Shakespeare in the Classroom

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As an English teacher, I will inevitably have to teach Shakespeare throughout the course of a year. Interestingly enough, I don’t teach it to my juniors (the focus is on American Lit, which excludes the Bard), which have a full year-long course, but I do to my seniors, who are only with me for a semester. And to make matters even more interesting, I have to somehow get two Shakespeare plays in, along with the other literature we have to read. It’s nearly impossible to get it all in within the scope of a semester. But I may have come up with a plan (I think).

I have been trying to figure out how to get my seniors to understand the meaning of the plays (Hamlet and Much Ado about Nothing) and to be able to move through them at a relatively rapid rate. It’s difficult to do. Not only is the language a bit archaic to today’s teenagers, but it’s reading a play at the same time. Reading a play is difficult enough on its own!

Now, I am definitely of the school that Shakespeare is meant to be performed rather than read, and I am in favor of having students do some performing of the script. However, I have found that before I can do that, they have to actually understand what is going on within the scope of the play. And that’s the difficult part.

Last semester, teaching Shakespeare was a complete disaster. I tried to teach MAAN (Much Ado about Nothing) straight off, by having students read along with a recording of the play. As well as doing that, I tried to have them rewrite scenes of the play in groups. That was not a good plan. Not only did they not understand the play by listening, but didn’t understand the language or how to decipher it well enough to be able to recreate the scenes in modern language. It was not my finest teaching moment. I abandoned the play halfway through and chose to have them write about one central theme in it within the context of their own lives. The problem with this, though, is that they didn’t understand enough to be able to make comparisons.

I also tried to teach Macbeth, but ran out of time in the semester and had to resort to showing the film and limping students along to take the exam. Overall, the semester’s teaching was not a winning success. I’m determined to change that this semester.

Which brings me to right now. After reading a lot of literature on teaching Shakespeare, consulting with Patti to see how she is teaching her sophomores, and looking at both of the plays, I have realized a couple of things: first, that I don’t actually  have to teach the entire plays to get students to understand what Shakespeare brought to literature (thanks, Patti!); and second, that between performing and discussion, students can relate to Shakespeare using comparison and contrast (skills that usually come easily to students this age).

So, the grand plan at the moment includes teaching some key speeches within each of the two plays, giving context, exploring themes, and performance in groups. The end project will include a paper wherein students explain the validity of learning Shakespeare, using examples from the text. This may be asking for a proverbial Pandora’s box opening.

I’ve also considered creating a mock trial, in which students put Shakespeare in as the accused. Students would put him on trial to cross-examine whether his writings are still vital to high school education today. I’d be interested to see what comes of it. Still considering…

Thoughts, readers? I’d love to know what you think.

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3 responses »

  1. The idea of putting Shakepeare on trial is a good one! You might be hard pressed to find someone to argue FOR him, but it sure would be interesting! Even if you argued for him, I think you’d find that some students have some very strong opinions. Why couldn’t I have done that in high school? That sounds so fun!

    • I thought so, too! I’ve been mulling the idea over for a while now. But if I REQUIRE that half the class argues for him, and choose the one that argues most effectively as the defense attorney, it could get really interesting.

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