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 them meaningfully.
How I teach Shakespeare changes yearly, but the overall structure remains somewhat the same. I hope this outline helps you.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Do you need more processes and ideas not bode well for you? Do you want more ideas for when you teach Shakespeare? Melissa at Reading and Writing Haven has more Shakespeare lesson plan ideas.