It’s Shakespeare’s birthday on April 23rd! … Did you know it’s also Shakespeares day he died too? Use that as an opener when you teach Shakespeare and watch as a conversation erupts!
Shakespeare day, celebrated on St. George’s Day, is popularly commemorated around the world with ‘Talk like Shakespeare Day’. While this is not a celebrated holiday here in the UK, there are some great quotes that Shakespeare wrote which we still use today!
I’m very excited to share that today’s post is a guest blog by Anna, Bettering Youth’s resident KS4 English tutor. This blog will share her own experience with Shakespeare, outline how she would teach it (Great for home educated students!) and her top 5 tips for supporting your children.
Let’s dive in!
Table of Contents:
- Avoiding Shakespeare
- New teacher approach
- Connecting Shakespeare to Modern Literature
- How to Teach Shakespeare… so it Makes Sense
- The First Lesson to Teach Shakespeare
- Top 5 tips to Support your Child as they Read Shakespeare
Where it all began:
17 years ago my journey into teaching began – I find this hard to believe as it has flown by; ever changing and evolving and filled with what must now be thousands of smiling faces and new ideas. As a student myself, I was an avid reader – the type that hid under the covers with a torch at night! I had devoured a range of genres yet, by the time I was comfortably into my twenties and embarking on my dream career, the thought of having to ‘teach Shakespeare’ filled me with dread.
I do not have a formal English Literature degree – mine was full of texts from other cultures steeped in cultural memory from countries that were not my own. Surely such a revered British playwright should draw a student of literature toward them? But, somehow, over my academic career, only two Shakespeare plays had crossed my path, and, if I’m honest, I had not particularly enjoyed either of them. So please, if the thought of supporting your child through their English Literature GCSE makes you want to run a mile – don’t worry, you will not be alone in this feeling! You can and will be able to help – even if it just asking them questions using a revision guide!
As a newly qualified teacher I leant heavily on experienced teachers when preparing to teach Shakespeare. My first unit was Romeo and Juliet – they gave me ideas and resources to use and I hid behind them, never really engaging on a personal level with the texts. I had loved the literature I had studied previously about whole races of people suffering under reigns of conflicted power; about dreams ended by others with greater ambition; about families and loved ones divided by ancient battles and about wars and leaders and the struggle to victory. Film-wise, romance and stories with twists and turns leading to that final Hollywood happiness were what had engaged me: completely schmaltzy and not what your typical literature student is expected to keep in their DVD collection!
Moment of clarity:
It took some time but I finally realised that, of course, by reading and loving this range of texts through my own life, it meant that I was reading and loving Shakespeare. These themes, characters and storylines all appear in Shakespeare’s plays presented through rich prose and powerful poetry; through colourful characters that are both real and magical –just like those in Harry Potter or Star Wars. Once I had this realisation, my whole approach to teach Shakespeare changed and, without wanting to sound cliché, came alive.
If it took me this long to realise that I can actually ‘get it’, how on earth can we expect school children to do the same in a few detached hours per week, over a couple of terms of their school life? The same question has been asked of me hundreds of times: ‘Miss, why do we study Shakespeare?’ and I can now confidently answer it – maybe not in some snappy, quick witted one liner (the teacher I wish I was) but in my approach and through my lessons. Assuredly, I can say that all of my students gain something from engaging with a Shakespeare text, though perhaps some of them are just a little reluctant to admit it!
Teaching the Shakespearean Text:
No reading of the scenes, no annotations or predictions…
For me, one of the most important moments in the teaching of Shakespeare is the first lesson. Or the first series of lessons. Over the years I have moved away from taking the first scene by reading it from the script, making annotations, or reading the opening scene and making predictions. In fact, I have gone away from doing any reading at all! My way in is now always at least one week of purely drama and discussion activities. I try not to make it scary – no one has to stand up and recite whole sonnets or recreate the famous balcony scene. It is about building confidence, not taking it away!
Focus on the storyline
Students can access the text much more successfully when they have ownership of it – with this in mind, ensuring they know the storyline inside out is a must. Back in my training year, I was sent on a brilliant course with the RSC where they demonstrated how to get the whole class involved in retelling the story – over the years, I have evolved this for each play I have taught and it is so much fun! They bite their thumbs at each other, hurl Shakespearean insults (“best lesson ever Miss”) and without knowing it, immerse themselves in the text so deeply that they learn without trying.
If you can get them to know the characters and the storyline before they actually read any of the play itself, so much of the hard work is done – it is about how it happens from then on – not what actually happens and who did what to who!
You can’t get away from having to read the text and make notes for revision, but, what you can do, is put in the leg work first so that this does not become the mammoth task students can feel that it is – you can just then jog their memories: ‘this is that bit when….’ ‘remember when you were laid in the middle of the classroom floor dead? Well this is that bit…’. Confidence is everything.
How to teach theme in Shakespeare
After the initial series of lessons to bring the play to life, most of my lessons would then be based around a theme. Themes are the glue that holds any text together – they link the beginning, middle and end and make meaning from the words on the page. I always talk about the play as a pop up book – themes make the ideas stand up on the page as you turn it and give you that 360 degree view of the characters and events. Themes can be philosophical and challenging but also simple and have meaning in all of our lives. This is another tactic for alleviating fear. If you can make the theme of the lesson link to something they already know about, it makes it so much more accessible.
Sample MacBeth Lesson Format for Teaching Ambition:
Introducing the lesson:
- You could pose the question ‘what is ambition?’ and you will get a few hands up.
- You could, alternatively, pose the series of questions ‘what is your dream?’,
- followed by: ‘how are you going to achieve this?’
- and then ‘what would you be willing to do to take a short cut to this dream?’ and you might get a few more interesting answers!
The point is they can then see that they are not dissimilar to Macbeth or Lady Macbeth (hopefully without all the murder…!)
Applying the knowledge that they already have:
Next it is good give a selection of moments from the text that show the theme of ambition in different characters distributed around the room. (Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, The Witches, Banquo).
In groups the students would debate and discuss what kind of ambition is being shown and make links to any real life examples given at the start of the lesson. By giving a selection of moments from the play, it gives them the opportunity to discuss the breadth of the theme within the play – excellent for top grade analysis.
Linking it to exam skills:
You would then give an opportunity to do some close language analysis working on their individual skills targets.
Reinforcing the learning:
To close the lesson it would be important to go round the classroom and magpie the work from other groups – that way if your group had focused on The Witches, you would be able to gain the ideas about the other characters from the rest of the class.
There is so much you can do with these plays – I could literally write for weeks about it. Importantly, there is lots that can be added by a tutor, both in 1-1 lessons and small group sessions.
Pin it for Later!
My top five tips for helping your child study Shakespeare:
- Get involved! Watch a film version with them. Listen to the audio book in the car together. Go to the theatre and watch the play. And talk about it – any conversation will reinforce the knowledge they are building.
- Help create timelines of the play – it will help to concrete their basic knowledge of the events. This is key.
- Make some character profiles together – have some fun with it by drawing pictures/cartoons or creating silly social media bios for them.
- Look at the feedback they are getting from the teacher at school – check they understand what they need to do to improve. If you’re not sure what it means, contact the teacher. They will be more than happy to have you take an interest.
- Don’t feel the fear! These are essentially stories about each of us – our flaws and weaknesses, our dreams and desires It’s just that language changes – how many words do your kids use that you didn’t? Evolution is inevitable. Look for what you know, not what you don’t.
Anna Barnett is an experienced secondary English Teacher having taught in a wide range of schools up to GCSE level. She is also an Examiner and Senior Examiner for the Edexel and AQA exam boards. She is passionate about her subject and loves finding ways of helping students access the worlds within literature on both a 1:1 and classroom level.