Saturday, June 30, 2007

A Day In The Life of a Shakespeare Workshop


There was a point where I was looking forward to this workshop on Shakespeare. How could it be anything but good? It was produced jointly by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. and UCLA. That pedigree alone assured me that this workshop would be different. It would not be like all the other workshops I have attended in the past, where teaching theories and time-wasting methodologies were advocated by people who never seemed to have spent much time in an actual high school classroom. But alas, I was wrong.

The Folger Shakespeare Library was founded in 1932 and contains the most artifacts, notes, books and papers regarding the writer and his time outside of Stratford in England. The library is named for Henry Clay Folger, whom everyone thinks is part of the coffee family, but instead is a cousin who made his fortune in the burgeoning oil industry of the turn of the century. The facility is funded by the Folger estate, and managed by Amherst College.

Every year, the staff and affiliated scholars of the library produce workshops for teachers and students across the country. This year, the sites included Tulsa, Oklahoma, New York, and here in Los Angeles at UCLA. Tulsa and New York were included in a grant that paid all teacher-participants a stipend; UCLA was not included in the grant, so participants here had to pay for the workshop: $300. According to the Folger website, this fee would include three books, materials, and lunch. Later, the exact number of books and the free lunch were removed from the site.

Upon arrival Monday morning at UCLA, I discovered some uncomfortable facts. One, it costs eight dollars per day to park on campus. Add forty dollars to the cost of the week. Luckily, my school picked up the $300 tab; gas, parking and meals would come from my pocket. Two, UCLA summer session began the same day, so crowds and traffic were horrendous.

The representative from the library told us in his opening remarks that the workshop would focus on three things: scholarship, performance, and pedagogy. My problem with the workshop began with the emphasis on performance over comprehension of Shakespeare’s words.

From the start, the five presenters each took responsibility for sections of the workshop. The two professors from UCLA, Rob Watson and Stephen Dickey, would focus on scholarship and pedagogy. Caleen Sinnette Jennings from American University and Joe Olivieri an Associate Professor of Acting, would stress the performance. I was not sure what Michael LoMonico from the Folger Library would handle. He seemed to adopt a shotgun, disorganized approach, throwing in a bit of everything without rhyme, reason, or at times, even coherence.

Watson opened the workshop by discussing Shakespeare’s life and times. The problem was that he presented material that could be gleaned from any of the numerous books about Shakespeare that have been published in recent years. To an English teacher on summer break, staying home and reading books is a no-brainer, and vastly preferred to traveling to UCLA to sit in a gum-encrusted, hot, stuffy, filthy classroom to hear the same information one could find in his own library at home.

Dickey’s workshop was simply annoying. We read and reread the same passage in Romeo and Juliet, focusing on where to put the pauses in the lines. It was all about the syllables and iambic pentameter, not about meaning, background, and insight. I realize that Shakespeare’s use of poetic forms in a play is unique and interesting, but it is not our first stop in the high school classroom. We first focus on understanding his words. Dickey’s presentation seemed to be going in circles around a minor point.

LoMonico, during his presentation, actually handed us a packet of notes that listed his random thoughts about the teaching of Shakespeare. Number one on the list: “It is more important to get kids to like Shakespeare than it is to get them to understand every word.”

LoMonico kept emphasizing the need for students to perform Shakespeare. Understanding was not important; looking up words in a dictionary was discouraged; even pronouncing the characters’ names was relegated to the students’ best guesses. We were told not to correct them as this might make kids reluctant to contribute to the class for fear of being wrong. He also recommended in some cases not having students read the entire play. He characterized Julius Caesar as “a bunch of guys standing around talking about what they are going to do before Caesar is murdered, and after his death, the play becomes a bunch of guys standing around talking about what they did.” Arguably, much would be missed in this play if one only read until Caesar’s murder, as LoMonico suggested. It is a talky play, but it also contains some of the most quoted lines in all of Shakespeare’s work. Mark Antony’s speech on the capitol steps is a remarkable piece of oration on its own. Coming from an official of the Folger Library this suggestion to stop short of reading all of the play was appalling.

Often, the thread of connection between the disparate lectures was nonexistent. The sessions were filled with infantile games and participation exercises, like hurling Shakespearean insults at one another. If we tell students not to look up the words, how would they understand the insults?

The emphasis on performance over understanding made me feel like Shakespeare was being “dummied down” for us. If the words have no meaning, or at least no meaning we are interested in finding, then why could we not just substitute guttural sounds? Why worry about plot, or meaning, or anything? We could turn Midsummer Night’s Dream into a collage of high school students grunting. Many times, at the end of a session, I was left with the feeling that the whole thing could have been done more economically. Too much time was wasted.

Performance does not necessarily lead to understanding if the actor does not examine each line, word by word, and try to ascertain the point the writer is making. There is a reason why most actors consider Shakespeare the pinnacle of acting. One cannot do a close reading of a scene for meaning and act out the lines at the same time. Most productions begin with a table reading so that the actors fully understand their parts before the director begins blocking out the performance. Successful acting and learning begin with understanding the text. There is no other way to work with Shakespeare.

Many of these exercises simply played to the narcissism of the workshop participants, allowing some to brag that they had read all of Shakespeare’s work, or to demonstrate some ham-fisted, awkward, self-conscious acting. Some detailed their hobbies, which had little to do with Shakespeare or teaching. It did not help that LoMonico ended every session with a cutesy finish-the-sentence exercise, like “In this workshop, I learned blank.” We went around the room filling in the blank. The few who could not finish the sentence were returned to repeatedly for their responses, leading to some embarrassed grimaces and uncomfortable silences.

A consistent problem in this workshop was the lack of interaction and dialogue between presenters and participants The presenters spent their time extolling the value of involved learning, that the lecture, teacher-driven method was old school and not nearly dynamic enough for the new paradigm of student performance and involvement, yet their presentations left little room for questioning on the part of the participants. No questions, no dialogue, no discussion. We were forced to our feet and put through some elementary acting exercises in the name of Shakespeare. Meanwhile, the larger mysteries of the text went unexplored. I wanted to slow down a bit, sink into the discussion, and find the nuances.

What passed for nuances was LoMonico reading the same passages over and over again with the participants, placing the stresses on different words, discussing how this might change the meaning of the line, instead of honing in on what the line actually did mean. His annoying habit of becoming peeved at questions and inadvertently insulting people from New Jersey also grated on my nerves.

It is getting harder and harder to motivate students to read something as difficult as a Shakespearean drama. It takes work to learn. What happened to that most American of work ethics: hard work leads to hard won success. Learning is sometimes, many times, a difficult process fraught with false paths and failures. One must persevere. A sense of accomplishment comes from completing a task that is difficult. Therein lies the reward.

Instead, in this workshop, we were asked to cater to the lowest common denominator in our classrooms: the reluctant, barely literate reader. If we expect students to achieve, or even to pass the state’s own exit exam, where is the demanding curriculum, where are the challenging standards we set for ourselves and our students, and the insistence on understanding and mastering difficult works of literature? Certainly, none of this was on display in this workshop.

Michael Silverblatt, a local radio host of the program Bookworm, wrote in an essay entitled, “Why You Never Learned To Read,” that schools at the turn of the nineteenth century once used a reader that had students reading Byron, Coleridge, Cervantes, Dickens and Emerson in fifth grade. Such challenging material is barely covered in a high school honors or AP course today. “If the teacher read you a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in third grade,” Silverblatt writes, “and then you struggled to read it out loud with the rest of the class in fourth grade, and you read the complete play in seventh grade—you would have the incredible experience of discovering that the mind comes to terms with its own incomprehension. The clearing of the fog of incomprehension is the yardstick of growth, every kind of growth: emotional, intellectual, moral, aesthetic, human growth.”

That is the key. Students must be challenged. They must be encouraged, persuaded, and even required to follow their developing intellects down the road to learning. The path leads through dictionaries, discussions, questions, answers, and eventually, to understanding. This is the path that contains no shortcuts, no easy outs, and all the rewards. In this workshop I learned that this is the path we are not following, but should.

Tuesday, and for the rest of the workshop, my seat would be empty.