The Sound of Silence

Today we studied Act 2, scene 2 of Hamlet. I like to refer to this scene as “spying and lying”: the messengers return from Norway, Polonius tells the king that Hamlet is acting crazy because he is “mad” for the love of Ophelia, who has been avoiding him at her father’s order. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern show up and lie to Hamlet, and Hamlet is kind of a jerk to everyone. Then the “players” arrive and there’s a long speech with lots of allusions to Greek myths that none of my students know, and THEN Hamlet has a soliloquy. Whew. It’s a busy scene, and long.

In part because it is jam-packed with groundwork for the rest of the play, this scene is hard and, even after all these years, I haven’t yet figured out an exciting way to teach it. Mostly, we read the lines, and I point out the double entendres and puns. Dry. Even when I show them all the dirty jokes, this is never our most exciting day.

Today was even harder for the students because I recently banned cellphones. Some time last week, I completely broke. After years of futile efforts to “encourage” students to put their phones away, hours of explanations about why phones are not helpful, dozens of shared articles, a few experiments (see how many messages we receive and the like), three strikes policies, phone containers and more – all of which followed years of trying to “incorporate” phones into lessons, I finally couldn’t take it any more. I banned them. I’ve put a sign on the door that says “No Phone Zone,” and I am politely but firmly insisting that any phone that comes out during class time come “visit” my phone on my desk. The other option is for the phone – and the student – to leave the classroom. No warnings. So far, everyone has handed over their phone.

The phone ban made a big difference today because Act 2, scene 2 is so hard. The words matter and the double meanings matter and to get it you have to concentrate. Phones are an easy way out when our brains want a break. I still said no – for all 75 minutes. I know – I’m an ogre.

Then, 7 minutes before the end of class, there was an Amber Alert. All through the school, phones sounded, interrupting class; in our room, not a single phone sounded. Not one! Look, some kids were nearly asleep and one or two were studying for Chemistry and at least one was sneakily reading another book, but ALL THE PHONES WERE OFF. I found out about the alert from notifications after class.

Even better, with all the phones away, we managed to (almost) finish in one class period. Tomorrow, the nunnery scene. I am – quietly – ecstatic.