As some of you may be aware, I left the day job about two months ago and returned to a career that combines research and teaching. With the end goal of completing my PhD and securing a full-time lectureship while writing creatively part time, I’m currently teaching part time and working on my thesis full time.
While I had been teaching on an ad hoc basis since leaving my post at the College five years ago, I was quite looking forward to getting back into the classroom for more than a few weeks a year.
My first gig out of the day job was a month-long post teaching Macbeth to 17 and 18 year old American high-schoolers who came to St Andrews for a month of study and fun during a dreich Scottish summer. I was quite stressed about this post for several reasons, not least because it had been several years since I’d worked with teenagers.
My forte is adult education. By working with adults, I feel that I am learning along with them, we can have proper ‘grown-up’ conversations, I don’t have to deal with helicopter parents, and behavioural problems are nearly non-existent as the mature student studies out of pleasure not out of force.
My second and third concerns about teaching this Macbeth course were the length of the programme and the material. For three and a half hours every morning, six days a week, for four weeks I was to teach the Scottish play. Keeping fidgety, easily-bored, teenagers interested in a single Shakespearean work scared me. Terrified me actually. Additionally, I’m not a scholar of Shakespeare. I taught King Lear several years ago, but that was part of an introduction to British literature. I have studied Shakespeare as part of my life-long passion for literature, but – if I were to choose an Early Modern dramatist — I am more of a Ben Jonson gal. And, if I’m to be honest, I am more of a 20th century scholar who is moving into contemporary (21st century) literature.
Suddenly, I had to become all knowing of Macbeth, and quick.
Yet, they were only high-schoolers. How knowledgeable did I have to become?
I decided to divide the course into the following five parts, thus tackling the twenty-four class problem: ‘Reading Macbeth’, ‘King Macbeth and Shakespeare in Historic Context’, ‘Shakespeare’s Contemporaries’, ‘Shakespeare as Performance’ and ‘Guided Independent Research’. I thought this should provide enough material to keep everyone busy for the duration; plus, it was a more similar format to University education, where the student studies specific elements of a text.
Also included were field trips and tours of places like Glamis Castle, the Rep Theatre, and the University of St Andrews archives. I organised guest lectures and acting masterclasses so that they could get information and learn from others who have made Shakespeare a part of their every day life.
Finally feeling confident that I had created lesson plans that would keep them occupied for a month, I walked into the first class and nearly had to throw everything out the window.
‘Miss, is it true that Shakespearean verse in iambic pentameter represents a specific emotion?’
‘Miss, was Banquo a real Thane or was he created by Shakespeare?’
‘Miss, I think Lady Macbeth was suffering from postpartum depression. What do you think?’
‘Miss, the language of Shakespeare is very similar to the King James Bible is there a connection?’
Holy crap. These kids were asking questions and analysing the text and its history at a University honours level. They were so enthusiastic that they gave themselves a moniker, ‘The Macbeth Quartet’. They were never on their phones (I was probably on my phone more than they were), they were engaged for the entire three and a half hour class, they did every piece of homework with gusto and beyond my requirement, and they showed an interest I have rarely seen even in adults.
The crowning moment happened when one of my students came running up to me outside of class saying, ‘Did you know Macbeth has a knock-knock joke in it?’ While at home re-reading the play she noticed a few lines from the Porter:
Here’s a knocking indeed! If a man were porter of Hell Gate,
he should have old turning the key. [Knock] Knock, knock,
knock! Who’s there, i’ th’ name of Belzebub? . . . [Knock] Knock,
knock! Who’s there, in th’ other devil’s name?
Macbeth Act 2, scene 3, 1–8
Over the course of the four weeks, they gave me homework, and — because of their nature and scholarly interest — I learned more about Early Modern drama than I ever thought I would. By studying and working with them, I discovered the female dramatist Elizabeth Cary, and through a student presentation I learned about the theory of Mary Sidney as the true author of Shakespeare’s works. I found out about the ridiculous life of Lord Buckingham, and I had conversations about literature, feminism, and history that will stay with me forever.
At the end of the programme, I was to nominate one of my four students as ‘top of the class’, and I certainly did not want to make that choice. These kids changed my perspective of not only Early Modern drama, but also of teenagers as students. So, at the awards ceremony, before announcing the class winner (which I had the students choose themselves by secret ballot), I gave the following speech:
I would like to mention the Macbeth Quartet as a group. I am extremely lucky to have spent the last month with four of the smartest, kindest, and creative young women I have ever met. They challenged my knowledge of the Scottish play and they re-ignited my own curiosity into Shakespearean drama. They, collectively, took on every challenge I threw at them, and with vigour they used their four weeks on the Macbeth major to become stronger academics. I am positive that they will individually go on to do great things, and I sincerely hope that they keep in touch with each other, because the Macbeth Quartet are a scholastic force to be reckoned with.
Cameron always brought the material back to the personal making Macbeth relevant to our modern lives – a trait rare in a scholar. Emilie’s passion for theatre, Shakespeare, and literature is truly beautiful in and of itself. Katrina was the leader I needed, always bringing the group back to task. Plus, her ability to recall and analyse minute aspects of the text is unbelievably impressive. And Lindsey impressed me with her desire to understand the play and its characters as representations of a deeper human narrative – work truly fit for University coursework.
The Macbeth class ended in early July, and now I’m into teaching on the first week of a two-week English language class. I am spending four and a half hours a day, four days a week, working with teenagers on their language skills.
I went into the English language course with much less trepidation than I had for Macbeth. I’ve taught the class before (albeit several years ago), and I’m very comfortable with the material. The course has a combination 18 of Italian, Polish and Chinese 14 to 16 year-old students, with 70% of the class being Italian. Therefore, the biggest problem is the constant reminder, ‘Speak English not Italian’ and ‘stop speaking while others are talking’.
These students don’t yet have the maturity to understand that the best way to learn a language is to immerse and listen. They hear a single word they don’t understand, shut off, and start asking their friends – in Italian – what the word means. They are all at an ‘intermediate’ level, so if they just listened, they would get the gist of the information.
But, I’m very happy that’s the only problem I’m having. They ask permission before they use their phone, they do the exercises and tasks I ask of them, they are engaged with the projects, and they are reaching out to others on the course that are from different cultures. One even asked if they could take some work away from class to do over the weekend.
This summer has given me more than a paycheque. I have learned that kids these days use their phones for education, are able to concentrate for long periods of time on subjects that are difficult, are concerned for their fellow students and are willing to help others, work harder than many adults, are independent, and have wonderful futures ahead of them.
They have taught me to rethink the phrase ‘kids these days…’
If you’d like to find out more about what the ‘Macbeth Quartet’ achieved during their month of study, check out the Oxbridge Academic Program blog. If you’d like to know more about the University of St Andrews language learning programme go to their website.