Okay, English majors: Who else feels guilty when we have to rush through a literary masterpiece in order to meet the end-of-the-year time crunch?
In ENG 560-whatever, you and your classmates danced in language play and impressed one another with literary insight. Now that you’re deep in the work of ELA instruction yourself, you know that it’s impossible do all that Dr. Berk did with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In fact, that might just be Readicide for our middle and high school students. Yet, even at that, we’re still miffed when we have to hurry through good books.
One example of this occurs in my Humanities class, a two-hour block of US History and English 10. I pair Shakespeare’s Othello with the imperialism/WWI unit, asking the driving question: “Is it okay to intervene in other people’s business?” Somehow between the quick pace of our US History timeline and demands of the ELA curriculum, this was one of those shared texts that always got rushed.
When Fluency is Lacking
The main problem was that my students’ fluency lagged painfully behind their comprehension.
On their own, students dragged themselves through the barren desert text of Iago’s confusing soliloquies with not so much as trickle of understanding. However, once I broke down each scene and translated the lines, my students could totally absorb the complexity of this rich story.
We tried to perform the play aloud in class—in hopes that the stage direction might support them—but hearing my fifteen-year olds perform the Elizabethan language was painful for everyone! I wasn’t going to resign myself to just assigning the text for independent reading in an effort to sail on towards the literary analysis essay, so I tried having them listen to audio of the professional stage performers. I’m sure you’ve guessed it already, but they checked out long before the green-eyed monster even arrived on stage.
So on one hand, my students couldn’t independently decode the text (i.e. it was an issue of Basic Literacy), yet with my support their analyses were on par with or exceeding grade-level expectations.
If your students are at this stage, we have some important questions to ask:
Question #1: Why bother at all with a Whole-Class text?
By this point, some English majors are already annoyed with me. Those teachers might think it’s a waste of time for students to share a whole-class text like this in the first place.
Regardless of the literary merit, they protest because it’s too challenging for students to decode independently. They argue, “Kids could finish more independent choice novels in the time it takes to force everyone to read the same book.”
As I said two years ago, “This dispute of philosophy begins to ignore the canon of research [on best practice literacy instruction] … Teachers question whether novels should be shared as whole-class texts or if students should freely chose novels according to their own interests and plans for growth.” We have to end this debate and false dichotomy and look at the benefits of doing both. This winter, I resurfaced the flaws of this choice-only approach when I referenced my voracious reader Savannah: “If I don’t help her to read things beyond her realm of interest, she’s going to lose out on life opportunities. She is not going to survive in this world.”
I want my students to share great literary works, like Othello, because there are other objectives to reading than what choice reading alone can offer.
Question #2: What Are Your Objectives?
Essentially, we need to ask what do you want kids to know and/or be able to do with the text? Sometimes, it’s not just about fluency.
If you’re keeping it simple, you might consider your objectives according to the CCSS Reading Anchor Standards. Looking at the whole of my English 10 curriculum, my objectives for reading Othello are the following:
Objectives: Determine the theme, analyze the characters, and evaluate Shakespeare’s craft
In order to do this, my students have to first understand what the heck the play is all about. Without interpreting the whole play for them or dragging out our shared study for three weeks, I turn to the following solution:
Solution: Read the Modern Translation
I can just hear my Shakespeare professor gasping at the audacity of this decision: “You’re actually encouraging your students to read the modern version of the text?!” She’d probably say it in her fake British accent (at least I’m pretty sure that it was fake. I was a pretty judge-y 19-year old.).
Yes, Professor Snooty-Pages. I am, and so is Kelly Gallagher.
He defends this solution saying, “My goal is not to turn my students into expert translators; my goal is that my students develop a clear understanding of the play so they are positioned to think deeply about it.” So if fluency isn’t your objective and deeper thinking is, we cannot argue against the Sparknotes No Fear Shakespeare texts. They make getting to the heart of the story the whole game.
Of course, my students do still perform the play aloud as Shakespeare intended. We still stop to discuss theme, irony, and characterization. But now, they actually get what’s happening (Bonus: I no longer have to explain each racy innuendo to the whole class. Also, reading the play in this format shifts our performance timeline down from about three weeks to 5-6 days.) All in all, this allows us more time to extend our focus on other objectives.
Objectives: Determine the meaning of words/phrases and evaluate diction/language
“But I thought translation of the original text wasn’t important to you?” English majors, don’t you fret: Gallagher says that students still need to practice “wrestling with Shakespeare’s beautiful language.” We’re not giving that up. Here’s what we do:
Solution: Assess via a Second-Draft Reading Quiz
Once my students get the gist of the plot through their first-draft reading, they revisit the text with new focus. This time, I give them the original text to test not only their understanding of the words/phrases but also their literary analysis skills. Determining the meaning of the original text is important, we just have to restructure our process in order to support students’ achievement of the goals.
So, in order to do this without getting tied up in the whole play, I use Second-Draft Reading Quizzes. At the end of each act, students receive a monologue of the original text, as shown below.
They are asked to write a mini-literary analysis of the excerpt. Students must follow our ICEE structure of Introduce a quote, Cite a quote, Explain what it says/means, and Evaluate why it matters. These paragraph responses are short, easy to grade, and they offer students a manageable chunk of the original text to dissect before we move on to bigger, badder goals.
Here’s the example of Ben’s paragraph in the title photo:
“In Act 1 Scent 3 of Othello, Iago is trying to tell the reader how he will take Cassio’s place as Othello’s lieutenant. He says that “Cassio’s a proper man. Let me see now, To get his place and to plume up my will in double knavery.” (1.3.329-331). Basically, Iago is formulating a plan to take Cassio’s place. It shows how he is willing to meddle in other’s affairs to better himself, and how little regard he has for other people.”
In about 10 minutes, Ben shows that can closely read the text and begin to answer our driving question about intervening in other people’s business.
Objectives: Analyze how a subject is represented across mediums
As I mentioned, Othello is part of my Humanities class blending US History and English; therefore, we’re looking at the subject of “interventionism” at both the one-to-one human level, how it moves a story, as well as at the international level, how it makes history. In order to do that, students need to:
Solution: Read and write across disciplines.
For my students, this means we need to read other texts about intervening in other people’s business both in ELA and history. To scaffold, we start by watching clips from ABC’s What Would You Do? before we move on to more dense texts like Othello and some primary source documents about the Spanish-American War and WWI. Throughout our study, we write about how alliances and misinformation or propaganda can sway our decisions away from peaceful diplomacy into aggressive action. We discuss the play and debate military decisions.
Ultimately, when we consider the “English major guilt” of rushing through a masterpiece like Othello, we have to start with the end goal in mind. What do we want students to be able to do? Gallagher says, “Instead of spending time wrestling with translating the text, I’d rather my students spend time wrestling with the big ideas found in the text.”
And I’m all for that, even if I do annoy some people along the way.
Your Turn . . .
How annoyed are you with this suggestion? Are you a total Shakespeare purist? If so, how do you make his work accessible to your students?
What strategies do you use to quicken the pace of other texts without watering down your objectives?
But wait–there’s more! If you like what you’ve read here, check out my resource page for products/downloads, share my workshop offerings with your administrator or School Improvement team, and join my mailing list below to receive posts sent directly to your inbox and a FREE resource.