On Teaching: Introducing Shakespeare in the Middle Grades

Shakespeare's Eyes

Photo by J. M. Varner

Background:

This school year, in the second and third quarters, I’ve been experimenting with introducing Shakespeare to my middle school students. I’ve been slow and gentle in my approach, as it’s far too easy for anyone (let alone a 12-year-old) to turn off to Shakespeare if he’s forced on them.

My goal has been to help my students begin to appreciate the richness of meaning and depth of feeling in Shakespeare’s text. I’m not looking for full-scale literary criticism here, of course, but rather the ability to 1) start to feel the meaning behind the words and 2) begin to have a feel for the rhythm and flow of the language — and to not be turned off by it all.

Resources:

The Shakespeare full-text database at MIT is an excellent source of uncluttered webpages featuring Shakespeare’s text that can be easily projected on a Smartboard with the text at a size large enough for the whole class to read.  Also, using the web browser’s ‘Find on Page’ (or similar) function, it’s easy to directly pull up certain passages based on key words (even of only partially remembered).

Process:

I start by selecting excerpts based on student request — passages that students may already be familiar with to some degree, or certain plays that they are aware of or have interest in.  A little background in Shakespeare helps here to narrow down some key/famous passages in those plays that will work well for the next step.

With a passage of Shakespeare’s text projected on the Smartboard, the text size large enough that the whole class can see (which also reduces the amount of text on the screen, preventing it from being too overwhelming), we then do a Read Aloud of that section, often having multiple students take a crack at the same bit of text.  This is done strictly on a volunteer basis, and, to keep it fun, some students will read in their best approximation of a British accent, often with hilarious results.

To help with the flow and feel of the language itself, when necessary, in between student readings I will step in and ‘coach’ students on how the rhythm of the text should sound.

After several students have read, we’ll then have a discussion about the meaning behind the text we’ve just read.  What do students think is going on in the scene?  What emotion is the character feeling/expressing through his/her lines?  What key words or phrases that you recognize lead you to your conclusions?  As we are not doing deep, extensive textual analysis, the goal here is to focus on the big picture, the overall gist, of the meaning behind the text.

Again, with Shakespeare, a big goal is helping students to not be intimidated and turned off by the unfamiliar nature of the language, but rather helping them to appreciate the aspects of the language and meaning that they are able to grasp.

If we have time, I might show a brief clip of a performance of the scene we’ve just read aloud, but I’ve found with my students that they tend to have much more fun trying the language out for themselves than watching an actor perform the lines.

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About JMVarnerBooks

With the days of international travel behind him, J. M. Varner now exercises his language skills in his English classroom and on the page. A second life as an author affords him another way to encourage his students and fans to read, write, and think independently. Borrowing terms from noted media critic Neil Postman, Mr. Varner summarizes his 'Philosophy of Fiction': "Writing a novel is a creative process of World Building and Word Weaving. Authors build worlds in our minds; these can be fantastical worlds or fictionalized variations of our own reality. By writing and rewriting, we weave these worlds into words on the page." Mr. Varner is currently writing the next novel in the "Squirrel Hill High" series, a series launched with the debut novel, "Digital Me". Set in a fictional high school located in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at Squirrel Hill High students and teachers live through true-to-life drama in the emotionally charged environment of the American high school.
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2 Responses to On Teaching: Introducing Shakespeare in the Middle Grades

  1. tphelps1980 says:

    I like this idea! My students would love it. I think that the small text can be intimidating, and the language can be a barrier unless you take time to mull it over. Thank you for sharing!

    • Thanks for the feedback!

      Projecting the enlarged text on the Smartboard and having multiple students take a crack at reading the same bit of the text has had the effect of making the experience more “social,” versus an isolated struggle with a difficult text.

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