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Studying Shakespeare is standard fair in high school English classes. Often it begins with Romeo and Juliet, probably because the protagonists are teenagers themselves.
This year commentator Annmarie Kelly Harbaugh is working on Othello with her students at Cooperative Arts Magnet High School in New Haven, Connecticut. She says that a lot of the ninth graders have what she calls Shakes-fear, so she tries to make the text as accessible as possible. Harbaugh invites them to edit the play themselves or write music to go along with it. But in order to do that, she first has to make sure students have the book in their hands.
ANNMARIE KELLY HARBAUGH: In the classroom I am big on collateral. If a student forgets a book, I'm happy to provide one but I want something in exchange, like a shoe or a sweatshirt. When class ends, we trade back. It teaches a little accountability. These days, car keys and cell phones are popular pledges but Marlin was the first to offer his gold teeth.
Initially I was grossed out, the germs, the salvia. But I liked the symbolism of the swap. Here was a kid who paid three hundred dollars for what he called his grill and he paid it to a guy in a van at the county fair. Clearly Marlin needed more educating. So I accepted his teeth, he borrowed a book and Shakespeare took it from there.
For a lot of kids like Marlin, success not failure is the big risk. It's fine to swagger down the halls with flashy teeth, big necklaces and expensive sneakers. That's an image. But nobody swaggers that way into a National Honor Society meeting or an SAT Prep Course. That's selling out.
So I had a soft spot for Marlin. For a book, he was willing to hand part of his image over to me. When I first started teaching, I distrusted students who didn't look the part. If they seemed like gangsters on the outside, I figured they weren't scholars on the inside. When they challenged me in class I saw it as confirmation of trouble to come. I remember thinking fourth period would be so much better if only he wasn't here.
But those students make me a better teacher. I need the kid who questions my instructions or the child who complains why does any of this stuff even matter? Sure the resistance can be disheartening, but only if I don't have good answers for them. Those kids guarantee that I walk in a class prepared, that I know why it matters and that I do everything possible to make it matter to them.
Show me a student challenging the value of an assignment and I'll show you an emerging critical thinker. Show me teenagers arguing about Othello's choices and I'll show you young people ready to scrutinize their own choices about relationships of the future.
And on their best days they steal. That's when I celebrate. The bell sounds and I see my Shakespeare book leaving the room and if I'm lucky I look down and see those golden teeth still in my hand.
BLOCK: Annmarie Kelly Harbaugh is a Master's candidate in Urban Education Studies at Yale University. She teaches ninth grade English at Cooperative Arts Magnet High School in New Haven, Connecticut.
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