While we may not exactly know all the ways Shakespeare was taught to classrooms 200 or even 100 years ago, we do know that many of today’s high schoolers, increasingly engaged in the more visual communications of the digital world and the language of texting, find Shakespeare difficult to read and even more difficult to comprehend.
And while today’s teens have become more tethered to visual and digital means of communication, the teaching of Shakespeare in US classrooms hasn’t changed much, according to secondary English Language Arts curriculum specialist Kristen Nance, who facilitates resource use for one of the largest school districts in Texas.
“A lot of very traditional instruction goes along with teaching Shakespeare," she said, such as reading the plays, showing movie clips to help with visualizing, or reading parts in class to read out loud. "Getting it new and fresh sometimes is a struggle.”
Nance also said keeping kids engaged in the text can also be demanding; between understanding the archaic language and deciphering the vocabulary, and teachers trying to fill in the gaps as best they can, some kids find it a challenge to keep up.
Then last year, Nance’s superior brought in Alexander Parker, who had developed a digital product for teaching Shakespeare that appeared to bring the best of two worlds together. Parker’s invention, a series of web-based ebooks called WordPlay Shakespeare, offered something Nance had never seen before: Shakespearean text alongside a performance of the play. Instead of just studying the text or watching the performance, the ebook provided a way for students to do both at the same time side-by-side, which enhanced both the reading and the watching. The performances were simple and stripped down, so as not to distract from the text, and the text had some helpful features built in to help students, like a built in dictionary, scene-by-scene synopsis, on-page annotations, and even a modern translation.
Parker, who had once been an English teacher, got his Masters from Harvard in the Technology in Education Program, and after graduation worked building large-scale websites for the school. But it was post-graduate work, helping faculty in the humanities department figure out how to use technology in their research, where the idea for WordPlay first occurred to him.
“I spent a lot of time talking to people who were working on the history of the book,” Parker said. “I adore books, I’m surrounded by them, and I still by and large do read paper books. My general interest being in technology and its role in education, books are something that are the symbol of education, and the carrier of knowledge. And it’s obvious to me that’s changing or expanding.”
He hired all the actors and a director to stage the three plays on video—MacBeth, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream—and then worked on making sure that both performance and text weren’t competing, but complimenting one another. “We didn’t want this to be a primarily visual or filmic performance. It is trying to blend text and performance in a way that each informs the other without overwhelming the other,” Parker said.
Nance’s team chose three high schools of varying student populations and socio-economic backgrounds to pilot WordPlay, to see how teachers and students used the ebooks. From focus groups, Nance learned that both teachers and students overall enjoyed the ebook. Teachers liked it because embedded in the plays were links to Wikipedia and visual links, so, for example, students could get an idea of what a described weapon looked like. They also had control to turn certain features on or off based on their preferences, like the modern translation.
One frustration among teachers that Nance found was not with the product itself, but the district’s infrastructure. Even using the campus’s lightning-fast new wifi, with 2,500 students in the building, students sometimes would get kicked off the wifi and lose their focus. In addition, their district’s schools aren’t 1:1, so teachers sometimes had to cobble together the devices for students to use.
Together, Nance and Parker created a blind study to see if WordPlay was effective for students: they split a focus group into two, and gave one group of students a page of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that they’d never seen before, and five questions to answer; the other group got the same page of text and questions, only they were reading it on WordPlay. Both groups were given the same simple instructions: read the text, then answer the questions.
“That’s where we went, 'whoa, this is something special,'” Nance said. “The kids who were on the computer not only interacted with the text in multiple ways, they went in and out multiple times, which is something [in class] we often begged them to do. They went to the text, then the video, then back. And they collaborated with each other naturally, they would talk to each other about the text before they answered [the questions], and spent more time, at least double, sometimes triple, the time with the text that the kids with paper and pen did.”
With the success of the pilot, Nance cautiously hopes to slowly grow WordPlay into all her district schools. “It’s almost automatic differentiation,” she said.
Parker is hoping to gain funding to produce even more plays in the ebook format, maybe even expand his reach to other archaic classics like Beowulf. “I’m just over 50,” he said, “and my contemporaries always say, slightly wistful, ‘I wish I’d had this when I was reading Shakespeare for the first time.’”