Shakespeare to a Screen of Boxes

“I all alone beweep my outcast state”

I’d done the lesson before, a world away, last year. That was back in a simpler time, when we could gather in the same room with students, then, as now, a group of theater kids with the topic on hand of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The opportunity to teach came as a kindness from a generous teacher who knew how much it means to me as a principal to teach every year, the lesson a throwback to my days as an English teacher, a dozen years spent in front of a classroom.

That idea of a front of a classroom, the notion of anything today being a throwback to anything that has come before …that just feels …incorrect. Because teaching today in this first semester of 2020, is different.

Wildly different.

So when I set about teaching this fabulous group of students it wasn’t in a classroom at all, but me in my office and thirty or so students in bedrooms, at kitchen tables, and sipping chai on couches (as one student told me she was doing). We were all connected through screens, an imperfect replacement for the magic of in person teaching.

I’ve written about this connection before, about the alchemy of teaching and learning, the humanity of working with kids, the spark that comes between people in a classroom. But this time…

The teacher started the class with some theater warm-ups, a great way to begin since I hoped they’d read some of the sonnets aloud. To hear him march through stretching and zombie calls, dash trippingly through “cinnamon-aluminum, cinnamon-aluminum, cinnamon-aluminum” and the like was a delight. I scanned the boxes on my screen: icons and names …and a few student faces. It was so strange to see familiar names, but not the kids I know attached to them. I knew this would be an issue; teachers had mentioned the difficulty to students not always turning on cameras, sometimes for very legitimate reasons (technology, mental health) not just in this class, but across the remote learning experience.

And difficult it was.

We started with an introduction to Shakespeare’s sonnets, a bit of historical perspective, and a primer on prosody. The students listened …I think. The crossed out red microphone in every box kept those delightful impromptu student responses muted. Painfully muted. Teaching in person allows for reading body language, seeing students eyes, overhearing those unexpected utterances, and moving around the room to help keep students engaged. 

Online my lesson felt decidedly one sided. A voice kept whispering in my head that my song and dance wasn’t even as good as a video the students could just be watching. Sharing my screen only exasperated the challenge; even if I could see more boxes they might be names or icons, not student faces. Four crossed out red microphones or thirty-four crossed out red microphones it still felt like it was just me as I got started. 

Was I reaching them? that whisper asked. All the ways I used to tell were gone to me. That voice of doubt was in my head, not through the computer; everyone in class was still muted and many had their cameras off.

We marshaled through sonnet 118, taking it apart quatrain by quatrain after an intrepid student turned on their camera to read it aloud. When that student turned on their camera and started reciting it was as if the heavens had opened, the clouds parted, and something miraculous had happened.

I spoke more than I should have, but even with a pretty high comfort level for extended wait time that felt like the only way to move forward. My appreciation for the teachers who do this every day, multiple times a day, grew and grew. At its worst this experience was nerve wracking; at its best it was modest in the unexpected joys that kept me teaching for a dozen years. For anyone tempted to be critical of teachers in this world of remote learning I’d say try your own hand at teaching before saying a word. You may find yourself with different words.

In modest nibbles the students began chewing on Shakespeare’s language, offering ideas, often more willing to answer my questions in the chat than with camera or voice. A couple messaged me in the chat that they were having trouble with their cameras, one that her mic didn’t work. These kinds of technical challenges aren’t unique to a handful of students. Every week I talk with parents or students who struggle with connectivity. We’re all doing what we can do. And that’s okay.

I tried breakout rooms, groups of six or seven for each of a quartet of sonnets. The theater teacher went into one group, with the well known sonnet 130, and I visited the others in turn, sonnets 29, 116, and 138. They each had some specific instructions (scanning the poem, looking for unfamiliar words, and reading for meaning) and the charge that when we returned to the main meeting we’d have someone from each group read their poem aloud.

In the first breakout room I visited only one student had his camera on. Yet, the students were encouraging to one another, collaborative voices behind the white names on black backgrounds. I stuck around until they hit a sticking point and together we dove into the lines: 

I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope

There was some resonance in those words, more than 400 years old as they are, and the students, each in their own individual box on the computer, understood what it is to feel a bit “outcast” these days. That said, the couplet at the end of the poem resonates with me as well:

For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

The second breakout room was quieter yet. One student talked me through what they’d discussed before I arrived, but overall, crickets.

When I entered the third group my heart soared. Every camera was on and the discussion was rich. They noticed discrepancies in the iambic pentameter and were speaking smartly of the poem writ large. This was so much like what school would be in person, and felt like a rare joy in this online world.

When we got back to the main meeting we had time for two awesome students to read their sonnets aloud. When I saw them turn on their cameras the whole world got a little better. 

In this compromised environment that was all it took.

The ones who spoke did marvelously, actors as they were, and many students were able to talk about the poems intelligently, as students do. It was not the experience I’d had with this lesson before, and after I signed off at the end of the lesson I texted the teacher: “THANK YOU! That was strange, but fun.” It was fun. Because…

Today I got to teach. It was not perfect. It was not bad. It was not what I’d always done or how I’d always done it. Truth be told, it was not how I’d like to do it as soon as I’m given another choice.

Remote learning is hard, and while we had to connect through screens and across miles, today we connected. At least a little. Right now, I’ll take that.

Unperfect Actor

As an unperfect actor on the stage
Who with his fear is put besides his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart.
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite…
-Shakespeare, Sonnet 23

The students were fantastic, a couple of dozen young actors gathered in the library to talk Shakespeare, clever, confident, and more than able. 

As a principal (and recovering English teacher), I’m always thankful for the opportunity to get to work with students in the classroom, and my appreciation was real and profound to the drama teacher who allowed me time to introduce these kids to a raft of poems, the joys of scansion, and the delight that comes with reading Shakespeare’s sonnets for the first time.

My lesson was nothing fancy: a little (only a little) context, time on sonnet structure, guided practice scanning a poem, and then some work in small groups on structure and meaning.

We talked about the sonnets as a sequence, reading one I suspected might have the best chance of being familiar to them, sonnet 18, together, and then (after some time for smaller conversations with peers) ticking through half a dozen others as a class.

IMG_2279This was an acting class, so their reading aloud of the poems was inspiring; these were some of the same actors I’d seen perform Romeo and Juliet a couple of weeks earlier. Their understanding of the sonnets was strong too. Some youthful wrestling with the language (“ow’st” means…?) aside, they were able to use context to gain understanding and came up with clever readings of Shakespeare’s verse.

It was a reminder of just how fun it is to see students grapple with new material, in this case kids predisposed to Shakespeare engaging with texts they didn’t know as well as the plays they’d already studied. Watching them talk with each other was a lesson in the importance of prompting students and then getting out of their way.

And then, because it was a special schedule that day, the bell rang ten minutes before we were really done, sonnets 116, 130 and 138 still on the shelf. 

I am, I thought, to use Shakespeare’s words: “an unperfect actor.” How could we not have had time for three sonnets that would have enriched our conversation? Heck, I hadn’t even introduced them to the dark lady or fair youth, not really anyway.

And… while we might not have had “the perfect ceremony” what we did have was an opportunity to engage, both with the text and each other. As a principal I’ve come to believe that this kind of interaction is more important than many of the other things I do at school.

We all know that teachers are the most powerful force for good at a school, and when students can see their principal as a teacher too, recognizing that I didn’t get into this profession to be a principal, but to work with students, then we begin to break down the artificial barriers to connection that sometimes come when a fellow puts on a tie.

I loved working with the students on sonnets, and hope to get back to that class for our last few sonnets sometime soon. Until then I’ll whisper Shakespeare’s words: “For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings / That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”

In a Nutshell

My favorite classroom was a spacious portable at Gaston High School where I had the freedom to create a space to support learning unrestrained by conventionality. The only technology in the room was a teacher computer tucked away against a wall, a twelve cup coffee maker, and an aquarium full of goldfish. I didn’t have a projector, but both a mounted TV above the piano in the front of the room and an old fashioned television housed in one of those sturdy wooden cabinets so popular in the middle of the last century were wired so I could show the occasional video on two screens at once.

I had tables in the room that my students and I could rearrange to form rows, squares, or push out of the way entirely when we wanted to try something daring. Once we turned the room into a jungle.

When I think about an ideal learning space, I always start with that classroom in Gaston. I loved its homey feel: photos of students, framed in collages, hung on the walls, Sinatra played through a built in sound system, and an 8×10 picture of a former student who had joined the Marines stood proudly atop the piano alongside some student pottery. One of my football players and his mom sewed curtains for our windows.

I know how important it is that students feel at home where they learn, welcomed and valued, and that they contribute to creating the space. More than a dozen years in the classroom also taught me that’s important that the room encourages engagement with the subject matter at hand. That Gaston classroom, as many of my other rooms over more than a dozen years of teaching, contained framed photographs of authors we were reading (Borges, Virginia Woolf, and Alice Walker), the Greek alphabet (since I had the kids transliterate names when we read Homer’s Ὀδύσσεια), and a door sized Hamlet poster given to me by a friend who lifted it from a bus stop in London.

In addition to feeling safe and valued, and seeing evidence of the importance and relevancy of the subject matter all around them, a learning space is best when it can be versatile.

photo (4)When my classes and I decided that we were going to stage our study of Hamlet in the jungle, the result of a long discussion of the challenge of contemporizing Shakespeare and some fortuitously timed pruning going on around campus, we were able to push all the tables aside, fill the room with enormous tree branches, and cover the windows with green butcher paper. An economics teacher, who was also a colonel in the Oregon National Guard, loaned us a huge camouflage net. Large enough to cover two tanks, we suspended it from the ceiling.

Once the lights were dimmed by green tissue paper and the jungle sounds CD was playing through the speakers, we were almost ready to go. I came in just before six on the morning of Act I to turn on five humidifiers. This was going to be a rain forest Tarzan would be proud of.

That week, as students in fatigues (another loan from the Colonel) read Shakespeare’s play, the fact that Denmark is preparing for war cemented in their minds, they experienced the play in a way I knew they’d remember. Crouching over Dover Thrift Editions of the script, the kids seemed to get Hamlet’s sense of dread when he said: “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space – were it not that I have bad dreams.”

Maybe it was all window dressing. The words are the star of any Shakespearean play. In the years ahead my students and I would enjoy Hamlet in other settings: on the portable stage a student wrote a grant to bring into the classroom, outdoors in an Oregon downpour, and wearing suits donated by our parent boosters. Were those experiences less wonderful than my time in the jungle? No. They each, however, stood out because they were different than the usual set up of whatever classroom I was sharing with kids.

An ideal learning space? Maybe it’s less about the room or the technology and more about the imagination teachers and students bring to wherever they are. Whatever our nutshell, we can be kings and queens of infinite space, if we allow ourselves to put curiosity and passion, love and learning, first. Like Hamlet, it’s not about the stage of the classroom, but about the poetry of learning.