Play On!: Laughing, Moving, Close Reading, and Shaking Off the Winter Doldrums with Strategies from Folger Education

“You know what would be a great thing to try in the middle of a pandemic and a gray, icy winter while I’m teaching in two places at once? Teaching a brand new text!”

Said no one. Ever.

And yet…here I am!

Last spring, I sent a survey to the juniors who would be in my senior class; one question asked whether they would like to read a Shakespearean comedy or tragedy for our class. Comedy had the most votes, so, after nearly a decade of teaching Hamlet at the top of second semester, there was instead a fresh copy of Twelfth Night in my hands in mid-January. Cue some sweaty palms and a whole lot of anxiety about whether or not all of the “on your feet” and definitely-not-socially-distanced strategies I had used for teaching Shakespeare in the past would transfer to my hybrid teaching environment. 

But, dear Reader, they have. And lo, it is glorious.

Like everything this year, it doesn’t look or feel the same as years past, but the spirit and the joy of the work remains, and the close reading and critical thinking that results from the strategies is still there, too. Need to shake off some doldrums? Want to try a few wild experiments? Read on!

Before I continue, a quick note about my technology setup:

I teach from my desk using a laptop that is connected via HDMI cable to a second monitor. That monitor is then connected to a projector system. During class, I look at online students in gallery view on my laptop and use the second monitor to display lesson content. I project the content displayed on the second monitor to students in the room and share that screen with students online. My laptop is usually loud enough that students in the back of the room can hear what is said by online counterparts. As far as I can tell, online students can usually hear their in-room classmates, though I will often repeat what is shared in the room for the benefit of online students. During performance work, I either turn my laptop around so that online students can watch in-classroom classmates’ performances, or I log in to the Zoom classroom with my phone or an iPad (with a pair of headphones connected to avoid audio feedback) and use the phone/iPad as a second camera. I slide my gallery view Zoom screen to my second monitor so that in-classroom students can see their online counterparts’ performances. All of what I’m about to share could work with a simpler set-up; there just might be a bit more maneuvering and digital or paper document use involved.

Now that you’ve read the technical manual…

If you have followed me here or on social media for awhile, you know that the Teaching Shakespeare Institute from Folger Education changed my teaching life in 2014 and continues to shape how I teach literature (not just Shakespeare). At the core of Folger Education’s work is the notion that the best way for students to study Shakespeare or any complex text is to own the words–they should speak them, grapple with them together, and talk back to them–all while I get out of the way. As the connecting point of a hybrid classroom, I’m a little more in the way than I would like, but the strategies I will describe below are still working, and we are still learning.

Choral reading:

A great way to begin studying a speech like this one from Twelfth Night or a poem like this one by Naomi Nye, is through choral reading. In my current hybrid environment, I project the text onto a shared screen and post a doc on Google Classroom for online backup, and we read the piece out loud at least four times.

First read: all the text, all together, online students unmuted, listening to keep pace with each other

Second read: all the text, all together, online students unmuted, listening to keep pace with each other

Third read: one person at a time, change speakers at end punctuation marks

Fourth read: one online reader, one (loud) in-classroom reader; read every other line or switch readers at end punctuation marks

After every reading, I ask students to rate their level of comprehension by a show of fingers (1= I’m lost, 3=I got this!). After the second, third, and fourth readings, we discuss what we notice or understand about what we’ve read, and I ask students to support their noticings and understandings with evidence from the text. By the time we reach our discussion of the last reading (it might be a fifth or sixth reading that has played with volume or tone, if needed), students have figured out what’s happening, how the speaker feels, and what’s interesting about how the piece is written. 

Reading all together, unmuted, is messy, but it’s so messy that it’s really fun for students who have been learning in such quiet all year. When we all read together, no one is singled out, everyone gets to participate, and everyone reads the piece at least twice. We’re not looking for Tony-winning performances here. Rather, choral reading work demonstrates the value of rereading when trying to comprehend and make decisions about a text, and students aren’t bored by the repetition because there is variety in the voices. (And who among us isn’t just a little tickled to read words like “churlish” and “fadge”?) Two-voiced readings like the fourth read above are especially useful for soliloquies because the two voices often illuminate the internal conflict that a character is experiencing.

5-Minute Scenes

A variation on the 20-Minute Play (for more on that, there is a webinar coming up this weekend!), our five-minute scenes were narrated summaries of a scene dotted with “juicy” lines from the text. Here’s how it worked in my classroom:

  1. Break the class into small groups (for this activity, groups of online students worked together in breakout rooms and in-classroom students worked together in pods of properly-distanced desks)
  2. Each group reads their assigned scenes (more than once!) and then makes decisions about what’s happening the scene, how characters feel about each other, and which lines seem most significant or interesting (I suggested that they choose 5-7 lines)
  3. The group works together to write a summary of the scene, weaving the “juicy” lines throughout to create something that looks like this (a 5-minute scene script students wrote for Twelfth Night 3.1):

In the land of Illyria, a woman named Viola disguises herself as a man and finds work under Count Orsino, a man who is in love with Olivia, a countess in the area. Orsino sends Viola (disguised as Cesario) to persuade Olivia to love him (1. “Madam, I come to whet your gentle thoughts on his behalf.”). However, Cesario’s plan goes awry as Olivia, who has decided she is in love with Cesario, professes her love (2. Enough is shown. A cypress, not a bosom, Hides my heart. So, let me hear you speak.”). Despite Cesario’s voiced regrets at Olivia’s continued advances, she persists: (3. “That’s a degree to love.”) Viola tries to suggest that she is simply playing the part of Cesario and is in fact a woman, incorporating more dramatic irony into the scene, (4.“I am not what I am.”). However, Olivia counters this by saying she wishes Viola/Cesario was what she wants her to be and for Viola to love Olivia back. (5. “I would you were as I would have you be.”). Olivia is so desperate to love and be loved by Cesario that she changes her story by the end of the scene, suggesting that with more visits by the messenger, she may eventually change her mind—even though it is implied that Olivia simply wants more time to successfully woo Cesario. (6.“Yet come again, for thou perhaps mayst move that heart.”)

  1. Then, the group performs their scene; some group members will read narration while the rest deliver their juicy lines with expression and meaningful gestures (for this, students stood up at their desks or sometimes made grand entrances into the frame from rolling desk chairs at home). 

When class discussion led me to worry that seniors weren’t paying enough attention to the text of the play, 5-minute scenes were the remedy. Summary and script creation demands that students take a deep dive into their assigned scenes. The performance is fun, but what’s most important is all of the reading and justification students do while they made decisions about which lines to choose and which details to share in their summaries. And all of this happens without me getting in the way. 5-Minute Scenes can be a great way for classmates to teach an act of a play to each other rather quickly. Also, like choral reading, this strategy works for any text. Teaching the précis paragraph? This is a fun way for a group to practice that style! 

And finally…comparing characters to cars, songs, and…Girls Scout Cookies

In the pages of the Folger’s Shakespeare Set Free teaching guide for Twelfth Night edited by Martha Harris, I encountered a character profile activity that asks students to imagine characters’ favorite songs, cars, hangout spots, or items of clothing (among many topics) and then support those choices with evidence. The end result: silly and spot-on character analysis supported by careful close reading of the text. 

As I read students’ clever responses, it gave me the same delight as this Twitter thread imagining Lord of the Rings characters as Girl Scout Cookies. Both the profiles and the Twitter thread require that writers understand their primary texts (the characters Twelfth Night, the Fellowship of the Ring) well enough to transform them into something new (Malvolio as a car, Aragorn as a Thin Mint). If I asked, I bet that “Oops! All Alex” (writer of the Twitter thread) could support their character/cookie pairs with plenty of Tolkien quotes! 

On my grayest days this month, I fretted about whether I was properly preparing my seniors for their spring exam; should we be writing more on-demand literary commentaries right now? Was I right to dive into this new play without much of a clear plan? But as I reflect on what we have done with Twelfth Night, I see that students are doing exactly the kind of thinking and writing they need to do, but they are doing it in joyful, pandemic-manageable pieces.  And they are safely working together amidst all of the challenges and precautions that keep them apart. To hear them laughingly repeat lines as they walk out the door is balm for my soul, and I hope for theirs, too. (And I haven’t even told you about how we’ve managed to stage some in-the-moment performances with online students directing in-the-room classmates!)

Earlier this week, I listened to an interview with poet Maggie Smith recorded for NPR’s Life Kit podcast. The words she read from her new collection, Keep Moving, near the end of the interview were exactly what I needed to hear this week, and maybe they are what you need to hear, too: “Focus on who you are and what you’ve built, not who you’d planned on being and what you’d expected to have. Trust that the present moment, however difficult, however different from what you’d imagined, has something to teach you. Keep moving.”

My classroom doesn’t look how I ever expected or imagined; familiar strategies don’t look or work exactly like they used to; but, what I’ve built is holding steady. And while I’m not learning or growing professionally in a way I ever would have chosen for myself, I am, as a good friend pointed out, still learning. We’re learning. Let’s keep moving.

Had any breakthroughs in your hybrid or hyflex classroom? Are there any questions you would like me to consider for my next post? I would love to hear them all in the comments below or on Twitter @MsJochman.

“Focus on who you are and what you’ve built, not who you’d planned on being and what you’d expected to have. Trust that the present moment, however difficult, however different from what you’d imagined, has something to teach you. Keep moving.”

-Maggie Smith, Keep Moving

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