Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Shakespeare, Assessment, and Silent Scenes

By Sue Biondo-Hench

My students have told me that studying and performing Shakespeare has made them better readers of all literature and better writers, stronger individuals and stronger leaders.

But how do we assess this growth?

There is no standardized assessment that truly measures this type of learning. And that’s an issue that challenges the credibility and viability of performance-based instruction.

When I was first asked to provide a workshop on Shakespeare and assessment last fall, I was a bit disappointed. I mean, assessment isn’t what gets me to school in the morning. But truthfully, I think about assessment all the time as I work with students and performance; it is at all stages of what I do with students. I just didn’t realize it until I began to think about what I wanted to share at that workshop.

One of the realities of assessment is that it has the power to scaffold, stabilize, justify, and transforms the performance piece for the students, for the classroom, for the audience, for administrators, and for me.

Performance facilitates assessment.

Assessment facilitates performance.

That is the “fair is foul and foul is fair” of pedagogy—but it’s all fair.

Photo courtesy of Sue Biondo-Hench
Photo courtesy of Sue Biondo-Hench

One performance-based activity that allows the teacher to assess student work with the text in a formative way is Silent Scenes. Silent Scenes is often used as a pre-reading activity, but it also makes a terrific assessment tool. Consider the following procedure, which allows the teacher to assess the students’ reading comprehension:

  1.  After students finish reading a portion of text, have them work in groups to list the key events that have just occurred.
  2. Have the students assign a role to each group member, and then have the students figure out how to act out (block) these events.
  3. Then have the groups perform their scenes for each other without dialogue.
  4. Discuss the silent scenes, reflecting on accuracy, similarities and differences, and interpretive choices. Make sure that the students understand that the process is one way for the class to collectively explore and clarify their reading of the text. Comprehension refines itself across the course of the shared scenes.

As the students develop and present their Silent Scenes, they use textual evidence to figure out what is happening in the scene, to determine which details are important enough to include in the scene, and to identify the scene’s setting and the characters. All of these skills help the teacher assess how students are interacting with the text, and, at the same time, they do a fine job of meeting Common Core State Standard 1 for Reading.

If time permits, and I hope it does, the students may also use this activity as a first step on the way to preparing a scene—lines and all—for performance.

Check out the Teach and Learn section of the Folger Shakespeare Website and Shakespeare Set Free series. They are filled with strategies like Silent Scenes that actively engage the students with the text and help the teacher assess student progress in dynamic and transformative ways.

Sue Biondo-Hench is a teacher at Carlisle High School in Pennsylvania. She helped establish the Central Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, and founded the Carlisle Shakespeare Troupe. Sue edited the Romeo and Juliet unit of Shakespeare Set Free: Volume 1


  • Thank you for showing how Silent Scenes can support assessment. I’m thinking about using this activity as a self-assessment tool for student writers. Why not try it in a narrative writing workshop? After students write original narratives (Common Core Writing Standard 3), they can swap drafts and prepare Silent Scene versions of their classmates’ narratives. Writers can see—not just through written feedback but through active performance—how readers have interpreted their language. Writers can then use the readers’ performances to make revisions—and that all-important shift from writer-based prose to reader-based prose. I’ll let you know how things go. Thanks for the idea!

  • This is a skill taught at the first UTMTSI English program in 2000 and represented the next fall at NCTE. Seemed to gain great popularity in classes

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