George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

3 Rules to Break When Teaching Shakespeare

March 14, 2016 Updated March 13, 2016

1. Worship the Canon

Teachers know that students develop deeper understandings and make the most critical connections when given a variety of texts. Yet, reading a long work often takes much instructional time, and we may miss some valuable opportunities to diversify content. Try asking students which themes in the core text remind them of other works and world conflicts, and actually acquire some of those types of texts. In addition to traditional ancillary materials such as art and current events, contemporary poetry and song lyrics are engaging and effective scaffolds to understanding and appreciating Shakespeare's mastery of literary devices.

To explore concepts of conflict, culture, and perspective in our 9th grade English class, students interpreted complex lyrics from Kendrick Lamar (edited, of course). For the first time all year, every single student completed the assignment. Even more, they each unpacked and were able to discuss more complex metaphors and philosophies than they had with any text before.

To encourage your students to draw parallels and develop fuller arguments, pull in fresh supplementary texts that support, challenge, and build upon the messages in your Shakespearean work.

2.   Use the Whole Text

What?! To read and truly understand the entire text of Romeo and Juliet, while practicing distinct reading and writing skills, could take between 6 months and a year! This estimation is not considering incorporating other readings and projects into the unit. It’s okay to explicitly share with students the beauty of reading stories in full, but also the fact that your classes may not always do this depending on what your focus objectives are. Sometimes excerpting is the most effective way to develop deep understandings of an author’s writing techniques—and sometimes, chunking complex texts to support the development of core reading and writing skills is necessary. Choose your excerpts carefully, supplement with summaries or student predictions when needed, and don’t feel guilty.

3. Teach Too Much

I have always communicated to my students how important Shakespeare is as a literary figure. In the past, we might have spent days learning about the Globe Theater and life during the Elizabethan era. I would front load Shakespeare's archaic vocabulary and writing techniques to help students glide over commonly used words and iambic pentameter while reading.

The problem?

The students, for the most part, don't care.

There is so much to learn about the norms and language of Shakespeare's time that is interesting and integral to understanding his stories. However, I now sprinkle these tidbits throughout the unit as they relate to specific scenes. Students will engage with facts about England’s history and Shakespeare’s craft by doing their own quick research using guiding questions that we form together. 

When it comes to reading, I rarely identify important quotes to the class. There are moments that call for direct instruction, but for us, reading is usually not that time. When students are allowed to stumble and explore, with meaningful questions to answer and opportunities to make larger connections, they then begin to notice nuances, such as calculated rhyme schemes, on their own. They are also often impressed by Shakespeare's craft—much more impressed and interested than they would have been if I foisted it upon them from the start.

As far as forcing students to read out loud, or to continuously have students rely on an audio resource. No way.

It is true that the students need to feel involved, and they also need to hear parts of the text articulated correctly. However, sticking to any one of these practices as a standard procedure will inevitably strip away the students’ power and interest.

I recently tried alternating listening to masterful readings and having students read passages aloud in small groups. Naturally, the students are going to stumble over the challenging language, and they may finish reading with only a surface understanding of the section. Perfect. This is where some students alone may want to give up.  Yet, when paired with the right classmates, this is where students develop the desire to dig deeper. They may have inferred that there was a lesson about love tucked somewhere, or a witty insult to appreciate; and now they want to look up the words they don't know, interpret those metaphors, annotate, and answer their own questions.  Have students use print and digital resources to define words and record the words they have learned while reading. Encourage them to help one another to build on interpretations.

Teachers can also have much more flexibility in tiering lessons when students can read at their own pace and answer different levels of questions in their own order. You may even consider a form of jigsaw by having all students read a passage for the gist, and then having the different groups interpret and paraphrase a small set of lines to share with the class. The passages assigned to each group could be tiered according to student ability, even though it will appear that you are assigning passages at random.

I have found that after reading this way, students across all classes are much more proficient in choosing strong quotes as evidence in their writing and explaining them with deep understandings. I even occasionally see students sneak photos on their phones of quotes that resonate with them. Nonchalantly, they continue working as though this reading had no effect on them. Yet, I know that they want to keep these lines for later because of their impact—because they have "found" them on their own. The students react most to the language and themes that they read when they have time to develop their own attachments to the words.

This, to me, is the best: helping students develop authentic connections with, and appreciations for, the literature, and implicitly encouraging students to be lifelong readers and thinkers.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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  • Student Engagement
  • Teaching Strategies
  • English Language Arts
  • 9-12 High School

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