The ultimate mixed bag: Video CliffsNotes for Shakespeare

I saw this little piece in Good about CliffsNotes new enterprise: six-minute animated videos on Shakespeare’s plays.

I watched their Romeo & Juliet, and, over the course of those six minutes, I found myself on a roller coaster of reactions, from excitement to hesitation to dread to…acceptance? Not sure, let’s see where this goes.

First, here’s the Romeo & Juliet video.

Or, if you’d rather, here are the others they’ve made: Midsummer, Hamlet, Julius 

Caesar, Macbeth, or Othello. Find them all here.

Ok. First, the good.

It’s pretty entertaining, so it could be engaging to a lot of kids. And I think many English teachers share the goal, when they approach Shakespeare, to get the kids to actually enjoy the story. And that bit about jeggings at the end made me giggle.

It’s concise and thorough. I guess that’s what CliffsNotes has always done well. They crammed most of the important stuff into that video, which seems pretty hard to do.

It’s accurate. I liked the inclusion of key passages from the actual text. Students may recognize those lines more readily when they come across them in class, or they may feel more equipped to write or talk about them after having seen and heard them being spoken.

It’s visual. We always remind students that Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be seen, not read. So, there we go.

It’s interactive. The way you con hover over a character to get the name and then read their brief overview below the video is pretty ingenious, I think. It can keep a viewer engaged on a whole other level, and those little write-ups aren’t so bad, given how brief they are. They even worked in their little theme write-ups at the end. There’s no way to really read all those while the video is running, but you can pause it if you wanted to and see them all.

So all that seems pretty great. It’s a free and easy resource for kids to use at home that might help them wrap their heads around the plot and/or engage them in the unit they’re doing in class. What’s the problem?

I guess the best way to put it is that it’s a CliffsNotes video for Shakespeare. The danger here is the same as the danger that CliffsNotes has always presented: that students will rely on this instead of reading the actual text. And, of course, that’s what most of them do, no matter how often we might tell them how evil we think that behavior is. It’s easy!

More specifically, I began to doubt the value of the Romeo & Juliet video when it got silly. In an effort to engage young viewers, Paris becomes a preening dandy and Friar Laurence a bumbling old fool. If those depictions were to color a young reader’s impressions of those characters instead of the subtleties of the text, well, I think many English teachers would shed a few tears.

Then there’s the substitution of silly for pathos. Why does Capulet need to make a joke about losing his deposit on the wedding when he finds what he believes is his dead daughter? That’s a heartbreaking part of the play, but I wouldn’t know it from the video.

My aforementioned dread came from imagining every possible scenario: A student watching the video on his phone in a bathroom stall before a test. On its own, that doesn’t bother me so much. It’s just an updated version of flipping though the paper CliffsNotes or asking a friend how it ended on the way into class to prepare for a reading quiz. Nothing really new. But then I imagined having to read an essay that describes how Romeo was able to kill Paris at the end by surprising him, since Paris “didn’t see that coming.” But, as I think about it more, that isn’t really new either. We see students regurgitate their peers’ wrong answers all the time, and that gives us a clear indicator of how we should assess their understanding (or their effort).

It all comes down to what we do in the classroom. If I taught Romeo & Juliet by assigning all the reading for homework and then giving reading quizzes on plot the next day, my students would have to watch the video. I couldn’t blame them. They’d get some stuff wrong, some stuff right, and, if I weren’t writing this blog post and therefore aware of these videos, I might be none the wiser. Those students who didn’t read the play wouldn’t get out of Shakespeare what I always hope they’ll get out Shakespeare – an appreciation for  the language and for the insights into the human condition. And that would be bad.

But there are always students who don’t do the reading. And there are always students who will seek out every shortcut they can find. And when it comes to Shakespeare, there has always been a glut of resources available to students looking for a little help or looking to cheat. That’s why it comes down to what we do in the classroom. I have to come up with activities that require some actual wrestling with the text. I have to help students explore the nuances in Juliet’s character.

But even if I’m doing those things, and working as hard as I can to provide scaffolding for my struggling students, there will still be some who feel lost. And that’s where I think videos like these have real value. We may spend a month engaging with the text in class, poring over speeches, and digging into characters’ motivations. But there will still be a handful of students at the end of that month who will not grasp how the elements of the plot fit together, or who will confuse Mercutio and Benvolio. This video is perfect for them, and I’ll probably point them in this direction when the time comes.

We discussed the Common Core State Standards in a department meeting today, and we looked at the rationale behind the focus on text complexity. Basically, high school graduates are looking seriously underprepared to do the kind of reading they’re required to do after high school, whether in college or in the workplace. So we have to make sure we’re giving them plenty of exposure to complex texts. Some people might think that allowing them to watch videos like these is another example of the coddling that has run rampant in schools, hurting our students by lowering our standards for their achievement.

But Shakespeare obviously wrote some pretty complex texts, and a video like this might provide the necessary scaffolding for some students to be able to actually engage with the text in class in a way that would previously have been out of reach.

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