Teaching Macbeth in Middle School

From The New York Times

A ‘Macbeth’ Mash-Up

<nyt_byline>By CLAIRE NEEDELL HOLLANDER

Published: February 2, 2013

TEACHERS and education experts often ask what a particular reform or innovation looks like in the classroom. We say the classroom, as if an ideal classroom exists that somehow resembles every other classroom in America. In reality, every classroom has its own dynamic, and every class I’ve ever taught looks different from every other class. Perhaps more important, they also sound different.

Martha Rich

Middle school students engage with text the way they engage with the world; they search for signs of weakness, and prepare to feel contempt. Sometimes the opposite happens, and they are genuinely moved. I’ve had to remind kids it’s not the Super Bowl; there’s no cheering in reading.

Earlier this school year I told a class of eighth graders that if they finished an assigned short story, they could work for the last 20 minutes of the period on homework. It was the end of the day, and everyone was antsy. The response I got from one girl was I don’t bang homework. Hair in a bun twisted like an elaborate seashell, hand on hip, she repeated the phrase with emphasis on the word bang. I got the meaning, but it was a new phrase. Was there a way to convince her she should bang homework?

At home, I look up I don’t bang. According to the indispensable urbandictionary.com, it means “to believe in,” and there’s a rap on YouTube that uses the phrase. The emphasis on bang, the single rhythmic syllable, is catchy. But you can’t reverse it, bring it to assertion. I bang homework. The best slang is intuitive, its meaning inherent in sound. There’s instant poetry in what bangs and what doesn’t.

Later in the school week, my after-lunch class has under 20 students, but it’s a combined group of seventh and eighth graders. We are doing “Macbeth.” There are two groups of eight or nine, each with an eighth grader to lead. Both are girls, bossy, able to keep order.

The kids have copies of the play with a modern English version on one side, but this isn’t easy either. The group leaders assign parts. I want to be a witch. You can’t. There aren’t any in these pages. You be Duncan but you don’t got any lines until down here.

That’s an awful lot of words.

Doth. Hither. Ho! Ho! Too much laughter to wade into.

One boy speaks his lines effortlessly, seemingly at home with the Elizabethan English, even interpreting for the others. He leans forward, but doesn’t betray his excitement. He’s used to being best at things.

He sees the dagger. The boy motions with his hand, gives me a questioning look.

It’s a hallucination, I say.

I thought it was floating, he laughs. He is a momentary believer in witches and their spells.

He’s still thinking about doing the murder. I hold my hands wide — a dagger’s like a sword, I say.

Another boy shakes his head. He’s perked up at the mention of weaponry. Shorter than that, like a large knife, he says. He thumps on the cover of the book, which shows a thick blade.

My God!

Across the classroom, another student drops to the floor, rolling, holding his sides.

Ms. H, is this a porno? Tears of hilarity. Maybe middle school is too young for “Macbeth.”

Unsex. Me. Now!

Lady Macbeth isn’t saying anything about sex.

It says right here her mother’s milk should be transformed into an acidic substance.

Oh man. That’s crazy.

It is.

Miss, Why’d they make this play?

If someone came in, how would I explain the noise?

In a calmer moment I approach the floor-roller, tap his shoulder. He’s back in his seat, play in hand. His family is from Africa, but I can never remember which country.

Next time, please express your shock and repulsion while seated.

What?

Reading Shakespeare sounds like pandemonium. They take 10 minutes just to give out parts, one boy always holding out for Duncan, wanting nothing to do with traitors.

Another boy, a seventh grader, large-eyed, with a lisp, has acted in “Macbeth” in an after-school program. He glides through Macbeth’s speech, opening and closing stout arms, declaiming, When I had most need of a blessing, the word Amen… His little hands shake as the other kids gape, impressed by this previously invisible boy.

When you listen to them, it’s like they’re playing. They mock one another and cajole. They fight over the good parts. The disciplinarian in me wants them to hold still, though it’s a play with plenty of standing and yelling.

THE new Common Core Standards for English Language Arts say students in grades seven and eight should be exposed to texts written in archaic language. I tell myself this is an exposure.

What beast was’t then that made you break this enterprise to me?

In the castle! A tall, heavyset seventh grader with droopy eyes can’t get over it, stands up, shaking his head. Why’d these dummies kill ’em right there in their own castle?

I was in college when I realized everyone had the same questions. The first step in comprehension is always to refocus on the obvious.

That’s a theme, I say. How Macbeth violates the rule of hospitality.

I’d run right outta there, not stay around no dead body.

So back then they understood this? People talked like this, doth and thou?

I clap three times. The kids who are already quiet invariably clap back.

We aren’t going anywhere until we share our key scenes and interpretations.

Yo, It’s like now everyone knows what’s happened.

Where’d his sons go? Are they just kids, or what?

They can’t both be the prince!

She wants to be a man because her husband’s such a wimp.

He don’t bang!

But he did.

They should do a movie of this, but without all the doths.

There’s still so much laughter, it’s after 3, and no one notices the time. I think how this exposure to the archaic text exposes the text right back. It’s noisy, a mash-up, a text slamming into the present moment, split open, banged. What does that look like in the classroom, what does that sound like? It is not anyone’s ideal. It’s rowdy, boisterous, demanding and crude. And sounds, improbably enough, a lot like Shakespeare.

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Claire Needell Hollander is an English teacher at a public middle school in Manhattan and the author of the young adult novel “Something Right Behind Her.”

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