Wit, Not Witchcraft: Screening Shakespeare in Brandon Valley

Posted by Katy Beem on
Matt Christensen (l.) at the PBS Digital Summit.
M. Christensen

High school English teacher Matt Christensen’s classroom, like Christensen himself, pushes convention. Reminiscent of a mandatory school uniform re-jiggered for flair and dress code-flouting, the white walls and taupe carpet of Christensen’s cement-block room at Brandon Valley High School recede behind artful embellishments and unexpected details. Student tables, reflective of Christensen’s communal learning culture, sport colorful, patterned tablecloths. Student art – splashes of vibrant reds, blues, and yellows – informally festoon the rectangular bulletin boards like bright graffiti on a dull Burlington Northern boxcar. Tiger paintings and figurines repeat throughout the room – homages to the Bengal tiger from Yann Martel’s adventure novel Life of Pi, which Christensen’s students read and deconstruct. A wire-mesh human form stands prominently beside the whiteboard, its palms lifted skyward – perhaps supplicating in the hopes that students will stuff more paper scraps into its hollows. Its name is ‘Island.’

“’Island’ is a highly significant, extended metaphor/asymptotically realistic, botanical discovery from Life of Pi,” explains Christensen. “It has tiny slips of white paper embedded with literary theory, terminology, and excerpts. ‘Island’ is a feat created by students.”

If Christensen were to write a book on teaching philosophy, it could very well be titled Feats Created by Students – and it would be available in both print and electronic form. ‘Island,’ the student art, and a handful of forms on the teacher’s desk are the few places where paper survives in Christensen’s classroom. “I print maybe two things all year,” says Christensen. “And I don’t let the students print. We keep everything in a Google folder.” Charged with making Shakespeare (b. 1564) matter to Generation Z adolescents (b. circa 2000), Christensen eagerly harnesses technology to deliver the Bard and writing arts to teenagers whose lives outside of school are propelled by smart phones, social media and cloud computing.

Since 2003, Christensen has taught English and coached football and basketball at Brandon Valley. Characteristic of his manifold pursuits, his YouTube channel streams football videos as well as Skyped interviews between his students and author Yann Martel. “Yann’s famous, but he’s just super nice,” says Christensen.

“I don’t sit on camera – I put students on the camera with him.” This year, Christensen’s keen espousal of digital delivery earned him the distinction as South Dakota’s PBS Digital Innovator, a program through which PBS LearningMedia recognizes PreK-12 educators from throughout the U.S. who thoughtfully integrate tech into their classrooms. Christensen’s curriculum director, Marge Stoterau, encouraged him to apply and student Gage Hoffman assisted with background music, B-roll, and voiceovers for Christensen’s entry video. “Gage is a super kid and a really nice guy,” says Christensen. “He kind of motivated me and helped me show myself as someone who cares about digital innovations and how they can be used to empower students.”

The collaborative effort reflects Christensen’s pedagogical stance of knowledge-sharing in the digital realm. “It’s up to both student and teacher to embrace the useful and new – not just the new. Sometimes it’s new, shiny, and flashy, but it’s not useful. Students are definitely digital natives, but they still need guidance in what we’re trying to get done or what critical thinking avenues we’re trying to open up and expand upon with digital tools.”

A devotee of the SAMR Model (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition), Christensen says it’s essential to not merely replace paper with screens for reasons of ease or novelty, but to create worthwhile learning experiences. “We want to make it collaborative. When students get voice and choice, then they care more, do more, and are more valuable in college and in their careers.” The paperless proponent evokes an ironic comparison: “We start at the trunk and go to the branches.”

To make 500-year-old Shakespearean syntax resonate with students raised on emojis, Christensen moves from page to screen with videos and digital assignments. “Shakespeare is major in common core. There’s all kinds of stuff – racism, sexism, ageism, stuff that matters today. You extract that for them or you empower them to extract it for themselves. I use all the PBS Shakespeare Uncovered  Othello videos – highly informative and compelling,” says Christensen. “Students engage and grasp more with them. They love to meet the actors. They appreciate the intriguing detective approach to the video narration.” Mutual accountability heightens the stakes. As Shakespeare’s plays are typically comprised of five acts, Christensen forms student “expert teams,” responsible for mastering and presenting the content and form of a single act to their classmates. Students also shoulder the responsibility of prepping each other for tests.

Christensen provides resources and benchmarks, but otherwise purposely pulls back. “When you use too many rubrics, you get all the same projects,” says Christensen. “Essentially, I say, help us understand the act really well. Translate major speeches for us. Help it be an experience. Engage us. Demonstrate you know this act well – not only the characters, but what happened. They do a really good job with that. Speaking student-to-student is huge. They wind up reading way more than they ever thought they would. They start saying, ‘oh yeah, I get this. That’s a compelling soliloquy. This is a powerful speech. What a couplet that is or what an epithet that is.’ It’s fun.”

Christensen cites a former student’s project as a prime example of delivering Shakespeare in the digital age. Bailey Quanbeck, now a University of South Dakota English major, produced a Snapchat series of conversations between Desdemona, Emilia, Iago and Othello to both hilarious and academic results.

Christensen understands not all students are future English majors. “I get two English majors out of 100 college-credit students,” says Christensen. “I always offer options. You want to write this essay and document it like an accountant, because that’s going to be your major? Good, do it. You can use that documentation, that lens, you can look at the accounting in the story.” To Christensen, assignments featuring video productions and digital essays are electronic means to a greater end. “To get a future engineer to briefly care about Shakespeare in his life before his engineering courses makes him a more aware human, a more cultured and literate human being, perhaps with more empathy,” says Christensen. “You can’t force empathy into anybody, but you can give them experience that could lead them to that. Make it experiential and help them feel a little more.”

In June, Christensen joined fellow tech-savvy educators from throughout the country at the PBS Digital Innovators Summit in San Antonio. “It was spectacular,” says Christensen. “Really essential and paradigm-shifting. Now our goal is to head back to our states and kind of spread it.” Christensen is also Brandon Valley High’s digital coach, tasked with demonstrating digital resources to his co-workers. Throughout the school year, he’ll also partner with Steven Rokusek, SDPB’s Education Specialist, to help South Dakota educators suss out best, personalized practices using the extensive curriculum and lesson-planning resources on PBS LearningMedia and SDPB.org/Learn. “It was a complete honor to go to the PBS Summit and meet all these other torch carriers,” says Christensen. “Many of them are the voices in their schools of caring to empower students in digital ways, but in other ways. There’s innovation that can happen and PBS can definitely be a part of that.”

For more information, PBSLearningMedia.org

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