial is hip and fresh
    My students really, really don’t care about what a dead critic thinks about Hamlet’s sexual feelings for his own mother, but they definitely take notice when women are tweeting about how they’re looking for men who have an opinion on Adnan.
  2. My students’ opinions might actually matter on social networking sites. Or in my class. Or in real life
    Nobody on the internet really cares about their thoughts on Hamlet’s suicidal tendencies, and after eight years, I frankly don’t either (I’ve pretty much heard them all). But in this case, there’s a good chance they can blow my mind by uncovering a clue, and even a (very small) chance that their research could help bring justice to an imprisoned man.

If you think Shakespeare isn’t hip and fresh, think again. The teens that come to the OCS Theatre Camp would certainly convince you otherwise. “The Hollow Crown” BBC series is still drawing attention even three years later, with over 11.3k followers on Twitter. Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch are two heartthrobs getting international acclaim for their Shakespeare performances, and even Johnny Depp is developing a new TV series based on Shakespeare’s plays.

Students’ opinions about Shakespeare absolutely matter, and encouraging students to share their opinions with others is key to developing their critical discussion skills and self-confidence. Pair up with a class at another school that is covering the same play and use Tumblr or Google Communities to inspire student discussion and interaction; have your students send Shakespearean actors and scholars questions about their work through Twitter; create a Pinterest board for your next production and let your students post and share their design inspirations and dramaturgical research. Your students will be delighted to see when others start reposting their Tweets or sharing their Pins.

  1. The multimedia aspect encourages (requires) the students to synthesise information from a variety of sources
    Yes, I know we can watch Shakespeare on YouTube and make models of the Globe Theatre, but this does not compare to Serial‘s collection of documents and photos. Not only does this multimedia aspect really help with the state standards and 21st-century skills, it’s just a good time. Maps, call logs, Google Maps, handwritten letters…it’s fantastically fun and totally engaging. Today we put the Google Maps street view on the big screen and “drove” the exact route that Adnan allegedly took from his school to Best Buy. Creepy, but engaging. Speaking of which…
  2. They actually listen to the story
    Sorry, but the kids these days are not doing the homework like we imagine we did when we were in high school. Their SparkNotes (on their phones) are in their pockets at all times. Even at university, my friend (an English professor) says that students are watching the movie on their iPads while he lectures on Much Ado About NothingIn this case, the students say “Wait, Mr Godsey. Can you play back that last 10 seconds?” about every 10 minutes.

Shakespeare’s plays are inherently multimedia-based. Shakespeare’s actors used cue scripts, containing only their character’s lines and the few words before them. This technology required that actors had to synthesize information about their own characters and the action of the play by listening to other actors. When your students have to listen to their fellow classmates for plot information, character development, and staging clues, suddenly, class is much better than a movie or podcast. Show your students that Shakespeare’s plays were meant for performance, and you have a cacophony of sources from which they can create the story themselves – cue scripts, doubling charts, props, costumes, and musical instruments; Each element is a piece of the puzzle that your students must decipher together, and they must listen to each other during the process.

  1. It’s easier to teach the state standards with Serial
    Not only can I justify the use of Serial as a primary text, but the podcast actually helps the students learn these fundamental skills more efficiently than most traditional texts, especially longer novels.
  1. The state doesn’t really care if the students read Shakespeare
    I don’t know if this is hyperbole or understatement, but it’s how I feel right now. Serial does not teach anything about iambic pentameter, English history or the Renaissance, but none of these things are tested on the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) exam, the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE), the SAT or any other test they might take outside my class. Generally speaking, we’re being asked to teach the skills rather than the content (said to be easily accessible in 2014). More specifically, there is no school-wide, district-wide or state-mandated test that has a single question about a particular piece of literature. “To be or not to be?” is not a multiple-choice question that has any place on a state-mandated test, and nobody seems to care; I’m not even sure I do. As long as I teach students to read well and think critically, they can read Shakespeare on their own time.

I agree that Serial can provide a fresh approach to teaching the critical analysis and close reading skills required by some standardized tests; however, Shakespeare stands the test of time, and his inclusion in the Common Core Standards is a testament to the influence of his works across all areas of modern literature and drama. Even Sarah Koenig recognizes the significance of her podcast’s parallels to Shakespeare:

I read a few newspaper clips about the case, looked up a few trial records. And on paper, the case was like a Shakespearean mashup — young lovers from different worlds thwarting their families, secret assignations, jealousy, suspicion, and honor besmirched, the villain not a Moor exactly, but a Muslim all the same, and a final act of murderous revenge. And the main stage? A regular old high school across the street from a 7-Eleven.

-Sarah Koenig, Serial, Episode 1 Transcript

If you are inspired by Serial and want a way to tie it to your class, I propose a hybrid unit that integrates Serial with Shakespeare. The story of Hae Min Lee’s tragic death invokes the story of Othello more than any other. Hae Min, like Desdemona, was a well-liked young woman who found herself in a controversial relationship with a man whom society deemed to be an outsider. Adnan and Othello are the exotic “other,” accomplished and admired by their communities, yet doomed to suffer through their own tragic endings.

Questions for your class to consider as they listen to Serial and read Othello might include:

  • How do characters in Othello refer to Othello’s otherness? What sets Othello apart from the Venetians? Do the same descriptions apply to Adnan? In what ways are Othello and Adnan similar to and different from one another?
  • If you were a juror on a case in which Othello was being tried for Desdemona’s death, what sentence would you give him? What would Iago’s charge be? Would you be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Iago was involved in Desdemona’s murder? Who would be your witnesses?
  • Review the Timeline and People Map on the Serial website. Make a timeline for the events in Othello and a People Map to show the characters’ relationships. Compose a brief explanation for your group’s choices based on information available in the play. Insert quotes from the text in your timeline and People Map.
  • Read Shakespeare’s source for Othello, Cinthio’s “Un Capitano Moro.” What evidence surrounding Desdemona’s death changes in Shakespeare’s play from this story? How would the difference between these endings change your verdicts for Othello or Iago? Discuss these changes in relation to the evidence presented in Adnan’s case.

–Kim Newton
Director of College Prep Programs