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Technology in the Shakespeare Classroom

Introduction

"The school buys all this technology and doesn't tell us what to do with it."

"I don't have the time to research and include something new."

"The kids don't have convenient computer access."

"The students know more about the technology than I do."

"Everything's always breaking down!"

"Students always end up looking at information of dubious educational value."

Perhaps you've heard some of these complaints about technology use in the classroom. Perhaps you've even used one of them yourself. With all that we are trying to achieve in our classrooms, taking the time to thoughtfully integrate the resources and tools technology can add may feel like more effort than we can afford. I came to the Folger with a solid background in Shakespeare and in secondary level teaching, but with very little background in the use of technology in the classroom. The Folger soon made me its technology guru. I've talked with many teachers in similar situations, who have also been assigned to figure out how best to implement new and ever-changing software and hardware in the classroom. While I've struggled with these issues, I've learned the benefits that effective use of technology can bring to a study of Shakespeare. It doesn't take a large effort to start reaping many of these pedagogical rewards.

Why Use Technology?

Appeal to Multiple Learning Styles.

A class that approaches teaching Shakespeare through literary study combined with performance work is already designed to appeal to an array of the different learning styles its students will display. Use of technology allows students to access a full array of resources corresponding to a full array of learning styles. Through use of audio and video clips, students can approach the texts in ways that complement their own readings. They may turn to the Internet for background information, performance histories, reviews, criticism, or other work that will help them evaluate what they are taking in at home and in class. They may look for help with the language from dictionaries, student texts, or other tools. By adding these different methods of taking in information, students add to their set of tools for taking in a whole range of material. We teach in an era which demands much of us in terms of designing an inclusive approach to pedagogy; luckily, the Internet can provide us and our students with the resources and tools to make our teaching more inclusive.

Invaluable Resources

Technology can provide classroom resources that are simply unavailable anywhere else. Famous productions with famous actors are available for study and analysis. Many important primary sources have been photographed and are available to download off the Internet, even though they are unlikely to be available in even the best local libraries. Production histories; costume, set, sound and lighting designs; listening to or joining in scholarly discussions - all are difficult to come by on a school campus without the use of technology. Quick student appraisal of many of these resources can support the work we're already doing in our classrooms with or without adding whole new lessons to the curriculum.

Sophisticated Tools

In addition to providing key resources, technology can offer information-processing tools that allow students options for sophisticated creation and analysis. From creating video to designing a scene's blocking to high-level language analysis with online concordances and editing from facsimiles of original documents, technology does not need to simply provide information - it can help students create, analyze, and discuss that information. The very nature of hypertext can change the way students approach a Shakespeare text: the next generation of Internet editions will allow words on the screen to change every few seconds to reflect variants in the original texts. No book's textual apparatus can suggest the instability of a text as instantly or as well as a flickering computer screen!

How Can the Tools Help?

Technology can offer an enormous range of classroom tools, a few of which I can highlight here.

Concordances.

What secrets does the language of the plays hold when it's examined closely? Why is the color imagery in "Macbeth" so much darker than in other Shakespeare plays? Why do some plays refer to "blood" in terms of heritage, while others refer to a bodily fluid?

Computers can allow students the opportunity to make multiple, rapid searches for words and images that will return them surprising and provocative results. Image analysis that used to take scholars painstaking hours of close reading can now be done in seconds in your own classroom or computer lab - and students can rapidly duplicate the results of many scholars' research. (Try Rhymezone's Shakespeare Search http://www.rhymezone.com/shakespeare/, the University of Sydney's http://www.it.usyd.edu.au/~matty/Shakespeare/test.html or the Perseus
Digital Library http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cache/perscoll_Renaissance.html.)

Primary Sources

The First Folio of Shakespeare, the original 1623 compilation of most of Shakespeare's works, survives in only about 250 copies in the world. It's still available for your students to study, however, in high-quality digital facsimile, either on screen or downloaded for printing. Want to get your students to understand the job of an editor? Have them compare a section of text in the Folio and one of the earlier Quarto editions. Want to examine Shakespeare's sources? The Web is a fabulous resource for primary sources that local libraries simply can't find or afford, as online facsimiles or editions can be plentiful. See http://wwwlib.umi.com/eebo, http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/shakespeare/, or http://shea.mit.edu/ramparts/.

Video Shooting and Editing

Shakespeare's plays were meant to be performed, and while that has historically meant live performance, video is definitely the major performance tool of today. Digital video is another technology that can lead students to a better understanding of Shakespeare in performance. Staging Shakespeare in the classroom is a cornerstone of the Folger approach to teaching the plays. Whether created to complement existing performance in your classroom or instead of it, student videos of their productions allow our students the chance to rehearse and present their work on the text in a stable form that they find comfortable. This may bring some shy students more closely into the process by allowing the performance to be recorded out of sight of the entire group. Video editing software may help make the video-creating process more complete, but isn't a necessary addition in order to make this another tool to incorporate performance in your classroom.

Troubleshooting

Once you have found technology that can enhance learning in your classroom, some of those earlier problems still remain. The following are some of the main problem areas teachers encounter when incorporating these new resources.

Encountering Dubious Information.

Obviously, telling your students "today we're going to go to the computer lab to research Shakespeare" with no further direction can be a recipe for disaster. Left to their own devices, students will wind up looking at unreliable information - or sites without any information at all. One way to counter this tendency is to be extremely specific in instructions to them. Rather than asking for "research on Shakespeare," we can be specific: if we tell students "your performance plan should include three examples of costumes your characters would wear," that gives them something specific they need to spend time discovering. If we add their need to provide textual evidence to defend their decisions, the assignment is now a valuable interpretive exercise. In a computer lab, students will still need supervision, most likely still us walking around the room unless we're lucky enough to have software that offers remote viewing of student machines. Asking students to provide a webliography of internet sites they've visited gives yet another chance to review the educational viability of the work they're doing.

Access

The "digital divide" between technology "haves and have nots" is still a real issue in many of our classrooms. However, between in-class and lab computers in our schools and available terminals at local public libraries, technology should be accessible in some way to most of our students, even though they may need some guidance getting to it. If whole-class access is a problem, most online classroom activities can be recreated as homework assignments; the class period then becomes a time for discussion and analysis, while technology use happens wherever and whenever the students can find it. There are still some schools where these activities simply won't work, but luckily their numbers are dropping.

Support

Nothing is as frustrating as beginning a technology demonstration only to have the technology fail to work, or to bring a group of students into a lab only to find half the machines out of order. As budgets shrink and technology remains expensive, tech support is another area of frustration for the classroom teacher, and another good reason to make technology use homework rather than classwork. Like so many other possible additions to the classroom, technology is a teaching tool rather than the teaching itself. Incorporating it into our work in useful ways requires it to be part of a coherent overall approach to the material, not a substitute for designing that approach. Hopefully the ideas and resources on these pages will help generate that approach in creative and inspirational ways.



About the Author

Jeremy Ehrlich is Assistant Head of Education at the Folger Shakespeare
Library, where he leads workshops on teaching Shakespeare online. He
has taught English and drama at middle and high schools in San
Francisco.
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