Last week, I attended a county-wide Edcamp, and I had the opportunity to meet with English teachers from all of the school districts in our county. Not surprisingly, one of the major topics of concern was the challenge of teaching Shakespeare, and I get it. Like many teachers, I struggled to get my students to see the magic in Shakespeare’s universal stories.
I’ve been teaching Shakespearean plays for ten years (The Tragedy of Julius Caesar for the first half and Macbeth most recently). Both plays are near and dear to my heart, but the truth is, they weren’t always for my students. Until I decided to try a new approach. Since then, the results for my students (and my Shakespeare struggles) have been completely transformed. It took a lot of research, but I’m so happy to share with you my strategies that really work!
Step 1: Define the objective
In 2014, I presented at NCTE’s Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. Kelly Gallagher was the keynote speaker, and he made a major confession: his students read No Fear Shakespeare. (You can read his blog post about this confession and justification here.) The main message I took away from his presentation was that it all comes down to your objective.
When I reflected, I realized that my objective was not to make my students expert Shakespearean text translators and comprehension-deciphers of the challenging language. It certainly wasn’t to make them so frustrated that they hated Shakespeare. What I really want for my students is for them to be able to understand, appreciate, and analyze the complex characters, universal themes, and modern-day connections so they can arrive at a deeper understanding of and appreciation for Shakespeare’s work.
So to begin, I challenge you to think about the learning objectives you have for your students.
Step 2: Choose passages
Even though I agree that No-Fear-Shakespeare can have a place in the classroom, I still believe that reading the original text is valuable–when done with intention. Therefore, the next step is to choose passages from the play that are “must reads” for your students. I like to match those passages to literary skills or lessons that help my students meet the learning objectives. For example, when reading Macbeth, Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene is great for studying symbolizing. With the passage, I add close reading tasks to focus their reading and help them work past understanding. (Check out this post to get your students close reading and annotating.) These close reading passages are much more digestible than assigning an entire scene or act at once.
Fortunately, you can find Shakespeare’s full-text works online, so you can copy and paste the passages you want into new documents. To make this even easier, you can select passages from your textbooks and ask students to complete close reading tasks with sticky notes.
What I love about this strategy is that students are reading the original text, but doing so in a focused way. When chosen strategically, these close passages can represent important aspects of each act. So if they’re not reading the whole play, you might be wondering how we fill in the blanks.
Step 3: Fill in the blanks with film
In the past, I played an entire film version of the play at the end of the unit. However, three days straight of watching the film can be a bit monotonous. Not to mention, it doesn’t really help students to gain an understanding of the plot after the unit is over. Then, we changed our approach and started showing the filming in chunks to fill in the blanks from the close reading passages. Students became much more interested in the play as the whole. In addition, we spent less time struggling through comprehension and could spend more time on the analysis.
Showing the film in chunks gives you the opportunity to show clips from different versions of the text. For example, I love Patrick Stewart’s “Tomorrow” soliloquy in the 2010 version of Macbeth, the opening of Roman Polanski’s 1971 Macbeth with the witches, and the dinner scene in the 2015 version of Macbeth. My students enjoyed comparing the mood of each adaptation.
Showing the film in chunks gives you the opportunity to show clips from different versions of the text. Here is a list of some of my favorite scenes from Macbeth:
- Patrick Stewart’s “Tomorrow” soliloquy in the 2010 version of Macbeth
- The opening of Roman Polanski’s 1971 Macbeth with the witches
- The dinner scene in the 2015 version of Macbeth. My students enjoyed comparing the mood of each adaptation.
Step 4: Act it out
I used to dread long periods of listening to audio or choosing roles and reading aloud. The simple truth is that Shakespeare is very challenging for students to read aloud. Plus, I’m not convinced they’re learning much in the process. Their worry about flubbing up the language adds yet another challenge. Still, plays are meant to be acted out. Therefore, the final step is filling in the blanks with acting activities. These can be structured activities that require students to read the original text or No-Fear-Shakespeare to create an abridged and modern-day interpretation of the text. I found this task requires much more higher-order analysis. Plus, anytime I can get my students out of their seats, I take it. After they act out their scenes, we can discuss their interpretative choices. My students really enjoyed this Act It Out activity from my friend, Ashley Bible (@buildingbooklove).
More Shakespeare Resources
We have had so much success with this approach to teaching Shakespeare, but it didn’t happen overnight. I did a lot of research to develop this step-by-step plan that could be applied to any Shakespearean play. To conclude, I’d like to share some of the resources I found helpful when planning this new strategy:
- The Folger Shakespeare Library is my go-to for all things related to the bard. They have so many great instructional resources. I found this article about strategies for students with learning differences particularly helpful.
- This scholarly journal article from the English Journal makes the case for film chunking with YouTube Shakespeare. Desmet, C. (2009). Teaching Shakespeare with YouTube. English Journal, 99(1), 65-70.
- I love this post by Ashley Bible about adding voices of color to your Shakespeare study.
- Teaching Shakespeare is a website platform for the Royal Shakespeare Company. It has many unique approaches to teaching Shakespeare, including video clips and thematic study.
- This article from Edutopia outlines “3 Rules to Break to Break When Teaching Shakespeare.” It aligns very closely with my Shakespeare philosophy.