I'm sure that's a completely "well, duh" sort of answer for those of you who love teaching the play, but I had sent Bardiac a panicky email over winter break, saying "Help! Last year it didn't go especially well, and I have kind of a block about this play and nothing really to say about it, and ack! Whatever shall I do?" And she was absolutely lovely and talked me off the ledge and sent me her class notes, which of course is one reason that things are going better with the play this year than last.
I also finally realized that last year when I taught it was immediately after spring break ... which is to say when I'd just gotten back from South Africa and was still exhausted for the first two weeks back in school. So, gosh, maybe it's no wonder that I wasn't feeling on top of my game! This realization has helped my confidence enormously this time around.
It's also helping that I am now teaching this course for the second time in a row and was much more deliberate and thoughtful about how I ordered the texts, so we came into Othello having read Adichie's Purple Hibiscus in December and talked a lot about internalized racism, colonialism, and cultural messages. Then when we started up in January, the first thing I had the students do is start working on a personal essay that explored a cultural or familial message they'd grown up with that had shaped their identity in some way, either because they'd accepted it or rejected it or were still working out a relationship with it. I'm finishing up reading these now, and they've been much more interesting than their run-of-the-mill essays, and the students seem more insightful about why Othello might be so quick to believe that Desdemona has betrayed him, because they're more thoughtful about what it means for him to be a Moor in Venice and the racist messages that he is surrounded by ("Haply for I am black ...," etc.).
I also dropped the reading quizzes I'd done last time and instead am having students write "character diaries" for each act of the play; for each act, they have to choose a different character and write a diary entry about the action of the act from the perspective of that character. The students are having fun with these (in that they actually come into class and say, "Gosh, that was fun to write!"), as opposed to the quizzes, and they are quick for me to grade but also I can catch misunderstandings, as in the student who thought that Act 1 took place over an extended period of a few weeks -- good to figure these misunderstandings out early on. Plus this is my first foray into having students post their work on a discussion board in Moodle; I still don't really like Moodle, which I find clunky, but it's good in this case that they can read one another's work (but only after they have posted their own work), especially because they are all choosing different characters -- it's like one big collective study session. (It does occur to me only in this moment that I need to clarify for Act 5 that they can have the character write the "diary" BEFORE they all die at the end!)
The nice thing about teaching in high school is that we can take our time, so they're reading an act a week, which is a very relaxed pace and means we have a lot of classroom time to talk; also, once they finish each act, we take the 25 minutes or so to watch that act in the Fishburne/Branagh film version, which they think of as a huge treat -- VERY important in the gloomy days of January!
The one thing that did work really well last year is that the students and I did not talk about Act 5, but rather I divided them into three acting troupes and gave them the task of editing and acting out part of the act (Scene 1, and then I divided Scene 2 into two), an idea I got from the otherwise not great Teaching Twelfth Night and Othello: Shakespeare Set Free from the Folger Shakespeare Library. The students did a great job of working out a lot of things on their own, and their performances at the end were amazing. I'm definitely doing that again (and of course we won't watch the Fishburne/Branagh version of Act 5 until they've finished their own performance). Then they'll write up an analysis of their performance, including an explanation of the choices they made and a discussion of what they would want to do with the scene if they could take it to Broadway and have a real budget.
The other thing I'm emphasizing this winter is their developing a more personal and interested voice in their writing. So we started with the personal essay, and then their Othello essay is going to be a combination of a personal and academic essay; I'm giving them as a model the opening of Jane Smiley's "Say It Ain't So, Huck: Second Thoughts on Mark Twain's 'Masterpiece,'" an essay whose argument I disagree with (Smiley conflates the antebellum context of Uncle Tom's Cabin with the Post-Reconstruction context of Huckleberry Finn in a way that makes me crazy and that completely misses the point of the latter novel) but that has an engaging personal voice and real ideas about the novel. So we're going to see if they can pull that off with Othello -- wish us luck! I have found in the past -- and then I forgot to act on it this year until now -- that students have far more interesting things to say about literature if they can say it in a personal voice; last year, when I told students to begin a writing assignment with "I really think that ...," they had so much smarter things to say! Now obviously they will have to learn to take out the "I really think that" for more formal essays, but my thought is that it's better to work through to that point, saying the interesting things and learning how to make them more formal, than to forbid the personal voice as some of my colleagues do. What I told them is that if I and their 9th-grade teacher Mr. L and their math teacher Mr. E were all writing a memo to the head of school, even if we didn't put our names on those memos, she would undoubtedly be able to tell who had written each because we have distinctive voices, and that this is what I want them to develop. And I think that the way to develop this is to start personal, engage with the ideas they're writing about, and then help them craft those ideas and that strong personal voice into more traditional academic prose. Or at least that's the theory I'm working on for the rest of this year with my sophomores; I just can't take any more bland, generic essays!
So, Bardiac, that's a very long-winded answer to your question about how Othello is going this winter. I'm really feeling so pleased!