British Literature curriculum uses technology in teaching Macbeth

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High school students have long known the works of William Shakespeare. Although sentiments regarding the renowned English playwright and poet vary, there is no doubt that his notoriously obscure language and outlandish dialect often make comprehension and analysis of the text difficult for students.

Which is why, for the Macbeth unit in MVHS’ British Literature classes, one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, students are provided with and encouraged to use audio recordings to assist them with the readings.

Senior Joshua Liu, who is currently taking British Literature, believes that the audio recordings have greatly benefited his understanding as well as deepened his interest in the text.

“I think it’s better for people who are visual and auditory learners, so while you read you get to hear people go over the text as well, and that really helps you understand the text better,” Liu said. “Also, the audio has music in the background and there’s like weird sound effects [which]also help you visualize the text and what the characters are doing. Some [are]kind of wacky, and they make everybody laugh … it makes [the experience]way more interesting.”

Although Liu also points out that staying focused throughout the duration of the audio can be tough, without these additional auditory components it’s easy for him to get lost in the text. British Literature teachers Randy Holaday and Jessica Kaufman agree that much of the play’s context and tone is highlighted through its audio.

“For example, when Macbeth is going crazy,” Holaday said, “when you read it, it’s just like you don’t know what he’s saying, but then you see and hear it and he’s like running words together, he’s repeating himself, you can see him going crazy … With the recording, you can hear inflection, and like at the end of the day, what they’re actually saying sometimes isn’t that important, it’s more like how it’s being said.”

The teachers value the fact that this practice gives English Languages Services (ELS) and other students who may have a harder time reading the opportunity to excel in the curriculum. Furthermore, the brevity of the recordings can provide mental support to students by making them more willing to read.

“Reading becomes less of a daunting task,” Kaufman said. “A lot of the time, Shakespeare [can be]very complicated and something that a lot of students veer away from and think, ‘Oh my God, there’s this big thing, it’s going to take me so long to get through.’ But with the audiobook, you could read the whole play in two hours. It’s a good tool overall.”

After reading and listening to a couple of scenes in both classes, students engage in group and class discussions to clarify any plot-based questions, then go further to analyze the significance of certain lines, actions or descriptions. However, while Kaufman’s class focuses more on analysis in class and is assigned reading and notes for homework, Holaday takes the immersive experience even further by ending most periods with a corresponding clip from each of two of Macbeth’s modern film interpretations.

The two films British Literature teacher Randy Holaday shows in his class. 2010 rendition (left), 2015 rendition (right).

The two films British Literature teacher Randy Holaday shows in his class. 2010 rendition (left), 2015 rendition (right).

For Liu, who is in Holaday’s class, watching the films is his favorite part of the period.

“Watching the movie really helps,” Liu said. “Because Macbeth is a play, right? It’s acting. If you only read Macbeth, you’re only getting half of the story; you’re missing the half with the characters and their emotions. Because it’s a play, it’s a lot of visuals.”

By showing these films, Holaday hopes to bring out the freedom of interpretation that Shakespeare’s works provide the audience.

“There’s a lot of different ways you can deliver lines and that changes your understanding of characters and details,” Holaday said. “Shakespeare has an inherent vagueness and open-endedness, and so seeing that there can be different interpretations is helpful to students because rather than just reading it and having one answer, I think having the different mediums [allow them to]see different ways that it’s done.”

And because of this ambiguity, even Kaufman and Holaday dispute over certain plotlines in the play. Regardless, Macbeth remains Kaufman’s favorite play by Shakespeare and both of their favorite units of the semester to teach.

“There’s kind of this sense of like, we’re in this together,” Holaday said. “Students, especially here, are so concerned about being right all the time—they’re usually wrong with Shakespeare. Half the time with paraphrasing, I’m like, ‘paraphrase this’ and somebody says something and I’m like, ‘no, that’s not what happened at all.’ But I feel like students bond more with it [because]it’s so complex and because we read it in class with the audio. It’s like we’re doing it together.”

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About Author

Karen Ma is a junior at Monta Vista High School, as well as a second-year writer and first-year copy editor for El Estoque.