Ways to Teach Shakespeare with Meaning

Looking for alternative ways to teach Shakespeare? These are my lesson plans for teaching Romeo and Juliet. Julius Caesar...

Teach Shakespeare? Read on!

When I started writing about ways to teach Shakespeare, I ran through all of his plays that I have taught in ten years: Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear. (I am somewhat convinced that I have taught A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but I cannot remember where or when.)

I did my large student-teaching unit on Julius Caesar and since then, I have remain convinced that students across the spectrum can and should read Shakespeare. Students experience the themes and ideas that are in his plays in their lives, and we teachers can connect Shakespeare to students meaningfully.

How I teach Shakespeare changes yearly, but the overall structure remains somewhat the same. I hope this outline helps you.

Teaching Shakespeare to modern students requires insight and a willingness to experiment. Try this outline to make Shakespeare lessons run smoothly. #HighSchoolELA

Provide Shakespeare background.

When I teach freshmen, I cover the basics of Shakespeare’s life and the play’s setting. I want to prepare students and gain their attention without overwhelming them. One time, I obviously did not clarify the years enough, and students believed that Shakespeare lived alongside Julius Caesar. During background lessons, emphasize the years! As teachers and people with degrees, we know this information. You probably are not over-explaining.

With sophomores, I deepen the background. I can build off the previous year, and students have experienced another year of social studies.

I introduce King Henry VIII and move forward. Students find this history fascinating! This provides background of Elizabeth I and leads into the Elizabethan era and Shakespeare.

When students understand the background knowledge, I move into the play.

Scaffold the reading.

Reading most of his plays takes about five weeks. (This does not include learning background information, writing a paper, or reviewing.) As we read, students and I complete a variety of activities. This is an example of a week’s lesson plan:

Monday: Discuss the setting of Act I. Assign or choose parts. Read (perform if the class is willing). Finish class by casting real actors and blocking a scene. Other times, we set the play in a modern place which connects the play to present life.

Tuesday: Answer questions about Monday’s reading. Read. Map characterization of one or two characters.

Wednesday: Review the act with a graphic organizer. “Set the stage” —envision proper sets, props, and costumes. Read or listen to the play. (Often in the middle of the week, students prefer to listen to audio. I’ve also found that giving students choice in this small way builds trust.)

Thursday: Talk about vocabulary, grammar, or language. Finish reading. If time permits, begin watching the movie portion of the act.

Friday: Begin class with a quiz* and straighten any confused notions. Finish watching that section and begin a culminating activity (perhaps a reflection about a character or symbol).

* Note: I rarely take grades over comprehension quizzes. Instead, I provide them to students as a way to clarify important details. I find that multiple-choice questions work well for this while limiting embarrassment. I have sets for Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar.

All of this can be adjusted! Overall, I can finish an act of a Shakespearean play in a week. The activities to support understanding and analysis differ from year to year because I largely try to provide student choice. You can download many of the activities I use and incorporate them in your lessons:

Finally, I don’t only teach the play. We write, cover grammatical concepts, and talk through vocabulary. Talking about the play 100% of a class period would bore many students. Plus, I like to show students how all components of our class connect and build off each other.

Provide a variety.

I try to let last year’s lessons guide me, but not dictate my planning for the current year. (Does that make sense? I utilize the previous year’s method, but I am willing to stray from it.) I need to remember that some of these students have never experienced Shakespeare and then consider pacing, all while accommodating the interests of students in front of me.

The activities and types of questions therefore depend on individual classes. Some groups do well analyzing questions, while others prefer graphic organizers to separate the information. Charts and drawing pictures help certain groups; puppet shows help others.

When I teach Shakespeare, I want students to leave feeling accomplished. They should know that they can indeed read a difficult piece of writing, a feeling that I hope carries them in more difficult classes. They should also realize that these old plays relate to the events of present day. These methods help me accomplish those goals.

Connect to today.

The rest of Shakespeare? I am not a Shakespearean scholar, but countless times during dramas and comedies, I will stop and smile because the plot reminisces of a Shakespearean play. Television shows and movies follow the story lines of Shakespeare’s plays. To understand a large picture of our culture and themes throughout our stories, students should have knowledge of Shakespeare.

Here’s another reason:

I taught at an alternative school for a year, and the students had rough (and heartbreaking) life experiences. Macbeth was in the senior curriculum, and even though I questioned the success of teaching it, I forged ahead.

My students seemed to understand the play, and we continued to read it. I still doubted if the themes were coming through, but the students didn’t seem to mind it. One day, a girl raised her hand and said, “I know lots of girls like this.”

Lady Macbeth? Yep. I really was taken aback. I had not expected that conversation. “Why?”

Well, this student knew lots of women who had gone to jail for helping their boyfriends with illegal activities. She knew lots of females who struggled with being loyal to their boyfriends while being concerned with the actions of helping their boyfriends.

Shakespeare’s storylines and themes apply to life today! All lives. The themes are timeless.

Encourage and help students.

Teaching any Shakespeare play is not easy, and sometimes I stop and give my students a pep talk. Shakespeare is complex!

This is all the more reason to teach it to our students, because they can understand it, and they deserve teachers who believe they can. Our students deserve the challenges and rewards of reading Shakespeare.

As a note, I don’t teach famous parts of the play without teaching all of the play. During my research for Julius Caesar, I found forums where teachers only teach Mark Antony’s famous speech. Teachers pull the famous speeches and cover rhetorical devices that way. I too teach asyndeton, polysyndeton, and other rhetorical terms as part of my Julius Caesar lesson plans.

I teach the plays in context though.

ELA teachers should consider the ramifications of only teaching pieces of a a Shakespearean play. What are we teachers telling students if we don’t cover the entire play? Are we telling them that studying a difficult piece in its entirety is not important? That they can’t do it? That they should just pick the fun parts of all literature?

Students feel a sense of accomplishment when reading Shakespeare, and they should. Reading a Shakespearean play is tough. Students realize they can read complex and trying texts. They can read materials that others say are “over their heads.” They experience success after perseverance – a life lesson I hope all my students take.

And? In a culture where students struggle to recognize fake news, I will teach my students to look at all of a resource. The context matters. It matters that the plebeians just trusted Brutus five seconds ago and now agree with Antony. Teachers should highlight Antony’s famous speech, but students should have a chance to read all of the play. Teaching “bits” echoes the problem with students merely looking at “soundbites” from today’s culture and making decisions based off that.

As I teach Shakespeare’s plays, my methods and approaches grow and change. I wrote out my specific ideas, links, and activities for Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet. Those posts should provide you extra support! I update them as I find new resources.

Do you need more processes and ideas? Do you want more ideas for when you teach Shakespeare? Melissa at Reading and Writing Haven has more Shakespeare lesson plan ideas. Plus! I’d love for you to join our Facebook group of compassionate educators who share ideas for tough lessons like Shakespeare.