Teaching Shakespeare the Fun Way
Introducing Ten Strategies for Teaching Shakespeare
With the new implementation of the Common Core State Standards, many teachers are facing the prospect of teaching a Shakespearean play for the first time. If you are looking for some ideas for getting through one of the Bard's play without boring both yourself, and your students, to death, keep reading. I offer some fantastic strategies for teaching Shakespeare the fun way.
What are my qualifications? Well, I am a former high school English teacher and I have been told three times that "these students won't learn Shakespeare." I took those words as a challenge and smiled, "we'll see."
Perhaps you are facing a class full of students who have no interest in reading, never mind reading Thee's and Thou's. It is possible to teach Shakespeare to a class that doesn't want to learn it. Teach Shakespeare in a way that gets students interested.
This article offers ten strategies for teaching Shakespearean plays to your class You too can introduce the world's great playwright to a bunch of very reluctant teenagers who would rather have been playing video games, or texting their friends. These strategies will help your bored class turn into an Shakespearean enthusiasts.
Don't Be Afraid of the Bard!
1. Make it a Privilege
Make doing Shakespeare seem like something that students only get to do if they do all their work, and are well-behaved. Talk about it with excitement and anticipation. Don't worry about all the eye-rolling you will receive from this enthusiasm; that's just them being teenagers. Don't give up and make them believe that reading these plays is the absolute best thing you have ever done in your life. It works!
Acting It Out
2. Assign Roles Every Day
The second strategy, is that for each individual scene, you should write out the list of characters on the board, and write the name of the person who will be playing that character beside it. You need to have all the characters in the scene written out, so that everyone can refer to it, and remind students if they have forgotten to say their line. It keeps everyone on track, like stage directions, and lets you focus on the play, instead of who's supposed to say what.
As well, assigning roles lets students have ownership of their characters, and gives them a sense of security. Let them choose their roles, as much as you can, and if Derek only wants to do the one-liner, that's fine. At least he has participated!
And roles don't have to be the same every day. Just, for every scene and every fresh day, assign new roles. You get to be the casting director every class!
It is also a good idea to keep a list of your cast members from each class, as a record of who read the most, and a reminder of who did what each class.
Be a little wild and crazy!
3. Act It Out
Act it out as much as you can. Don't give up on this one, even if you are the only one acting. That's okay. You are the role model. By acting, I mean, use movement, and try to set up a stage at the front of the class. It doesn't have to be BBC, but just give them the idea that it is a play, and not a story, or an essay. This makes it come alive, and brings out the excitement of the plays!
As well, use props, no matter how primitive! For the fight scenes, I have used clothes hangers, brooms, yardsticks, and yes, real swords. Just grab whatever is handy. Most boys, especially, will relish any opportunity to use weapons, no matter how imaginary. Acting it out is the most powerful teaching strategy you can add to your arsenal, because it makes the play come alive before their eyes!
4. As a Teacher, Take on Roles
As the teacher, take on roles as needed. Be their role model in acting it out and acting silly. This shouldn't be some stuffy exercise: it was supposed to be entertainment!
Take on the roles that no one else wants, and read with enthusiasm. You can model the pronunciation, use of language, and acting. Even if you've never acted, you are a teacher, so you must have a bit of a ham in you!
For major parts such as Hamlet, share a role with one of the students, or have them share between themselves. That way, it's not too much pressure for one person. You can either alternate lines, or read until tired. Do both, depending on what works best for that day. The point is to get through it.
Shakespearean Insult Gum
- Shakespeare Insult Kit
Use the list as instructed, with at least word from each list, prefaced by Thou.
4. Do Shakespearean Insults
"Thou art like a toad; ugly and venemous."
- As You Like it.
You scullion! You rampallian! You fustilarian! I'll tickle your catastrophe!
-Henry IV Part 2
Yes, there are no insults like the ones thrown around in grand fashion by the characters of Shakespeare. This activity allows students to create their own insults, and is the one instance where back talk is allowed, and even encouraged. Hilarity ensues!
I was introduced to the basic bare bones of this activity during my university years by a classroom teacher who came into our university sessional, and whose name I do not recall (sorry, who ever you are!), and then I gave it my own twist. Here are the instructions:
MATERIALS NEEDED: one large piece of coloured construction paper per student, markers (at least one per student), scissors, one list of words per student
- Print off the list of words (found to your right here ------->)
- Photocopy enough copies for your class
- Each student receives a list, a large piece of construction paper, scissors
- Students choose one or more words from each column to create insults, and write them down, with markers, on the construction paper.Preface the insults with the word "thou." Students do ten insults each
- Instruct students to cut out each insult, creating ten different strips
- Collect strips. Mix them up, and re-distribute, ten to each student.
- Ask for two volunteers. Give ten random strips to each volunteer. Have volunteers stand in front of the class, facing one another.
- Have them "duel" using the insults. One person says insult. The other one rebuts, using another insult back.
- Have all students find a partner, and duel using their ten strips.
- At the end, create a display with the best insults, titled "Shakespearean Insults." Use the actual strips created by students. For further engagement, have students involved in putting up the strips themselves.
Good Resource to Share with Class
The Plays of William Shakespeare
6. Check for Understanding Often
Don't go very long without checking for understanding. You may be thoroughly enjoying it, but the students might be completely lost (and often are!) After a conversation, ask "what did Romeo mean here?" or "What just happened?" Then, give them some time to try to figure it out. They can check their glossary to try to understand some of the words. They can also guess, and you can take their guess, and flesh it out for more understanding.
An excellent way to check for daily understanding is to require a summary from each scene, written in their own words. This will help motivate them to pay attention, and also let you know how they are doing in their understanding.
Song from Romeo and Juliet Soundtrack
7. Sometimes, just Go with the Flow
It is important to check for understanding often, but it is also important for students to be able to experience the "flow" of a play, without always having to understand absolutely every word. I have read "Hamlet" about ten times now, but I still don't get all of it. A high school student won't either, and that's fine.
So, at time, just keep reading, even if they don't get it. This will let them experience the flow of a play, and listen to the flow and majesty that is the writing of William Shakespeare. The people in his time didn't get all of it, either, but they had fun.
8. Use Many Comparisons to Real Life
Find analogies wherever you can, between their lives and the plays you are doing. Research this if you can't find them yourselves. It is imperative for them to be able to relate, so that they don't get turned off.
Romeo and Juliet issues? Suicide, stalking, breaking up, parents not understanding, gang warfare, macho stupidity! Sound anything like today? The plays written by William Shakespeare are universal, with themes that relate well to the classroom, but it's up to you to help them find the connections!
Excellent Multi-Media Resource Introducing Shakespeare as Playwright
9. Bring in Other Media
Bring in other media, as much as possible. Your resources will vary, depending on where you teach, but try to include a variety of sources relating to the play you are doing. Try to find the most engaging version of the work you are studying, and use it. Don't torture your kids with something you would find boring.
Movies are an excellent resource, allowing the students to see the play as it was originally intended: as a drama. There are some guidelines and considerations for watching a Shakespeare film, but it can still be a very effective resource in your teaching arsenal.
Graphic novels are another excellent way to engage reluctant learners with the text. I had one student who wasn't in my class come and borrow one of our Romeo and Juliet graphic novels, and read it all, even when he didn't have to! Graphic novels give the student a visual, and are in a format that they understand and can relate to.
Another great tool to use to supplement the text is audiotape. If you can get ahold of these, they will let the students "hear" the play, which help the auditory learners in your classroom. As well, picture books are good, with visuals of the time of Shakespeare, and the costumes.
Any aids which help in the comprehension of the play will be helpful, and make learning Shakespeare fun, and accessible to all students!
See This Site for More Multi-Media Ideas
- Sharilee Shares Shakespeare
A site with strategies and ideas for teaching Shakespeare to kids and teenagers.
Journalling is a Good Strategy
10. Use a Daily Journal
Daily journals for Shakespeare study are very effective, because journals can become part of the routine, and therefore are more likely to be done by all students. You can use the journals in many different ways. A couple of the uses that I found most effective were the following:
a. Use the journal for daily summaries of the scenes that were read in class. This keeps all the summaries together in one place, and allows the student to go back to previous scenes to check for information.
b. Use the journal to write "diary" entries, from the point-of-view of one of the characters in the act that you are studying. Writing from a character's viewpoint helps them to relate to the characters, and helps develop empathy.
A journal can be used to achieve whatever your desired outcomes are for the course, but are good because they give the students a special place to do their Shakespeare study, which encourages ownership of their work.
Hey, get Thee onward, to teach these abhorrent damsels and gentlemen the said manners and methods found therein the bowels of this great and honourable William Shakespeare!