Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Reading Shakespeare Has Dramatic Effect On Human Brain

What I have suspected for YEARS is true: Shakespeare is exciting.

Yes, folks, it is merely teachers that suck the life out of Shakespeare (and yes, I confess, I have done that myself. Teaching is a reflective process, and, upon reflection, I realize that I have not always been the best at teaching Shakespeare, but I do love him so, and I am working hard to get better). Researchers in England (bias?) found that,

Shakespeare uses a linguistic technique known as functional shift that involves, for example using a noun to serve as a verb. Researchers found that this technique allows the brain to understand what a word means before it understands the function of the word within a sentence. This process causes a sudden peak in brain activity and forces the brain to work backwards in order to fully understand what Shakespeare is trying to say.

This is great. Teenagers, the general audience upon whom Shakespeare is inflicted in school, often seem to be speaking their own foreign language. Shakespeare himself coined words and used phrasing in ways that were completely backwards, even in his own time. The simple act of attempting to make sense of what he is saying makes your brain more active and, thus, makes you smarter. On the flip side of that, trying to understand teenagers and their phrases might also make your brain more active, so much so that it eventually explodes.

Kidding aside, some ways to make Shakespeare interesting when teaching:

1. Go see the plays. Shakespeare was written to be performed, not read out loud. Seeing the actors inhabit the characters of Shakespeare brings the writing to life in a way that simply reading in a classroom will not. We go to the Shakespeare Tavern here in Atlanta; they are dedicated to performing the plays in the manner in which they were intended to be performed as closely as possible. Plus, they are incredibly talented, very nice folks who understand what teenage audiences like (and adults; at night you can have a glass of wine or beer during the show). In addition to performances, the Shakespeare Tavern offers summer acting camps and school year playshops for students.

2. Have your students re-write the plays in their own language. Please, for the love of all things Shakespeare, do not buy them those awful "translations" that are already in modern language. Have them read the regular play and "translate" themselves. I recommend the Folger editions for older students, and the Barnes&Noble editions for younger (Folger's explanations are a bit wordy at times, whereas B&N are a bit simpler). Assign scenes and have students re-write; they can modernize with text-speak, change the time period, whatever. The integrity of the scene should remain, but playing with language is the goal.

3. Teach them how to insult each other, Shakespeare-style, with an insults generator. It is difficult to be angry with a student who tells another, "Eat a crocodile, thou impertinent, guts-griping harpy!"

Most of all, pick the plays you enjoy to teach. I have made the mistake in the past of teaching a play I didn't adore (or, let's be honest, completely understand past basic plot and character - Shakespeare is dense), and although I tried mightily, my efforts did not pay off. If I love something, my passion for it comes through. I may not convert all of my students to Shakespeare on the page (my own child is not a fan, natch), but hopefully they will appreciate the language, understand the context and enjoy seeing the plays performed. Even in the struggle, they will get smarter.

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