Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Teaching Hamlet

Man, I love teaching Hamlet. Hamlet! I still remember sitting in my grade 11 English class ( ____ly, the very same classroom I now teach in), reading the line "But look, the morn in russet mantle clad" and actually getting goosebumps. Russet? Seriously.

At this point, it is now clear how a geek like me would grow up to become an English teacher. And this English teacher is about to embark on a Hamlet unit once again.

Here are a few assumptions I make about the students before I begin:

- Students struggle with the language
- Students struggle with envisioning the action of the play
- Students struggle with the context of the time the play was written

Sense a theme?

I should probably acknowledge that the very notion of struggle seems to me to be a very physical image, as if the shakespeare textbooks fly towards the faces of my young charges and threaten to suffocate them with pages and pages of endless blank verse. But, that's probably how a lot of my kids feel. And, in past classes when students read the lines aloud, that's also how it sounds.

Again, throughout this entire unit (which is supposed to last about 7 weeks- this seems like a very tight timeline to me) I'm going to try to avoid the words 'get through' or 'cover' or 'go over' because I think it reinforces the idea of Hamlet as an obstacle, instead of a play.

Here is where I'll compile a list of aspects of my Hamlet unit, but there are some things I will not do. I won't create an order for presenting information. I won't be including worksheets with my units, because I don't use them anymore, and I think the notion of 'busywork' is kind of not what I'm going for here.

Things I haven't had success with

  • Getting students to memorize a soliloquy - some teachers get kids really pumped about it, and I admire that. It's just not for me.
  • Worksheets.

Things I have had success with

  • Asking seemingly silly questions on a student discussion forum such as 
"If Hamlet were a cupcake, what flavour would he be?" (Not all the answers are gold, but it's a good excuse to bring cupcakes to class)
"Who would you cast as Hamlet? Include a picture!" (God bless the Kenneth Branagh version, but 1996 was a while ago.)

  • Taking the time to explain to students that when words have mysterious apostrophes in the middle (ne'er, i', e'er) it's because there are letters missing for rhythmic reasons and they are not encountering some new mysterious word. I find it especially difficult to hear a student read aloud " I am too much "I" the sun". Gah! That makes no sense!
  • Using different versions of filmed interpretations in class. This is a tricky one, because it's so easy to just let the movie run and run and tell yourself that students are 'getting it' because it's on screen. Still, when I teach Macbeth I've always made a point of showing as many different versions of the banquet scene as I can find so the students can discuss staging and director's interpretation. 

    Things I haven't tried yet but will get back to you about

    • This year I am going to include parts of the David Tennant film, but it will be difficult to practice equanimity due to my Dr. Who fangirl-dom. Still, from the limited previews I've seen this looks like an extremely attractive film that highlights how the play actually works as a play. (I was always more impressed with K. Branagh's sets than his soliloquies.) 

    Work in Progress!


    1. Dear Erin,

      As I am unable to send messages on Twitter, I am relegated to sending them on your blog site, which I commend you on for its honesty and humour.

      Now I think you should drop what you are doing and proceed immediately to the next two sites. The first (an online text of Herman Melville's "Bartelby the Scribner") will move you to fits of uproarious laughter then to profound sadness for the state of Bartelby. The second (a seminar led by comedian/actor/German hater John Cleese) will reinforce all that you know about insight and its connection to late hours.

      There you go. I hope all is well and that you are wading into an excellent term. Okay, that's a strange image, but go with it.

      Missing Thai food for some reason...



    2. Hey Marshall, thanks for the links! I'll add Bartelby to the 'to read' list! The term's going fine so far, or it was until I told all my students that they were addicted to their grades and I was going to cut them off. Now it's basically Egypt in my classroom everyday.

      Hopefully someone somewhere is learning something!


    3. Yes, Bartleby is the the reciter of the classic line, "I'd prefer not to," a wonderful retort to admin teams who don't comprehend marking loads in the humanities. By the way, Phil Mcrae was the fellow I was discussing while marking--one of your Twitter links. A brilliant guy... let's leave it at that.

    4. Hi Erin,

      I am really enjoying your blog! I am student teacher right now and in a few weeks I will get to embark on my first Shakespeare teaching experience with Romeo & Juliet in my Grade 10 classes and Macbeth in my Grade 11 classes. Looking forward to hearing how everything works out for you. I will share my reflections on my blog.