Alas, Poor Middle Schoolers! I Pity Them, Horatio

July 27, 2012 — 5 Comments

A series of links took me to a lesson plan  on the Edsitement! The Best of the Humanities on the Web site that is associated with the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) . The lesson “Vengeful Verbs in Shakespeare’s Hamlet”  is entirely too disturbing. The opening lines of the lesson plan begin, “Shakespeare’s Hamlet  is an excellent source of instruction for students at the middle school level.”

My thoughts? Sorry. Middle school students, grades 6-8, should not read Hamlet. Teachers, leave that play for high school. Middle schools students need to read. They need to read many, many books.  They need young adult literature. They need to read for pleasure to build up their literary skills.

The lesson plan continues:

It [Hamlet] is a tale full of mystery and suspense and peppered with elements of the supernatural. Everyone loves a good ghost story! The popularity of the ghosts in the Harry Potter series and in The Graveyard Book attests to the appeal of the paranormal for this age group. These ghosts manifest as translucent spirits, yet they impact the physical world and certainly add life to the story line. Figments such as Rowling’s histrionic Moaning Myrtle and Gaiman’s mysterious Silas provide guidance for the young adults in their time of need.

My thoughts? Yes, these are the books they SHOULD be reading! Add the ghost stories Hereafter and Anna Dressed In Blood to the list of well written young adult novels. And yes, Harry Potter and The Graveyard Book are stories that will guide young adults in their time of need. But Hamlet?

Back to the lesson plan:

What better way to expose middle school students to a first taste of Shakespeare than from the angle of the ghost story? The first time Hamlet sees his father’s ghost (Hamlet, act 1, scene 5, lines 13–31) is one of the most dramatic moments in theatre and a prime opportunity to teach the often dry and boring subject of verbs.

My thoughts: Whaa…??? This lesson is turning a critical moment of drama into a lesson on verbs? This idea is dry and boring regardless of the content!

Finishing the description of the lesson plan:

Through the ghost of Hamlet’s father, students receive an introduction to the language of Shakespeare in a context they can understand. In this lesson, they will learn to distinguish generic verbs from vivid verbs by working with selected lines in Hamlet’s Ghost scene. Students will then test their knowledge of verbs through a crossword interactive puzzle.

My thoughts: A crossword puzzle. Yup. That will help them appreciate the play. I can hear the rattling from Stratford on Avon; Shakespeare’s bones are disturbed.

The objectives of the lesson are:

  • Students will be able to identify and define the verbs Shakespeare uses to convey the meaning of the scene
  • Students will exchange the verbs from the scene and replace with more vivid and more generic ones to see how that changes intention of the scene
  • Student will be assess their ability to define vivid and generic verbs used by Shakespeare by solving a crossword puzzle

Yes, readers, in this lesson students will replace Shakespeare’s language with bland or generic verbs using a worksheet.

WHY?

There is little consideration as to how all the language in this scene defines each character. No consideration of motive. No moral or ethical discussion about what the Ghost is asking Hamlet do.   The Harvard scholar Steven Greenblatt wrote an entire book, Hamlet in Purgatory,  wrestling with the central question offered in this scene, is the Ghost from Hell or Purgatory? But no, this lesson is on verbs.

Here are the lines: (Act I.V.13-31)

Father’s Ghost. I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confin’d to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purg’d away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand on end
Like quills upon the fretful porcupine.
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood. List, list, O, list!
If thou didst ever thy dear father love-
Hamlet. O God!
Father’s Ghost. Revenge his foul and most unnatural murther.
Hamlet. Murther?
Father’s Ghost. Murther most foul, as in the best it is;
But this most foul, strange, and unnatural.

In this passage, the Ghost is very cagey about where he is coming from literally and figuratively. The Ghost plays the ultimate guilt card “If thou didst ever thy dear father love-” Hamlet anticipates the request and interjects a prayer “O God”. The Ghost then, you choose: a. asks, b. demands, c. commands the Prince, Hamlet, to revenge.

Another consideration as to the appropriateness of the use of Hamlet is the berating of Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude sixteen lines later:

Father’s Ghost. Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts-
O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power
So to seduce!- won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen.
O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there,
From me, whose love was of that dignity
That it went hand in hand even with the vow
I made to her in marriage, and to decline
Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor
To those of mine!
But virtue, as it never will be mov’d,
Though lewdness court it in a shape of heaven,
So lust, though to a radiant angel link’d,
Will sate itself in a celestial bed
And prey on garbage.

There are accusations of incest (a thought of Hamlet’s given voice by the Ghost), witchcraft, and adultery for Claudius. Gertrude acts with “lewdness” and “sates” herself in Claudius’s bed of figurative garbage. The Ghost cannot contain his fury at being replaced by Claudius; he has lost kingdom and queen and his fury spills over and exploits Hamlet’s depression. There is much here to discuss.

But for grades 6-8?  To replace the language of Shakespeare and make it “bland” to prove a distinction about verbs in Elizabethan English and today’s English? To measure the student understanding of the language with a crossword puzzle? Is it any wonder that with lessons like this one, many students come to a high school classroom “hating” Shakespeare? I have to work very hard to convince them otherwise.

There is something rotten on the Edsitement! site, and NCTE should be ashamed for endorsing this lesson. This lesson about verbs, not motivation or ethical dilemmas, disregards the dramatic tension of the scene and is wrong at any grade level!

What next? A lesson on the comma during Macbeth’s “Is this a dagger I see before me? /Come, let me clutch thee”?

There are  better lessons on heaven and earth for students in this age group then are dreamt of in this lesson plan!

NCTE must be aware that we have a nation of students who are not reading in part because many teachers kill the pleasure of a book. Hamlet is not the material that will bring middle school students a love of reading, and the literary analysis skills for these students in grades 6-8 are not sophisticated enough to bring them to an understanding of The Ghost’s manipulations. A grammar lesson plucked from a dramatic moment with a brilliant seduction by a spirit from beyond the grave is just so wrong.

This lesson is out of joint. O cursed spite
That ever I was born to set it right!

5 responses to Alas, Poor Middle Schoolers! I Pity Them, Horatio

  1. 

    Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
    of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
    borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
    abhorred in my imagination it is!

    We humans, even the teaching humans, are such silly silly creatures. I couldn’t agree with you more. Thanks for being so smart, technologically savvy, and on top of the game. BRC

  2. 

    Love your approach from the seat of the student instead of the teacher’s ego. Thou hast gotten wise before thou hadst been old.

  3. 

    Loved this post and totally agree with you. I’ve read Hamlet 10+ times (and taught it to AP Lit seniors), and that play still challenges me to be the best reader I can be–its so nuanced, so ambiguous/shifty, so sublime, so complex. The play is a gut-puncher, a brain-exploder–and I worship it like a god. My son is in middle school, and when I think of him reading Hamlet and completing worksheets and crossword puzzles on the play, I’m not sure whether to laugh hysterically or sob into my pillow.

  4. 

    I can’t tell you how many of my freshmen come to me already having read Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and a Midsummer Night’s Dream. But after some conversation, it turns out they read a shortened version (or a modern English version) and did lessons like the one you analyzed. They aren’t reading Shakespeare if it’s not in the original language! Or it’s condensed! Or modernized! They should be reading middle grade books, YA books, and nonfiction!! There are so many fantastic books out there.

    I used to teach middle school and it drove me crazy that whole class novels were the only way many teachers taught. *sigh*

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Stop Promoting Worksheets on EDsitement Lesson Plans | Used Books in Class - August 14, 2012

    [...] I have two complaints about theEDsitement site. The featured lesson on the site this month is  Vengeful Verbs  in Hamlet for grades 6-8. The targeted age group and the objectives for this lesson are [...]

I would like to hear what you think...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s