By Quintin Burks
Well, it’s that time of the year again; the leaves are starting to change, the nights are getting cooler, and the school year has begun. As I start to see new and familiar young faces fill the hall of my school, some filled with excitement and some apprehension, I’m reminded of just how important the beginning of the school year is. Every year, it becomes more and more apparent to me just how important the first few weeks of instruction are in setting the tone for my entire class. It is for this reason that Shakespeare has become my go-to for starting the year off right.
Though it may seem crazy to start students off with literature that they most likely identify as especially difficult or only for the intellectual elite, the immediate dispelling of these popular myths by interacting with Shakespeare’s works is a profoundly beneficial practice. Students actively engage with Shakespeare’s words and, in so doing, are empowered by a form of success that seems, and is, particularly momentous. Moreover, teaching Shakespeare according to the Folger Approach produces a high level of investment in your class because it is ridiculously fun, in addition to being incredibly effective.
One approach to beginning the year with Shakespeare is to teach a variety of excerpts instead of an entire play. I find that this approach is particularly beneficial, because it allows students to develop the literacy skills that we are trying to teach, without some unintentional road blocks that come with reading an entire play. Instead of trying to remember plot and character details (which are sometimes highly confusing, even in short plays like Midsummer) students will be focused on working with short excerpts from a variety of plays that serve, for all intents and purposes, as a whole play.
By working with a short excerpt from a play, students will be able to develop close reading skills by annotating for stage directions, intonation, gestures, etc., without being distracted by what happened earlier in the play, or how the events from their scene plays into the larger plot of the play. Instead, students will focus on bringing the scene you have given them to life according to their own (or their group’s) close reading and interpretation of Shakespeare’s language, which is a practice that can (and should) be applied to fiction and non-fiction of all types.
This multi-excerpt approach also proves to be effective because it empowers the teacher to make informed decisions regarding the pieces that they provide to their students. You may choose excerpts that are conducive to developing skills or achieving certain goals, or which include specific issues. Also, it allows students to experience the works of Shakespeare outside of the plays that are most often used at the high school level.
For example, within the first few weeks of school this year, my students will have read, annotated, and brought to life scenes from ii Henry VI, iii Henry VI, Twelfth Night, Pericles, The Merchant of Venice, and The Taming of the Shrew, just to name a few. Moreover, the excerpts that I’ve chosen from these plays are specific to the skill I am looking to develop in my students.
For one activity, I’ve chosen an excerpt from Act 2 Scene 1 of Shrew to work on understanding characterization, while Act 2 Scene 1 of ii Henry VI will be used to develop annotation skills, with an emphasis on movement. My students will memorize, practice, and recite the Quality of Mercy speech from Merchant to develop their memory skills, and to launch into a discussion of empathy. With this model, the whole Shakespearean canon is your and your student’s playground, and that is a wonderful thing.
Through my own experience, I know that starting off the year with Shakespeare is starting off the year right. It makes your classroom the place your students want to be, all while they are developing skills which will boost their confidence and make them more effective readers and writers.
Quintin Burks is a teacher at Nashoba Regional High School in Bolton, Massachusetts, and an alum of the 2014 Teaching Shakespeare Institute. He teaches 9th and 12th graders, including a class specifically on the works of William Shakespeare. An aspiring Shakespeare scholar, Quintin is currently writing his Master’s Thesis on the shifting perceptions of royal authority in Shakespeare’s history plays. You can contact Quintin at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @qburks8.