Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Common Core standing tall onstage at the Folger

2013 Secondary School Festival. Folger Shakespeare Library.
2013 Secondary School Festival. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Let’s make a date for another day to have a longer, more nuanced conversation about the many parts of the Common Core.

For now, I just want to say that if we could put politics aside and testing aside (and unfortunately, in our beloved field of education, we can put aside neither for long), the expectations for student mastery laid out in the Common Core are the same kinds of expectations that good teachers have had for their students for centuries. Centuries.

And what gets me going on about the Common Core at the moment is that our theatre is crammed this week and next with middle and high school students performing Shakespeare at the Secondary School Shakespeare Festival.

In their schools, they have been learning Shakespeare by getting up and doing it… and then they come to the Folger Theatre.

Eight schools are here each day; they each perform their 25-minute scene and are audience to the other schools. They comment on one another’s work.

The Mistress of the Revels orchestrates language games in between scenes, and during this year’s Festival, each day is ending with all 250 students, teachers, and parent-chaperones collaborating to produce a 20-minute version of Richard III. 

The solid gold under all of this high energy is that these students really know these plays, this language, these characters because they have been learning all of this from the inside out.

Get Shakespeare’s language into the mouths of students of any age, let them get a chance to feel it**, and what starts to happen? Students begin to make their own way through complex texts. How? Through intense close reading, serious analysis, disciplined collaborative work.

If you had seen the Cassius I saw a bit earlier today (thank you, Dakota Rosell from Walkersville High School, Walkersville, MD), you would have said what I did: That guy is Cassius.  Or that excellent, clearly motivated Theseus (thank you, Tatiana Chavez, Duke Ellington School, Washington, DC).

The deeper students go, the better they get at it. They’re learning Shakespeare by getting up and “doing” Shakespeare–in English class, in the hallways, in the gym, in a drama class, in an after-school drama club.

Will some of them go on to be actors?  Some. Mostly they will end up in other careers, and in lives where they hopefully will be unafraid to dive into a bit of compelling literature from time to time.

You can call that a good life, or you can call that knowing your way around a complex text.

Secondary School Shakespeare Festival. Folger Shakespeare Library, 2011 © duytranphotography.com
Secondary School Shakespeare Festival.
Folger Shakespeare Library, 2011 © duytranphotography.com

**To give students a chance to feel the language, try this:

  • Get out on an athletic field or in the gym or distribute ear plugs to your colleagues on either side.
  • Divide your class in half, and have them face each other in two groups.
  • One half should shout this line VERY LOUD at the other half:  You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!
  • The other half should respond VERY LOUDLY as well:  We are such stuff as dreams are made on!
  • Repeat.  Switch lines.
  • Bonus:  If you want to teach iambic pentameter, You blocks . . .  is a perfect line to start with!
Secondary School Shakespeare Festival, Folger Shakespeare Library, 2011 © duytranphotography.com
Secondary School Shakespeare Festival.
Folger Shakespeare Library, 2011 © duytranphotography.com

Peggy O’Brien is the Director of Education at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Follow her on Twitter at @obrienfolger or send her an email at pobrien@folger.edu.


  • Sorry, I don’t think the Common Core ELA standards have much to do with the excellent hands-on Shakespeare activities your organization uses. When taken along with the supplemental materials and appendices (including some highly questionable speeches by David Coleman) I see the “standards” as a reductive hodgepodge of prescriptions, poorly conceived and poorly written, that promote a view of reading and literature study that ignore the last fifty years of critical theory and reading research. They’re based on a number of invalid assumptions, including the idea that having a set of formal standards makes a significant difference in student learning.

    Coleman’s selling of the Common Core and his claims about the so-called “five shifts” in ELA constitute a misrepresentation of previous practice. For example, he claims that teachers don’t assign “complex texts,” rarely assign essays that require analysis or argumentation, and don’t require students to cite textual evidence when discussing literature. Wrong on all three counts. As you know, students have been studying complex texts in the form of Shakespeare’s plays for a century and more. In my experience at the high school level, there’s been an OVERemphasis on written analysis. That’s one reason your approach would seem like a breath of fresh air.

    By the way, there is no way to decouple the Common Core Standards from high-stakes testing (which includes tying teacher evaluations to the test results of students–but not necessarily the students teachers have in class!) It’s all part of one big package designed to create a scalable market for educational materials and services, and to feed into the push to privatize American public education. (See Diane Ravitch’s excellent book titled Reign of Error.)

    My understanding of your education programs stands in polar opposition to the sort of teaching advocated by David Coleman. (He explicitly advocates teaching to the test.) How you can tout the Common Core and all of its wrong assumptions and awful paraphernalia (including those tests, which, believe me, are going to be truly awful) and still take your Shakespeare work seriously is beyond me.

    Wait a minute, I’ve got it. You received funding from the Gates Foundation, didn’t you? Correct me if I’m wrong. Even if you didn’t, you might want to read this blog post by Susan Ohanian and browse through the included links:


    As Ohanian points out, Bill Gates has never shown much understanding of teaching and learning. His stated goals include reducing the cost of education (translation: reduce the overall number of teachers and don’t pay the remaining ones for experience or additional education) and influencing schools to rely on technology to “deliver” education (thereby enriching tech companies). He’s shown little interest in the sort of experiential education that I thought was at the heart of your programs.

    • Ay me! You proved my point about the difficulty of discussing the absolute pleasure and wonder of kids diving into complex texts without getting into politics and/or the topic of high-stakes testing. I can see that it’s an impossibility for you . . . but I’m just not going there. And this is hard for me because I’m a feisty Irish soul and your post is just loaded with flat out misinformation and erroneous assumptions that I am itching to disabuse you of. But no. We are teachers and we are utterly realistic about the world in which teachers work. In the midst of all of it, the sweet spot for this fabulous Library is to support teachers’ work with students–their learning and their students’ learning–in as many ways as we can. Our commitment to that is long and deep . . . 30+ years and counting . . . and we’re just going to keep on with this until teachers tell us not to. (Don’t correct this post for grammar.)

      • No, you’re the one who brought up the Common Core Standards. I did not. The Common Core project was shot through with politics from the get-go. As soon as you say “Common Core,” you’re in political territory.

        And for heaven’s sake, you don’t have to use the Common Core mantra “engaging with complex text” to talk about the value of kids doing Shakespeare. It goes without saying that to enact Shakespeare requires a student to grapple with the text. The only reason to use the term “engaging with complex text” in these times is to identify with the Common Core, and that’s something that is being done for profit by 90+% of the education consultants, textbook companies and professional publishers nationwide. I receive their advertising in my mailboxes (email and regular) every single day. By associating your Shakespeare Festival with the Common Core verbiage, and by explicitly mentioning the Common Core, you are in effect advertising it.

        If you’re going to accuse me of misstating facts, I want you to tell me exactly what I wrote that was “flat out misinformation.” If you want to claim that Gates Foundation support has nothing to do with your promotion of the Common Core, I will remain skeptical.

        I taught high school English for over thirty years, and taught Shakespeare for twenty-five of those years and did my best to make it challenging and interesting. That’s why your teaching techniques were exciting to me. Unfortunately I’ve retired from teaching and don’t have students to share them with. This hasn’t prevented me from promoting your education programs every chance I get. Not that it will make any difference, but unless you get off the Common Core bandwagon, that promotion will have to end. I only pray that the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton doesn’t try to “align” their education program with the Common Core. Then I won’t have any Shakespeare education programs to recommend.

        My interest in defeating the Common Core Standards has very little to do with my political leanings and very much to do with my philosophy of education, my graduate studies in literature and reading, and my experience as a teacher. I’ve examined the Common Core and the sample test questions from PARCC (no, you can’t separate those tests from the “standards”) and have found them seriously wanting (and a bad idea in the first place). I’ve listened to speeches by David Coleman that make my stomach churn. Because I believe the Common Core Standards will do serious damage to our nation’s public schools, I will speak out against them in any venue that’s available to me.

        I want to repeat my recommendation. Go to Susan Ohanian’s website and find out more about what the Common Core Standards really mean. Or check out Diane Ravitch’s blog. You might also be interested in watching David Coleman’s sample lessons–not exactly the kind of teaching you do with the Folger Library, I’ll bet.

  • Those aren’t the Common Core Standards standing tall on the stage. Those are kids. They were on stage in all the previous festivals before the Common Core was decreed. In case you think I’m the only person who believes the CCS will further discourage creative teaching, you might want to read this:


    I’d be happy to meet with you to find out why you’re excited about the Common Core, and why you chose to associate the good name of your institution with a hastily created, untested, oppressively expensive commercial endeavor. (expensive, as in massive amounts of public dollars flowing faster and faster into corporate treasuries instead of safe buildings, libraries, and class size reduction). There’s a chance I’ll be in DC in July for a protest rally.

    You know, if Bill Gates had invested more than 200 million dollars in an endowment for arts programs for public schools instead of buying and selling the Common Core, he might have been contributing to creativity instead of stifling it.

  • Please, I beg of you, read this blog post from Mercedes Schneider in which she quotes from a 2009 speech by Bill Gates outlining is vision for “school reform”:


    Among other chilling statements, he says this about using the Common Core to measure student “achievement” and teacher “effectiveness” (both defined solely by test scores):

    “This is encouraging—but identifying common standards is not enough. We’ll know we’ve succeeded when the curriculum and the tests are aligned to these standards.”

    And the result of that is to align the teaching with the push for higher test scores. The Gates Foundation has actually spent around 3.2 billion dollars on Bill Gates’s cherished and thoroughly wrongheaded notions about how to improve schools. Three billion dollars! It’s no wonder that people on the receiving end of that money so easily dismiss the people who express a contrary point of view.

    Having seen As You Like It at the Blackfriars Theater a week ago, I’m wondering if it will take some kind of miraculous intervention for the villain to change his tune. A villain never believes he’s doing wrong while he’s doing it. Maybe someday Mr. Gates will discover that using his vast wealth to purchase opinion and drown out other voices wasn’t the right thing to do.

    • Correction, that’s around 2.3 billion, not 3.2 billion. But two billion! You could have a Shakespeare program in every school district for a long time for that kind of money.

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