Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
On the Road To (and With) Iphigenia: Adapting Greek Drama in the Classroom
Shannon Reed, a regular contributor to our Teachers at Work column, teaches at the Brooklyn Theatre Arts High School, where she has discovered that adapting the Euripides play Iphigenia has lit an unexpected spark for her students.
I often wish I had some psychic ability, or at least a better understanding of how astrology works. I wouldn't peer into my best friend's eyes and try to figure out what he's thinking, or probe my boss's brain to find out if I've been called into his office for good or bad reasons. No, I'd use my powers to figure out auspicious times to introduce new units to my classroom. The ability to predict the changeable moods of high schoolers is a kind of talent akin to divining powers.
How else can I explain why on one day my students happily settle down to period-long writing assignments while on other days they can't get it together enough to jot down one sentence? Assuming that assignments are of relatively equal interest to them, what is the X factor that leads to focus and concentration? The temperature in the room? The quality of light outside? The amount of sleep the night before (averaged out)? What the cafeteria served for lunch? I wish I knew. I'd bottle that knowledge and create a surefire formula that would allow all teachers to hit it out of the park with the classes every day.
Alas, no such formula exists. Each class has its own predilections and pandemonium, its own silver bullets and last straws. One class I had would buy into anything if I introduced it while speaking in an accent. Visual art projects was the way in for another group. And then there was the 10th grade class in which homemade cookies were the only surefire hit — the year I gained 5 pounds.
What's my trick this year? Oh, easy. Iphigenia, the ancient Greek drama by Euripides, in which the King of Greece, Agamemnon, is forced to decide whether sacrificing his only daughter (Iphigenia) is worth the reward for doing so: the gods will then allow wind to fill the sails of the ships of the Greek armies, and off they then can go to "rescue" Helen, the wayward wife of Agamemnon's brother, Menelaus. No, by the way — this isn't a heretofore unknown teen-friendly ancient Greek drama. It's a standard-edition ancient Greek drama, what with soliloquies, a chorus, really angry ladyfolk and what I like to call excursions on the S.S. Moral Quandary.
Yet my students look forward to, and almost uniformly participate in, our work on Iphigenia. This is good because adapting the play is our main work in Playwriting class this semester. Here's how — and a little bit of why — I think the unit works, and why they like it — ideas you may be able to use in your classroom, too.
Gotta Have a Gimmick (Or a Field Trip)
To kick off adapting Iphigenia, I took the entire class to see a staged reading of the play in Manhattan. The kids got to leave school early, eat out and then spend the early afternoon watching a reading staged just for them. As we entered the theatre, the cast, attired in black and red, struck fighting poses on an all-white set. During the show, the actors talked to the kids, had them read parts and otherwise involved them. After it was over, there was a talkback between the students, the director, me and the cast. Frankly, I didn't even need to point out to the class how awesomely cool this was. I had my buy-in at "We're going to take a trip..." Everything else was just gravy.
It's impractical to take your class out of the school every time you want to kick off a unit, but even doing it once in a while means that it sure registers with them, big time. I'm glad I went to the effort of setting this all up (and even more thankful that it wasn't even all that difficult for me, thanks to the resources of the performing arts school where I work and our partners there), because it's paid off time and time again. While writing, the students refer back to what they saw. When we discuss or read aloud what they've written, we can picture it on a specific stage and wonder aloud how such and such an actor might play the part. We even have a class dream, based on this field trip: that the actors we liked so much might visit our school at the end of the semester to act out some of the words we wrote. (Spoiler alert: I'm working on making this happen!)
Your resources may not be my resources, but there's no reason why you can't create a special atmosphere around a work you're reading or using in class too. Get some volunteers and set up a reading at the school auditorium. Haul in some parents to read a chapter aloud. Go outside and stage the main points of the plot. Something immersive, different and cool. Sometimes we pile on the gimmicks ("Let's take the kids sled-riding before we read Ethan Frome!") or wander off from our purpose ("I love 'The Story of an Hour'! Let's feed the kids foie gras!"), and then, when these ideas don't stay with the kids the way we want, we wonder why we wasted all that time and effort. But hewing closely to our ultimate goals as teachers of literature, reading and writing (by, say, taking the kids to hear/see/experience literature), it's hard to go wrong.
Greece: It's the Word
I do love me some Greek drama, I gotta say. They did not hold back, those guys. These were writers who made incest a given, and then ratcheted up from there. And they didn't just dangle war, sex, murder, faith and love in front of their audiences — they truly took the opportunities to sift through various positions and stances on these important issues. And rarely provided an easy answer.
I like giving the kids something meaty to grapple with, too. There is no easy answer as to why Agamemnon doesn't say "Heck, no!" when asked to kill his only daughter. We played Agree/Disagree/Unsure, in which signs reading the same are posted in the room, and each student moves to stand next to one in response to a statement, such as "If God told me to do something, I would do it, no matter what." This lead to a vigorous debate, touching on issues of faith, certainty, doubt, the story of Jacob in the Bible, and stirring quotations of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone." (Ok, I quoted Dylan. And it was stirring! For everyone over 30 in the room!)
I'm all for accommodating various learning abilities and reading levels, but it's also good to remember that if a text isn't engaging, kids won't be engaged. There's a reason we do not hang out with our friends and talk about the great microwave manual we just read. Kids like what we like, and we do well to show them how much fascinating literature is available to them that is full of such things.
Journeys of One Semester Begin with a Single Step
Once everyone had seen Iphigenia and we had discussed a few basic themes, we began to work our way through it. We had short one-day workshops on concepts from the play, most of which came from Epic Theatre's amazing Citizen Artist curriculum. (See September's column here.) We also did quite a bit of exploratory writing, and that's when I started to notice something: I was rarely, very, very rarely, having to ask my students to write ("ask" here meaning "cajole," "bribe," "threaten," "plead with," etc.). This was creative writing at its purest, and they were totally into it, even looking to add to their vocabulary. The day I had a child ask me if he could look up what the word "ritual" meant "on VT" (i.e., the Visual Thesaurus) in the computer in the back of the room, I knew something was different about this class.
Here are some of the things I asked them to write: a Nine Word Play (again, see September's column). A scene based on what they had done that morning. A scene about a superhero. The inner and outer life map of a made-up character (based on one of the main characters in Iphigenia). A scene in which said character has a confrontation with a police officer. A scene with no conflict at all. A scene with only conflict. A scene that consisted of no stage directions, only dialogue.
In nearly every case, I saw students who don't like to write, who don't like school, who, frankly, don't like me, sharpen a pencil and willingly move it across the paper to form words. Why? Well, creative expression is a human desire, I believe, as is self-expression, and here was an opportunity to express oneself, creatively.
I also genuinely think the kids felt that they were pulling one over on me. Time after time, they would ask, "Can we curse?" or "Do we have to spell things right?" (Answers: You can, but don't expect a play with cursing to be put up on a bulletin board or presented at a school function. And, no, but even if your character speaks in a dialect, your actors need to understand what they are supposed to say.) Assured that so long as they were meeting the minimum — dialogue and stage directions, and a clear tie-in to my assignment — all was well, I believe they felt unusually free. Some of them didn't like this at first. But most, by now, do.
The Plotting Thickens
Having explored writing scenes and creating characters, we kicked it up a notch, now exploring plot and story. Epic's curriculum again provided the basics, and within a short period of time my students were figuring out the main story points of Iphigenia and adapting it to their own play. To my repeated cries of "Only choose plot points you're interested in, because you will be stuck writing this for a long time!", my students set adaptations on basketball courts, in beauty salons and on the mean streets of the Lower East Side. Iphigenia became a princess, Agamemnon President Obama, and Achilles Dwyane Wade. The year was 2030. 1910. 1850.
The great thing about adapting a play, in short, is that it gives you a framework on which you can hang just about anything you want to, so long as you're willing to live with — and write around — the results. And this, in turn, creates opportunities for student research projects that are truly done in the spirit in inquiry: What was it like to be a princess in 1850? What are the basic requirements to get a cosmetologist license? Who is Dwyane Wade?
We haven't gotten to this stage yet (we're still at the initial drafting stage, in which one fully realized, typed scene is due at the end of the week!), but it's coming. I, for one, am really excited about it. I have no idea who Dwyane Wade is.
Free Their Minds and the Regents Will Follow
One final thought about this unit, so far, and why I'll continue to be a fan of this class for high school students, whether they be Arthur Miller's heirs or not.
Keep in mind that I teach the same kids in English, marching them through the rigors of essays and American Literature. I've begun to see a cool Yin/Yang-y effect from the counterbalance between Playwriting and English. The Playwriting is so free and (supposedly) easy, that the very act of writing becomes less intimidating to my students. Kids who found all sorts of excuses about why they couldn't write in English ("My hand hurts/was frozen/got caught in a meat grinder") can't use those excuses if they want to write later in the day during Playwriting.
Besides, the playscript is actually a quite precise and rigorous medium, requiring a great deal of organization and an editor's mind as well as creative ideas and expression. I don't point this out, of course, until after these skills have been deployed. Of course, these same skills feed into the writing we do in English too.
It works the other way, too. The grammar and spelling so prized in English become tools for communicating clearly in Playwriting (remember, unless the actors know what they're supposed to say...). The literature we read opens up possibilities for new settings, people, ideas and plot twists. The sheer rigor of preparing for the Regents test makes a special need for personal expression. And the vocabulary, still so obscure even when understood "enough" for a test, suddenly becomes useful. After all, if you're writing in the voice of a college professor, or President of the United States, you better up the syllable count to make your characters convincing.
And having found writing and reading fun once, it's quite possible to find it so again.
Merry, Happy, Everything
I'll keep you up to date on how our Iphigenia-ing goes over the next month as we wrap up this unit. And may I take these last few lines of my column to wish you and yours the happiest of whatever winter holidays you celebrate? I love this time of year — the sights, the smells, the sounds, the excuse to use words like "antiphon" and "cherubim" and "Maccabee" and "Solstice" and "Behold!" Get out there and use 'em. The opportunity comes but once a year!