Teaching Humanities, Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night lesson plan and discussion.

This was a 100 minute block period daily, which was pretty cool. Rather than do history one day and English the next, we switched off between history and English. Block is pretty brutal for math, but it’s great for history and English. I have most of the assignment images at the bottom of this post.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I went off the reservation for the last month of the school year. The original lesson plan called for an entire month of Twelfth Night, spent not reading and understanding it, but exploring issues of identity and gender and how the play helped the students see these issues in their own lives. Yeah, not my thing. I started out with good intentions, but by Day 3, I knew I’d done as much as I could. So I cut the time on Twelfth Night in half and then did a two week unit on Elizabethan theater. When I mention the “original lesson plan”, I’m referring to the plan I followed before jumping off.

Primary learning objective: Shakespeare becomes much more understandable when it’s seen and heard. Yes, the words can be simplified, but a great deal of the beauty and power is lost. Students who struggle with understanding Shakespeare can help themselves gain a better understanding of the material by hunting out a movie, talking it over with friends, and yes, reading synopses or translations. But they should also realize that the whole reason we still read Shakespeare has much to do with the beauty and strength of the words, and to make every effort to increase their understanding of those words.

Secondary learning objectives: Students will learn one of Elizabethan acting traditions (e.g., why was Viola dressing like a boy?). They will also form a greater awareness of the challenges and opportunities that emerge as the written word is translated to the stage.

Notes: Remember that a third of the class had reading skills at about the sixth grade level. Actually understanding Twelfth Night text was well beyond their abilities. The top kids, who read at college level (four of them) would find the assignments I was going to give intellectually interesting, even if we weren’t actually analyzing the literature–which they all would read. The mid level kids (half the class) probably would have benefitted from more close reading of the literature. However, as any English teacher can tell you, kids don’t usually do the reading at home, which means you have to schedule a lot of school time for it—and that would leave my low ability kids lost and bored and goofing around, all for the possibility that my mid-level ability kids might gain something from reading more Shakespeare. It was a tradeoff. Eh. Which is not to say the kids weren’t assigned the reading, and that my top level and probably half of my mid-level kids did. It’s just that I didn’t push the reading, as you’ll see.

Day 1-2: Watched the movie, a very good rendition. The kids had to create a “social network” of the characters.

This came from the original plan, it did help the kids focus on characters as well as plot. I then modified the assignment a bit to be less squishy, and off they went. I am not a teacher who goes to the art well much, and whenever I do I am reminded how much the kids love it. They were incredibly creative. I didn’t have an android back then, or I would have grabbed pictures of their work.

Day 3: Gallery walk through the networks and a reading of a Edith Nesbit’s short story of the play and then a fishbowl discussion of three questions. The questions were assigned by student ability (not obviously so). Students are graded in fishbowl on their participation and the strength of their discussion. While the discussion topics varied in complexity, students focused on the tradeoffs made in telling the same basic story in text, live action, or film.

It was the Nesbit story, in fact, that gave me my jumping off point and my new lesson objective. The only students who actually discussed the story were the lower ability students; the top students had to start wrestling with staging and technique.

It’s funny: I have little truck with math “techniques” (pair and share, blah blah blah). I am a big fan, however, of fishbowls and jigsaws in English and history. I suspect it’s because fishbowls and jigsaws work, whereas math techniques just make everyone feel better about trying something. No evidence to support this theory, though.

I thought the questions I came up with for this fishbowl were pretty strong; the kids liked them, too.

Day 4: Read the first act of Twelfth Night aloud. Discussed how much more difficult it would have been to understand if they hadn’t seen the movie first–or was there anyone who found it easier to read than watch? (there wasn’t) Reference back to the free write, short story, and staging.

Assignment: read Act II, scenes 1-3. In class, we looked at them to be sure everyone had a reference point from the movie. I told them yes, I knew of No Fear Shakespeare, and NOT TO USE IT RIGHT NOW. It was okay if they didn’t get everything; we’d discuss it tomorrow, and we would be talking about how to use NFS.

I did a longer stint with SSR today, because reading aloud can be deadly. The first day, the kids just took turns reading it aloud with no acting it out. I am reasonably sure that most of the kids did not use NFS to translate, given that I’d told them I wanted them to puzzle about it without that help and that I wasn’t criticizing NFS.

Day 5: Assigned SSR for 30 minutes–read the rest of Act II, looking for parts you remember from movie. Then we acted out most of Act III–not just reading aloud, but with emphasis and minimal staging. If a student muffed a delivery, I’d make him or her do it again. (Note: I had them skip through a lot of the boring parts.)

Weekend Assignment: Read Acts IV and V of Twelfth Night. Yes, No Fear Shakespeare was allowed, but as much as possible they are to look at both to gain a better sense of what those words mean. Extra credit: spot one scene that was definitely not in the movie. (four kids found some scenes that hadn’t been in the movie.)

As we read through Sebastian and Antonio’s scenes, one student asks “So, am I the only picking up on the whole gay thing? What were they doing on that ship, anyway?” “I think Antonio only helped Sebastian because he was hot for him” said another and the class quickly devolved into three minutes of ribald speculation until I reluctantly restored order.

Day 6: Freewrite: I gave them one scene in two columns, one of the original text, the other “translated” by NFS. It is my opinion, said the freewrite assignment, that NFS loses a great deal in translation. Do you agree or disagree? Be specific and discuss the use of descriptive language, particularly metaphors and similes.

They agreed in all cases (safe choice) but every student, from the strongest to weakest readers, gave thoughtful responses about what was lost in translation, along with some decent specific examples. I was pleased. By the way, I don’t have any documents from the past four days, because it was all done by my winging it through Days 4-6 while I planned out the next assignments, which start now.

Rest of Day 6 and Day 7: Gibberish assignment. No, not the game or the language, but literally words that couldn’t be understood. Students formed groups and chose from a list of scenes that I’d chosen. They had to stage the scene—props and costumes allowed—but they were only allowed to use nonsense language of their choice. They had to focus on making the staging as clear as possible to someone who wasn’t familiar with the play. They had close to two hours of class time to work on their staging, as well as during advisory and of course, after school.

I had no idea how this would work. I just didn’t want them spending time creating scenes that wouldn’t be very good to start with, and this promised to be funny

Day 8: Performance of the Gibberish Staging

This is undoubtedly the funniest 100 minutes of class time I have ever designed.

  • Two boys enacted Olivia’s proposal to Viola saying “glockle blockel stoppel” over and over again, with Olivia looking mooningly into Viola’s eyes and Viola–who was much, much larger than Olivia—desperately trying to escape.
  • Three girls acted out Malvolio’s yellow stocking scene in three languages: Tagalog (Malvolio), Japanese (Olivia) and Chinese (Maria).
  • Four students acted out Sir Andrew’s letter writing scene with Sir Andrew (a girl) doing knee bends, fencing stabs, and muscle preening while Sir Toby reads the letter aloud, giving reassurances to Sir Andrew as to its ferocious law-abidingness, which exchanging snide looks with Maria–and then the duel itself with Viola played by one of the tallest boys in the class, wincing in terror–all done to the sounds of Dubdubdubbiddybub.

And those are just the three I remember specifically; they were all hysterical and in the main, very well staged. I dunno, maybe you had to be there. The students had a blast and wrote their own reviews.

HW: Final Essay–you have a friend who is complaining about how hard it is to read Shakespeare. Write a full-page letter (can be informal, but no text-speak) and give some advice with specific examples.

The results here were pretty much what you’d expect. Nothing spectacular, but they all got the idea.

Day 9 or Day 10—I can’t remember if I’m missing a day or if we had to do some assembly. In any event, the last day of the unit was the final. Students had to identify key plot points and quotes.

While I didn’t track specific results, all the students got a C or higher, and only 3 students got a C. I had spent the year emphasizing the importance of remembering content, not letting it just go in one ear and out the other, and it had really paid off. My favorite airhead got a B-, to her shock, and took a bow to the class.

Documents below.

It’s funny; I have many fond memories of the Elizabethan history unit, but not until I wrote this up did I realize that the Twelfth Night unit had also been quite successful. Learning objective definitely achieved by all students. I’m quite sure they increased their content knowledge and all of them, regardless of reading ability, have a decent memory of the main plot points of the play. All that and gender identity discussions, too!

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