Oh, no, Shakespeare? English teacher Mike Cahir explains why learning Shakespeare matters and how parents can encourage their child to engage in the enormous benefits of learning from the Bard.
Featuring Mike Cahir, high school English teacher and Department Chair.
This podcast began when I asked Mike for his advice to one of our A+ Club students on why he should care about “Othello.” As usual, Mike goes well beyond the obvious and delivers a powerful lesson for students, parents, and teachers on the power and benefits of learning Shakespeare.
Mike reviews the skill sets required for comprehending Shakespeare and how to develop them, including his use in the classroom of “active reading,” “front loading,” and “visualization.” Mike builds student engagement by teaching them how to break down difficult text into component parts, how to make sense of the text through imagery and other clues that Shakespeare uses extensively and how he uses Yoda to teach kids old English.
Mike’s advice is great for students and teachers, but we especially offer it here for parents to empower them to engage their own child with these difficult but magnificent and rewarding texts – and to get a better grade in English class!
Student Success Podcast No. 26, published Jun 6, 2016 (recorded on Feb 2. 2016).
Host: Michael L. Bromley
Original Music by Christopher Bromley (copyright 2011-2016) Background snoring by Stella.
Best Dogs Ever: by Puck, Stella, & Artemis
Just a little snoring from Stella in this episode, while Puck and Artemis took it easy!
Here for Puck & Stella slideshow
Bromley: Welcoming back Mike Cahir, my English teacher friend, great teacher!
Mike: Doing well, great to be back!
Bromley; Have been wanting to have you back, but what spurred this conversation was a student having trouble with Othelloa and iambic pentameter. Does that ring familiar to you?
Mike: Of course it does!
Bromley: really, I guess it’s important to someone teaching English?
Mike: it is but more often the primary reaction you get when you tell students you’re doing Shakespeare is a collective groan, because a lot of students have been forced to memorize passages or fight their way through a complicated language they don’t relate to. Half of them think it’s not even English. They consider it as a different language. That’s a significant hurdle you have to overcome
Bromley: I suppose their parents probably had the same experience?
Mike: a lot. I teach in a very diverse school, so a lot of them haven’t ever been exposed to Shakespeare, and a lot of the parents’ language skills are still below that of my Juniors and Seniors. Even with regular reading, they’re not always a lot of help, so when you bring something like Shakespeare into the picture, then it’s really the students on their own.
Bromley: So why do you still teach it?
Mike: because it’s awesome! There are a lot of reasons for that. Critics and scholars have pointed out that with Shakespeare, very seldom he came up with his own stories. He always stole stories from other playwrights. He was a voracious reader and spent his money on books which were expensive at the time and found ways to adapt and manipulate those stories to fit his time and place and his audience, but in doing so, tapped into universal themes that all authors try to get to do but very few can actually capture.
Bromley: Thus the persistence of Shakespeare.
Mike: Right. Let’s be truthful, if you’re getting kids ready for SATs or in Virginia, state testing, if you can get kids to break down passages of Shakespeare and go hunting to find subjects and verbs and all the garbage in between, they will have a much easier time when it comes to proof reading some passage on a standardized test.
Bromley; In my life, I’ve read Shakespeare, had it in college, probably in high school, can’t remember, but with you as a co-worker back some years ago and a couple spare tickets to see Shakespeare, really enjoyed ourselves! Hamlet.
Mike: The secular bible.
Bromley : the bells went off in my head every time I heard a phrase that we’ve used all our lives and I realized, omg, that came from Hamlet!
Mike: Let’s keep in mind another reason that we study Shakespeare, I don’t have the exact numbers, but when Shakespeare started writing English had about 100,000 words, and by the time he and King James finished his Bible, English had something like a million words. So he’s responsible for, partially, the standardization of English and also the explosive growth in complexity.
Bromley: Again, part of the persistence of Shakespeare. I suspect that for those parents who have not exposed to Shakespeare, and, at least native speakers, there’s a lot more Shakespeare in them than they’re aware of, so if you have a parent who is in to something, history, math, of course they deliver that to their kids. My greatest disappointment as a parent is that my daughter can’t stand history but she knows alot more history than she admits because I’m her dad.
Bromley: Exactly. What I find is that in certain subjects, working with kids, parents really can’t help. I hear all the time, even when Dad’s an engineer, Mom’s an engineer, and they’re like, “I don’t know this math they’re doing.” Shakespeare is another piece that parents don’t really have a good grasp on and they can’t bring that to their kids. So the question becomes for when kids do struggle, they get into these gaps in skill sets, and Shakespeare really challenges some of those skill sets. Is that fair to say
Bromley : For a student to find relevance in Shakespeare, a student needs to be able to approach it meaningfully, which means the student needs to have skill sets in place. What would those be?
Mike: A primary skill set would be an ability to read actively so that a student is approaching a text with the mentality that they will be taking it apart, either with pen or highlighter or postits, or just an ability to stop and go back and ask questions as they’re reading. It’s certainly not a text that a student is going to be able to sit down and ready and comprehend and enjoy on a singular voice level.
Bromley: What about core vocabulary or grammatical knowledge. What’s necessary for it?
Mike: An ability to break a sentence down into its component parts. What Shakespeare does, and I tell this to my students a lot, is, they can connect with Yoda from Star Wars a lot more than Shakespeare, but they both do the same thing They both invert their sentences. So take parts of sentences that are normally at the end of sentence and throw it at the beginning. Yoda is famous for putting in little non-sequiturs in between the essential parts of his sentence. So if you do a few little exercises, looking at some Star Wars first, then have the kids do some diagraming or chunking of the sentences, then have them go right to a Shakespeare passage then they cancan start to do the same thing. But do you know the essential pieces of a sentence besides the subject and a predicate, can you spot modifying phrases and infinitives and things of that nature.
Bromley: Is this topic, Shakespeare, offer an opportunity to make this type of teaching more accessible, than, say, give me something that a typical high school reading would be?
Mike: If you take anything off the best seller list for young adult fiction right now, you will be looking at the influences more of Hemingway than of Shakespeare. So you will have rows and rows of simple sentence constructions that move plot and move characterization, and the reason these books are so successful is because they are fun fast and easy. And reflection , if it does occur, occurs once the book is finished and the kids are thinking, wow that was crazy, or that was messed up, which is a good thing, I’m not saying that’s bad, it’s just that Shakespeare engages on a continual basis throughout the entire read. Which of course is what he was trying to do with his audience because he needs to keep his audience paying attention and sober and avoiding the pickpockets.
Bromley: Shakespeare really does deliver teachable moments that are not accessible in other forms of literature?
Bromley: So I understand of the skill sets necessary are to be able to read actively, engage the different grammatical pieces to be able to reconstruct sentences in a meaningful way. So that’s highly teachable.
Mike: Yeah. And one thing I would throw in there is that visualization helps a lot. And that’s an essential skill to all reading but it’s something that Shakespeare can make very easy because of his figurative language, because of the similes and metaphors and the allusions he makes. You can often figure it out what a character is talking about even if you can’t figure out the sentence structure by looking at the occurring images. Shakespeare was competing with social scenes, bear baiting, he was competing with alcohol and prostitutes, so if he had something important to say he was going to spin it two or three ways to throw it at his audience, and he often does that with the imagery. Let’s see, the famous scene where the Friar is marrying Romeo and Juliet. There are five images of fire and explosions and three images at the end of it of ash. If a kid can visualize the fire turning into an explosion and then leaving ash he gets the idea of what the friar was preaching to those two young lovers.
Bromley: Fantastic! What do you need to do as a teacher to get the kid to be able to, other than the skill sets we’ve been talking about, to deliver that visualization that the kid is pulling from the text. How do you do that?
Mike: It starts with some frontloading. It starts with getting kids to understand the basics of the story. If they can know the basics of the narrative to begin with then they can also use that as clues to help them with comprehension and break down process. So that’s an important piece that teachers would need to look into or anyone trying to help a student with some Shakespeare should keep in mind. Then it’s one of the simple tools that I try to put into their tool box before we start reading, and I call it the image search. So if you’re reading a passage and you’re having a hard time figuring it out, stop reading the sentences and start looking for patterns. There’s a famous Sonnet by Shakespeare, I forget the number, but you encounter words like pedal, stem, green, pollen… it never says the word flower but if you do the image search and put the puzzle pieces together you can see that he’s comparing his love to a beautiful flower.
Bromley: Then it begs the question about iambic pentameter.
Mike: Hah! Let’s keep in mind that there are teachers out there who make students do what we call in literature, scan the text, and that means mark every single syllable whether its stressed or unstressed, stressed, unstressed, stressed, unstressed. I think that’s a bit much. I think that’s a good way to get kids to hate Shakespeare. I think its important what iambic pentameter is, in essence it is the closest synthetic rhythm to actual English speech: so if — you were — to listen –to what — I’m saying … stressed/ unstressed… it mimics natural speech the most of the artificial rhythms poets have used up to Shakespeare’s day, which is why he uses it.
But he also uses for the very fact that what you really need to pay attention to is when he messes with it. So If a character comes on and is not speaking in iambic pentameter, you should pay attention because there’s a reason for that. Or if a character is speaking in iambic pentameter and all of a sudden there’s like three stressed syllables instead of the normal rhythm, you need to pay attention to what’s being said there, and that’s where iambic pentameter comes in and is important.
Bromley: That’s great I love that. Fantastic advice. So it’s normal speech he is using to emphasize his points.
Mike: You just did that right there. If one of your listeners were to put this on slow mo and track which syllables you stressed as you spoke that sentence, you would be in iambic pentameter
Bromley: [dogs barking] There go the dogs upstairs.
Mike: They are not in iambic pentameter!
Bromley: Whatever the grammatical term for chaos is that’s them. They’re in a feedback loop is what they’re in, one barks then the other barks, then the other barks because the others are barking and the first one keeps barking because the other two are barking. So, he does it deliberately and students need to be aware of it but it’s not going to define their comprehension of the text.
Mike: No it should not, and they should get too hung up on it.
Bromley: Let’s get back to another you said, I think you said preview, what’d you say?
Bromley: Preloading. The way I conceptualize that for kids, especially in history. is that if you’re reading for information then you want to know where you’re going. If you’re reading for suspense and comedy you don’t want to know where you’re going, you won’t get the joke and it won’t be any fun, so it can’t hurt to not know where this author is going with this story. So on an informational text, we want to follow as a reader the same structure we as authors of informational texts engage in, which is create a thesis, develop an outline, find your conclusion and then build the in between. So as readers we want to do the same thing: understand the author’s thesis, see the contents, see where the outline is , where they’re going with it, read the conclusion then go back and read it, now that we know what the author is talking about, now we can actually learn from it. Is that what you mean by preloading? How do we apply that here?
Mike: That would certainly be preloading with nonfiction. The basis of any preloading or pre-reading is to define a purpose for the readers as they go forward. So the classic SQRR… however many Rs strategy for nonfiction, you skim it over, you use what you learned by your quick skim to develop a few questions then you go forward trying to answer those questions. That’ a classic nonfiction technique.
With Shakespeare, you can do the same thing. Like I mentioned earlier, he was stealing stories from other people, but he changed and altered the way those stories were presented. So you’re not going to lose anything of the dramatic effect by knowing the story, because almost all of Shakespeare’s audiences knew his stories before they went in to see him, yet he was the most famous playwright of his day and continues to be. The fact that if you can know the story and know some of the ideas and themes that are going on, then your mental load is a little bit relieved. We can start to focus on the things that Shakespeare did that make that story so powerful.
Bromley: That’s awesome, I like that a lot. And I believe also that in order for students to comprehend a reading it is helpful to know what is going on. The other advice I give to kids, and tell me if this is usual or practical for a teacher, to help visualize the characters, and the things that are going on, keep a guide. I wrote a book, and I put in a glossary because I wanted my readers to be able to look up the glossary and know who that person is. In other words, to be able to keep the context and know who’s speaking and what the situation is. How do you work that?
Mike: Before we have finished the first act, or at last, at the very latest by the time you’re going into the second act of a Shakespeare plan, I almost always have an activity for the students where they are going back to what they’ve read, and they are pulling out quotes, either things that the characters have said or other characters have said about certain characters and combining it with visual components. It’s a project day, if I have artistic groups, I’m letting them draw pictures, collages, hunting for pictures on Google images and throwing those together onto a document with some quotes. But just helping them make the time and the effort to go back through and make sure they know who’s who, and of course it’s an added bonus that we can then put these up as reference devices in the room so that kids can see and check as they continue to move through the text.
Bromley: Awesome. And then of course the big objective is that they can manage that text themselves.
Mike: It’s just one more tool that they have to use. If you think two of all the different editions of Shakespeare that are out there, and I don’t know if you’re going to get in any trouble for plugging certain ones, but there’s the No Fear Shakespeare, or the regular language Shakespeare where the two texts are side by side, once again, there’s nothing wrong with that as long as it’s being used as a tool and the student says, ok, now I know what they’re saying let me see how Shakespeare is saying it and how it might connect with other things in the text.
Another classic edition are the Folger Shakespeare Library editions where Shakespeare’s text is on one side of the page and notes and cultural references and pictures from the Shakespeare Library and the old documents and stuff are on the other page to help with the visualization and to help with some of the archaic language and stuff that you might not be able to just look up in a dictionary.
Bromley: That’s something that a parent can actually help a kid with even if they don’t know Shakespeare themselves, get those resources that the teachers may not be delivering to students. Any other advice for parents when their kid comes home and says, God this is boring!
Mike: Don’t say that yourself! It can be challenging but if you of some of his stories, I mean, one of the top five plays done in school, you have Macbeth, a guy who’s a super hero sword fighter, super loyal, super brave and then you have these weird sisters who come in and start saying funny things and the next thing you know he becomes a murderer and he starts descending down the path of insanity.
You have Othello, think about it, in the 1600s, you have a play about racism, how is that not part of our daily fabric, how is that not relevant to today and our current events and things of that nature? I mean, come on, Romeo and Juliet, for some high school freshmen who can’t pay attention because their hormones are raging all through their bodies, might it not be good to let them see that thinking before acting might be a beneficial choice, I don’t know! I just think that despite the challengers Shakespeare presents, he certainly presents stories and ideas that if we take the time to break it down can be meaningful and can be significantly entertaining.
Bromley: That’s awesome, thank you for all your advice here, I’ve certainly learned a lot form this, and I hope our parents and students do as well, and teachers who might be hearing this as well, you bring them some really excellent advice. Thanks for your time.
Mike: You’re very welcome
Bromley: I’ll look forward to hearing from you some more as we go forward . I’m going to take this, I’ve got a Romeo and Juliet student, and an Othello student as well, and I’m going to deliver this to them tomorrow.
Mike: Good luck to those guys!
Shakespeare paintings courtesy Wikipeida, “Characters” By Unknown artist (manner of Thomas Stothard) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons and “Puck” by William Blake – Tate Britain Image, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2367164