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In my first year of teaching, I wanted to teach a Shakespeare play, but was completely intimidated by where to start. I befriended the most veteran member of our English department, an actress, director and drama teacher, who gave me fantastic tips and assured me that I would love it and that students would, too. Six years later, I am still using many of the tips she gave me and several others I’ve learned from teaching Shakespeare every year. Several of my English department colleagues--many of whom are seasoned veterans--are still too intimidated to try. I tell them this: reading Shakespeare is the most fun we have all year, and if you treat the plays the way Shakespeare would want them to be taught, it will be for you, too.
Have a goal, and take the play one scene at a time. Before you begin, design your final assessment for the unit and keep that in the back of your mind. For each scene of the play, decide if you’ll want students to read it and do an activity or whether you’ll skip it, watch a film version, summarize it quickly, etc. Map out your plans with the final assessment in mind: My students do a mock trial of one of the characters for their final assessment, and as we go they have to “collect evidence” to support their case. We do other fun things with various scenes as we go, but we always keep the trial in mind as our eventual goal.
Choose important pieces and themes--don’t try to do it all, especially if you are teaching Shakespeare for the first time. Five acts of difficult language and dense themes, motifs, and literary devices are overwhelming for first-time teachers of Shakespeare - and for students. Instead, choose the most dramatic, fun and important scenes to spend more time on. Fill in between with films, summaries and quicker activities that don’t necessarily require students to read every word of the entire play.
Never have students read Shakespeare from their seats! Plays are meant to be acted, and having fun with them requires students to be out of their seats. Make it a rule that you and your students will never read the plays sitting down, except to pre-read, rehearse or practice. The Cambridge School Shakespeare series was invaluable when I started teaching Shakespeare--their core belief is that the plays should be acted and watched, and the books are full of creative, out-of-your-seat ideas for each section of the play.
Get out of the classroom. If the auditorium is available, get in there and use it as an opportunity to teach your students about drama on a real stage. If you’re teaching the balcony scene from Romeo & Juliet, find a spot in your school where Romeo can gesture skyward to a pining Juliet who is leaning wistfully on the railing. There are tons of spaces in your school that could help your student actors always remember studying Shakespeare with you.
Use films. Whether you find a full-length feature film or a recording of a stage performance, watching a professional performances (Shakespeare’s Globe has DVDs of many plays being performed there) can really help students understand the story even if they struggle with the language. Films can help fill in between scenes you’re going to act out, but additionally, showing students the professional version of a scene they’ve just attempted can help facilitate important discussions about how directors make decisions about how the scene should look. We don’t watch the films all at once, but instead watch pieces we’ve studied or in-between sections as we go. This helps students avoid too much built-up confusion, and with some plays we watch more than one film version to compare.
Differentiate. As you know, some of your students will be terrified at the idea of reading such difficult language, let alone standing up and actually acting out a scene! Make clear to students that everyone struggles reading Shakespeare, and then make sure to cast ahead of time any scene you’re going to act out. We tend to act out the bigger scenes with more bodies on the stage so that all students leave their seats at one point. That said, I cast more outgoing students in the bigger roles and shy students and struggling readers as extras, pages, members of a character’s “posse”, etc. There is so much you can do with these scenes--Shakespeare’s lack of stage directions open up plenty of opportunities for you to direct all of your students to success while challenging them at the same time.
As you know, new units never work out perfectly the first time. Set some smaller goals, forgive yourself for mistakes, and most importantly, make it fun! You and your students will be so glad you did.