Performance in ELA: Haunted by Hamlet and Performing Poetry

Originally published 13 August 2018

PART 1— “Though this be madness, yet there [should be] method in’t.”

The end of the semester was in sight— a mere two and a half weeks away, when a randomly scheduled PLC made me catch my breath. I came out of the library and headed down the hall to my classroom, my head spinning. How in the world can I teach Hamlet in two and a half weeks?!

I momentarily let the feeling of panic and anticipated exhaustion overwhelm me as I staggered down the hall, seeing double. While the other teachers on my grade level had been teaching Shakespeare’s longest play for the past 2 weeks and were about halfway into it, I had somehow missed the memo about this shared text. I had been reassured in the PLC that it was ok, I could take a little bit longer, that the shared CFA that was already in place could be pushed back a little bit. So after dwelling— or perhaps, moping—  for what felt like an appropriate amount of time on why, exactly, I should be teaching Hamlet during the junior year with the focus on American literature, I was able to come up with a few ideas.

This shouldn’t sound, even at this point, like a victory story— because it’s not. There were a few things that went well and a lot that was rushed or that flopped. As I encourage my students to do, reflecting on this brief experience with the Prince of Denmark and about 237 eleventh graders has pushed my thinking about teaching plays in the Language Arts classroom to places it hasn’t gone before.

First, why should we teach Shakespeare? I’ve found this discussion to be very helpful in thinking about this— one of my favorite English ed bloggers, Brian Sztabnik, looks at both sides of the issue. From my experience with students and Shakespeare, I believe he accurately identifies the “aura of luxury and ostentation” that often surrounds Shakespeare in classrooms. He dips into this debate that notably occurred in The Washington Postwhich points out that the time for a Eurocentric focus on texts is long over, and that we should challenge the notion that we should do something because it’s something that has always been done. There is a lot of value in challenging this notion, and in looking closely at the texts we teach through the lens of these views. Ultimately though, I— along with Brian— believe in teaching Shakespeare for many of the same reasons that he lists; among others, it is rich in content and is rigorous, and because I believe there is value in posing the same question to students that I asked myself: Why Shakespeare? Brian also links to a Harvard professor who teaches a whole course on this— it’s worth a look.

However, I also believed that Hamlet, being a play, could be a way to get students out of their seats— reading parts and doing something different.

This part didn’t actually turn out so great.

We started out pretty well— with Brian’s Shakespeare Musical Chairs activity, which I’ve effectively used before with other plays. Students get to interact with short pieces of the text and start working with the language in small, manageable parts. It’s also fun, and is something that comes up again as we read the play— so it’s great for building background knowledge and prior experience.

This was followed by a few stunning performances of some scenes from Hamlet in class— I don’t think anyone in my first period A day class will forget Luke’s flawless British accent employed in his ironic, desperate interpretation of Hamlet.  But, overwhelmingly the students’ interactions with the play, performing it and otherwise, were disengaged and distanced. They weren’t required to memorize their lines, or to do too much by way of performance— it was kept minimal and was really more of a way to get through the reading of Hamlet in a more interactive way.

As I reflect on why my attempts to teach performance in the classroom didn’t work, I’d also like to suggest some things that would work much better. I came to these improved ideas on teaching performance in a Language Arts classroom after Hamlet didn’t play out so well, prompting my own investigation into how performance could be used in the classroom in successful and less traditional ways.

Honestly, I was about to give up. I have no theater training or experience, and aside from reading some plays in my undergraduate English classes, I haven’t had any structured way to approach this. So, I’d like to ask not necessarily, Why Shakespeare? but rather, Why performance in a Language Arts classroom? And how?

Some of my initial approaches to performance with Hamlet were setting us up to not be successful. But could it be successful? How could I view performance in Language Arts differently? Michael LoMonico, in an article about performance in the English Language Arts classroom, explains, “I have a theory about why educators talk with such enthusiasm about teaching literature through performance: It works. Performance works because it gets students excited about literature. It works because it helps students truly understand the literature. It works because students cannot get enough of it” (p. 116). While this isn’t how performance worked in my classroom, I’m still willing to believe that it does do these things. However, LoMonico goes on, discussing in a more fundamental way why it works by discussing what it is, or is not: “Perhaps the best way to define teaching through performance is to say what it is not: It is not the students sitting at their desks reading assigned parts of a play out loud.” (p. 116).


So if students aren’t sitting at their desks reading it out loud from the book, and they’re not standing in front of the class reading it out loud from the book, what is performance? LoMonico conceives of it in a way that can be immensely helpful: as “Close reading on your feet.” He continues to explain that, “There are innumerable ways to incorporate performance methods into an English language arts class, and those methods are all variations of close reading on one’s feet. Performance happens when students look closely at a piece of text and use their voices and bodies to explore the subtleties of the author’s words” (p. 116). This implies a much more active process than merely sitting or standing and reading the text in front of the class. Students are exploring what in the text evokes emotion or movement and trying to express that. While students ultimately make the text their own as they embody the character or the speaker, they are also closely examining the text in this process.

A few ways to incorporate this “close reading on your feet” with Hamlet— instead of having students simply read the play out loud— could be instead to focus on smaller sections of the text to promote this deeper, closer reading and possible performance. Students could focus in on a soliloquy or chunk of text of their choice and work with that text in a variety of different ways, like writing character objectives, rewriting the text using your own language, and also “Crafting the Moment Before— ” writing that students do that describe what the character was doing, thinking, and feeling in the moments before they gave their speech.  

Another conception of performance in the Language Arts classroom can help to extend beyond the student and what they are embodying to the social and cultural contexts that they live in. Allison Downey’s discussion on drama in the English language arts classroom brings another dimension that I had not previously considered: that of social change and critical inquiry.

She begins by making an important point that I feel is so necessary I have to long-form quote it:

One of the great difficulties in teaching about horrific periods of history, the underbelly of human experience, is addressing how to help students comprehend the incomprehensible . . . One of my goals then, has been to sensitize students to the realities of injustice. I am not suggesting that students dramatize someone else’s hell. Nor do I assert that in doing so they will understand “what it’s like to be a slave,” for example. I do not believe that we can ever understand the horror of the Holocaust by representing the events through drama. Rather, the intent is to use drama as a tool to explore the general themes and serve as a catalyst for critical inquiry (p. 33).

This is a critical distinction— that students won’t know “what it’s like to be someone else,” something I think that could lead to stereotyping in a classroom of secondary students, rather they will explore the text and use drama to make the often challenging move into critical inquiry.

In this process, students first read a text and then represent the major events in tableau. Then,  reflecting on the tableau can happen in a variety of ways— Downey focuses on asking questions of the observers and participants of the tableau. This can be extended through written response to prompts, and developing characters that the students embodied more fully by answering questions from the audience, by making a different choice in how to represent that character in the tableau, and more.

The critical move comes when Downey describes taking advantage of the moment in the classroom to move students to identify “the moments when different actions could be taken that would result in a more positive outcome” than the text originally had. The teacher would then ask questions about the choices students had made. This resulted in the students, “becom[ing] agents of change. They better recognize the complexity of the issues, the challenges and dangers of actively addressing injustice head-on, and the necessity to do so. Once they have developed this sensitivity, they are better equipped to face historical and current social injustices” (p. 38). After this, moving into other texts is a natural extension in which students could extend this model of learning. In fact, Downey states that, “I believe that students were so motivated to learn about the actual historical events because of their initial exploration of the themes through poetry and drama” (p. 38).

There are many ways to use performance in the classroom. Another particularly notable way is the focus of Ann Frkovich and Annie Thomas’ article, “The Monologue Project for Creating Vital Drama in Secondary Schools.” They discuss a project in which students interview members of the community and write monologues focused on specific issues. They go through multiple drafts, peer reviews, examining samples, and work through rehearsals and performance options. The results are powerful monologues written by students that represent the collective voices of a community, one in which stories are shared and students participate in “an exercise bearing witness.”

Thinking of performance in the Language Arts classroom as close reading, as a way to explore social change and critical inquiry, and as a way to generate writing and a voice for others in the community are all powerful ways to think of performance that in and of themselves, are ways how and reasons why performance should be used.

PART 2— “Madness in great ones must not unwatched go”

As the above ways of approaching drama in the classroom show, performance in the Language Arts classroom doesn’t always have to be centered around a play. Poetry is a natural fit.

In an article, Steven Athanases explains why poetry can be a good choice: “For performance activity in full language arts curricula, I typically select poetry. Because poems often are short, they enable the student to go deep in a single work while gaining broad exposure to many works in class workshops. Also, a poem invites the student to assume the role of a single speaker, without needing to perform multiple characters” (p. 88).

Additionally, Athanases discusses a poetry performance unit and the effect it had on students— “His experience and that of his peers provided further evidence for what I have found about performance of literature: Students report that they learn more from intensified study, rehearsal, and class performance of a piece of literature, even a single poem, than they learn from months of more conventional literature study” (p. 88).

As poems themselves are this intensified use of language, it makes sense that the study and performance of a poem would also yield a deep, intensified learning experience.

Athanses details a workshop based approach. Student choice of the poem is vital, as is rehearsal and reflection. He describes this process:

Central to this model of literature study through performance is viewing the rehearsal process as a site for discoveries and learning. Rehearsals and performances are accompanied by reflection, generally in written and spoken journal entries. This model differs from those that treat performance as a fun, add-on activity by viewing performance as a creative but deliberate process interwoven with other literacy events. Close reading and writing precede the act of performing, which, in turn, prompts further writing (p. 88-89).

As these activities show, there is more than just performance involved. Rather, multiple “literacy events” occur throughout the process that work to improve the quality of the performance and the learning.

One of these literacy events is rehearsal, which Athanases describes in a way that is very similar to aesthetic and literary theory, “These are evocations of the literary work— a series of texts created and lived through” (p. 93). Each evocation, he notes, “provides students with rich data for reflection,” which in turn informs following performances.

But, poetry can be difficult, can’t it? Working through performance can be a natural way to work through the difficulties of the language. In any case, as Athanases notes, “Even if students at first do not grasp the language of their selected poems, planning and rehearsing make it more difficult for the reader to ignore lines and phrases with seemingly cryptic meanings” (p. 95). Students must confront these unknown parts of the text as they work in performance— a process that the teacher can help support when needed.

Part of the failure of my approach to performance with Hamlet was that it was performance just to perform. However, this workshop approach seems to get away from that, instead promoting a higher concentration on the part of the performer— more of a commitment to the poem than there would have been without performance” (Athanases, 2005, p. 95).

Finally, there is an aspect to the performance of poetry that might make some teachers nervous— memorization. I must admit, I am fascinated with the idea of memorizing poetry. People have been memorizing poems for centuries— it’s a practice that is not frequently done in schools today, though. Do we avoid doing this because it is hard? Memorizing can be very difficult for some students, but there are many reasons that it can also be worthwhile. Memorizing poetry can be good for you in many ways, Not just because you might be stuck on a stopped subway train, but because it is a challenge, and because it is also expressive, among other reasons. A poem, once memorized, is something that you can carry with you throughout life.

There are many resources that can help teachers with the memorization and performance of poetry in the classroom. Poetry Out Loud is a great place for this— it includes some excellent videos of students performing poems they have memorized.

Finally, in an NPR interview with Caroline Kennedy, she explains,  

‘By rote’ has sort of a negative connotation. I don’t even know why. But I think what you’re really doing is you’re just sort of absorbing these feelings, these emotions, these experiences of someone else’s and being able to understand them because they become part of you. And you realize that these are universal feelings and we may all put them into words in different ways. But sometimes … you have a poem that you feel captures exactly what you’re feeling, but you haven’t been able to put it into the words that the poet has, and so I think that that’s what makes it so … that … it becomes part of you in a way.

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