Shakespeare Geek Teaches The Sonnets

[Yes this is several weeks late but I’m leaving in how I originally started it.]

Would you believe I just spent almost 2 hours in a classroom of 10 and 11yr olds talking about the sonnets?

Every year since my kids were in kindergarten I’ve volunteered to do Shakespeare things.  Some teachers take me up on it, some do not.  Last year was particularly disappointing when I created an edited script, bought props, and was told at the last minute that the principal had vetoed the whole idea.

So this year, with my 10yr old’s class, I took a different approach. Knowing that poetry is a significant part of their curriculum I suggested a talk about the sonnets.  They would already have some knowledge of iambic pentameter, so I was free and clear to basically talk about my love of the subject in general and try to show a little enthusiasm for how awesome Shakespeare can be, and not let these children head off to middle school and down that “Shakespeare is hard and boring” path.

Working with Bardfilm I created a simple fill in the blank game.  I printed up cards with 6 different sonnets where I took a word out of each line, then scrambled them.  I made it a point to cut out some words that made an easy rhyme, some that made for obvious syllable count (when you only have 6 syllables in your line you probably need a 4 syllable word to fill in your blank), and so on.

I brought all my props.  Brought my pop up Globe theatre.  Brought my Shakespeare action figure.  Brought my Yorick skull.  Brought my First Folio.  The latter made a heck of a prop.  I held it up in the air, talked about the most beautiful and important book in the world, and then dropped it on the desk with an echoing THUD to show them all how big it was.

I gave them the usual “Shakespeare is all around you” pitch.  “If you’ve ever seen a guy in the bushes looking up at a girl in the balcony and saying things like It is the east and Juliet is the sun!  That’s Shakespeare.  If you’ve ever seen three witches huddled around a bubbling cauldron chanting stuff like Double Double Toil and Trouble? Shakespeare again.  If you’ve ever seen a goth dude dressed all in black wandering around talking to a skull and saying…”  here I held my hand aloft and started, “Alas, poor Yorick!  I *knew* him, Ho…..hold on a sec.”  Went digging in my prop bag, pulled out actual skull, then repeated the quote.  I hope they enjoyed that.  My daughter told me that was my big hit.  Later I set Yorick up on the projector and gave him a party hat.

I tried to keep it interesting by stressing the “We don’t know” factor with all things Shakespeare, in a subtle attempt to instill in these kids the idea that the teacher is not always unquestionably right.  “We do not know that Shakespeare was born on April 23.  We do not know whether Shakespeare wanted his sonnets published, or when he wrote them, or to whom.  We don’t know for certain what he looked like. We don’t even know where he was for large parts of his life.  We have our theories, and some theories are better than others, but it’s important to understand that when it comes right down to it, there’s a whole lot of stuff we just don’t know.”

I also tried to get into reading and understanding the sonnets by opening with what I dubbed the “How Not To Go Crazy” rules, starting with #1 “Do not attempt to translate every single word into its modern equivalent as you come upon them.”  Even at this the teacher jumped in and said, “If they don’t do that then how can they understand it at all?”  I explained using the old forest and trees analogy, and how if you only obsess over a single word at a time you’ll lose all the meter and structure of the piece.  You need to read it first and try to understand it, using the words you do already recognize, and try to build from there.  Sure, use the glossary when you have to, but you don’t have to as much as you think you do.

What I did do, that I’ve never done before?  I acted.  I performed.  I recited the sonnets like I meant it.  I talked to Yorick’s skull like he was my old friend.  I swore ever lasting love to an imaginary girl in an imaginary balcony like I thought it should be done.  Probably all sucked, but my audience didn’t know that.  The important thing is that instead of just rattling this stuff off from memory, I tried to put a little something into it, you know?

I did get to break out my game, and they were all intrigued at something to do that was interactive.  At this point I’d been talking for over an hour (more on that in a sec) and it was clear that I was losing them.  I felt like the substitute teacher who’d been given a list of fake names when taking attendance.  Every 30 seconds somebody was getting up to sharpen a pencil or go to the bathroom or for a drink of water.  I didn’t care, it wasn’t my classroom.  At one point a student showed me a sketch and asked, “How do you like my Shakespeare?”  It wasn’t very good but I wasn’t about to say that. I suggested that he add a ruff around the neck.  Later my daughter confided in me, “Daddy, he was making fun of Shakespeare.”  I said if that’s the best he’s got I don’t have much to worry about.

I got to yell at the class once, which was fun.  Well, not technically yelling, but yeah, yelling.  They’d done their game, made their sonnets, and the teacher asked who would like to recite their final version.  One girl, obviously shy but used to raising her hand for things, volunteered.  At this point the class isn’t paying attention very much at all, and she begins in a whisper that can barely be heard past her own desk.  SO I SUGGESTED THAT SHE USE HER DIAPHRAGM AND LEARN TO PROJECT SO THAT HER VOICE HITS THE BACK WALL AND CAN BE HEARD OVER THE SOMETIMES NOISY CROWDS THAT MIGHT OTHERWISE DROWN HER OUT.  That shut them up for awhile.

What was most unexpected to me was that the teacher talked my ear off.  I expected to be there 20-30 minutes.  I was there for 90.  She asked me everything that you could imagine, from the minute I walked in the door.  She wanted to know about my business and my entrepreneurial efforts. She wanted to know when I learned Shakespeare, and whether my parents were Shakespearean, and how I liked Shakespeare in high school, and what was the name of the girl I had to recite the balcony scene with in Ms. Cunningham’s ninth grade English class, and whether she was pretty.  I’m not kidding, these are the questions I got asked.  Leah DiNapoli, and yes. 🙂  She was surprised I knew that, I said I’ve told that story many times.  Although when I think about it I’m pretty sure that my partner was actually Karen Kehoe or Kristin Mills (who would have been sitting near me in alphabetical order), and Leah was the only girl in the class who did her part well and had come up to me later and said, “You and I should have gone together.”  Anyway, the teacher asked me whether I’d recited any sonnets to my wife at our wedding.  We talked about Sonnet 116 and I plugged my book :).   She also asked me to explain Julius Caesar.  Really?  Went a little far afield on that one.

My big climax was a playlist of videos featuring celebrities reciting the sonnets.  I had David Tennant doing sonnet 12, I had Alan Rickman doing sonnet 130. I even asked the kids, “Does anybody know who’s in charge of Slytherin House?” and of course that got their attention.  BUT I COULDN’T GET A WIFI CONNECTION AND WAS UNABLE TO SHOW ANY OF THEM.  That bummed me out.  (Later I thought that I should have gone more screen shot heavy, first showing a famous actor in a role that the kids would know and then a Shakespearean role.  Patrick Stewart as Commander Picard or Professor X….Patrick Stewart as Macbeth.  Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey …. Ian McKellen as King Lear.  And so on.)

This is getting long so I’ll wrap it up with a funny story that suggests things might have sunk in a bit more than I thought.  I posted some notes about my experience on Facebook.  I’m friends with various neighborhood parents, and it just so happens that a parent (Kim) of a student in my daughter’s class saw my notes and asked her son, “So, Mr. Morin came into your class to talk about Shakespeare, huh?”  In typical 10 yr old paranoia she got the usual “What? How’d you know that?” and then the usual “Good.  Fine,” result.

What’s neat, though, is that this young man has an older sister who is in high school and who *is* studying Shakespeare. “What sonnets did you do?” she demanded of him.  He told her about sonnet 18, and 29, and 116.  She acknowledged that she too knew those, in what I have to assume went down in an ultracompetitive “Oh no my little brother does NOT know something that  I don’t know!” sibling moment.  I wonder what she would have done if he’d been able to rattle off some sonnet 12 or 104 or 130?

This visit proved something I’ve said time and again.  If you ask me to start talking about Shakespeare you’re going to need to eventually walk away because I will not stop.  Never once did I answer the teacher’s side query with, “Can we talk about that later?”  Every time, no matter the question, I launched into my answer with equal passion.  I love realizing that I cannot help myself.  I am well aware that many times when talking about Shakespeare I will pause and sway a little and gesture a bit with my hands because I can’t find the words to adequately explain how strongly I feel about how much I enjoy that moment.  This time I got to do that for an hour and a half.

Ok, that’s enough of that.  Glad I got to do it, but 10yr olds are clearly not yet into the lovey dovey romantic stuff that drives most of what the sonnets are all about.  We did talk a lot about Romeo and Juliet and the balcony scene, and I think I did get them interested with talk of, “Every time a girl likes a boy and her friends tell her that she shouldn’t like him?  There’s something in Romeo and Juliet for you.”  That, they get.  But man I’ll tell ya I was selling sonnet 18 and 29 and 130 for all I was worth talking about the poet putting himself right in between Death and his beloved saying “No!  I will not let you have her, I will make her immortal!” like Orpheus travelling into the underworld, and enjoying the hell out of myself if I can just tell ya…but the kids could take it or leave it.

Next week I’m doing an actual Dream performance with my 8yr old’s class.  Should be an entirely different experience.  Stay tuned!

2 thoughts on “Shakespeare Geek Teaches The Sonnets

  1. "…enjoying the hell out of myself if I can just tell ya…but the kids could take it or leave it."

    –Unfortunate, that. I guess you're lucky. Actual teachers rarely have the luxury of accepting indifference with equally cheerful aplomb.

  2. You know what, though, J? There were some kids who were paying attention. There were some kids who seemed interested. I know what it's like to be the nerdy one who actually wants to like school, who is too shy in the presence of the "cool" kids who want to show how smart they are by disrupting the class. That's why I continued. Because all of those kids are going to get assigned real Shakespeare homework one day soon. And some of those kids, because I was there talking to them, are going to say to themselves "Remember when Katherine's dad came in and talked for 90 minutes about how awesome Shakespeare was? Maybe there's something to this. Maybe we don't have to automatically hate it because our older brothers and sisters told us how hard and boring it is." And then, I win. 🙂

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