Saturday, April 26, 2014

Random Acts of Shakespeare

[Note: Parts of this post appeared in a Hilltopper article last year.]

Teachers have long known that the best way to teach Shakespeare is to get students on their feet, speaking and moving their way through the language, performing for audiences. I started doing a variation of what numerous other teachers have called "Random Acts of Shakespeare" in the spring of 2011 when I had a particularly lively group of seniors that would not have responded well to a more formal, academic approach to Twelfth Night. (In other words, in a moment of desperation, I resorted to a strategy which I now find entirely compatible with the more traditional approach I still value.) 

What I enjoy most about the Random Acts is discovering hidden acting talents in kids who might never audition for a play but who are liberated by the sheer goofiness of the exercises. (Who knew, for instance, that Mary B was such a ham, or that Andrew R would look so good in a tiara? And if Natasha K has never been in a play, she should be someday!) Gradually, the students become more and more comfortable with performing--even if only for a few seconds--for an audience of middle school students or support staff. 

In the final stages of the project, when we work on dramatizing a sonnet to convey its meaning through movement and action, it's fascinating to see how a group of students will problem-solve their way through a difficult text and eventually make it their own, as in last year's "Sonnet 18" group:  they decided to break out into a brief rendition of the then-very-popular "Harlem Shake" because "rough winds do shake the darling buds of May." 

Former students often tell me they still remember their lines long after the fact, so if a bit of Shakespeare is forever lodged in the minds and muscle-memories of some Hiltoppers, then I know I've done my job.

Recent Facebook exchange with Joe Fifield '11.  Read on to find out more about what he's remembering...
Warming Up
To get warmed up for the Random Acts, I use a number of exercises that make the students move while speaking Shakespearean language. One of these exercises, which I also invented in a moment of desperation, refamiliarizes them with iambic pentameter. I call it "Iamb a Pirate with a Wooden Leg." (Antonio, one of the characters in Twelfth Night, seems to be a pirate, though he denies this when Count Orsino's men arrest him...) 

Students stand in a circle, with their right hands on the shoulders of the people in front of them and their left hands over their left eyes (pirates have eye-patches, right?); then, they limp around the circle (those wooden left legs are painful, after all), putting the stress on their good right legs, while reciting this line, over and over: "I am/ a pi-/ rate with/ a wood-/ en leg." The line consists, of course, of five iambs. 

An iamb is a two-syllable unit of poetic verse, a metrical foot (pun very much intended), in which an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable, and five iambs make up one line of iambic pentameter. If students can remember limping in a circle while reciting this line, then they should never forget what an iamb is. (Do today's students need to know what an iamb is? I don't know, but I do think they need to know that language has a rhythm, that rhythm contributes to meaning, and that rhythmic language has an effect on readers and audiences...) Of course, the exercise also plays with the silent "b" sound in the Greek word "iamb," and that just makes me chuckle...

Inevitably (and I do not exaggerate--it happens every year), some of the more rambunctious young gentlemen start getting carried away by the rhythm and repetition--as I said above, rhythmic language moves people:  notice Joe D's weird smile and Quasimodo-like gait in the video below. --If you listen carefully, you can hear David G realizing how important the limping is for connecting with the meter, and then, in the wink of an eye, Joe D and Jake S are jumping all over the place (of course!), but in rhythm...

We also do some warm-up work with Shakespearean insults. There's a well-known three-column list of supposedly Shakespearean insults that's been circulating on the internet amongst English teachers for many years now. If you follow the directions, you end up with a lovely tripartite polysyllabic epithet that you can hurl at someone with volume and vigor. 
This famous list of Shakespearean insults (I've included only about half the page) has inspired the creation of
several free smartphone apps that will randomly generate three-part insults for you from a similar database.
It's all done in the spirit of good fun, and the insulting phrases sound so elaborate and improbable, that most students can hardly keep from laughing as they toss them back and forth. Mainly, the point of the exercise is for students to get used to speaking somewhat unfamiliar words as loudly as they can (for some reason, "onion-eyed" and "puking" are always popular adjective choices). This year, I filmed the insult exercises, and here's one of my favorite videos, from my AP class--don't you love Gunnar R's timing? (And, yes, that's Mr Neblett in the background, trying to avoid the camera--he was observing my class that day.)


Practicing & Performing
The Random Acts Unit consists of three parts. For Part One, students find ways to work single lines from the play (I provide a list of highly applicable lines) into ordinary conversations, but those conversations must be witnessed and verified by an adult in the building. As a result, the Support Staff in the Main Office end up hearing some pretty strange things. They've been great sports about it! I suspect some of them have memorized the lines themselves, having heard them each spring for the past several years. This part of the Unit is meant to help the students get comfortable with speaking little tidbits of Shakespeare in front of an audience. 
The form that students ask adults to sign for Part One.
In Part Two, small groups memorize mini-scenes (short bits of dialogue, only a couple minutes in length) and figure out how to block those scenes, while using props sparingly but wisely. Then the groups have to perform their scenes on and off campus as many times as it takes to give each group member a chance to play each part and to acquire good video evidence of their performances. We practice in the classroom (luckily, I'm in a large space with only one neighboring classroom--sorry for all the noise, Madame Greenan!), and then we often go "on tour" around the building, popping into offices and classrooms. (I always send out a warning email to the faculty and staff to find out if they don't want to be bothered--each year, there have been fewer and fewer people on that off-limits list, for which I'm very grateful!) 

This year, I've experimented with allowing the small groups to go off on their own (though I choose their performance spaces for them, to avoid too much repetition) to perform around the school. So far, I think that's going really well. Another new element this year is that the students must post their videos on their blogs. Finding a good way to share the videos has always been a bit of a problem, but I think the blogs will solve that, to some degree. We usually hit one or two B-Day morning assemblies, in which poor Antonio runs down the aisle and gets arrested, yet once again, and we love going into the Middle School classrooms. We usually pop into a few Upper School classes, too.   

In Part Three, larger groups of students are responsible for memorizing and then figuring out how to perform one of Shakespeare's sonnets, as the "Harlem Shake" group did. Often this requires some intensive collaboration and conflict resolution! Among last year's seniors, I remember a group that had to sub-divide because they couldn't agree on how to choreograph their sonnet. At the risk of seeming to take sides, I'll include here a video from one of these sub-groups. As it turns out, their practice video was better than any of their performance videos...
Past & Future
I guess the Random Acts have become a kind of tradition now, and I can't imagine ever teaching Shakespeare (or at least Twelfth Night) in any other way. I remember how nervous I was when I first designed the Unit--I sent my assignment ideas to several colleagues and administrators, asking them if I should give this a try or not. I wondered if it would be too risky or too disruptive for the school. All the feedback I received was positive, so I went ahead with it, and I'm so glad I did. 

As I've said about Poetry Out Loud, the Random Acts also help kids develop grit and resilience. Everybody's a little stronger and braver afterward. And I'm always proud of how well some of the quieter students do--for instance, Gamp L and Pierce R did a great job of performing their mini-scene in the cafeteria the other day during Middle School lunch--unfortunately, the group was unable to get a video of it, so they'll have to do an extra performance, but at least they know now that they can do it! --And it'll be easier next time. 

Yes, the Random Acts are still a bit scary, for me as well as for the kids, and there are still lots of awkward moments and technical glitches, as well as chaotic and noisy class periods, but doing this has made me braver as a teacher, more willing to try new things in the classroom, more able to give up some control, more ready to allow the students to make some decisions about what we do. I hope the Random Acts inspire some of my students, and maybe even some of my colleagues, to try--and keep trying--new things...

One unexpected and very pleasant surprise this year was when Mrs Kiero's students popped into my classroom to perform a "Random Act of Mathematics." That made me very happy! I managed to get a video of it!

My seniors were not expecting this, and they loved it, though they said they were a bit intimidated by the girl with the question mark! (You go, girl!) They also really liked the use of the vocal and visual cue ("Scene!") that marked the end of the performance. (We might borrow that, if it's ok with Mrs Kiero's class!) You can see more pictures of the Random Act of Math here in the Parent Pass Blog (thanks to Mrs Kosmatka for taking pictures). I can't wait to see how this Middle School response evolves and expands over time...

In another couple weeks, we'll be wrapping up the Random Acts for the year, so keep your eyes and ears open, on and off campus--you never know when you might be ambushed by a guerrilla theater troupe staging a mini-flash mob performance.     

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