Now is the winter of our discontent: A reflection on teaching Shakespeare in a foreign land

Teaching Shakespeare can be a challenge. Here are some thoughts on teaching Shakespeare to students in Germany, a unique and engaging challenge all its own.

I love teaching Shakespeare. However, it is not without its challenges, especially when teaching to high school students in a foreign country.

This summer, I have the unique opportunity to spend three weeks on an academic exchange in a German high school. I am here with ten students and the German teacher from my school attending classes and going on educational excursions with students and teachers from the Ruperti Gymnasium, a college prep secondary school in Mühldorf am Inn, Bavaria.

All university bound German students are required to take six years of English language instruction. A part of their curriculum is to read and analyze Shakespearean text. Today I was able to teach a lesson on Richard III to a group of 11th year German students.

I culled my lesson plans from other Shakespeare plays I teach (specifically Othello) to try to find the perfect and engaging set of activities. It did not go as well as I hoped, mainly because the following conditions were not in place.

Condition #1: Create a Safe Learning Environment

There has to be an established trust between the members of a learning community for there to be sucess with complex text. When I teach Othello in my 10th grade classes, my students have been in my class for about a month and we have established norms for a safe and open learning environment.

Standing in the front of the German students this morning, I sensed that they were nervous to offer answer about a complex text to a complete stranger in a language they were still working to perfect.

Students need to see that they can take risks. My students know early on that guessing or making mistakes will not be met with ridicule or scorn, but encouragement and support.

Students need to see that they can take risks.

The best way to create this is to model for them. As they watch me navigate my own learning and thinking, they build confidence to try things out, too. This is essential when faced with the complex task of reading and analyzing Shakespearean text.

Condition #2: Acknowledge the difficulty

Carol Jago’s With Rigor For All is a great primer for teaching complex texts. The most significant idea for me was the reminder that students are often reading books for the first time that I have read ten (plus) times.  I have let this idea shape my instructional practice as I work hard to let students experience text without the influence of my bias and perspectives.

Due to the language barrier today, I spent too much time talking about my interpretation of the text, which took away from the learning that could have happened. The German students were not able to tackle the text and hone reading skills and I wasn’t able to celebrate their unique interpretations as they worked.

Nowhere in the standards does it say that we are supposed to make students memorize their teacher’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s plays. Instead, it is essential for us to celebrate and encourage our students rather than chastising them for missing the miniscule nuance of our favorite scene and line. We need to give them tools for coping with any kind of text they come across by showing them how to deconstruct difficult passages and to read closely to make meaning.

Nowhere in the standards does it say that we are supposed to make students memorize our interpretation of Shakespeare’s plays.

Condition #3: Keep your objective in mind

I am always overplanned, so this is a condition that applies beyond my teaching of Shakespeare. As mentioned above, it is so important for me to remember that students are reading these plays for the first time. That doesn’t mean that I have to hide my enthusiasm or take myself completely out of their reading process, but it does mean that I need to reign it in.

My objective was too big for my German students today. We had two passages to read and my goal was for them to consider rhetorical strategy, tone and performance.

We had 90 minutes for our lesson, but I should have been thoughtful about conditions one and two and scaled back my focus to one goal.

These students are beginning the process of preparing for their oral exam and would have benefited more from a focused discussion on tone and the impact it can have on meaning. While we had a nice discussion about rhetoric, tone and performance, it was limited. Had I considered the goals of their unit, I could have focused on skills that were applicable beyond my lesson.

I tend to be hard on myself when lessons don’t go as well as I want them to. I need to remember that creating the right conditions for learning is an art.

As I stood before a classroom full of students who I did not know and whose language I do not speak, I was reminded of this—and that it takes time to do this well.

Even though the lesson wasn’t my best, it was great to engage with students from across the globe and remember why I love teaching the bard. Shakespeare is universal and provides a platform for discussing the human condition. I am grateful that, as teacher, I get to engage with his work regularly and am excited for a do-over come this fall.

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