Powerful Learning Experience: Shakespeare

(image via Brian on Flickr)

In high school, after my best friend’s parents sent her away to boarding school and my parents didn’t, school became a pretty lonely scene for me. Not only because of her absence and my grappling with my lesbian identity in a pre- Gay-Straight Alliance world, but maybe even more so because I was a wanna-be intellectual in a population where, in a typical year, only about 40% of the graduating class would go on to attend a four-year college. Being engaged with the wider world of ideas landed me in a pretty small club. There were sometimes opportunities to take courses at an honors or Advanced Placement level, but it depended on interest and ability — my senior year, the AP English Literature course that I would have loved to take didn’t “run.” The rules of regular English let me test out of some of the units I could demonstrate mastery of, so Mrs. McLain found herself writing me pass after pass to the library, where I stumbled upon a video of a PBS special featuring a young Ian McKellen entitled, “Acting Shakespeare.” I was absolutely spellbound.

(image by Steve Granitz,
courtesy of WireImage)

I watched the video over the course of multiple days and then, when I’d reached the end, re-wound it and started again. I even created my own index of what scenes appeared at what point in the recording — effectively creating a “chapter selection” option in a pre-DVD world.

Somehow Mrs. McLain found out how I was spending my “release time,” and issued me a challenge — could I memorize some Shakespeare? She must have known by then that I have a positive orientation towards challenge — I said, “Sure.” It was the only time outside of drama classes that I’d ever been asked to memorize anything. For several weeks, then, I immersed myself in Shakespeare, watching the video during school hours, then scouring the plays at night for selections that I would want to memorize. Mrs. McLain was my spark and the ultimate audience for my memorized soliloquies, but she made sure to leave me plenty of room to make the work my own.

And to this day I can recite satisfying chunks of Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, and The Taming of the Shrew.

What made this a powerful learning experience?

  • Again, a strong and warm connection to my teacher
  • a move from feeling isolated to feeling connected
  • a chance to revel in someone else’s mastery (Shakespeare AND McKellen!)
  • “opt-in” — this was essentially work I assigned myself
  • challenge
  • customization
  • immersion — I was spending time on this both in and out of school
  • resonance — during what was an emotional time for me personally, I was able to engage with art that had strong emotional content

(I am working on several of these stories
of powerful personal learning
with an eye towards contributing
to Sam Chaltain’s Faces of Learning project.
You could, too.)


Posted on May 15, 2011, in big picture. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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