Thursday, October 25, 2012

Shakespeare's sonnets with middle school students

Experienced a little frisson this morning as I was preparing for my year 8 poetry lessons.  Shakespeare telepathically communicated with me from somewhere circa 1590.  He was talking to me.

In my youth I wasn't a big fan of Shakespeare.  I enjoyed Macbeth in Form 5, taught by a great teacher. At fifteen, I also liked the idea that I was studying Shakespeare.  But more or less left to my own devices in Form 6, through a special combination of my own ignorance, immaturity and an uninspiring first year out teacher, Othello was pretty much lost on me.  I'm better now, you may be glad to hear, given I've been teaching English for over 30 years.

My copy of Shakespeare's sonnets is a Signet Classic. In 1975 I covered it in some recycled plastic.  The plastic has a red RCA records logo on it.  I'd saved it from some throw out pile when I was a sales assistant at John Clements Records in the city. Melbourne, that is.  Loved that holiday job.  Was actually sad to leave when I finished my degree and had to start teaching.  (Sorry, can't remain focused and don't really care.  Just saying.)

The pages of my Signet Classic are 'maiden' - see paragraph 2 - and yellowing with time.  There's an irony there, if you're familiar with Shakespeare's sonnets.  That tyrant Time, 'Devouring Time', has been at my little book, and the rest of me.

I've been 'doing' some poetry with my year 8s.  I always like to begin this work, as you do, by getting the students to write out the lyrics of a song they like that they can remember, or look up on their phones.  This really appeals to most of them, despite my 'no profanity' clause.  (Have to explain what profanity is, but that's okay.  Vocab development.)  I tell them they can choose anything, even a nursery rhyme - sad how many kids don't know what they are (and these same kids watch Underbelly and other unsuitable stuff on their own in their rooms).  I tell them they can even choose the theme from a television show. 

To demonstrate I sang the theme from Gilligan's Island - a ballad?  They loved that, and how surprised they were to hear me singing, quite tunefully and going the full soprano on the last line.  Have to say it took some courage to sing the whole song, complete with swaying motions when the weather started getting rough. 

The kids didn't mock me.  They clearly enjoyed the show and understood the task.  I told them they could sing their lyrics if they felt confident.

They also listened respectfully when I recited Vanessa Amorosi's Shine, especially given I'd told them that her original refrain had been 'Everyone you see, everyone you know is going to die'.  Considered too dark, apparently, hence the change to something quite different, if perhaps less striking.  Or so I've heard.

So the students wrote their song lyrics and recited or sang their lines in front of the whole class.  Quite confronting for them.  A few students opted out but most had a go.  My theme was that words have power.  Even a pair of students reciting Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star created a certain mood and presence when they took turns to say each word.  They added value to the words and the student audience could tell.

One boy with a lovely voice sang Bruno Mars' Grenade.  The audience was moved by his rendition and easily able to appreciate the power of the imagery in the words.  I was able to segue into a talk about the pain of unrequited love; how so many songs - so much poetry - is about these human emotions.

Which led me to dig out my old Signet Classic and read a few sonnets; wonder whether I could possibly read these arcane verses with my year 8s, many of whom are below their expected VELS level in reading and writing. 

I photocopied sonnets 16 to 19 on one A4 page for the students and searched for some translations on-line.  Too easy.  It was sonnet 18 that worked its magic on me.  I had shivers and tears sprouted, because there was Shakespeare's adoration for his love, and his love alive in his words, just as he said it would be.  Shakespeare writing it back there in 1590 something, and me thrilling to it in 2012.  Felt amazing.

And what's more, my year 8s, who've never heard any Shakespeare before and often struggle with the simplest text, were moved by the words and the experience.  They listened respectfully to my very brief history of Shakespeare's times and enjoyed the sound of the words in the sonnets. 

Once more Shakespeare was immortalising his love down through time.

It worked.