A New (and Exciting!) Way to do Shakespeare

I know I should probably keep this a secret, but I hate teaching Shakespeare. I visibly cringe (and occasionally twitch) when that part of the semester rolls around. I can hear the eyes rolling before I can even completely get the name Shakespeare off my tongue (and, yes, when 28 sets of eyes all roll simultaneously it’s as audible as gravel grinding against asphalt). And, if I’m honest, I’m holding back my own eye roll, as I pass out the tired and worn out materials of the same-old-same-old and prepare for the halting, robotic voices that stumble and stall out over Shakespeare’s unfamiliar language.

Now, though, things are different.

Last Spring, I attended the WV ELA Conference at WVU, hosted by WVCTE and NWP. There, I had the great pleasure of meeting Corinne Viglietta of Folger Shakespeare Library and participating in two of her sessions. I almost didn’t go to the breakout session, because “Ew. Shakespeare. Amiright?!”–BUT! I did. And sweet bard and butter, I’m glad I did! Because guess what? My kids had FUN with Shakespeare–and so did I.

After the conference, I quickly secured a teacher membership with Folger Shakespeare Library (which came with an awesome t-shirt, by the way!) and began scouring Forsooth, the IN-CRED-I-BLE teacher resource/community addition to the Folger Library, for all things Macbeth. I did a complete overhaul of my unit, Folger Ed style.

Day one of the unit, I would normally torture students with a day of Charlie Brown teachering about good ole’ Billy Shakes, the Globe, iambic pentameter, and yada-yada-yada–you get the picture: glazed eyes, bodies so slouched and low you’d swear they were melting, drool pooling in the corners of mouths–the whole shebang. This time, things went a bit differently.

I began by counting students off by three, separating them into smaller groups. Each student got a card with a word from one of Shakespeare’s works (I have a list if you want them!), and each group got a ball. The idea was simple: the first person says their word out loud, tosses the ball to another person in the circle who says their word out loud before tossing the ball to yet another group member, repeat. I let them do this long enough that most people had spoken their words a handful of times. Then, I asked them to continue the same process, but this time when they say the word, they may say it in a rage, seductively, or as a question or in confusion. Some of them got pretty animated–especially with the rage option. But I saw them having fun and enjoying the language, even though they may not have realized it. We talked about how the activity felt (which ranged from cathartic to weird to silly to fun) and where we thought these words might come from–someone in each class guessed Shakespeare.

We then shifted from language to looking at style and meaning in Shakespeare’s writing with an activity shared with us at the conference by Brain Sztabnik. I reviewed the elements of a sonnet with students and divided them up–boys against girls for a bit of friendly competition. Both groups received a copy of Sonnet 116 cut into its fourteen separate lines. Working together and using the notes on the board about sonnets and their own abilities to create meaning from texts, each group had to reassemble the sonnet. Whichever group got it correct first, won.

And boy, was competition fierce. The boys huddled together and moved with urgency, arguing over inferences and theories informing decisions on line order. The girls worked in hushed whispers, but listened and communicated well with one another. It was interesting to see the different approaches, but it was awesome to see all students eager and involved. In my second block, the girls won, leading the boys to call for a rematch. But in fourth block, the boys kept neck and neck with the girls and pushed ahead for the win right at the end. We talked through each quatrain, making meaning from what another student said might as well be a foreign language. When the bell rang dismissing class, they left full of energy and excitement, talking about Shakespeare!

The next day, we began class by putting on brief performances with two-line scenes, a great resource available through Forsooth. Each student was given a slip of paper with a line from Macbeth on it; after pairing up, they make a mini scene using only the lines they were given. I had all the desks arranged in a large circle, and each group would enter the ring to perform their scenes, many of which were hilarious, and would exit the ring to the sound of thunderous applause. We followed this up by a very animated 20-minute Macbeth (also a Folger activity!) before moving into the first Act. When it came time to assign roles, students were jumping at the opportunity to participate.

Just two days in, I was so excited and energized by what I had seen so far, and I could not wait to move through this play with those kids. I think the most successful element that ties all these activities together is the mentality of “safety in numbers”–what I mean is this: no one was alone. No one had to stand in the middle and be the only person performing; everything was done with a partner or the occasional trio. It was a risk to perform in front of everyone, but it was a shared risk. Everyone was goofy, everyone laughed, and with everyone in on the joke, no one felt highly self-conscientious. And wasn’t that what Shakespeare’s plays were intended for–entertainment?

Over the next several weeks, we moved through the play with a variety of incredibly engaging activities and, as a culminating group project, students had to put on their own production of a scene. They had to turn the play into a script, make notes about scenery and tone and character positions, entrances, exits, costume, props, etc. They cut lines, and in some places added them. The ultimate goal was to perform the finished product for the class, and several groups chose to film their performance rather than perform live (which actually lead to some pretty sick effects being applied–kids are editing geniuses these days). I was overwhelmingly impressed and entertained by each and every group performance. Not a single one was “just meh.” And we had fun. All of us. We were all engaged from the first day to the last, and when we were finished, they had a better understanding of the play than any other group I have ever done this play with.

So, long story short, I don’t hate teaching Shakespeare anymore. In fact, it’s something I very much look forward to. If you have the pleasure and good fortune to be attending the conference this March, the Folger sessions are an absolute must. I promise it will change your teacher life.