Memories are funny things. When I sat down to write this blog post, I thought I remembered a particular “game” accurately, but it only took about 5 minutes of asking around to discover that, not only had I remembered it inaccurately, I had completely forgotten its original intent. And while this post will mostly be about how you can use the game I’m about to describe in a number of ways in your own classroom, unraveling the mystery of its origins proved equally useful, so I will share that, too.
Let me back up a bit, for context. That is what I, with my post-graduate-school brain-fuzz, recall with perfect* clarity:
If you are lucky (or crazy) enough to study Shakespeare in the Shakespeare & Performance Graduate Program at Mary Baldwin University (you nerd!), one of the first classes you are required to take is Shakespeare with Ralph (that’s Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen, co-founder of the ASC and the Shakespeare & Performance Program, to you). Given the deceptively-simple title of the course, you might think this was a survey class covering most if not all of the Shakespeare canon. Well, you’re not wrong, it is that; but it’s also where you learn how to do one of Dr. Ralph’s famous “party tricks,” one I and a few others in my cohort started to call “Line Roulette.” Dr. Ralph would open to a random page of Romeo and Juliet, or whatever play he assigned us to read that week, close his eyes, and plonk his finger down on a random line on the page. He would then read that line aloud and extemporaneously argue why that single line encapsulates the “meaning” or dominant themes of the play. Imagine the collective glee in a room full of self-professed Shakespeare Nerds when Dr. Ralph’s finger would land on a throw-away line like, “What, ho?” or “That’s all one,” so that we could watch him verbally twist his way out of it and make a cogent argument anyway. It was always fun to watch and thrilling to attempt, so much so that I even went on to adapt this exercise into a game that now involves dice and a timer. #NerdLife
Flash forward to when I compared this memory with my ASC colleagues and fellow graduates of the program: Lia Wallace, our College Prep Programs Manager, said, “No, no, no! The quote has to relate to all of Shakespeare’s canon, not just the one play.” Sarah Enloe, our Director of Education, informed me, “We do that in Pedagogy class, and Ralph didn’t make that up. I did!” And finally, Ralph said (and here I’m paraphrasing), “Like hell you did. And that’s not how you play it.” Chaos ensued, and, eventually, some clarity. What I know as Line Roulette (aka the ability to point to any line in a Shakespeare play and argue its metonymic, canonical value) has evolved from a professor’s bragging right (“Hey Faculty, look what my undergraduate students can do”), to a pedagogical exercise (“I want our brand-new Shakespeare teachers to have the confidence to do this”), to an institutional rite of passage (“I have clearly won at Shakespeare if I can do this”). Clearly, I only latched on to that last one because I was determined to “win” at Shakespeare like a good little grad student. Hence the dice and the timer.
According to Dr. Ralph, what we students were always meant to learn in this exercise is that there are no throw-away lines in Shakespeare’s plays; each one is part of the “DNA” of its play, connected to the rest by metrical, rhetorical, or theatrical threads to other lines, scenes, and plays in Shakespeare’s canon. Each iteration of the game requires the same skill: find a thread and pull on it. The way you play the game, or your reason for playing it does not matter nearly as much as the fact that you can play it at all.
Which brings me back to why I wanted to write about Line Roulette in the first place: How can we get more students to play it? I used to teach high school English, and my mind constantly wonders how I might scaffold the activities I learned in graduate school for younger students. Obviously, many students of all ages would be able to play the game as is. But how could a game like Line Roulette serve students who, for any number of reasons, struggle to keep up with the material? How might we use it to hook the students who start out with zero interest in the play and are reluctant to engage?
One solution might lie in breaking the game into smaller parts and revisiting it throughout the study of whatever text you’re working with. Perhaps introduce your students to the play by beginning with the “roulette” portion of the Line Roulette game on day one of your unit: using dice or some other method of randomizing numbers, have each student roll for an act number, scene number, and line number.** Simply finding their lines in this way acquaints students, some of whom maybe have never read a play before, with how to navigate a performance text. Chances are this line will mean absolutely nothing to your students at first, and that’s fine. Imagine the predictions they could generate about it! The possibilities are endless.
Now each of your students has a line to watch out for and a reason for figuring out how it fits into the entire play. Perhaps your students have been tracking them in some way as a class or individually as you continue through your unit. That alone might garner some engagement from even the most reticent of students. And because you’re great at what you do and you use many highly-engaging methods, perhaps from our teaching seminars and study guides, your students will not only understand their assigned line in context by the time you’re done, they also will have the confidence to talk about the purpose the line serves as part of the play’s DNA. They may even be able to do this extemporaneously in sixty seconds or less. (I like games with timers, ok? They raise the stakes.)
Regardless of how you ultimately play Line Roulette, the payoff for students is immense: empowering students to speak (or write) what they know about a seemingly minuscule part of the Shakespearean megalith personalizes their connection to the text in a lasting way, chipping away at their “ShakesFear” through ownership. They own their line, their thread of Shakespeare’s DNA, forever now. Whether accomplished all in one day or as a prolonged engagement strategy, the point is for students to have the opportunity, the tools, and the ability to find that dangling thread and pull on it with confidence. If you remember nothing else, remember that.
*Demonstrably not perfect.
**You might need two dice for the line numbers.