Tackling the taming of the bard

English teacher uses novel ways to pique her students' interest in Shakespeare


An informal poll of students in advanced English class at Edgewood High School recently revealed that many of them recognize the passage "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."

But a majority of the seniors couldn't identify that it comes from As You Like It by William Shakespeare.

Whether a passion for Shakespeare is meant to be, Beth Hoffman, who teaches the class, said she worries about whether students are getting enough Shakespeare, which bolsters her determination to make sure they leave school with more than a rudimentary knowledge of his work.

"It's disheartening for me that our students know so little Shakespeare, and we aren't doing anything to teach them more," said Hoffman, chairwoman of the school's English department. "Teachers are scared to teach Shakespeare because they often don't know how. The end result is that students aren't getting nearly what they need to be prepared for college-level English courses."

Hoffman's students disagree. They say three plays -- Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade, Julius Caesar in 10th and Richard III in 12th -- over four years of high school is plenty of Shakespeare.

Other counties in the region tackle the same amount of Shakespeare -- about one play per year -- with a couple of exceptions. Anne Arundel County offers students three additional plays in the advanced literature class. And Baltimore County offers seniors a choice of several plays in the British Literature course.

During a recent class, the Edgewood High students claimed an inability to understand Shakespeare's language, a lack of suspense, poor structure and slow plot lines -- as well as their own busy schedules -- as top reasons for apathy toward Shakespeare.

They shun the idea of honing their understanding of Shakespeare with a voluntary visit to Maryland's Renaissance Festival during Shakespeare Weekend on Saturday and next Sunday. Similarly, the students say they have little desire to visit the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington.

"I went to the Renaissance Festival once, but it was to watch jousting," said Chad Copeland, a 17-year-old senior in Hoffman's class. "I have no desire to put myself through watching people talk in a way I can't understand."

But while many of the students said that they don't want more Shakespeare, they say they recognize the importance of gaining a basic understanding of his life and his work.

"Richard III was different than anything I've ever read," said Aysha Alvi, a 16-year-old from Abingdon. "It's the kind of reading that makes you think. I don't want to read it in my free time, but I think it's important to get a little Shakespeare at the high school level because it shows you what kind of literature is out there."

And at least one Shakespeare expert is confident students today are getting ample exposure to the bard.

"I believe no amount of teaching Shakespeare is enough," said Jeremy Ehrlich, head of education at the Folger Shakespeare Library. "But teachers have so many things to fit into the curriculum that we're happy that the students get even three plays over four years."

Ehrlich said the biggest challenge in teaching Shakespeare is finding ways to make it interesting.

One approach is to focus on his contributions to language. Shakespeare coined more words -- about 1,500 -- than all the poets of his time. Words used today include fashionable, gossip, misquote, zany and soft-hearted. And if that isn't enough, maybe recognizing him for creating such phrases as "green-eyed monster," "love is blind," "too much of a good thing," "dead as a doornail," "shooting star" and "puppy dog" might lend to his importance.

Another technique Erhlich suggests is having students perform Shakespeare.

"Shakespeare's plays were written to be performed, not read as literature," said Erhlich. "It's empowering in helping students understand Shakespeare if they have the opportunity to act it out. But there's no substitute for reading it."

Hoffman said she starts with Romeo and Juliet for freshmen, and her students act it out.

"I want these kids to fall in love with literature like I did," said Hoffman. "So I bring in period costumes, swords and hats and have them wear them as they act."

Ehrlich said Folger offers a similar experience with a seven-day school festival that gives students the opportunity to perform Shakespeare.

"Performing Shakespeare is not a magic bullet to get kids reading Shakespeare, but it certainly increases their understanding of the language," said Erhlich.

However, when the students move on to studying Julius Caesar without props and acting in their sophomore year, the excitement quickly turns to dread.

"People don't realize how hard it is for regular people to understand the language Shakespeare used to write his plays," said Copeland. "Over in England, people talked like this, but we aren't in England. At least with props we get to feel what it was like."

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