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"Hamlet" for English Language Learners: The Photo-Performance Project

To compromise, or not to compromise, that is sometimes the question when I introduce a Shakespearean performance project to my sophomores. The student population at my school is richly diverse, and some of my students are English language learners who, in spite of my yearlong efforts, remain reticent to read aloud or even to voice their thoughts in whole-group discussions. To require these students to perform a scene from "Hamlet" before their peers may be counterproductive, but it took a group of three young women who had dubbed their acting company "Mad Chick Productions" to provide me with a creative alternative to live performance.

"Please, miss, we can't do this," Sony said to me through tears one day after school, flanked by nervous Samnang and Puth.

My alternative was to allow them to videotape their production off-campus and show it to the class, but there were two drawbacks: the students would need to provide their own video camera, and these language-shy learners would still have to speak their lines to an audience. After offering my "Plan B" to the group, one of the girls asked, "Could we take pictures instead?"

At first, I was doubtful, but as they brainstormed for ways to adapt my performance project to their needs, my mind leaped the fence from English classes to journalism class, and I thought of the photo-essay projects I used to assign each fall. The next day, I gave them a disposable camera and a modified project rubric (see handout).

What I got was a treasure. The promptbook they handed in on performance day seemed no different, at first, from the others; it had a neat cover page, a copy of their edited script for "Hamlet" 4.5-the "mad scene"-detailed character analyses, and sketches for the ideal costumes and stage set they would produce if money and time were no object. What came next, however, was a series of color snapshots of Sony (Queen Gertrude), Puth (Gentlewoman/Laertes), and Samnang (Ophelia), along with a host of neighborhood "extras" posing dramatically in a series of fourteen snapshots pasted onto pages with accompanying dialogue for each shot. From the front porch of a three-decker tenement to the shoreline of nearby Revere Beach, my students and their friends documented Ophelia's descent into death. There are no "weeping brooks" in my city, but the Atlantic was eerily calm that day. In the five closing shots, Samnang walks further out to sea, her back to the disposable camera, and finally floats, face down, to her watery grave!

We all teach students who are reluctant readers, and there are English language learners in classrooms throughout the country. The photo-performance project provides me with another format for engaging students in Shakespeare's text in ways that foster active learning, collaboration, and respect for the differences students bring to my classroom.

About the Author

Mary Ellen Dakin teaches English at Revere High School in Revere, Massachusetts.


Photo-Performance Project Rubric

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