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How to Teach Shakespeare Without Losing Its Integrity

Updated on January 17, 2013
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Tricking Students Into Loving Shakespeare

When I was in college, I was required to take a Shakespeare course for my degree in English Adolescence Education. My high school teachers taught me Shakespeare through film and I had zero interest reading Shakespeare's early works for an entire semester in college. At one play per week, my brain was thoroughly fried on material I cared little about and that was impossible to understand. I begged and pleaded my professor to pass me with a C. I think I ended up with a C+, my absolute worst grade as an undergrad.

It came time for student teaching and my first placement was in a classroom with an older, veteran teacher. Her teaching style was stale and her classroom was boring. I was teaching 11th and 12th grade English. For each grade, it was time for the Shakespeare unit, so I was gearing up to teach Hamlet to 11th grade and Macbeth to the seniors. I was absolutely terrified of my task because of all the things I hated most, it was Shakespeare.

Since I was intending to teach the 11th graders for weeks before I got to the seniors, I ended up purchasing No Fear Shakespeare: Hamlet to help me to understand the play. Once I broke through the language, I was able to finally understand Shakespeare. After the first act or so I actually ditched the No Fear book and worked through the language myself.

And since I had began with the same approach to Shakespeare as many of my students (hating it), I used how I taught myself to teach my students. We were acting out the play, turning scenes into modern English, and making Facebook-based posters for the classroom so we could keep track of the characters. It was amazing how much fun I was having learning the play, but also how much fun my students were having. After tackling Hamlet, I was hooked and in love with Shakespeare, especially with teaching it. I knew when I taught Shakespeare later, I would always have to make sure I was passing on that love to my students. I never wanted Shakespeare to become as horrible and boring for them as it was for me.

I now teach English 9 and my Romeo and Juliet unit is the first introduction to Shakespeare that most of my students have. I know not every student will appreciate it like I do, but I want to prove to my students that Shakespeare really is fun and exciting.

When looking at the options of text to use to teach Romeo and Juliet, there are many versions out there. It seems like the trend today is to teach it with a modern day companion beside it (and there are many texts available aside from the No Fear series that will do this for you). It is frustrating because why teach Shakespeare if the students are going to be reading the modern version? The beauty is in the language as Shakespeare presents it, even if you don't understand every single word.

Since I want my students to spend time with the text, really deciphering it and figuring out the story, we spend a few weeks reading directly from the text. I ease them into the language with a fun game (usually Occupation Romeo, which I will have to use another hub to describe) and try to show them it's really not as scary as it looks. Then we act out the lines, stopping every few of them to discuss in detail what is happening. After a few classes like this, we're stopping less frequently and the students are able to understand it more and more. Last year, my students were coming in during free periods just to secure their roles for class later in the afternoon. I actually heard from them that they didn't want to be Romeo because "he's too much of a drama queen" and of course that made me feel so good inside!

I try to do as many activities as I can with Shakespeare so the students have fun while they are reading it. This year I'm shorter on time with my unit because I am working in a writing aspect that is going to take longer than years past. I didn't want to give up this text work with Shakespeare, though, so I had to figure something else out. I was initially going to teach the first week and a half or so with close readings, then have students review a scene synopsis while we discussed themes and characters. I hated that I was considering doing it that way so I had to keep looking.

I was fortunate enough to have been given an iPad through a grant in my school. While browsing the app store I came across an app called "Shakespeare in Bits: Romeo and Juliet." I got the demo and knew right away this was going to be my answer.

This app is true to the text, so I don't have to worry about students missing parts of the story through film or another representation. Every scene is accompanied by an animated video as the text is read. The text is interactive so words and phrases can be defined for the reader. There is a scene synopsis available for each scene that I will have my students read over after they have read and viewed the scene. The app also provides a wonderful relationship map as well as a character biography for each character in the play.

As a teacher who believes in the power of critical thinking and in teaching Shakespeare for what it is, I am so happy I have finally been able to find a version of the text that is worth showing my students. I don't want to give them the easy way out, as we will still be doing some in text reading and acting, but the app gives them an opportunity to really dig in and interact beyond the close readings we do in class. They will explore the language and the story, get to know and appreciate the characters as well as be provided a ton of background information and explanations at their fingertips. If they don't love Shakespeare after this unit, there really is no hope for them at all!

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