Monday, November 28, 2011

To Teach or Not to Teach Shakespeare: “That is the Question!” 11/28/11

Photo from Wikimedia Commons
By Beth Hammett

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As a middle school teacher, my decision to teach Shakespeare was simple. In my mind, students needed an introduction to the famous author and his classic works.  After all, the themes of the plays are timeless.  There are also other novels and short stories students will encounter that reference Shakespeare.  It seemed logical that an overview would benefit students and their future teachers.  Were there objections?  Yes, there were high school teachers who opposed my teaching Shakespeare in the earlier years. They argued that the works were already covered in their entirety in eleventh and twelfth grades, but once these colleagues reviewed the lower-level materials, everyone approved of the lesson plan.

The key words in teaching Shakespeare to younger students are “introduction” and "overview."  It’s important to remember that middle school students’ personal experiences and depths of relationships do not equal those of high-schoolers or adults.  Therefore, keep the lesson plan simple, engaging, and informative.  Here is what I did. First, my students brainstormed what they knew about Shakespeare.  Then we brought lots of related books and pictures into the classroom.  Students broke into small groups and chose the topics below, based on the dates of Shakespeare’s life (1564-1616), to present background knowledge through timelines, or other media, to their classmates: 

  • Art
  • Authors
  • Country
  • Inventions
  • Fashions
  • Jobs/Careers
  • Government
  • Music
  • Others

Illustration 1: Translation of Brutus' Speech to the People
Next, students chose comic books of the works (free previews are available at Classical Comics) to read in small groups.  Then, as a whole class, students performed the shortened Scholastic versions of the plays.  With each play, I showed highlighted sections of the BBC movies, on loan from the local library.  I chose passages from the original Shakespeare works (free audio is available at Librivox) that matched middle grade level literature concepts, such as irony and symbolism. 
Illustration 2: Creative Twist on a Shakespeare Exam
For assessments, I asked students to translate Brutus’ “Speech to the People” into modern speech from various times (Illustration 1), such as the language used from the 1950s up to 2011.  Online time period dictionaries, such as Alpha Dictionary's Historical Slang Dictionary, have lists of slang words.  For exams, students formed small groups, chose one scene, listed the main idea, and constructed creative artworks of the literal interpretations (Illustration 2).

An introduction, or overview, of Shakespeare helps students understand the author, his life, and the plots and themes of his plays when they read and study complete works later in their academic careers.  Students will feel more comfortable with this difficult subject matter if they have previously approached the subjects in fun, collaborative settings with lots of discussions and visuals.  Are you ready to help your students enjoy Shakespeare?  "That is the question!"

Teachers Pay Teachers Product Related Links:

Having Fun With Brutus’ Speech $3.00  

Editing and Proofreading Worksheet $1.00

Shakespeare Globe Theater Elizabethan Era Research and Art Project $2.50   

Vocabulary Spinner Pattern $2.00

Five Paragraph Theme Writing Packet, $8.00

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