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Teaching Shakespeare with Purpose: A Student–Centered Approach.
By Ayanna Thompson and Laura Turchi.
Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2016. 192pp.

Reviewer: Dr. Anthony Sovak, Pima Community College

(June 2017 Issue / PDF)

Teaching Shakespeare with Purpose: A Student–Centered Approach by Ayanna Thompson and Laura Turchi seeks to empower teachers and professors working with Shakespeare by modeling a versatile curriculum design. It is aimed at upper level high school and lower division college survey courses and articulates not just the anxiety and frustrations that accompany curriculum design around one of the most influential writers in the history of the English language, but also provides concrete strategies for overcoming them by championing a flexible structure for the classroom.  In naming those anxieties - both real and imagined - and discussing the root cause of those fears and frustrations, the authors are able to outline a pragmatic pedagogy focused on developing the skills of close reading, research, and argument that are cornerstones of not just any critical inquiry of Shakespeare but essentials skills for the modern college student. Teaching Shakespeare with Purpose is not just a practical guide but an argument for the continued relevance of Shakespeare survey courses. 

Ayanna Thompson is currently Professor of English at George Washington University and former trustee of the Shakespeare Association of America.  Laura Turchi’s current position is Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Houston. In the introduction, the authors describe the fortuitous series of events that led to their collaboration (initially to assist their graduate students with how to approach teaching Shakespeare) that resulted in this book.  Their expertise in Shakespeare’s works and best practice teaching pedagogy is a combination the works well throughout the book.

The book starts by addressing the problem of information overload and the wariness of being put in the position of “teacher as expert” which can be daunting and paralyzing for teachers new to designing a survey of Shakespeare. It puts in perspective the goal and methodology for teaching this class in a way that reminds us of the value of studying Shakespeare. It is not about content, Thompson and Turchi insist, but about analysis and critical thinking. Instead of shying away from moments of interpretative dissonance their approach encourages teachers to helps students navigate conflicting readings of the play by negotiating their interaction with the body of scholarship surrounding Shakespeare’s work. Just because there is more than one-way to interpret a passage, the authors remind us, does not mean that every possible reading is valid.

Each chapter grounds the teaching theory in practical examples from a model class. The chapters are full of helpful activities including model close readings, themes, and questions from the plays selected (each chapter relies on a different one to model the pedagogy discussed). This approach is advantageous since it provides value for readers who may only have time to read a chapter or two. As well, the pedagogical process described is adaptable to any set of plays. Thompson and Turchi discuss framing, guided questions, entry points, and close readings that allow any teacher the structure she needs to get started on designing her Introduction to Shakespeare course while preserving an individual’s pedagogical strengths and the freedom to pick any of the plays.

Instead of focusing on teaching the plot of the play and treating it like a treasured surprise not to spoiled, Thompson and Turchi suggest cultivating a frame from which to view the play and selecting important entry points for discussion about the play and the theme of that frame. In such a way, the critical thought and interpretive process becomes the subject of the course and not the plot of any individual play. Since each play has many such frames (or lines of inquiry), Shakespeare can maintain his depth without causing teachers in the curriculum design process or students who are taking the class to drown in the sea of possibilities. Such a strategy alleviates the concerns about students reading modern day retellings or watching cinematic adaptations as it focuses on the language of the play and only as much as the students can handle at a time.

As someone working on an "Introduction to Shakespeare" class for the first time, this book was a must read if only for the way that it helped put the task of design, teaching, and assessment, in perspective. However, the authors demystify and clarify the purpose of all of the aspects of an introductory course in a way that is not overbearing. Their argument is always student-centered and asks us to make choices about how we approach any aspect of the play (be it the history, the language, or the writing assignments we pick) in order to enhance the experience for the students.  In this way, they have given readers a good model not just for the teaching of an "Introduction to Shakespeare" course but other literature courses as well.


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