No Longer Just a Little Background: Young Gun

There is nothing like being a fresh, young teacher.  No wife.  No kids.  Nothing to do but to lesson plan and grade papers.
[yeah, looking back on it, I probably was a brutal bastard to have as a teacher back then… sorry, guys]

I think that freedom made me good and dynamic, and by the end of my first year, I was recommended to teach the sophomore Honors English class.  I pushed to teach two Shakespeare plays in the course (rather than the usual one 10th grade play [PUH-lease, can a brother get a more interesting play than Julius Ceasar?  really?  Ceasar‘s what we want to give sophomores who are at a crossroads in their young lives?  Can I have mine with novacaine, please?]).  The department chair, who had once taught the Shakespeare elective class–probably 20 years before I took the class as a student–patted me on the head as patronizingly as possible and said, “I’m not sure they’ll get it, but if you want to, sure… go ahead.”  And I did.  In that first Honors year, it was JC and Othello (then in later years, JC and Macbeth, JC and Lear…allowing me to have the students compare and contrast the notion of the tragic “hero”). Hypocritically, however, this went AGAINST my core Shakespeare teaching philosophy: don’t just teach the tragedies unless you want kids to believe: Shakespeare = body bags at the end.

That young gun freedom also made me idealist and ambitious.  That first Honors year (my second overall) was rolling, and I was seeing how receptive the students were to the Bard.  At the next department meeting, we began to discuss staffing and teaching assignments for the next year.  I broached the subject of bringing the elective Shakespeare class out of retirement (it wasn’t being offered… and hadn’t been at Oxnard for years), and teaching it myself.  I think Lindquist smiled.  I know the department chair laughed and patted me on the head AGAIN (it really isn’t an endearing habit, folks): “If you can get the kiddos to sign up for a Shakespeare class, you can teach it.”

Gauntlet thrown, challenge accepted.

In less than two weeks, I got 36 kids to sign up for the class, and in the fall, we began a journey.

I wanted to make sure that the students ended up with a good sense of the full range of Shakespeare, so I set the class up like a college survey course.  On the first day, I handed out the course syllabus and outline.  It included a dozen or so sonnets, and four plays (one from each of the genres–comedy, history, tragedy, and tragicomedy/romance), for which we’d be having in-depth discussions.  In that first year, we read:  The Comedy of Errors, Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, and Pericles (if memory serves).  The students were also responsible for a fifth play (from a list of eight–again, if memory serves–two from each genre).  Each discussed play would get four weeks, but I wanted the students to have already read the play once before the discussion began, so on that first day of discussion, there would be a quiz; there would a essay due fore each play, and then the final would be an essay exam that compared the undiscussed play with one of the discussed ones.

The first two weeks, we did the sonnets and some history and a little scansion (very little, I am now chagrined to say); these two weeks gave the students time to read that first play (always a comedy). The four-week discussion periods would be filled with desks pulled into
a circle and reading the play aloud, stopping whenever anyone had a
question or a comment, or whenever there was a point I wanted to make.

And then we’d read the play again and act out selected sections. Our twice-through readings made comprehension and appreciation a given, but it was the in-class acting out of sections that made the class a success.

Not only would we act some scenes out, but we would talk about possible directorial concepts. I told them of the hackneyed Errors concept of setting the play in the circus, under the big-top (since the play is filled with clowns or at least clownish behavior). I had student volunteers take a scene from the play and create a concept for it. One student set the play in Jamaica, with its inhabitants high on weed, thus allowing for their not-so-bright decisions. Another had as the basis of her direction costuming, use of colors to delineate the brothers. Others did gender switches. One great one was the use of blind servants, explaining much (in that scene at least, though it wouldn’t work for the whole play, of course). It was these directorial concepts that became the basis for our annual presentation of Shakespearean scenes, “A Night with the Bard.”  (but that we’ll talk about tomorrow…)

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