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!

 

 

First Day Activities: Get-to-Know-You Activity & Room Procedures Scavenger Hunt

Happy back to school season! I am currently feeling that special kind of tired which is end-of-the-first-week-back-at-school-tired. I’m trying out a few different activities this year, including my first breakout escape room game which I purchased from Teachers Pay Teachers.

The typical boring first day routine for me goes: icebreaker, syllabus, procedures, homework/regular teaching. I definitely wanted to change things up this year, but I needed to plan appropriately. For one, my sophomores don’t usually need a normal icebreaker activity. We only have about 50 sophomores so they already know each other, but I need to get to know them.

I came up with an introductory activity that takes about 10 minutes, which lets me get to know them in a not-too-cheesy way.

First of all, I made sure to have lots of pieces of construction paper on hand, as well as many markers. I asked students to draw a large circle in the center of their paper, then a vertical line above and below that circle, as well as a horizontal line to the left and the right.

On a powerpoint, I put the following instructions:

In the top left square: Write a list of strengths that you bring to class. These could be subject-related (i.e. I’m a fast reader) or personality-related (i.e. I’m fairly organized).
In the top right square: Write a list of weaknesses that you bring to class. Again, these could be subject-related (i.e. I really struggle with poetry) or personality-related (i.e. I’m a huge procrastinator).
In the bottom left square: What kind of learner are you?
Visual: You learn through pictures and spatial images
Auditory: You learn through lectures and audiobooks or podcasts
Kinesthetic: You learn through activities and physical      movement
Musical: You learn through songs and music
Artistic: You learn through doodling and sketching
Logical: You tend to learn by applying logic and reason
In the bottom right square: What are some goals you have for this year? These could be English-related or more personal. Try to make your goals specific and measurable.
In the middle circle: Write your name and surround it with images and/or words describing your personality and personal favorites.

As I said, this activity only took about 10 minutes and the students enjoyed it overall. It gave them the option to work together but it wasn’t required. When the students finished we posted them on the whiteboard, but I made sure to take them down at the end of each class. I looked them over to learn about each student and will retain them to reference later when making groups.

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The other activity that I introduced this week was a scavenger hunt guiding students through the procedures and resources in my classroom. It took a lot of prep work but I made sure to keep it organized so it would be all ready for me for the future.

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When students walked into class I asked them to organize themselves in six groups. Before they began, I emphasized the following directions (printed on the front of each envelope):

  1. Read the directions carefully.  
  2. THIS IS NOT A RACE. Points are given for accuracy, and some tasks are worth more than others. If I see you spending too long on a task that isn’t worth it, I will move you along.  
  3. Complete the tasks as a group. Try to work to get everyone involved, and under no circumstances should you split up.
  4. Do not ask other students for help. If you are stumped, ask me and I will help you along.  
  5. Have fun! 

Each task led them to a different resource or routine in my classroom.img_9268.jpg

Task 1: On a sheet of paper, students had to write the classroom number of various teachers common on their schedules. Astute students were able to locate the school fire escape map located in by the door to answer the questions. They then had to submit the sheet into our class’ homework bin (which they also had to find on their own).

Task 2: Students had to find out homework posted on Schoology and write it in a planner or digital calendar program. Then they had to show it to me to get credit.

Task 3: This one was the longest. Students had to write a works cited for three resources stowed in my room: a copy of Animal Farm, the movie 10 Things I Hate About You, and a magazine article about our local area. Students were not allowed to look up citations online (especially on EasyBib!). Instead, they learned that I have MLA formatting and citation styles on my wall all the time. Hello, Credible Hulk! Once again, the works cited had to be submitted to the homework bin. img_9005.jpg

Task 4: We are a Christian school, so we have a class verse posted in my room and we start each day in prayer. For this task students had to pick a topic for prayer (I have a cup of them written on popsicle sticks) and pray as a small group. Then they had to memorize the class verse and recite to me without error.

Task 5: In this task, students had to find the absent folder, where extra handouts are stored for each class. In that folder I had hidden brightly colored paper. The group had to take out 3 sheets of paper and staple them together, then three-hole punch them. On the first page, they had to write the Word of the Week. On the second page, they had to write the day’s learning target. On the third page, they had to write the two schools I attended for my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees (this was mostly to remind students that I kind of know what I’m doing in our classroom). Once again, this was turned into the homework bin.

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Task 6: The final task asked students to examine our syllabus. They had to write various information from our syllabus, including the books we read over the year, the five rules of the classroom, and my email address (with my name spelled correctly!).

Overall, this task took about an hour to complete all the way through, so it was a great way to use our block period. After everyone was finished we went through the correct answers together. The activity introduced students to the classroom procedures and helped me correct some common mistakes they make throughout the year, such as turning homework in the wrong spot, not knowing where to access extra materials, or resorting to EasyBib instead of using simple classroom resources to create a citation. Plus, I didn’t have to spend a half an hour giving a boring tour of my classroom!

I don’t have this resource as a downloadable item on TpT because it is so highly customizable to my classroom, but please feel free to adapt and use it in your own teaching!