Tips For Making Shakespeare Fun

For 12 years now I’ve been teaching English Language Arts to high school students, and with most ELA course loads inevitably come a healthy dose of Shakespeare. Throughout my career, I’ve taught the following Shakespearean works:

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  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Julius Caesar
  • Hamlet
  • Macbeth
  • King Lear
  • Othello
  • The Taming of the Shrew
  • Henry VI, Part I
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • Twelfth Night

…plus numerous sonnets. In my experience I’ve discovered several methods that have helped me market Shakespeare to high school students as an enjoyable, relatable author.

Read aloud in class

This one goes directly against the number one suggestion from another ELA blogger, but I have never had success with students reading Shakespearean language at home. At times we’ll need to finish a reading as homework in my AP Lit class, but even they have a lot of questions when they come back. But sophomores? Freshmen??? Have you ever tried to teach them poetry, let alone archaic poetry in iambic pentameter? No, thank you. I firmly believe that plays are meant to experienced, if not on the stage then at least through reading them aloud.

This is why my students study Shakespeare’s words in my classroom. We assign parts. We reenact scenes. We discuss quotes, dissect lines and even words. But it all happens together. By reading together, we can learn it together, and I don’t have to recap and summarize entire scenes that were assigned as reading.

Watch a Production

I don’t teach a drama class so our short reenactments are crude and often for sake of engagement rather than drama. But Shakespeare’s works are masterpieces, and students need to see them acted out. For each unit in my Shakespearean Lit course, we spend half of our weekly block periods watching a movie that goes along with the play we’re studying. And I mean an actual Shakespearean production, not a teen movie based loosely on a plot line. Sometimes the productions are straightforward and classic (Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, 1996), sometimes they’re a bit more interpretive (Rupert Goold’s Macbeth, 2010). I am also a fan of Oliver Parker’s Othello (1995), Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing (2012), Franco Zeferelli’s The Taming of the Shrew (1967), Trevor Nunn’s King Lear (2008), and Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night (1996). I also suggest you watch it in parts as you read the play, rather than reading it all the way through, taking the test, and having a “reward” by watching it. Just today we watched the first 45 minutes of Macbeth, and one of my students said, “This helps so much. It helps to see it.”

Use Labels & Character Maps

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Back when I first started teaching Julius Caesar, I realized right away that my students were struggling with keeping track of everybody. I don’t blame them; that play has 35 characters, not counting those labeled as “servant” or “messenger.” After the first act, I worked much more actively to help students keep track of characters. Each student was assigned to at least one JC character, then given a paper placard with the character’s name, description, and a color attributed to it. Tribunes got one color, senators another, servants another, and so on. Likewise, in my Shakespearean Lit course my students often ask for a character map. I sketch out the characters on the whiteboard (poorly; I’m not artist) and show relationships between everybody. We update the character map as we read, indicating deaths and changes in relationships. Students have told me that even though this is a pretty rudimentary method of instruction, it helps to have a quick map to refer to throughout the unit.

Make Connections to Modern Times

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One reason modern interpretations like 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man are so popular is that they take an ancient story and show it updated to reflect modern conflicts. But Shakespeare’s stories already reflect so many universal and relevant themes. By making connections to our modern world, students will find relevancy to the Bard’s words, and suddenly a 400-year-old work seems personal. They just might need some help finding the connections.

Consider the following theme connections for some of these works:

Romeo and Juliet – Love vs. lust, cliques, gossip, infatuation
Macbeth &  – The corrupting influence of power
Julius Caesar – Ethics, politicians’ use of rhetoric
The Taming of the Shrew – Gender roles, sexism, marriage roles, feeling pressured in relationships
Hamlet – Depression and mental illness, coping with grief, friendship, betrayal

These don’t have to be spelled out for students, just suggested. Ask them the right questions near the beginning of the play, build on them, and soon students are making connections left and right. I can’t tell you how interesting it has been to teach Julius Caesar in this political climate!

These are just some of my suggestions to make teaching Shakespeare more rewarding and engaging. What tips would you offer to fellow ELA teachers? Please comment with any tips you may have!

For updates on future blog posts, just follow me on this blog, and check out my Instagram @aplitandmore for daily tips and inspiration!

 

 

Why I’m Obsessed with Guided Reading Notes

A few years ago, back in the first few years teaching at my current school, I was teaching on what was called an “overload” schedule. For those of you unfamiliar, it’s the schedule they give you when all the money is gone. For three years I taught six out of seven periods, five preps a semester, seven preps total a year. For those of you currently on a schedule like this, I offer you my deepest sympathy and bow to your fortitude. After three years on this schedule, money was found to hire an extra English teacher (praise the Lord!) and I was asked to “hand over” two of my electives. Initially, I targeted my Shakespearean Lit course as one I was willing to lose. However, I realized I couldn’t really hand over any materials to an incoming teacher. Sure I had handouts and tests, but there were no notes.

Why? Because the notes were all in my head.

After that moment I realized that the knowledge of my literary content, the knowledge that I spent a lifetime learning, analyzing, creating, and teaching, really ought to be written down. Therefore in the following school year, basking in all the extra time I gained with an easier schedule (joking, there’s never extra time), I created notes to pair with my instruction for every literature unit in my Shakespeare course. The following year I did it with my sophomore classes. Then I started making them for AP Lit. I call them Guided Reading Notes, and they have saved my sanity.

Here is an example of one of my slideshows of guided reading notes from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

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Here are several reasons that Guided Reading Notes are lifesavers: 

  1. Absences. Face it, kids are gonna miss school. Even the darling try-hards have to miss once in a while, and sometimes even more when you factor in college visits, field trips, and testing days. It seems like the older they get, the more school they miss. I got tired of having students ask me what they missed when they were gone. It put me in the position of having to sit down and re-teach the material one-on-one, or simply saying, “We read and discussed chapter 4. Good luck, it’s important.” With guided reading notes, I teach the material in class, but post the notes afterwards on an online learning platform. My school uses Schoology. Before this I used Moodle. Many teachers love Google Classroom. Any of these will support guided reading notes. Simply use them to teach in class, then upload them afterwards. Once you start doing this consistently, students who were absent will know to read over the notes from when they were gone. If they still have questions afterwards, I am happy to give them one-on-one time. But at least this takes the bulk of the extra work off of my plate.
  2. Review. One thing that I find so eccentric and endearing is how quickly the teenage brain can forget something. It helps that I, too, am extremely forgetful. And unfortunately, if a book is long, students tend to forget the events in chapter 1 by the time the test rolls around (which stinks, because as everyone knows chapter 1 sets up all the good stuff for later). Guided reading notes help students review for tests by outlining important details and pointing out big-picture themes, symbols, and plot events. Sometimes students don’t even notice something big until they go through the review. These notes prove even more helpful before our AP Lit exam. I mean, seriously, who remembers what we read back in September? But with 10 minutes of easy review, students can brush up on those important literary units and turn short term knowledge into long term knowledge.
  3. Teacher Sanity. As I said before, my memory is quite bad. Sometimes I think of something brilliant, teach it, and next year I can’t make any sense of what I meant when I put a certain question on the test. By making guided reading notes, I maintain my own sanity from year to year. My students don’t know this, but I use my own notes as a review before I give literature lessons. It has also proven useful when I am absent and need to make sub notes. Instead of writing notes for a full chapter or reading assignment, I can simply assign students to read the guided reading notes, then use class time to complete the next assigned reading. My job: upload and post. I cannot even begin to describe the sanity they have saved my three maternity subs, who found themselves in the intimidating task of subbing for AP Lit. By using my notes, they felt confident that the challenge level was appropriate. Plus, they used my notes to learn the material beforehand!
  4. Multiple Learning Opportunities. My notes don’t simply review everything that happens in a chapter. In fact, I avoid this as often as possible. Guided reading notes are not Sparknotes summaries that replace reading. They are teacher-designed notes that help guide students through the material, pointing out things they might have overlooked and helping them make connections in the literature. I have used guided reading notes to do point out literary elements, pose discussion questions, give a pop quiz, lead a small group activity, organize jigsaw learning, give hints to tough study guide questions, break down important quotes, and more. My students learn very early on that if they want to do well on my tests, they need to study from the notes.

If you are brand new to teaching, guided reading notes are a wonderful tool to use, but keep in mind they take a while to prepare. If you are in your second and third year and you know your content fairly well, creating guided reading notes is a wonderful strategy to reduce prep time for yourself in the future and create study resources for your students to access in the future.

If time is tight and you are interested in purchasing any of my Guided Reading Notes, just visit my Teachers Pay Teachers store and click on the Guided Reading Notes category on the left-hand side. I currently have resources for the following novels and plays:

  • Fahrenheit 451
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • Hamlet
  • Frankenstein (AP Lit)
  • Othello
  • King Lear (AP & general student audience)
  • Macbeth
  • All the King’s Men (AP Lit)
  • Things Fall Apart (AP Lit)
  • Julius Caesar
  • Of Mice and Men (includes vocabulary unit)
  • Twelfth Night (AP Lit)

How the Credible Hulk Finally Helped My Students Conduct Research

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I’ve been teaching research for my entire career. It began horribly, and honestly, it was because I was downright lazy. I demanded citations for everything but did little to teach my students how to make them. More importantly, I never instructed them why the research was important.

After a few years of surviving gaining experience, I began doing more to help my students facilitate research. I gave handouts, we made works cited pages in class, I bookmarked the OWL Purdue Writing Lab on my computer multiple times (by the way, there’s certain to be a blog post on my love for the OWL Purdue Writing Lab in the future). My students began to learn that research was necessary, but still didn’t really understand why it was important.

A few years ago, I did an overhaul of the way I taught writing in my classes, and it was inspired by Kelly Gallagher’s brilliant book, Write Like This (there will definitely be future blog posts about this book and Kelly Gallagher). One of the things I took away was presenting students with reasons for why they write, and that applies to research as well. I began to emphasize the importance of conducting ethical research, and for finding ways to make it easier for high school students to do it.

Enter: The Credible Hulk.

Credible Hulk

In a search to add some humor to my classroom, (ok, to be honest, I fell down a Pinterest path and discovered memes), I found this meme about the Credible Hulk. After laughing for an inappropriate amount of time, I posted it in my classroom. In 2016, MLA updated their citation requirements and I felt the need to explain the new requirements to the rest of the faculty since I’m the biggest MLA nerd in my school in the state on the planet.

I decided that my students could use a resource wall where they could learn how to cite common sources in their research endeavors. After I created them, I printed them on colored paper and had them laminated. Then I stuck them to the wall with sticky tack.

The sticky tack is an important component of this resource’s success, as my students will often go to the wall and take a citation poster down. They bring it back to their computer, write their citation, and return it to the Citation Wall without incident. The sticky tack makes it easy to remove and replace it, and the lamination keeps the posters from wearing down.

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This resource wall, which happily has become known as the Credible Hulk wall, has become well known with my students. Whenever we have a research assignment, in English or even in other subjects, the students wander over to the wall to check their citations. I’ve also printed them off and had them turned into booklets as a resource for my Writing Center coaches in case the wall gets crowded. To score a version of this resource in wall or booklet form click here!