Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Advice for Shakespeare teachers: What to do on the first day of school

Guest post by Deborah Gascon

Eighteen years ago, days before my first year teaching began, my principal gave me the best advice I’ve ever heard about the first day of school. She simply said, “Make the students want to come back.” She told me to forget the syllabus and classroom procedures—the students won’t retain those rules and did I really want my first impression to be about how to ask for the bathroom pass?

As suggested, I followed through with my hopefully-memorable plans on that first day. When I ate dinner that night (in my pjs because I was so exhausted!) I had visions of my eighth graders at their dinner tables telling their families about their invigorating English class. I’m still not sure if that happened, but they all came back the next day with smiles on their faces and eager to learn. They were optimistic. And so was I.

With that advice in mind, on the first day of school for the past two years I’ve incorporated Folger performance methods in my lesson plans.  What a difference this has made. No longer were my sleepy seniors glaring at me (and the clock) and no longer were my freshmen struggling to sit still in a desk after a summer of hyperactivity.  Instead, students were on their feet, participating and laughing (and learning!).

Here are some quick methods to get the students up on their feet and loving the first day (and every day after!) in your classroom:

  • Two-line scene cards

Write witty and intriguing quotes from Shakespeare’s plays on notecards. Each student then gets a card and practices the line. Ask them to think about these things:  What does the line mean?  How can I make the words mean something more by how I use my voice or body?  Have the students grab a partner and create a scene with just their two lines and perform for the class.  If you have the Shakespeare Set Free Toolkit, these cards are included.

  • Poetry

Choose a poem that is inspirational or thematically related to your first day mission.  I have used Tennyson’s “Ulysses” and Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man.”  Break the poem into parts (a few lines for each group) and have students pantomime the words.  I have a student volunteer to read the poem aloud while the students stand in a circle and perform their parts as their part of the poem is read.  When I use “Seven Ages of Man” we have a discussion about their seven ages and where they are and where they are going—a timely conversation for seniors!

Seven Ages of Man, Folger Shakespeare Library
Seven Ages of Man, Folger Shakespeare Library
  • Interviews

Have students interview another student they don’t know.  They can interview about their summer vacation or something interesting about the student.  Then have the students translate parts of the script into Shakespeare’s language.  Use Michael LoMonico’s hand out Speak Like Shakespeare from his book The Shakespeare Book of Lists to help the students find the vocabulary. So instead of saying “I hunted birds with my sappy grandmother” they can say “I went a-birding with my onion-eyed dotard.”  Sounds WAY more fun!

  • Choose inspiring or informative lines from either summer reading or novels you will read that year. Type them out or write them on note cards.  Give one to each student.  Have him/her act out the lines while they recite the words and have the class anticipate or infer what the novel is about.  You could put their inferences on chart paper and save to see if their guesses are right when the class studies the work. This is similar to Kylene Beers’ Tea Party reading strategy.
  • Another similar activity is a 32-second summer reading review. Have students choose 15-20 of the most important lines from their summer reading, mix those lines with some narration, and try to tell the story of the novel using those lines and pantomimes (similar to the Thirty-Two Second Macbeth and the Fifteen-Minute Romeo and Juliet).
  • Silent Scenes are an easy introduction to performance-based instruction as there is no talking. I’ve used silent scenes as an anticipatory set and as a final review.  Students could use summer reading or you could create scenes based on the first work you will read.  Directions can be found at here and here.
  • There’s nothing better than hurling insults or compliments to strangers on the first day of school. Do the Slugs and Clods activity and get your students to use their voices chorally (which is less intimidating than speaking alone).  I split the class (boys vs. girls or one side of the room vs. the other) in half and let them alternate compliments or insults.


Don’t forget how tough the first day of school is for students.  Very few of our students have been up at 6am since June and even fewer have sat silently for 90 minutes.  We’re all nervous.  Make the day easier by making it enjoyable for all.  I promise the time you spend creating an community that is comfortable with performance-based instruction on the very first day of class will make every class meeting for the rest of the year more productive.

So, ditch the syllabus. Embrace the first impression. Create optimism. Your students will thank you. You will thank you.

Deborah Gascon teaches English 2 and AP Literature and Composition at Dutch Fork High School in Irmo, South Carolina.  She participated in the Teaching Shakespeare Institute at the Folger Shakespeare Library in 2012 and continues her work with Folger Education through the Folger National Teacher Corps.  She can be contacted at dgascon@lexrich5.org.