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Gearing up for Absurdist Theater - how you can make it accessible

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High School students have seldom come in contact with absurdist theater, but can really get a lot out of it. Since it seeks to explore many philosophical questions they ask about life everyday.
High School students have seldom come in contact with absurdist theater, but can really get a lot out of it. Since it seeks to explore many philosophical questions they ask about life everyday.

So we've just finished Hamlet and at the beginning, students struggled (they usually do when encountering Shakespeare), but ultimately appreciated Shakespeare's ability to create a character of depth and a play that makes inaction complicated and worthy of their time.

As we move away from the traditional, we will now embark upon the world of absurdist theater created eloquently by Tom Stoppard in his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, an adaptation of sorts of Shakespeare's classic. Taking the point of view of lesser characters and showing the story from their perspective offering depth and greater understanding of the comedy in Hamlet.

Unfortunately, the humor of absurdity can be lost on students if they aren't properly prepared.

Here are some easy tips for teaching something that's so complex, it looks easy on the surface.

  • Preteach the ideas of absurdist theater and existentialism by providing easy to understand non-fiction articles that can be scaffolded and jigsawed in class.
  • Provide specific features that the students can look for while they read that make the play absurdist (some examples from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are: the play refers to itself and the audience often, dialogue is "strange" and many thoughts are left unfinished)
  • Identify the big questions the play seeks to answer. For example, how much control do we have over our lives or are we guided by destiny?
  • Read aloud with students, in the beginning, helping them by explaining the humor -
  • Try to avoid proscribed meaning - explore the idea that there are many ways to understand what they read, none being more "right" than another.
  • Unlike Shakespeare, the language is deceptively easy, make sure you show and explain the layers and nuance in the diction.
  • Define anything that can be misunderstood ahead of time and in the context of the reading when it comes up. Make kids write it down when you go over it.
  • Show them the movie, so they can place the humor in its context (I usually show the movie after we are done reading) - Ask them to take notes on what they notice when they watch that they missed while they read. Discuss what they notice.
  • Offer students the opportunity to grapple with the big questions offered by the text, practicing using evidence, but also employing their own philosophical views
  • Anchor ideas in by comparing and contrasting to other drama students have read (in our case Shakespeare's Hamlet)
  • Let students work in pairs to examine the text closely using double entry journals
  • Create a project that explores the style of writing and the philosophy that drives the unit - I have students write a 1 Act play in either play's format and/or style HamletRosencrantzandGildensternassignment
  • Provide students a model and/or exemplar that really addresses the core of your expectations: LaertesAbroad-1Actplay
  • Give students opportunity to revise and conference in order really show what they know about the genre
  • Create opportunities for multiple interpretations and discussions.
  • Develop a lit circle for other absurdist authors like Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter

How have you taught absurdist theater? Let's collaborate. Share you ideas and challenges.

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Starr Sackstein currently works at World Journalism Preparatory School in Flushing, N.Y., as a high-school English and journalism teacher. She is the author of Teaching Mythology Exposed: Helping Teachers Create Visionary Classroom Perspective, Blogging for Educators, Teaching Students to Self-Assess, Hacking Assessment, The Power of Questioning and Simply May . She blogs for Education Week Teacher on “Work in Progress” in addition to her personal blog StarrSackstein.com where she discusses all aspects of being a teacher. Sackstein co-moderates #sunchat and contributes to #NYedChat. In speaking engagements, Sackstein speaks about blogging, journalism education, throwing out grades and BYOD, helping people see technology doesn’t have to be feared. Follow her @MsSackstein on Twitter.
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Guest Monday, 18 February 2019