Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Bathing in the Language of Shakespeare

This past week I had the unique opportunity to see four Shakespearean plays in three days. The occasion was our annual visit to the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada. This remarkable theater festival offers a variety of plays from musicals like Fiddler on the Roof to Noel Coward chestnuts like Blithe Spirit, but my wife and I go mostly for the Shakespeare that is featured each year. This year we saw truly memorable productions of Othello and The Merchant of Venice and very good productions of Measure for Measure and Romeo and Juliet.

Upon returning home, we went to see my granddaughters where I delivered the obligatory t-shirts, this time emblazoned with Romeo and Juliet on the front. I told the thirteen-year-old I had just seen a production of the show and thought I would bring her a t-shirt to commemorate it. She admired the shirt for a moment and then said, “Oh, Romeo and Juliet! Did you have trouble following the play because of the way he writes?”

I knew what she meant, of course; Shakespeare can be difficult to follow due to the sometimes archaic language, the flowery turns of phrase and the demands of the spoken poetry. I explained to her that I had read the play many times in and out of school and had seen perhaps a half dozen productions of it, so I could follow it pretty well, but yes, even now, I have trouble understanding some of the language.

The question got me thinking about teaching and learning. Do we give kids a chance to become familiar with any writer at a deep level? I had just spent three days immersed in the language of Shakespeare. Iambic pentameter rained down on me as if from a sustained summer shower. I came through the immersion better able to understand and appreciate the greatness of the writing. How often do we give kids the same chance?

Typically in school we deny kids immersion in one author. Instead we supply a smattering of many authors. A smattering of Hawthorne, a smattering of Melville, a smattering of Shakespeare, a smattering of Hemingway. If children do get the chance to become truly immersed in an author, it typically happens outside of school. I remember I fell in love with the writing of John Steinbeck in ninth grade. I read all the Steinbeck I could get my hands on for the next three years, but was never assigned any in school. Contemporary school children may get a similar experience through immersion in J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter series. This is all well and good, but can we do more?

Why not dedicate a school year or two school years to one great author? Why not immerse children deeply in one writer, so that they might truly come to know that writer under the guidance of a skilled teacher. Why not spend the time to truly look deeply into the writer’s themes, obsessions, tropes, ideas? Do we think that children really need a smattering more than they need close study of one writer? Is there anything we want to teach children about critical reading that we can’t teach through focused attention on one great author?

Who should be the focus of this type of instruction? The list of candidates is deep and diverse. For younger children it might include Arnold Lobel or Cynthia Rylant. For upper elementary children it might be E. B. White or Roald Dahl or Avi or Katherine Paterson. For middle school it might be Cynthia Voight or M.E.Kerr or Chris Crutcher or Robert Cormier. For high school it might be Shakespeare or Steinbeck or Hawthorne or Hemingway or Roth.

For years, teachers in the schools and critics outside of schools have described the American school curriculum as a mile wide and an inch deep. Why not try reversing that proportion?

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