To enjoy Shakespeare or not to enjoy Shakespeare, that is the question. The response for middle school students is often the latter. When they open up the text for the first time, a common question is: Is this modern English? There follows a sea of comprehension troubles, anxiety, and a feeling that these old plays can’t have any meaning for them. It doesn’t have to be this way. Here’s how I introduce Shakespeare to middle school students so that they have fun cocreating and performing their own adapted versions of the Bard’s plays.
I live in Oregon and I work as a performing arts (PA) teacher, creating a brand-new curriculum for elementary and middle school students, assisted by my colleague Clayton Pearce, who has a background in drama. Grade 8 is normally the first time the students are exposed to Shakespeare in our school’s ELA lessons, and grade 9 in public school. There’s a famous Shakespeare festival in southern Oregon, but Covid-19 has interrupted the show there, so I arrived as a new teacher at the school with students who have zero grounding in the Bard’s work.
The seventh- and eighth-grade students didn’t have a choice to join my PA class, so I had to win them over. Students in sixth grade had the option to choose, and the class was oversubscribed, as I had mentioned to them at the end of grade 5 how Hamlet features ghosts, murder, sword-fighting, and pirates. When I worked in international schools around the world, I created a model that allowed students in my then-homeroom class to access Shakespeare as early as grade 4. I wanted to apply this model to my new school.
The 7 Acts of Getting Students Interested in Shakespeare
1. The hook: Introduce students to story or stories (if they can choose). Shakespeare knew how to appeal to people using conflict, humor, horror, intrigue, and romance, which are relatable topics for middle school students.
2. Improv: Use improv acting games to explore and play with the plot. For example, have a summary of each scene and ask students to reenact it however they wish, using their own words. The students can get a sense of what characters they want to play and build core acting skills.
3. Auditions: Have open auditions and allow students to try multiple roles. Students observe the auditions and are encouraged to change their minds and audition for other roles. By a process of artistic osmosis, the students end up settling into roles and agreeing who should be the lead. For the big roles, I always have two students cast: two Romeos, two Hamlets, etc. They can either swap halfway through the play or take one of the two shows each.
4. Adapt the concept: Reimagine the setting and concept of the play with the students’ ideas. They usually have many, ranging from traditional settings to zombie apocalypse. Give everyone an equal vote to select the winner.
Example 1: Grade 8 moved Macbeth from Scotland to the North Pole. Macbeth, the Chief Toymaker, was bewitched by three evil reindeer, and then he murdered Santa to become the new King of Christmas.
Example 2: Grade 7 did a modern reworking of Romeo and Juliet, less a tragic love story and more the tale of first dates gone wrong. With teacher guidance, students reworked scenes of drug taking and suicide to make them non-triggering and age appropriate.
Example 3: Grade 6 kept a traditional setting for Hamlet but developed Ophelia with the agency befitting a 21st-century female character, plus adding battle scenes that developed reported events such as Fortinbras fighting King Hamlet.
5. Scriptwriting: Use the plot as the skeleton; you can flesh out scenes with a blend of famous Shakespearean lines and speeches with the students’ own language. The aim is to create a play between 30 and 45 minutes long. Give students the responsibility of writing their own lines and editing others’ so that writing the script is a collaborative process. These lines can come from earlier improv but mostly from discussions about the plot and what characters need to say.
6. The play’s the thing: Set aside enough time for rehearsals—the bulk of the work. If you have a big class, have A and B castings for the major roles. For grade 6, we had four Hamlets—two per show! During the rehearsals, have students give feedback to each other, change the script, develop the scenes, etc.
7. Showtime: After numerous dress rehearsals to in-school class audiences, do a minimum of two shows to parent audiences, after school so that parents can attend. The results are always worth all the sweat and effort.
Not Everyone Is an Actor: Learning Is the Main Goal
I never insist that every student has to act, though there is never a shortage of willing actors.
You’ll need someone to work the lights, run sound effects, be the stage manager and stage crew, design the set, make props, etc. These are all roles that students should take, so that the program’s reach is broadly accommodating to student needs. If, like me, you work in a school that integrates its curriculum across classes, then you will gain even deeper benefits from the interdisciplinary process.
We don’t have a theater at my school, just an empty lunchroom. We all had to wear masks at all times. Students were often absent, sometimes rehearsing via Zoom or standing in for each other. Remember: This is not Broadway, this is school, and learning is the goal. You also don’t need to have been an actor to teach this process.
I’m not expecting my students to become either actors or Shakespeare scholars (though some are!). I want them to look upon Shakespeare’s work as something that can be entertaining, engaging, and relevant, giving them the confidence to pick up a play in the future and know that they can enjoy it... again.