Detroit News - June 3, 2000

"A Midsummer Night's Smackdown!" 

By Michael H. Hodges, The Detroit News Ann Arbor 06/03/2000

Offbeat teacher's class puts a hammerlock on Shakespeare The creative genius who inspired "Smackdown" is Huron High English teacher Ryan Goble, who argues that harnessing pop culture to the classics is one way of getting reluctant students jazzed about reading and writing.

The scene is the boxing ring at the University of Michigan Coliseum. The participants are dressed in the macho garb one associates with World Wrestling Federation bouts. Kyle Bernardus, a bare-chested young fellow with war paint on his face, bellows, "She's mine!" and vaults across the ring to smash a folding chair (fake) over the shoulders of a guy decked out as Stone Cold Steve Austin. The two slam to the floor mats with a terrible smack. It's another day in Mr. Goble's sophomore English class. Today, kids, we're studying Shakespeare! Or more specifically, A Midsummer Night's Dream -- recast by a group of Ryan Goble's Huron High School students as A Midsummer Night's Smackdown. This imaginative spin on Shakespeare's classic love triangle highlights the subversive way this first-year teacher teaches -- by harnessing the kids' world to hook them into literature. If it sounds a little offbeat, the approach has nonetheless energized students normally inclined to snooze through English or skip it altogether. With motivating students to read a nagging problem nationwide, his principal, Dr. Arthur Williams, calls Goble's approach "a wonderful tool" for engaging even the most disaffected. 

Why cut class when, as on a recent Thursday, you get to spend an hour listening to the Beatles ("A Day in the Life") and deconstruct their lyrics? And writing assignments are a lot less bogus, in student-speak, when you get to invent a rock star and write the artist's biography for the CD cover, which Goble confesses was really "a disguised way of teaching the standard five-paragraph essay."

For the 24-year-old originally from Chicago, whose master's thesis at the University of Michigan explored using pop culture as a gateway to "stuff the kids might be scared of" -- like Shakespeare -- there was never much question about how to teach once he had young minds at his disposal.

"I'd guess I'd say it's important to understand the kids' world," he says, sitting in the hall outside his Huron High classroom as a wren incongruously flies past, "because that's authentic to them. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein has no connection to their universe."

He breaks to open the door and check on his class, which is watching a documentary on the Beatles. "Is anybody dead yet? Mr. Goble's just checking."

Asked to comment on his new hire, English-department head Carey Culbertson lets fly a long, soft laugh.

"He's a little off the wall," he says, "but very creative. My belief is that every school should have one teacher like Ryan." Says Goble's U-M mentor, education Prof. Fred Goodman, "Ryan's out there slugging!"

In a way, Goble and his passions are an ideal match -- using what both he and the kids love best to illuminate the classics. And what better trick than employing the kids' own world as a painless vehicle for teaching allusion, symbolism, euphemism and other brick-and-mortar elements of composition? In this, Goble is actually far more ordinary than he looks, despite the web site he's founded on integrating pop culture in their classes, the teacher workshops he runs at the Motown Museum and Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and his ability to jabber articulately at mind-numbing length.

Because the task of every teacher worth his or her chalk -- let us be frank -- is to trick kids into learning. (Is there a parent out there who disagrees?) And like any novice educator, Goble is groping for every weapon at his disposal. In the case of Midsummer, after reading the play and analyzing it in class, Goble -- who worked a year in Hollywood, "mostly getting water for people" -- decided to make scriptwriters out of all his students.

The goal was to teach how movies and theater actually get made. Assignment? Pitch Midsummer as a movie concept for which you'll adapt several scenes. And remember that Shakespeare -- "Pop culture in his time," as Goble says emphatically -- is all about interpretation.

Scatter seeds and ye shall reap. Goble let the kids split into groups, generating treatments ranging from the World Wrestling Federation concept to a Shakespeare in Kindergarten to a Midsummer with Monica Lewinsky as Titania, the fairy queen, and President Clinton as Bottom, the hapless buffoon who sprouts donkey's ears.

"That one," Goble says, "was a little borderline, though tasteful." Which brings us back to this boxing ring on a glorious spring evening, where a bunch of guys mostly of the jock variety are earnestly brushing up their Shakespeare. One of guys who worked on Smackdown, Chris Kunkel, is shimmying his way into a gray dress for his part as Hermia, the girl claimed by both Lysander and Demetrius, the two guys currently rolling around on the wrestling mats. (The Smackdown group happened to be all guys.)

At first, the writers -- including Eric Garcia, who came up with the concept, Adam Lopez, Justin Bailey, Sean Anderson and Ali Hussain, who consulted on WWF protocol -- were going to drop the female characters altogether. But when Goble, who tagged himself "the studio head," objected, Kunkel says they decided "to make it closer to the play." Getting into the WWF spirit, the scriptwriting team also wanted the male wrestlers to insult one another with contemporary abuse like "butthead." "I was like, 'No, no, no,' " says Goble. "I said, 'Look at Shakespeare himself -- there's plenty of cool ways to insult each other and in the process get a much deeper appreciation of the language.'

"So "butthead" became "canker blossom" -- as Elizabethan as one could wish.

Demetrius, a.k.a. Kirk Bogardus, dives into the ring to claim his right to his beloved, Helena. Senior Greg Reimink catches the action on film.

Kunkel has finished adjusting his wig and is now working a balloon into the dress to substitute for womanly charms.

"Hey, guys!" he calls out to the dozen or so kids milling around the boxing ring. "How do I look?"

(Remarkably like a big-shouldered Holly Hunter, actually.) Goble walks by with a "Why me?" shake of the head. "What have I created?" "All quiet on the set!" bellows director Mark Williams who, with another senior, is videotaping today's scenes to edit into a short movie which Goble hopes to use for grant proposals to get Huron High School an up-to-the-minute computer editing machine. Whispering just off-stage, parent Zohair Mohsen watches from behind a screen so his son, Ali Hussain, "won't be nervous." Mohsen contends the enthusiasm Goble generates far outstrips anything he remembers from high school.

"I think it's just beautiful," he says. "The way the teacher is conducting all this is very unconventional, and I think comprehension of the issues will be much greater." In any event, attendance at Goble's Huron High classroom -- dubbed "The Thunderdome" -- seems to be greater than it might otherwise be. Says straight-talker Alex Bellis, "I'm not a big class guy. I skip a lot." 

At the beginning of the year, he says, Goble described his sophomore class and what he was going to do with music and art and special projects. "Yeah, well, that's all right," Bellis says, "but I probably won't come because I don't go to classes much." He recalls Goble saying, "Just give it two weeks, and if you don't like it, don't come anymore." 

Bellis has been present every day since, even adding another Goble class -- composition, of all things -- "because I like him." Others have some quibbles. Sophomore Dan Schiff reports, "Some students thought Goble was going to be really easy, and now they're complaining -- more projects, due dates, work sheets in class."

Still, Culbertson confirms that Goble has become a magnet for disaffected students, though "most kids really find him different and engaging. Because the one thing he really tries to do is find out where they're at, in terms of interest, and integrate that into the traditional literature in class." Meantime, back at the boxing ring, tonight's filming is just finishing up. Sevan Ahrun, a sophomore playing Puck, has just blown one of his lines on-camera, grabs a script and shoves it into the teacher's hands. "Goble! Help me out!" As Goble recites the next couple lines -- Hrun vigorously repeats them to himself -- director Williams calls for quiet for the next take

Turning to the "girls," about to enter the ring for their catfight, Williams is jazzed. "Walk your talk, sugar! Walk your talk!" "Yeah," shouts Goble. "Be a freak -- not a stretch for you guys." This guy is having way too much fun.