Thursday, December 10, 2009

Shakespeare and Student Engagement

For the last four classes, my class has been working their way into Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Funny how much I love the play, and how challenging I find teaching it. This time through, I'm trying to apply two brain-based strategies that have been serendipitously orbiting around my professional circles:

1. Using pre-assessment of knowledge to determine an appropriate point of entry into the content and skills, and as a way to activate students' long-term memory.

2. Per an international and longitudinal study of math classrooms, employing not a specific set of pedagogical strategies, but strategies that I know get students engaged in my class.

So I started the first day with a "quiz," which never really has any consequence in my class:
What do you know about Shakespeare's life?
Where and when did he live and write? And what do you know about these times?
Name as many of his plays as you can.
Make a list of the Shakespeare plays you've read. Then, for each:

* Summarize the plot
* Describe the main characters
* Make a comparison to another story, film, or experience

Can you make any observations about Shakespeare's language?
Is it more important to follow a parent's wish than follow your heart?
What do you know about love?
Is it okay to be with somebody because they have things you want?
What do you know about marriage?
Is it okay to be deceptive if it gets you what you deserve and maybe helps somebody else out too?
Are intentions more or less important than results?

I hoped to prove to students that they already have a lot of, let's say cultural, experience with Shakespeare, and they carry a lot of assumptions based on their prior experience with his works. I also wanted to get them thinking about the assumptions they have about some of the themes in MOV. Great discussion ensued.

Next, I decided to do all the "reading" (it's a play) of the text in collaborative groups. And I gave the groups a protocol that involved keeping a rather complex web of characters, plot, and language, and self-checking for understanding. With their assumptions recalled in the quiz, this collaborative reading has been a great success.

Interspersed with the collaborative reading sessions have been days working in self-selected character study groups. All the while students are helping each other build their MOV webs of understanding. And I've put the focus on engaging with the language, reading for language.

On the fourth day, every student used their webs to generate divergent questions about the plot, language, and characters. We put all the questions on the wall and used them to do a one-page character exploration.

Next move: active experiencing.

I'm left wondering what I've given up in handing so much over to the students. Intuitively, I can feel the heightened level of engagement. Have I lost something?