Shakespeare & Co.; Lenox, MA
A series of posts about my journey through the works of Shakespeare--on the page, on the stage.
I retired from public school teaching in January 1997, and in the fall of 2001 joined the faculty of Western Reserve Academy, where I thought I'd teach a year or two. I was wrong. I retired from there in the spring of 2011. I was no longer teaching eighth graders but high school juniors--and there are few people on earth more serious and worried about college admission than that particular population. Most of them were bright and hard-working, and I loved my time there--just as I had loved my years at Harmon Middle School. It was just ... different. Two different loves, separate but equal.
The English III (junior) curriculum (which I taught) focused on American literature (one of my loves), but the school also has a tradition of teaching Shakespeare at every grade level. The other grade levels changed plays now and then (sophomores, in my time, read Othello, then changed to Macbeth), but the juniors always read Hamlet. They were teaching the Melancholy Dane's play when I had originally taught at the school back in the late 1970s; they are still teaching it now; they probably first taught it in the early seventeenth century, when Shakespeare wrote it.
As some earlier posts on this subject have indicated, I had a sort of "whole-hog" or "full-meal-deal" approach to teaching Shakespeare with my middle-schoolers. For most of them (by far) this was their first formal introduction to the Bard, so I threw as much at them as I could about the Elizabethans, about Shakespeare's life and writing. I spent an entire nine-week marking period on it--sometimes more.
But at WRA, I was always alert to time's wingéd chariot hurrying near: I knew I had to zip through American literature, so our time with Hamlet was never more than a few weeks at the beginning of the year. In ways, those English III-ers were more sophisticated readers of the Bard: They'd read two other plays in school, and many of them had read other plays back in middle school. But--like most (all?) young people (including yours truly--back when) they had trouble with the language, with the culture and customs of the day.
I did some things at WRA that I'd done back at Harmon School. We read the play aloud in class (skipping around now and then); we memorized lines (guess what I picked? "To be or not to be"); I talked about the Elizabethans some as we were reading--but not at all in the detail I'd employed back in Aurora. There just wasn't time. And we stopped reading near the end of the play (I didn't want them to know what happened--not on the page) and watched a film--usually Zeffirelli's production, the one with Mel Gibson. When it became patent in recent years that Mel was wacko, I always felt odd about using that film--but the kids did like it, and although it moved some scenes around, cut many lines, left out the entire Fortinbras subplot, it is an exciting production. After the film, we went back to the text to look at Shakespeare's original ending.
As I type these words, it sounds as if I'm making excuses. And I guess I kind of am. I always felt guilty about how little time we spent on Hamlet at WRA. But American literature loomed, as I said, and it was time to get busy with The Scarlet Letter!
There's no doubt in my mind that I did a much better job of teaching Shakespeare to the 8th graders. Had a lot more fun. Yes, we had some fun at WRA--you can ask some of them about how I used finger puppets in the "country matters" section (the play-within-the-play)--and I loved stopping with the students to talk about some of the issues in Hamlet that remain pertinent to our lives (and there are many of them).
But I missed the music--the faux wedding--the games of slide-thrift--the use of thee and thou in class--and just seeing the excitement that appeared on the faces of some kids who'd never ever believed that it was remotely possible that they could "get into" Shakespeare.