Tuesday, March 06, 2007

I'm ready to hang with that cool dude, Billy Shakes

I've been enjoying reading about Dana Huff's unit on Romeo & Juliet, but I have to say that I much prefer the happier side of teen romance. That's why A Midsummer Night's Dream is probably my favorite piece of literature to teach. Like Dana, I've memorized many parts, and even play a game with the kids at the end of the unit, in which they read a random line and I guess who said it and in what act. There's something about the play, with it's overwhelmed lovers, clueless actors, and meddling fairies, that makes it, well, magical. It can also be pretty darn funny. And what I think I enjoy the most is when the students, too, appreciate the humor that Shakespeare so obviously intended. Karl Fisch got me thinking about if Shakespeare was one of our students today. Based on some of his choices in Midsummer, I imagine myself pulling him aside after class to discuss his latest antics:

"Now, Will, come on. You're a funny kid, but you can't keep handing in work like this. Don't keep trying to tell me that when you were writing about that Bottom with the head of an ass that you were actually referring to a donkey. Well, you're not fooling me, mister..."
With that in mind, I am eagerly preparing the unit to start in about two weeks. Before the kids can appreciate any of the different kinds of humor in the play, we face a major obstacle right off the bat: the Athenian lovers. Who loves whom? Shakespeare intended it to be muddled, and it is. His point seemed to be that whether it's Lysander or Demetrius or Helena or Hermia, all of us - humans that is, not just ancient Athenians - are pretty much the same when it comes to the power of love. For 10th graders trying to keep track of who Lysander loves as opposed to Demetrius can be downright confusing and typically frustrating.

One effective approach I've found is to provide the students the general plot of the play in a scaled down summary. I tell them the whole thing, from the lovers coming to Duke Theseus right up to the part in the play when Puck has accidentally mixed up all their affections for one another. And, oh yeah, he's put the head of an ass on Nick Bottom. I stop right there and turn the story over to the kids. Fix this whole mess, I tell them, and make sure it has a happy ending. It's a comedy, afterall.

There's a lot of confusion at first. So who does Helena love again? What's up with that Indian boy? That's ok. I'd rather have them struggle with who's who before they're faced with Shakespeare's archaic language - the "thees" and "therefores" that today's audiences have a difficult time getting past. The students' writing on this assignment is typically some of the most enjoyable I read all year. They seem to like the total creative control of such an assignment.

This year, as I continue my journey of discover, I am eager to put a web 2.0 spin on it. Maybe I could set up a wiki and assign the kids to collaborate on an ending with a student from a different class period. Maybe I could use a wiki or blog to create an ongoing story, with kids adding their twists to those posted by classmates.

Or you know what, maybe I don't have to make it any more complicated than it has to be. I'm still wrapping my brain around all this. So, instead of handing out the assignment, I'll post it on the blog. Kids will write their story and post it as a comment. Yeah, I know. That's not true web 2.0 application, but rather a different way to word process. However, it will allow them to read how their classmates tied up the loose ends of the story. That can't be a bad thing.
photo credit: Sleepy Hollow on Flickr

2 comments:

Duane said...

Great ideas, Mr. Miller. One small thing to watch out for with the "kids post their answers as comments" thing, it encourages some kids to hang back and wait for their classmates to post answers. Then they can simply copy / plagiarize them. You might be cool with that in the name of collaboration, I'm just throwing it out there as something that could happen.

Duane
http://www.shakespearegeek.com

Mr. Miller said...

Duane, thanks for your comment. I agree that there is some concern students might sit back and wait for others, so I strive to post ideas and prompts that require open-ended, often personal responses. When the students start posting about Midsummer in a few weeks, feel free to check it out at http://millersenglish10.blogspot.com/