If you spend quality time with the Common Core State Standards for English language arts, you’ll find very few authors or works of literature mentioned by name. While many are called out in the appendices, it is rarefied air to be named explicitly in the standards themselves.
Who enjoys that rarefied air? His name strikes fear in the hearts of many and joy in the hearts of others. It is William Shakespeare. He is first named in the standards for grades 9–10 and remains present through grade 12. Whether he frightens or delights you, teaching his work can help you refine your practice and tap into the benefits of formative assessment.
The case for Shakespeare
Many will sniff about Shakespeare being inaccessible and dusty, but the fact of the matter is he has worked his way into our standards (if not our hearts) for many good reasons:
- Many of his works and words enjoy a strong and ongoing presence in popular culture (how often have you heard that “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” or that “The lady doth protest too much”?), so reading his work uncovers layers of meaning elsewhere for readers of all backgrounds, not just a privileged few
- Researchers have found that reading Shakespeare can increase positive activity in the brain
- Students may encounter Shakespeare in state summative assessments or MAP® Growth™, and he’s almost guaranteed to appear on AP Literature exams, so it can benefit them to have familiarity with his work and language before a test
- Plays offer a unique opportunity to put formative assessment to good use in your classroom. Because they’re meant to be read aloud, unlike a novel, they can make it easier to spot troubles students may be having with the text and create opportunities to course correct
Out, damned Bard phobia!
Despite Shakespeare’s merits, many students and teachers may still wonder, “Why can’t he be more straightforward? Why does it take him so many words to say what he’s trying to say?” While much of the beauty and power of Shakespeare is in those very words, the sentence structure, vocabulary, and layered figurative language may provoke Bard phobia, or a fear of Shakespeare, for both you and your students. Have you fallen victim to it?
If your students perceive that you suffer from Bard phobia, they’re likely to pick up on it and could develop it as well. A good place to start facing your fear is to find the play that speaks to you, if your school or district allows some flexibility in exactly which plays students are assigned. I am an unapologetic Bardolator, but even I have plays that bore me, like The Comedy of Errors. Give me a high school English class and several copies of Hamlet, though, and we’ll all be far more likely to learn something and even have some fun.
Helping students develop meaningful relationships with what they read can help them develop their critical thinking skills and […] build empathy.”
Tackling students’ Bard phobia can be more challenging than overcoming your own, but there are options. Key institutions, such as the Folger Shakespeare Library and Royal Shakespeare Company, advocate for Shakespeare becoming part of the lives of students. Both want students to take ownership of their work with the plays, to experience Shakespeare in an active way. The plays were originally written to be performed, after all, not read by suffering students trapped at their desks.
How can you make Shakespeare come alive for your students? Folger and the Royal Shakespeare have some suggestions:
1. Understand the link to formative assessment
While your students are doing the heavy lifting completing the lesson you built for them, look around. Listen. Are they finding meaning in the text? Are there any misunderstandings of the plot? Who shows a knack for finding subtle meaning in the text? At any given moment, you can learn more about how your students are working with these plays and understanding them. You can take what you see and adjust as needed to respond to what you find.
2. Get everyone moving
Shakespeare’s characters are rarely frozen on stage, so push back the desks and have everyone stand up and move. Even better, if there’s an open room or space you can use, take advantage of it.
3. Use choral readings
Take a two-person scene and have half the class play one character and half the class play the other. Each half reads together, so no one gets uncomfortable, but you still give room for your burgeoning Kenneth Branaghs to strut their stuff. You can even take a speech from one character and break it up so students read alternating lines.
4. Take bite-size chunks of text
A whole play can overwhelm. Work with a speech for a while, or a short scene. Let students read the lines in different ways, prompting them with tones or motivations to target. Let them stage it!
Working with more manageable bits of text can help you spot those possible misunderstandings I mentioned earlier and adjust your strategies for when you tackle the next excerpt.
5. Don’t feel like you have to read the whole play
As a Bardolator, I really struggle with this idea. But maybe reading Hamlet in its entirety isn’t right for you and your class. Perhaps it’s not even necessary for your students to learn what they need to from the text.
While your students are doing the heavy lifting completing the lesson you built for them, look around. Listen. Are they finding meaning in the text?”
You could try pairing excerpts with parts of other works. For example, what if you read parts of Hamlet and some scenes from Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, from which Shakespeare borrowed liberally? Or find some non-fiction texts. If you’re feeling brave and studying a history play, pull out some Raphael Holinshed, from whom Shakespeare also borrowed. Your students would then be tackling Shakespeare and a historical primary source document! If you can find a good partner in a social studies colleague, this activity can really blossom.
6. Try distillation
Challenge students to create a very abridged “speedy Shakespeare” version of a play or even a scene you’re working on. This allows students to access other standards, and it can also help them distill the play in a collaborative way. This is a surefire way to identify comprehension trouble students may be experiencing and rely once again on formative assessment.
7. Get out of the way
Folger in particular advocates that teachers serves as architects for Shakespeare lessons. Create the framework and then let your students enjoy the space you have created. As a bonus, you may even learn a fresh new approach or interpretation by letting your students lead the way.
8. Watch something
Your students may not want to sit through all of Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (I sure don’t, and it’s one of my favorite plays), but you can show his St. Crispin’s Day speech to your students. Then show them Kenneth Branagh’s version (which I rate Five Out of Five Quills).
Have them look at the text of the speech during each clip. Are both true to the text? How do they diverge? How is the staging different? Perhaps ten minutes of film clips, both of which are readily available online, can launch you into a detailed exploration of a famous and oft-quoted speech.
Don’t stop at Shakespeare
The approaches listed here work very well for Shakespeare, but they can also be applied to other texts. Your students don’t have to be sitting, for example, to understand The Giver, To Kill a Mockingbird, or Their Eyes Were Watching God. And you can reap the benefits of formative assessment when teaching these works, too. Take what you like from your work with Shakespeare and bring it into your work with other texts.
Helping students develop meaningful relationships with what they read can help them develop their critical thinking skills and even open up their world to new ideas and experiences, all things that will likely serve them well in life after high school. As numerous researchers have observed, close readings of literature can also build empathy and even reduce prejudice toward frequently marginalized groups.
As Shakespeare himself might have said, “O! this learning, what a thing it is.”