This week, my son started his junior year at our local public high school. Of all his classes, he is most excited about an elective English class he’s taking called Shakespeare. No doubt, part of his excitement is because the course is taught by one of his favorite teachers – and I should say, he’s not alone in that sentimen – this particular instructor is much beloved. He is a caring and committed instructor who knows his subject very well, has an easy way with kids (right combination of humor and wry formality), encourages active participation, and holds very high standards. That last quality might not win other teachers a popularity contest, but I think we all know, if you combine high standards with those other qualities, it seems to work.
I’ve been very struck by my son’s enthusiasm for this course since it seems like a pretty rigorous choice for an elective. The reading requirements are vast (and let’s face it, Shakespeare isn’t exactly an easy read), the instructor is a tough grader, and there are a number of “big projects” required. Why would he (and, so I’ve been told) a long waiting list of other high schoolers, opt to take this class over, say, art or auto shop or creative writing?
So I’ve been eagerly listening in to the daily reports on the course and how it’s going. Here are a few things that I’ve learned in the first week (I’ll try to keep tabs on this as the semester continues):
- When the students arrive on the first day of class, the traditional desks are arranged in a circle instead of the more typical rows facing forward.
- The instructor invited each student, going around the circle, to introduce themselves and say why they are taking the class (reports were wide ranging and, of course, served to not only reinforce motivation but, in a sense, invited each student to briefly reflect and set an intention).
- After hearing from all the students, the instructor (as my son put it) “told them a story” that raised the whole question about authorship. Who really wrote these plays and sonnets? Was it Williams Shakespeare? In one compelling “who dunnit”, he set the historical context for the material, introduced the notion of literary criticism and scholarship, and planted a seed in each of their minds to consider and nurture as they embarked on this journey together. (Note that this discourse was not dubbed a “lecture”…it was a “story”)
- The instructor set out the program for the semester ahead which included a compelling range of performances of understanding – they will read and discuss 10 of the plays, interpret sonnets, watch and critique movie productions based on the plays, stage some of the scenes themselves, recite assigned sonnets, write their own sonnet, and attend performed plays in nearby Boston.
My son’s description of the class made me want to dash down to the high school and sign up. Would that all of his classes – and all of the classes in the U.S. – were set up so thoughtfully, intriguingly and well.