KENT-repreneur is a deep dive into business, tech and entrepreneurial efforts at Kent state. The second episode focuses on Will’s Words, a KSU Honors College thesis project that could shake up how high school students learn Shakespeare.
Note: The podcast audio incorrectly states that Professor Dugas's wife used the app DuoLingo to strengthen her English. The web story has been updated to say that she used it "to learn other languages."
Many students struggle learning Shakespearean literature in high school. The English spoken today is different from the words and language used back in William Shakespeare’s day, and some of the words still used have a totally different meaning now.
Professor Don-John Dugas in Kent State’s English department is a Shakespeare expert. He noticed his wife was using language learning apps like DuoLingo to learn other languages and wondered if students would benefit from an app like this, but for Shakespearean language. About two years ago, he proposed this idea as a potential honors thesis to one of his students, Jess Keller.
“It was really interesting to me, and I hadn’t really thought about doing an honors thesis. I didn’t think that research interests had anything to do with teaching,” Keller said. “(Dugas) said, 'you know, this could be an honors thesis if you wanted to do it,' and I was really intrigued by the idea.”
Keller is an aspiring English teacher majoring in integrated language arts. She’s in her last semester at Kent State, and student teaching is keeping her quite busy. She recalls teaching her seventh grade students a Shakespeare play.
"We were going over an excerpt from 'The Tempest,' and we went through it line by line in a traditional way that a lot of teachers use, and they were really struggling with it,” Keller said. “The way that I taught Shakespeare, just for a day in class, showed me I needed to do something different, especially with the younger grades, because they just weren’t grasping it the way I was teaching it to them.”
Keller remembers being in a similar position when she was learning Shakespeare for the first time.
“I didn’t really grasp Shakespearean in high school,” she said, adding that she did not fully understand the texts until taking an Intro to Shakespeare class in college. “We had extensive notes in class, I read the plays, I watched full versions of the plays online and had the text open while I did that, and that was taking at least five hours a week outside of class and we were able to spend in-depth time. But if you look at a general K-12 school, you don’t have that kind of time to spend and really dig into that.”
Keller combined her passion for teaching with her desire to help students fully comprehend Shakespearean language by taking on the thesis project Dugas proposed. She calls it “Will’s Words,” an app that offers five different language learning games for high school students.
The games range from having the user match words with their definitions, to identifying the modern meaning of a words, to seeing a word inside a full passage of text and choosing the meaning from the context clues. The games are called Two of a Kind, One-Liners, So Many Choices, Instant Replay and Get With the Times.
Keller said students learn best when a fun activity accompanies the lesson, which is part of the reason she wanted to make the app. In addition to creating the games, she designed the prototype, conducted market research about digital learning apps and eventually defended her thesis to a panel of Honors College faculty. She said the most difficult part of the project was that it was out of her comfort zone.
“Because it was original research, because it was coming up with my own original solution to a problem, that was something scary for me as a college student I had never really done that before,” Keller said. "So that was a really challenging aspect, just being able to sit down and say, ‘Let’s do this. I don’t know if it’ll work, but let’s do this.’”
Keller said she wants to continue working on the app but would need to hire a developer or coder in order to launch it. For now, it is a side project, but she said she has ideas for future app advancements to make it “more of a comprehensive experience.”
“We want to add sound effects and possibly voice recognition software possibly later on so kids can practice speaking it and having the meter,” she said. “We also want to add modules about Shakespearean dress, and the theater and Shakespearean insults, so some additional fun things that you can either earn as an award for getting a perfect score on something, or using in-game currency to pay for it or paying for it yourself for in-app purposes.”
Keller defended her thesis to the Honors College on Jan. 25th. One of the questions the panel asked is one you might have as well: Why is Shakespeare still taught?
“For me, it’s because they’re timeless stories. It’s being able to see that even back in Shakespeare’s day there’s the seventh grade element of falling in love with your boyfriend for three days and then three days later you’re like, ‘Well, OK, we tried,’” Keller said, laughing. “Having that element of connection to see all the way back then that people were still trying to figure out fate versus free will and young love and succession and all these innately human elements that we still deal with today. That’s why it’s important to me to be able to make those connections and find that people back then are just like us.”
You can follow Keller on Twitter at @MsJKeller.
The next episode will focus a Kent State student who’s helping sick kids and their families one blanket at a time. Listen Thursday, February 21st on KentWired, or wherever you get your podcasts, and be sure to follow us on Twitter at @KENT_repreneur.