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Shakespeare class challenges students at WHS

Dan Roth and Jesse Joslin rehearse a scene from Shakespeare's Othello. The students said Phil Bratnober's Shakespeare class is a challenging, but fascinating one. Staff photo by Amber Kispert.

To be or not to be? That is a legitimate question Woodbury High School students have to tackle in Phil Bratnober's Shakespeare class.

"Shakespeare is the apotheosis of music, poetry and drama," Bratnober said. "Shakespeare really pulls you."

Bratnober said he brought the work of the Bard of Avon to WHS last fall because he wanted students to see the importance of Shakespeare's works beyond the one or two plays that high school classes traditionally read.

"The kids love the's provocative, eye opening and revelatory," Bratnober said. "It creates life-long memories and appreciation. And I've worked on it all my life, so it's fun for me too."

In preparing to make his pitch for his exclusively Shakespeare class to District 833 officials, Bratnober said he spoke with many university English departments about how much of an emphasis the post-secondary institutions place on Shakespeare.

District 833 officials were impressed to hear that post-secondary institutions supported the concept at a high school level, Bratnober said.

Class curriculum

Bratnober said it was a difficult task to pick and choose which of Shakespeare's work the class would cover. Typical high school literature curriculum includes popularly studied plays such as Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar and Macbeth.

The final syllabus includes: A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Richard II, Henry IV: Part 1 and Twelfth Night.

The class is divided up into three major areas -- comedy, tragedy and history.

Bratnober uses the comedy unit as a way to tackle the poetry and the operations of language that Shakespeare uses in almost all of his plays.

"I do the language lessons right out of the box so that the students can deal with the other plays," he said. "To articulate and deconstruct poetry of that quality is a special interpretive act."

The class wraps up with Henry IV: Part 1 where it serves as the basis to discuss English history during the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries.

"This is our reality check since many of the other plays are in kind of fantasy places --but there was a real England," Bratnober said.

The class concludes on a high note, after dealing with some very heavy and dramatic plays for half of the class, by watching a film version of "Twelfth Night."

Throughout the entire class, students work on a variety of assignments ranging from essays pulling apart the plays to performing scenes from the plays in front of the class.

Students excel

Bratnober said over the last two years his students have been receiving the material well.

"The great majority are in it, they're in the game," he said. "These students went out of their way to take a rigorous, demanding and advanced English course."

Senior Ashley Stites said she took the class because she's a fan of Shakespeare's plays.

"I absolutely love Shakespeare," she said. "Shakespeare is the ultimate classic."

Another senior, Cortney Retzold, said Shakespeare's use of language drew her to the class.

"His poetry is so amazing," she said. "His love of literature just leaps off the page -- it's so imaginative."

While many of the student took the class for Shakespeare, many said they have stayed in it because of Bratnober's enthusiasm for teaching the material.

Senior Alyssa Normandin had never really enjoyed an English class but said Bratnober's teaching style helped generate her interest in the subject.

However, Bratnober said there are a few students, mainly the younger students, who are struggling with the material.

"But I put their feet to the fire with friendly questions they can get right," he said. "I can't throw them to the wolves, I have to keep bringing them to the fire with straight forward questions."

Amber Kispert-Smith

Amber Kispert-Smith has been the schools and Afton reporter at the Woodbury Bulletin since 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as a reporter for Press Publications in White Bear Lake.

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