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Performance and Digital Video

For ten years I taught English in a technology-oriented school in Jersey City. I had a love of technology and of the possibilities it offered in teaching, especially changes and innovations in the teaching of English. I also loved teaching Shakespeare and fell under the spell of a performance-based approach a few years into my career. It was the Rosetta Stone that helped me to translate my love of Shakespeare to the students.

Merging technology and the teaching of Shakespeare through performance became a goal of mine. However, there were many unproductive paths and false starts. For instance, when our school was one of the first in the state to be wired for the Internet, I was excited about having the students create hypertext versions of particular scenes. This was full of pedagogical advantages, but because the end product was primarily a pedagogical tool, the activity ultimately rang hollow. It seemed like a high-tech equivalent of asking a student to write a chapter in a textbook. Bright students were successful; C students did the minimum; and students who had been less successful kept their streak going . It wasn't that I expected a silver bullet, but I found the same sort of compliant atmosphere that came with creating character maps or reaction papers-it wasn't bad, but it also wasn't the type of magic that came with teaching through performance.

The promise of technology to support performance-based approaches was unfulfilled for me and, I believe, with other teachers as well. Most of my discussions with other English teachers about technology and teaching Shakespeare centered on scavenger hunts or conversations about anti-plagiarism software. Nevertheless, I noticed that video versions of the plays had always been successful in performance-based teaching, and simple innovations like showing a scene instead of the entire film or comparing various versions of the same scene were very effective. Having students examine various film versions of a scene they were doing themselves was an excellent way to also examine media and cinematic devices.

I was teaching "Romeo and Juliet" to ninth graders during the 2000-2001 school year when I began using desktop video editing. That year I taped the students using digital video equipment and edited the work on my desktop computer.

Before their performance I asked each group to create a prompt book that included video production decisions. Although there are almost innumerable options, to initiate the students as burgeoning film directors, I selected three categories: Establishing Shot, Music, and Camera Angles. The selection of the establishing shot was an opportunity for them to "lay our scene" and examine the associative powers of film editing; music helped them take more ownership of the production; and the choice of camera angles let them get a better sense of the unique powers of the medium.

For each of these categories I gave them a set of choices (see handout). I did this project with two classes and a total of six performance groups; they chose to do the following scenes: The opening conflict between the Capulets and Montagues (two groups), the death of Mercutio and Tybalt (three groups), and the death of Romeo and Juliet (one group). Controlling the set of choices allowed me to focus on particular skills, and gave the students some structure for an unfamiliar process.

One group's work was very illustrative of the experience. Influenced by the Baz Luhrmann version, they set the scene of the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt in the context of modern, urban youth culture, performing the lines with hip hop mannerisms and accents. This is what I would have expected with my regular scene performances. But the video production element took this work to another level. They presented an image of the Los Angeles riots, and began and ended with Jay-Z's "Hard Knock Life." The most significant production decisions were the camera angles-after the death of Mercutio they included a series of close-ups, reaction shots of the main characters. When I asked about this, they said that it was a good time for the viewers to stop and think about what just happened. One student added that by showing strong character reactions, the viewers would know that it was an important action. With the establishing shot, music and camera decisions, reflection on their choices was crucial to their learning.

I limited each group to no more than one class for filming. Depending on the size of the group and the length of students' roles, I alternated videotaping the students myself and allowing one of the students from each group to do it. I did not formalize the role of videographer for a student because I worried that this would discourage their participation in the performance. The task was frequently an extra responsibility for a student with a small role. I filmed each group's work in segments, to accommodate the various camera angles. I captured, edited, and produced the work on my home computer and showed it to the students the following week. It took me about two hours for each group, comparable to grading a set of tests-but far more enjoyable for me. I considered allowing the students to edit the work at school, but this was my first experience with digital editing, and it was difficulty to estimate the amount of time or potential technical difficulties. All of the final products still had the rough feel of amateur video, but it was nevertheless a much different experience than simply filming their productions.

I had done all of the editing based on their promptbook directions and burned a DVD with the material. Since then, digital video cameras have become cheaper and editing software has become more intuitive. Although I did the video editing myself, you can easily assign various technical roles to the students based on your teaching goals and the available technology.

About the Author

Christopher Shamburg taught at Hudson County Vocational High School, Jersey City, NJ. He now teaches at Jersey City University.


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