Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Action is Eloquence

~ by Danette Long

I recently had the pleasure of working with 20 pre-service English teachers at Montana State University in beautiful Bozeman, MT.  My purpose for working with the students was to discuss methods for teaching Shakespeare in secondary education.  I should begin by saying that this is a topic near and dear to my heart because I had no idea how to teach Shakespeare to high school students for the six years I taught English in Northern New York.  I wished dearly at the time that I had someone to enlighten me about teaching Shakespeare in a way that would actively engage my students.

I began my time as guest lecturer by asking Montana’s future English teachers to free write about their biggest fear relating to teaching Shakespeare.  There were many variations, but the responses boiled down to five big fears:

  1. Lack of student engagement or general boredom with Shakespeare
  2. Inadequacy in interpreting Shakespeare’s language for students
  3. A personal lack of expertise regarding all things Shakespeare
  4. A personal lack of enthusiasm for Shakespeare and his work (It seems not all English majors love Shakespeare—imagine my surprise!)
  5. What to acknowledge or leave out, particularly regarding Shakespeare’s bawdy.

Anyone with experience in Folger philosophy will know that I could not have asked for a better set up to the next three days as I walked these students through several Folger activities.  The magic began as soon as I opened the lid of the Shakespeare Set Free Toolkit and we pushed the classroom chairs to the wall for:

in such business
Action is eloquence, and the eyes of th’ ignorant
More learned than the ears
(Coriolanus, III.ii)

While teaching performance-based approaches to Shakespeare’s texts to Twenty-First Century English teachers is hardly what Volumnia was trying to convey to her son in Coriolanus, the words are certainly applicable.  After all, it is one thing to tell someone something; we do this with our students all the time.   We tell them that they should use performance to teach Shakespeare.  It is another to show them, lists of resources that address performance are often mentioned in English methods courses.  But when you have them do it, practice it, teach it for themselves, well then, you have something altogether more powerful…

D Long 2 - Discussion

We began by discussing Edward Rocklin’s idea of reading “as investigators” in his text Performance Approaches to Teaching Shakespeare.  Specifically to go beyond the traditional ideas of identifying and discussing what the words in a text might mean, but to delve deeper and ask, “what do these words do?”, “what can these words be made to do?” and most powerfully, “what do these words make an actor make the audience do?”  These are heady questions to pose when teaching Shakespeare.  Taken together they bring out the important fact that Shakespeare’s texts are plays full of action, not static words pinned to the page.

We then investigated tone, stress, and subtext in language.  If you have attended a Folger Act I workshop at NCTE, you recognize the focus.  (If you haven’t had the pleasure, I suggest you mark the session in next year’s catalog).  Then we moved into some ice breakers with insults and compliments and 2-line scene cards, exploring the magic of the Shakespeare Set Free Toolkit.

The investigation of Shakespeare continued with a close reading of Othello’s Act II, scene i using Michael Tolaydo’s “Up on Your Feet with Shakespeare” found in Volume 3 of Shakespeare Set Free.  As we read, reread, discussed and debated the text, the students wrote notes on the board to support their investigation of who the characters in the scene were, the relation between the characters, the location of the scene, and what the characters were doing.  The students were amazed at how easily they understood what was going on in the text without having had any background for the play provided.  The level of close reading brought on by performing the lines was far greater than any read-from-your-seat analysis they had experienced in their own Shakespeare instruction.

D Long 1 - Group

Before I set them to the task of teaching their own performance-based lessons I shared one of the 15 minute plays from the Toolkit’s zip drive.  The students couldn’t stop talking about the applications for the 15 minute Henry IV, part I.  We discussed how easy it would be for them to recreate the 15 minute process with any play they would teach to their students.  (Many students shared that this was one of their favorites from the three-day workshop).

Finally, I put the students in groups to do the most important work of all: teach a Shakespeare lesson through performance to their peers.  Students worked in groups of 5 to prepare a performance-based lesson from the Twelfth Night Unit Calendar also found in Volume 3 of Shakespeare Set Free.  Each group had their own lesson to teach to the class.  In my opinion, this practice was the most meaningful exercise I could have students do for it is when we do a task ourselves that we achieve the confidence to repeat the process.  It is not enough to tell our future teachers to use performance; it is not enough to show them performance; if they are to have the confidence to use performance in their own classrooms with their own students, our pre-service students must experience the performance for themselves and they must be given the opportunity to teach through performance.

D Long 3 - Performance

At the end of our last day I reminded the students of their 5 big fears and asked them to write once again, only this time I asked them to share how the workshop had helped alleviate those fears.  Here is what they said:

“This workshop has helped to alleviate these fears because I was able to act as the student and the teacher.”

“These different methods do not allow students to be un-engaged.  They have to participate, pay attention, and contribute.”

“I think the experience has helped me get some new perspectives on Shakespeare.”

“Shakespeare’s language no longer seems so impenetrable…Students are imbuing words in the play with meaning, I’m not doing that for them.”

“By putting students in the center of the text through performance, they will grasp key moments and details.”

“Introducing performance-based activities does a lot of the interpretive grunt work for the teacher because the students move into the close reader role more easily, often without realizing it.”

“Before, I did not feel like enough of an expert on Shakespeare to teach my students…but now I realize I can collaborate and learn along with my students…”

“I also feel as though I can approach teaching Shakespeare with energy as opposed to dread.”

“The one main aspect of this workshop I felt to be most beneficial was getting us on our feet and actively participating…”

“To be honest, I am much more excited to teach Shakespeare in my classroom.”

As for me, my love of all things Shakespeare grows with every new experience.  I will continue to make Shakespeare three-dimensional for any student in any classroom where I am lucky enough to be a part.

After teaching high school English for six years in Northern New York, Danette moved to Bozeman, MT where she is currently a Pre-Service Practicum Instructor and Supervisor of Teacher Candidates at Montana State University in Bozeman, MT.  She is an alumnus of the Folger TSI 2010 and had the honor of presenting in a Folger strand at NCTE 2011.  She earned her Master of Arts in English at Montana State University and her Master of Science in Teaching English from SUNY Potsdam in Potsdam, NY.  Though her friends think she may be crazy, she soon intends to pursue an Ed.D in Education.


  • Your students reacted the same way my students have reacted both with their big fears and their relief after doing some of these activities. MY big fear is that when teachers read those unit plans and never get a chance to actually experience doing active teaching, they rely on those dull, character, plot, and theme questions. Taking part in a hands-on workshop is essential.

    Nice work, Danette.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)