“That Boy Can Read Shakespeare”

by Gina Coggio | May 4, 2006 3:42 PM | | Comments (1)

The Independent’s schoolteacher/ diarist believed her kids could do it.

May 3, 2006
I am almost afraid to type right now. The keyboard is so noisy and my classroom is so quiet. I have four students here today in this class. Normally there are eight, but due to suspensions, expulsions, and generally bad behavior, there are only four who survive.
And they are working.
This particular class is comprised of students who, without a doubt, will not pass from 9th to 10th grade. Four students have been absent from school for a combined 129 days this year—almost 75 percent of the year. They have been suspended so many times I can’t even fathom it, and they use language that I haven’t even heard in the worst rated R movie.
And they are working right now on Shakespeare.
One girl is writing a series of vignettes from different characters’ perspectives as they are connected to the themes of Time, Good and Evil, and Parenthood. Another girl is making a children’s book version of the scene in Titus Andronicus when Lavinia is mutilated. A boy is working on translating that same scene into updated language in script form, and the fourth boy is translating the opening scene of the play into his own words.
It has been silent here for 20 minutes, with the occasional clarifying question from someone. Each student is bent over his or her desk, scrutinizing the pages of the original text, scribbling notes into a notebook, looking up to think and chew on their pens. This is one of the greatest days I’ve ever had with this class.
The co-director of our school approached me this morning when he entered one of my other classes and listened to me explain the kinds of projects some of my kids are doing. In that class, too, all students were engaged, working hard, and excited about the projects they were designing. A few weeks ago, he had asked me to consider the kinds of things I was doing to get my kids so engaged with Shakespeare. This morning, he reminded me of the question and asked if I’d given it any thought.
“Do you want me to write about it?” I asked him, genuinely curious about what form he wanted my reflection in.
“You can, yes, that would be great. I ask because I’m curious but also because,” and he paused, “because it’s the kind of story that often gets written. You know, ‘Inner-city Kids Read Shakespeare.’ It’s a clichéd kind of story, but it’s true here.”
We both looked around the room and I thought of how many times I’d seen stories like that. In Providence, while I was at Brown, I worked with the ArtsLiteracy Project (www.artslit.org), an artist-in-residency program in high schools in the area. The artists who work with teachers and students help make unapproachable texts (i.e: Shakespeare, Ovid, “classic” ones) approachable to students who might otherwise not follow through with the readings or be able to engage themselves with it. Kurt Wooton, the director of ArtsLit, recalled his early days as an educator attempting to get his students to read Shakespeare. He said by offering his students these difficult texts—AND a way to approach the texts—he was honoring his students.
I feel the same way. When I was in high school, some of the English classes had Shakespeare textbooks that had both the original text and the “modern” translation of it on pages facing each other. In this way, students could read the original text and then look over quickly for what the text “meant”.
It’s funny to think about, but even then when I was in high school I didn’t like the idea of getting to “cheat” or getting the “dumbed-down” version. By reading that modern translation, I felt cheated, like I was missing out on getting to do it on my own—much like training wheels on a bike were not allowing me to ride on my own. I thought then, while I was in high school, that if I ever got the chance to be a teacher and teach Shakespeare, I wouldn’t let my kids read that cheating version. I would want them to do it on their own.
And so I got that chance and I followed through with what I wanted to do—and what I KNEW they could do if they put their minds to it. So, what did I do to get them to keep reading—and not only to keep reading but to question, analyze, engage with, criticize, and interpret? I guess I was honest with them from the start. I acknowledged how difficult it is to read Shakespeare but I refused to let them take the easy way out of the book. I pushed, supported, pushed further, supported more, pushed further, stepped back, let them fall, boosted them up, and watched them take off. I had them consider profound ethical questions that Shakespeare raises in the play. By the time we finished reading the play, these kids were talking with such fierce energy, conviction, accuracy, and intelligence as I have never witnessed even in a college class.
In the end, I don’t care where my students come from geographically. It makes no difference to me whether they live in a two bedroom apartment in a city with 16 other people in it or a gigantic mansion on 50 forested acres; if they can read Shakespeare, they can read Shakespeare. But I’m not going to lie; a little tiny part of my heart triumphs when I see a student, who I know is up against odds, read the part when Aaron says, “As when the golden sun salutes the morn, and having gilt the ocean with his beams, gallops the zodiac in his glistering coach and overlooks the highest-peering hills, so Tamora.” And my heart squeezes when this student interprets the lines himself and says, “Oh! That’s a metaphor! He’s saying Tamora is the highest person now in the play because she’s the empress.” That boy can read Shakespeare. And I told my students from the beginning, if you can read Shakespeare, you can read anything.
I agree with Kurt Wooton. I do honor my students every time I give them a difficult text and the tools to help them unpack that text. I honor them every time I put a challenge in front of them that I know they can reach. I honor them as thinkers, academics, artists, writers. And in a way, I honor myself for not believing my student’s can’t do it on their own. If I keep my standards high for my students, they’ll rise. They’ll rise. They’ll rise because they know I expect nothing less than their absolute best. And because they’re proud to show it off.







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Posted by: ZINLAW [TypeKey Profile Page] | May 8, 2006 11:00 PM

VERY INTERESTING ARTICLE. I AM DOING A FILM ON SHAKESPEARE. PART IS THE POWER OF WORDS AND LANGUAGE. GINA COGGIO'S STORY IS LIKE OTHERS. I WOULD LIKE YOU TO PASS ON MY EMAIL ADDRESS TO GINA C. AND WRITE MORE ON THE TOPIC OF THE POWER OF SHAKESPEARE AND ITS ABILITY TO HELP AND TRANSFER KIDS AND OTHES. MY EMAIL
ZINLAW@AOL.COM, TEL CONTACT IS 812-334-1100, IN BLOOMINGTON, IN.
THANK YOU, IRA ZINMAN

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