Students will study vision, interpretation and action in the plays Macbeth and Hamlet. Through textual analysis and writing, students explore the intersection of seeing and knowing as presented in the two plays. In the current technological age, it is of growing importance that we think critically about what is presented to us via the Internet, the cell phone, and television. My eleventh- and twelfth-grade students utilize these forms of communication daily. I intend to use classic literature to draw a connection between what we see, how we interpret it, and how we react to it. Using Hamlet and Macbeth as the central texts, the class will evaluate how the characters Hamlet and Macbeth base their actions on visions that may or may not be valid. In the cases of Hamlet and Macbeth, the decisions they make based on what they see have grave results. Through exploration of these characters, students will evaluate how vision can be problematic for them as well. The saturation of technology in these students' lives requires them to evaluate the quality, validity, and at times the safety of what is presented to them. In turn, they often act on what they see, and if they do not do so in an analytical and ethical fashion, their actions may be harmful to themselves or others. Examples of such actions can range from spreading a hurtful, inaccurate rumor to being accused of trafficking child pornography through sexting. Therefore, this three-week unit helps students become critical viewers when it comes to technology and critical readers when it comes to literature.
One issue facing teachers and students is the "hyper attention" characteristic of students growing up in this technological world. According to N. Katherine Hayles, hyper attention contrasts to deep attention. The two differ as their names imply:
"Deep attention, the cognitive style traditionally associated with the humanities, is characterized by concentrating on a single object for long periods (say, a novel by Dickens), ignoring outside stimuli while so engaged, preferring a single information stream, and having a high tolerance for long focus times. Hyper attention is characterized by switching focus rapidly among different tasks, preferring multiple information streams, seeking a high level of stimulation, and having a low tolerance for boredom."
Hayles's conception of hyper attention and deep attention are closely related to my unit. In the hyper-attentive world we live in, it is increasingly important to engage students with technology as well as make them critical users of technology. In addition, it is important to cultivate both the hyper attention and deep attention of our students. Through my unit, this is exactly what I intend to do. Through the uses of technology and a focus on technology, I hope to engage their hyper-attentive selves. I hope to engage them in deep attention with the Shakespeare.
When planning this unit, I felt that the situations in Hamlet and Macbeth were so grave and supernatural in nature that they could not be plausibly linked to the lives of the students. With greater thought I realized that there are many situations involved with seeing and understanding that confront students in very serious, ethical ways. As in Macbeth and Hamlet, students make decisions based on what they see. Hamlet and Macbeth are dealing with the illusory world of the spiritual, while our students are dealing with the illusory world of the Internet.
The majority of my students own cell phones and have accounts with Facebook or Myspace. In addition, students conduct research on the Internet as well as acquire everyday information from it. Students need to be able to determine what is valid information. Frequently, students will limit themselves to a Google search or rely on Wikipedia as a sole source. There is nothing wrong with this as a starting point. Yet students need to start to develop their researching skills.
Teachers in my school stress different ways to acquire information and determine quality sources. The library has access to some worthwhile Internet material. We are linked into ICON and the Encyclopedia Britannica. Students stick with Google and Wikipedia because they are easy and they are what the students know. Once they are introduced to other types of research, they will be willing to use them, once they get over being told what to do. The other technological problems we face involve students who are becoming friends with all kinds of people through social networking sites and sexting with their cell phones. We do make a point to warn students about whom they are associating with online and not engaging in inappropriate texting, but teenagers will be teenagers. As a result, some students get themselves into problematic situations.
A completely different kind of problem that students have is Shakespeare's writing style. Drawing students into the storyline alone makes the texts worthwhile. Nevertheless, Shakespeare's language enriches the material. A challenge for teachers includes bringing that language to life for students. Students become frustrated with the language. It takes patience and close reading to understand Shakespeare. A few students always pick up the language with ease and guide the rest of the class through the reading. Still, one wants all the students to really delve into the language of Shakespeare and appreciate the imagery he uses. Students cannot just read the words and expect to develop an understanding without thought. They need to think about what they read, another reason why Hamlet and Macbeth serve as good texts to use for this unit. Students need to go beyond the surface in order to develop a full understanding of the texts.
Students do not always go beyond the surface of things. When they do go beyond the surface of a text or image, they need to do so using evidence and analysis to support their inferences. From written analysis of a Shakespeare piece to finding a valid source on the Internet, students need to think critically. Students cannot simply read Shakespeare, understand the story, and leave it at that. They need to explore the imagery and symbolism of the text to appreciate it fully. Similarly, students cannot just look at the first site that pops up on Google and take the information they find as the truth or the whole story.