“The Play’s the Thing”: Approaching Shakespeare the Harmon Way
For Dr. John Harmon, planning his language arts curriculum includes scanning the events listing at area theaters. The practice goes back five years, when his seventh grade class read Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” and then saw it performed in Washington D.C. It was a resounding success. “Plays are meant to be seen, of course,” remarks Harmon, “and it was an amazing experience for them in terms of what it added to their understanding of Wilde’s language and wit. I wanted my students to see the play we read every year.” Since then, Harmon has moved to teaching eighth grade and makes his yearly Shakespeare selection based on the local availability of the production.
"We begin our instruction with some English history and background on Shakespeare. Each week, students read a section of the play. During class time, we discuss the reading, act out scenes, perhaps watch a selection from a movie, and create a visual representation of each act."
In past years, Highland eighth graders have seen “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (Shakespeare Theater Company), “As You Like It” (The Folger Theater), and “Macbeth” (Shakespeare Theater Company). Last year’s “Macbeth,” an edgy, action-packed production set in Africa rather than Scotland, gave students plenty to discuss. Harmon prepares them well. “We begin our instruction with some English history and background on Shakespeare. Each week, students read a section of the play. During class time, we discuss the reading, act out scenes, perhaps watch a selection from a movie, and create a visual representation of each act."
Harmon goes all-in, utilizing the widest variety of resources to engage his students. He takes advantage of educational specialists made available by the theaters, who travel to conduct classroom workshops at Highland. Last year, he found “Macbeth” in graphic novel form and added that to their study. The students were riveted. For most, Harmon’s class serves as their first introduction to the Bard. He comments: “My goal is to have the students finish reading the play before we see it, so they are completely familiar with key literary elements, such as plot, setting, and characters. This deep understanding allows them to truly enjoy the performance and get the most out of it.”
Like any great teacher, Harmon is also a student. This summer, he attended the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Teacher Institute in New York, an experience he describes as “incredible.”
For the upcoming year, Harmon plans to teach “Macbeth” again. Usually, he avoids teaching the same play consecutively, but he “broke the pattern” when he discovered the play was being staged at the Blackfriar’s Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia – the world’s only recreation of Shakespeare’s own indoor theater. “It’s too good an opportunity to pass up,” he says.
Getting students out of the classroom and into the theater requires extra legwork, including orchestrating 7:30 a.m. departures in order to make the matinee. But Harmon believes the extra effort is well worth it. “We live in such a culturally rich area, yet few students see live theater these days. At Highland, teachers have the ability to adapt the curriculum to the student. In too many schools, unfortunately, it’s the other way around. Here, we’re fully invested in experiential education and engaged learning. My approach simply capitalizes on that.”
Check out the trailer from the production of Macbeth the class saw in 2017:
Thanks to Cathy Campbell for writing this post for the Highland blog. You can reach Cathy at firstname.lastname@example.org
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