Associate Professor Laura Turchi wants to help teachers make “Romeo and Juliet” (pictured) and other Shakespearean works accessible to teenagers.
Posted Jan. 8, 2018 – “Hamlet,” “Julius Caesar” and “Romeo and Juliet” – each serves as a rite of passage for middle and high school students. Yet despite Shakespeare’s timeless themes of love, rivalry and tragedy, teachers can feel challenged conveying the richness of the texts to teenagers.
Assistant Professor Laura Turchi of the University of Houston College of Education is on a mission to change that dynamic. She has teamed with UH English Professor Ann Christensen to revamp how Shakespeare is taught in the classroom, transforming it from a hassle to a fun and enriching experience for students and teachers.
To that end, Turchi and Christensen hosted an intensive workshop in the fall for Houston-area English teachers as part of their Teaching Shakespeare in Houston Project. The weekend sessions focused on the theme of strangers and exiles in Shakespeare’s plays and included discussions among teachers of various experience levels about new ways to make his work come alive in the modern-day classroom.
“The goal is to be responsive to what would actually help teachers,” said Turchi, coauthor of the 2016 book “Teaching Shakespeare with Purpose.” “There’s a better way of supporting teachers and showing them the cool stuff to do that it is relevant to 21st century students.”
Kayla Logan, a teacher at Robert E. Lee High School in Baytown, said she attended the workshop to get new ideas. She and others were particularly interested in learning more ways to make Shakespeare accessible for students at different levels.
“We all came with our own concerns and fears, and some of those were about kids not being able to read Shakespeare,” Logan said. “We talked a lot about when it’s OK to use translations and when as teachers we make those decisions.”
“No guilt Shakespeare” was Turchi’s slogan. She reassured the teachers that Shakespeare doesn’t have to be boring for the students or stressful for the instructors. Teaching the entirety of the play is not always necessary, Turchi said. Instead, teachers can pull key scenes and segments from the text to teach close reading skills and to expose students to complex Shakespearian language and themes.
“As a teacher it’s so rewarding to hear them thinking through the text,” Logan said of her students. “You can see them open up when the language suddenly makes sense to them and they can move forward. That is incredibly rewarding.”
Isabella Chen, an 11 th-grade English teacher at Lamar High School in Houston, said she attended the workshop to get tips for teaching Shakespeare in her own classroom for the first time. Chen, who graduated from UH in spring 2017, said her love for Shakespeare began as a student taking Christensen’s course. She hopes to instill a similar love and curiosity about Shakespeare in her high school students.
“If they get bogged down by some of the words, students don’t get enthusiastic,” Chen said. “But struggling through the language is part of learning to appreciate the genius of the work.”
In March, Turchi and Christensen will bring their experience to Los Angeles at the Shakespeare Association of America annual meeting, sharing and learning from other Bard aficionados. Turchi also said she, along with other UH professors and researchers, plan to compile a database of the countless versions of Shakespeare’s plays to give teachers additional resources.
“The College of Education’s mission, and really the University’s mission, is outreach and community engagement. This is all part of that thinking,” Turchi said. “We know how to do this in our own little world, but it’s always better if we can reach out.”
–By Claire Andersen