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:
Romeo and Juliet
The Taming of the Shrew
Henry VI, Part I
Much Ado About Nothing
…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
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
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!
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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.
Here are several reasons that Guided Reading Notes are lifesavers:
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.
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.
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!
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:
Yesterday I read a tweet that made me gasp so loud my husband came running. When I read the aforementioned tweet, he was markedly less excited, but even he (a non-teacher) understood its implications.
Trevor Packer, College Board’s senior vice president for Advanced Placement Program and Instruction, began a series of tweets informing educators on the performance results of each AP exam. When he got to AP Lit, he didn’t pull any punches.
Packer’s first tweet said: “The 2018 AP English Literature scores: 5: 5.6%; 4: 14.6%; 3: 27.2%; 2: 36.1%; 1: 16.5%. This is bad news: after last year’s record low, this is a further significant decline in student performance, the lowest proportion of AP Lit scores of 3,4,5 ever, I believe.”
Ouch. Several teachers replied their sassy retorts, all beautifully worded of course, but that one didn’t hurt my feelings. Getting students to read anything, let alone a classic piece of literature is like trying to convince them to delete SnapChat, so I’m not surprised the scores declined a little. But more on that later.
It was Packer’s second tweet that made me gasp.
“What’s the reason for the continued drop in AP English Lit scores? Exam difficulty = constant; teaching ability has not declined; participation did not grow. A hypothesis: has increased focus on non-fiction texts in earlier years reduced student readiness for literary analysis?”
When my husband came running, I read the tweet, then said, “I think the College Board just challenged the Common Core!”
Now I’m aware that taking shots at the Common Core is no new development. People have been insulting it since its inception, and it hasn’t really slowed down much. But this was an international testing service pointing fingers at the standards in the Common Core for actually lowering test scores.
It certainly isn’t a new concept, just from a different voice. English teachers have been expressing their dismay at losing face-time with literature ever since CCSS began its enforcement. Several Twitter users agreed with Packer, saying:
“I said the same thing to my department! I truly believe that the non fiction focus has left the students with the inability to deeply read these pieces not to mention lacking the basic knowledge of terms.” @sonnimarie
“More and more nonfiction in earlier grades’ state testing is increasing focus on that area; lit analysis is becoming seen as a ‘luxury’ skill to teach. AP English Lit needs a pipeline in each school to function successfully for students en-masse.” @JasonProff
“This is exactly what I was thinking. Schools focus so much on non-fiction and argumentative writing now, including in elementary, that our students are lacking the ability to see things abstractly or layered with meaning.” @maestraJOLLY
“It was told to me years ago that it used to be 70% fiction, 30% nonfiction in most ELA classes. Now, it’s flipped. Shakespeare doesn’t matter. Novels are read as a class. Poems are cute little activities. But manuals, articles, maps, etc…those are Bible.” @theteachingcurc
Several educators agreed with him, noting that Common Core’s emphasis on nonfiction reading, called informational text in their language, was designed to speak to a student’s entire school day, not just their time in ELA. When it was rolled out, many districts and administrators (and textbook companies) interpreted this to mean that ELA teachers must teach no more than 50% fiction and the rest should be devoted to studying informational text, starting a growing trend of analyzing nonfiction texts. While this movement has resulted in some great lesson plans, (and high scores for AP English Language students), it has also significantly cut into the time devoted to teach fictional texts, aka literature and poetry. Apparently CCSS has had a lot of confusion and backlash over this miscommunication, since they have a portion of their website devoted to explaining themselves more clearly:
Not all of Packer’s readers agreed with him–casting blame on other trends they’ve seen. Some blamed the lack of reading in today’s students, saying:
“I think these results shed some light on the issue. Kids are reading less overall, which affects their reading stamina, prior knowledge, and desire to dig into a work of literature.” @MeganPank
“If an athlete doesn’t practice free throws, he/she will probably go 2 for 6 in a game. If an actress doesn’t practice her lines, she probably won’t remember them for the play. If a student never reads anything…you can probably finish this statement.” @theteachingcurc
Others claimed that a lack of motivation interferes with these tests, especially since the AP tests occur in the first two weeks of May (I myself can attest to the partial truth of this, since our seniors had to come back after their finals to finish AP testing. Some even missed graduation practice for an exam):
“Speaking from my high school’s perspective: AP Lit is offered as a senior class…so senioritis and a blatant disregard for the course should be considered at least a minor factor for low scores.” @StefanLuts
Others blamed the rising trend in dual enrollment, where high school students can take college courses through their local school and earn college credit. This earns them more guaranteed credits, as opposed to AP tests which are score-based, and still dependent on the acceptance policies at each university.
“Dual enrollment opportunities have to have decreased the number of capable kids taking AP. College credit is easier to get that way, sadly.” @coopercoach
While Packer’s incriminating remarks against CCSS made some waves, I was equally intrigued by a tweet that followed it.
“Part of the issue w/ AP Eng Lit performance: the exam only has one question focused on a novel/play, but much class time is spent on long texts rather than close reading/analysis of short fiction/poetry. Top advice: reduce the # of novels/plays; focus on frequent short analyses.”
Yes. The VP of CollegeBoard actually advocated for fewer books in AP Lit. As can be expected, there was the expected outrage:
“By all means, let’s read fewer books. After all, reducing the number of books students have read prior to taking AP Lit has worked so well. *sarcasm*” @gmfunk
“I have to disagree with you here. Students can still be taught close reading skills AND full length tests. The MC and prose passage FRQ are chosen from full texts. Teachers can use full texts to teach test skills and still value the literary experience.” @TeachAPE
“Man, that sounds like a TERRIBLE idea. Are you seriously advocating for deemphasizing significant works? And that’s a better plan than revisiting the exam? Wow. Just, wow.” @mtownsel
I’ve given myself several days to think it over and have formed my final opinion: I agree with Trevor Packer.
Put down your torches and lower your pitchforks, I’m not going to stop teaching novels and plays. But I think I understand Mr. Packer’s advice here. In the days back before Twitter (yes, I taught AP Lit back then, cringe) and when AP testing was still growing, AP Lit teachers heavily emphasized classics. Most syllabi contained the same kinds of books, all at least fifty years old, and almost all written by white men. Some of these oldies-but-goodies include:
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (430 pages) Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (968 pages) Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (368 pages) Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (1488 pages) Tess of d”Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (592 pages) Moby Dick by Herman Melville (544 pages) Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (848 pages) Absolam! Absolam! by William Faulkner (which also contains the longest sentence in literature at a whopping 1288 words!) (378 pages) The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (464 pages)
(I’ve used Amazon’s top-selling paperback versions to compile page numbers, to attempt an equal approach to all titles)
Seeing a trend here? Now mind you, there are other books on that list that were shorter and/or by female or minority authors. But these classic behemoths have held on somehow and still remain on many AP Lit teachers’ reading lists. And it’s not that these books are bad, not at all. But they are long. And, yes, I’ll say it, sometimes they are needlessly long. I mean, my goodness, Dickens and Hugo were paid by the word! You don’t think they got a little verbose in hopes for a higher payday?
We obviously need to be reading novels and plays. But when forming a reading list, my game plan is to diversify my options and cover as many novels and plays as I reasonably can.
I still teach a long book by a white guy (All the King’s Men) and another longer book (Frankenstein). But the rest of my novels are shorter, being less than 250 pages long. They are also more diverse, both in writers and time period (Things Fall Apart and Beloved). I even teach a novella (The Metamorphosis), so scandalous! Let’s not forget the plays, which include A Raisin in the Sun, The Importance of Being Earnest, and Shakespeare’s King Lear and Twelfth Night. Add to that over 60 different poems plus two individual novels (which is where you can encourage your stronger readers to take on the longer texts), and I feel my students are fairly prepared by the time they get to the AP exam. Would classical AP teachers consider them “well-read”? Probably not. But each year, they have many different titles to choose from when the dreaded open question rolls around. And I don’t assign more than 30 pages of reading each night, allowing time for other homework, after-school jobs, extra-curricular activities, and sometimes even a social life.
This is turning out to be longer than I expected, so I’ll try to sum up. Trevor Packer isn’t necessarily saying we should teach fewer books. He’s just asking if we could, and still get decent test scores. If I tried to teach 20 “classic” novels to my AP students I’d burn out (and frankly, I’d be bored). Furthermore, my students wouldn’t read them. Instead I’ve chosen a handful of diverse texts, which I love, and I teach them enthusiastically. When you make a book sound so exciting it’s harder for a student to ignore the readings; they want to know what they are missing! Since my AP scores haven’t come out yet I may change my tune by next week, but this strategy has worked in my favor over the past 10 years, so I feel like I’m on pretty solid ground.
Please subscribe to my email list or follow my blog for further notifications on future blog posts. If you’re interested in any of my teaching materials for the novels listed, please visit my TpT store for more information. If you teach AP Lit and do not currently incorporate an independent reading project, I’d strongly encourage you to begin using one immediately. I have a model for sale on TpT, called an Independent Novel Project, for a discounted price right now.