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All the World's a Stage: Shakespeare Teaching in High School Made Fun and Accessible

Ah, good old Shakespeare. The mere mention of his name can make any ELA heart giddy while also conjuring up images of students groaning in despair. Teaching the Bard to high schoolers can feel daunting, but it doesn't have to be.

Let me share a vulnerable truth moment: The very first time I taught Shakes, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I became a teacher through an unconventional route so I had never read any of his plays, barely understood the language, and I got the gist of the plot for Romeo and Juliet, which I was tasked with covering, but heard crickets in my head when I finally read through it to figure out how to teach it. Cue the panic.

Naturally, I bought every single thing I could off TPT, hoping for a miracle. And while my makeshift plan got us through, it was far from ideal. My anxiety levels matched those of my students, and let's just say, it wasn't the highlight of the semester.

Fast forward to round three of Shakespearean instruction, and I finally found my stride. I learned how to analyze the text fully and discovered creative activity ideas for various parts of it. I was in my teacher groove after having survived the first couple of years, and was putting in overtime to be a "normal" teacher ๐Ÿ˜… so I could be excellent for my students.

And in that, I realized that duh, it takes a lot of strategy to teach it to students; look at all the research I had to do to teach it fully to myself.

And that's the challenge, isn't it: how do we make Shakespeare not just palatable, but digestible and downright enjoyable for our students? How do we bridge the gap between 16th-century English and Snapchat-savvy minds? The answer lies in accessibility.

Sure, Shakespeare might seem intimidating at first glance. But beneath the archaic language lies breathtakingly beautiful poetry, timeless stories, rich, deep characters, and universal themes that are perennially relevant. Oh, and there's also the cringy hilarity. At least one of those items can intrigue even the most stoic of students.

So if you've been stressed out with your Shakes content, I hope the following tools and tips can help you go from frazzled to inspired.

๐Ÿ’ป ๐Ÿ’ป ๐Ÿ’ป Tools of the Trade ๐Ÿ’ป ๐Ÿ’ป ๐Ÿ’ป

When it comes to deciphering the intricate language and unraveling the meat of Shakespearean plays, having the right tools at your disposal can make all the difference. Luckily, the digital age has blessed us with endless resources to aid in our quest to make the Bard more accessible to high school students. Here are a few of my faves that I would bookmark:

๐Ÿ’ป No Fear Shakespeare:

From the creators of SparkNotes, this oldie but goodie is well-known, but of course, deserves the mention. This online resource offers side-by-side translations of Shakespeare's works into modern English, making the language more digestible without sacrificing the essence of the original text. With No Fear Shakespeare, even the most convoluted passages become crystal clear, and I love that they sell the physical book versions with the same side-by-side translations, perfect for teachers and students who prefer flipping pages to scrolling screens.

๐Ÿ’ป My Shakespeare:

Developed by the British Library, My Shakespeare is an interactive platform provides incredible resources for digging deep into six of Shakes' most famous plays, including historical context, expert analysis, and multimedia content. Whether you're seasoned in teaching this content or a novice, it offers something for everyone, enriching the learning experience for both teachers and students alike. It breaks down everything from wordplay to soliloquy reflections and even literary critiques, and it also has comprehension questions and written response prompts sprinkled in. Trust me, once you start exploring, you'll be as obsessed with it as I am ๐Ÿ˜

๐Ÿ’ป The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC):

As one of the most esteemed theater companies in the world, the RSC offers a wealth of resources for educators, including lesson plans, workshops, and live performances. You can dive into their digital archives to access behind-the-scenes footage, interviews with actors, and invaluable free teaching packs that bring Shakespeare's works to life in the classroom. It's great for watching pieces of a play during readings instead of (or in addition to) waiting till the end of the play to watch the full movie version, for example. I will say that some students find their performances extra cringy, but that makes it all the better, and more memorable ๐Ÿ˜‚

๐Ÿ’ป Folger Digital Texts:

Developed by the Folger Shakespeare Library, this online platform houses high-quality digital editions of Shakespeare's plays, complete with scholarly annotations and interactive features. While much of the platform is free, an annual membership fee of $40 grants access to full lesson plans and additional resources. If this is in your budget, then I'd say go for it! It may seem overwhelming with a lot of information at first, but if you take the time to sort through it slowly, the resources can be truly indispensable.

โœจ โœจ โœจ Interactive Activities โœจ โœจ โœจ

Not every day will (or should) feel like a party, but sprinkling in these interactive activities, or others you find, can make the material more accessible, engaging, and memorable, and who knows? Possibly even inspire a lifelong love of the Bard in your students ๐Ÿคฉ

โœจ Acting Out Scenes:

The old adage remains true - Shakespeare's meant to be seen, not read. So, why not do both? Encourage students to step into the shoes of Shakespeare's characters by assigning roles and staging scenes from his plays. Whether it's the balcony scene from "Romeo and Juliet" or the witches' cauldron scene from "Macbeth," acting out these iconic moments brings the text to life in ways that traditional reading alone cannot.

For the text, my preference is to have students read and act out the translated version, and then close read with the original versions. I've found this works especially well for struggling students, multi-lingual learners, and checked-out students.

And as far as casting goes, if you have more of an extroverted class, they'll sign themselves up, but if you'd like a lower stakes way to acquire volunteers, you can have them sign up digitally via a Google Form or something similar. You can also offer incentives for frequent actors, and for the more introverted babies, having options like these below can help them still feel included:

  • Stage manager - if you have props (they don't have to be fancy), you can assign a student to be in charge of holding/moving props, etc., playing sounds when needed (like trumpet sound off their phone)

  • Background creator - you can assign a student to create a slideshow of appropriate/sensical backgrounds for various scenes to display while students are acting them out

โœจ Learning Stations:

Stations are great for any content area/unit, and you can host them around the classroom, or hallways or library/larger space if your school has the capacity/logistics for it. Each station can focus on a different aspect of Shakespeare's works. For example, one station could be dedicated to exploring the historical context of Elizabethan England, while another could invite students to analyze poetic devices in Shakespeare's sonnets.

These stations can be be done as a pre-reading activity or after you finish a play to review key concepts. Choose how many students will be in each group and how they'll need to complete each station. 5-10 minutes is ideal, and depends on other factors like the length of your class periods, and how many days you want to spend on them. When completing stations, rotate student groups through them with a timer to keep everyone track.

Lastly, these can be done on paper, digitally, or a mix of both. You'll see an example of a digital station and a paper-based one for Romeo and Juliet below.

In the digital version to the left, students drag and drop the events listed in text boxes. In the paper version below, the students compile their responses in a Student Response Sheet.

โœจ Games and Role-Playing Activities:

Turn Shakespearean study into a game by creating interactive quizzes, trivia challenges, or even board games inspired by his plays. You can browse through ones that already exist, create your own, or assign students to create their own using sites like traditional Kahoot, Flippity, or the modern GooseChase Edu or Breshna. This not only reinforces their understanding of the text but also sparks creativity and imagination.

I go over using these and other gamification platforms in the video below, that's part of my Teacher Tech Mastery course.

โœจ Shakespearean Cafe or Banquet:

I'll never forget putting on a masquerade with a freshman group while they danced along with the movie version of the banquet in Romeo and Juliet. They were all chanting, "look at the flick of the wrist" while copying the awkward, hilarious dance moves performed. It's truly the little things.

If room transformations are your jam, you can turn your classroom into a Renaissance-era cafe, complete with period costumes and props, or host a Shakespearean banquet/feast with the same. Students take on the roles of Shakespearean characters and engage in lively discussions and debates over cups of (imaginary or real) tea, coffee, or if you're feeling really fancy, sparkling juice.

This activity encourages critical thinking and character analysis while fostering a fun and immersive atmosphere. It also doesn't have to be over the top or expensive. Even the smallest touches like dollar tree table cloths over desk with dimmed classroom lights and an ASMR YouTube video can do the trick. If you want extra props and costumes, you can ask students to brainstorm things they can bring in from home and/or ask coworkers and friends to borrow items as well. For the love of literature, who wouldn't want to help? ๐Ÿค“

โœจ Insult Match:

A popular activity is to challenge students to craft their own Shakespearean insults inspired by the Bard's colorful language. Divide the class into teams and engage in a friendly competition to see who can come up with the most creative insults. Not only does this activity reinforce vocabulary and language skills, but it also injects a dose of humor into the classroom.

For extra relevant razzle dazzle, you can add themes and touches of the popular show Wildin' Out. Many students would appreciate and enjoy that.

โœจ Sonnet Showdown:ย 

Keeping the competition vibes alive with this one, but in a more poetic style, divide the class into teams, each tasked with analyzing and performing a Shakespearean sonnet. Teams dissect their assigned sonnets, exploring themes, imagery, and poetic devices, before presenting their interpretations to the class.

The performances are judged based on clarity, creativity, and emotional resonance, fostering collaboration, communication, and public speaking skills. This interactive activity not only deepens students' understanding of Shakespeare's poetry but can also ignite their passion for performance and interpretation.

๐Ÿ“– ๐Ÿ“– ๐Ÿ“– Selective Reading ๐Ÿ“– ๐Ÿ“– ๐Ÿ“–

One of the things that can bog down teachers and students alike is feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of text. One look at the thickness of the plays or the length of some soliloquies, and many will want to run for the hills.

But here's the thing: you don't have to dissect every single scene or line to appreciate the beauty and brilliance of the work. I don't know if someone lied to us or we lied to ourselves, but in my experience, forcing the reading and analyzing of everything will only lead to frustration and burnout.

Feel free to summarize and skip some things. In fact, focusing on key passages and scenes can often yield a richer and more meaningful understanding of the play as a whole. Here are some tips for choosing what to cover and then how to go about it.

๐Ÿ“– Identify Key Passages and Scenes:

Instead of attempting to cover every inch of the text, focus on identifying key passages and scenes that encapsulate the central themes, conflicts, and character dynamics of the play. Look for pivotal moments that drive the plot forward or reveal important insights into the characters' motivations and emotions.

Once you identify key scenes for close reading, narrow it down even more. The goal of close reading is to zoom in - far in - to a bite-size piece of a text and analyze the way in which language is used/how it's used to ___________. Options to fill in the blank:

  • Enhance or develop 'x' theme

  • Emphasize a character's emotions

  • Compare and contrast characters

  • Illustrate internal conflict

  • Create a juxtaposition of ideologies

What do you want your students to focus on and take away from the passage snippet you've selected? You can select a few skills/literary devices for them to track and study - like metaphor, personification rhetorical question, juxtaposition - and then ask an open-ended prompt for post-reading that focuses on using what they've studied in the text to support their response.

The Classics Writes department at Harvard University compares close reading to a case study:

"Close reading is the technique of carefully analyzing a passageโ€™s language, content, structure, and patterns in order to understand what a passage means, what it suggests, and how it connects to the larger work ... One goal of close reading is to help readers to see facets of the text that they may not have noticed before. To this end, close reading entails 'reading out of' a text rather than 'reading into' it...As a general rule of thumb, every claim you make should be directly supported by evidence in the text."

Though it is a small piece of text, a close read can take up to 2 days, especially the first time around. Modeling your annotations, thinking, and writing for students the first time around, asking plentiful questions, and providing sentence stems can help them feel more confident until they're ready to fly on their own.

Lastly, a close read can also prove a beautiful opportunity for a pre-seminar task. Once students grasp the strategy well, the opportunity for discussion is ample and rich.

If you're more of a visual learner like me, here's an example of a close read I had my students complete for a soliloquy from Hamlet. Shout out to Amanda from Mud and Ink Teaching for helping me narrow down my close reads. She's also an amazing go-to for Shakespearean resources and secondary ELA. I also highly recommend her podcast, Brave New Teaching.

๐Ÿ“– Provide Contextual Framework:

Before delving into selected passages, provide students with a contextual framework that situates the text within its historical, cultural, and literary context. This could include discussions of Elizabethan society, Shakespeare's life and times, or the genre conventions of the play. By understanding the broader context in which the play was written, students can better appreciate and comprehend its significance and relevance.

๐Ÿ“– Emphasize Themes and Characters:

Rather than getting bogged down in every detail of the text, prioritize the exploration of overarching themes and character development. Encourage students to analyze how key passages contribute to the development of these themes and characters, and how they resonate with contemporary issues and experiences. This allows for a more focused and meaningful engagement with the material, without sacrificing depth or complexity.

At the end of the day, the goal of teaching Shakespeare is not to create experts in Elizabethan literature, but to cultivate critical thinking skills, empathy, and a deeper understanding of the human condition. By embracing a selective reading approach, we empower students to engage with Shakespeare's works in a way that is both manageable and meaningful. So let go of the pressure to cover every line, and instead focus on uncovering the connections that can be made ๐Ÿ’›


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