Jan 25, 2019 2019-01-25
By Erin Fox
I almost shortchanged Shakespeare this semester. And I love him. I love the excitement in his plays; I love his characters—especially those strong, “saucy” females! I love the pomp and illustriousness of it all. I love the linguistic rhythm and how dance-like it is.
But I am a harried English teacher returning from a yearlong sabbatical and teaching two preps I have never taught in prior years. I am rushed and frazzled in ways I haven’t experienced since I was a first-year teacher.
So I almost shortchanged Shakespeare. Almost. I was still going to read Julius Caesar with my students, and we were still going to discuss it, but that was pretty much it: no performances, no “hurling Shakespearean insults,” no connections, nothing. So not only was I depreciating Shakespeare, I was also failing my students by undervaluing his work and the impact it stood to have in their lives and upon their educations.
Shakespeare is dead. His mark has been made on the world, and his impact isn’t faltering any time soon. But my students are on the cusp of the imprint they stand to make. Some don’t even know for certain what influence they might have. As their teacher, it is my responsibility to show them the beauty that exists in the world and provide them with opportunities to explore the myriad of ways they can creatively raise their voices and make their marks.
We had been trudging through the play for several days while working on the completion of research papers. We were reading, discussing, and breaking into group work stations while I conferenced one-on-one with individuals about rough drafts. I know the students were bored. We were yawning our ways through the climax of the play (where, in the iconic words of Gretchen Wieners, they “just totally stab Caesar”) when it hit me. I was DONE with these mundane lessons! If Julius Caesar was dying then we were going to have a funeral for him, and we were going to do it BIG. I stopped the reading mid-scene and told them the idea, and they loved it. They weren’t thrilled about the idea of wearing a toga bedsheet around school all day long, but they rolled with it. That day I spent my lunch researching “Ancient Roman Funeral Customs” and came up with my plan.
First, I differentiated writing options to showcase student talent. Students were given the option of writing and performing dirges, and those who could mime or juggle did so during the procession. Since health, wellness, and the implementation of kinesthetic activity is paramount in my teaching philosophy, the procession would include a walk around our entire school building while carrying a wooden coffin as well as a full-size weighted punching dummy. Students were then assigned character parts and performed those to align with communication standards. Following the funeral scene and Mark Antony’s famous “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” monologue, students who had elected to write elegies paid tribute to Caesar with poems. Then, a feast and celebration ensued. Again, aligning with health standards and cultural norms, I provided an array of cheeses, grapes, and pomegranates. This was followed by a lively contra dance. Students read a short article on ancient Roman funeral customs and reflected on their experiences in the day’s events through a class internet discussion. Reading their evaluations reminded me of the necessity of incorporating these practices in our classrooms.
My students learned a lot from this experience. They learned to write and perform dirges and elegies and act as characters in a play. They became more familiar with speaking and reading Shakespearean literature with the lilting beauty of iambic pentameter. They activated their bodies prior to activating their brains and made their experiences even more meaningful. They smiled and laughed, and they were gracious for their “feast.”
I am grateful to them. I am thankful they helped me remember what I love most about teaching. I am thrilled they willingly went along with my wild plans. They weren’t too embarrassed, too mature, or too cool to explore their potentials. It grieves my heart to know that I almost allowed time crunches and stress to take away so much possibility, but I will forever appreciate each student for giving me a second chance to be a good teacher. It is a lesson I won’t soon forget.