Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

How to Make ALL Students Fall in Love with Close Reading

Image: Deirdre DeLoatch

This summer I had the privilege of participating in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute: Summer Academy. During this week-long intensive program, I was given multiple strategies for teaching Shakespeare’s Hamlet and other Shakespearean works.


I learned that I should allow the students to perform scenes according to how they interpret the language. I should give them freedom to both direct and edit the scenes so that they will have more ownership in their individual performances. As a result of both the Academy’s suggestions and encouragement, I will no longer have a select group of students take individual parts and have the students read those parts while the other students in the class sit passively without paying attention to the text.


Before the first day of class, I was determined to have my class use performance when reading literature, whether it’s Shakespeare, or any other author. Knowing that my incoming seniors would have had no prior experience with Shakespeare, I thought Romeo and Juliet would work well. I also decided that I wanted all of my children to study it. The class that I knew would possibly challenge me the most would be my Integrated Co-teaching (ICT) class. Some of these students have processing disorders, developmental delay, dyslexia, and other disabilities. As a result, I decided to implement language-based, performance-rich lessons while scaffolding the text for them to dispel any anxiety or discomfort while both studying and reading the text.


On the first day of class, my co-teacher and I began teaching Romeo and Juliet to our twelfth grade ICT class. After dispensing with only a few formalities, we had the students form two lines in the middle of the classroom. We first asked the students about their prior knowledge of the play. About half of them had some general knowledge of the play. Next, we told the students that we were going to read the Prologue, but that each student was going to read a line of the Prologue. We read the Prologue three times to enhance their understanding of the text (for vocabulary development, we discussed some of the unfamiliar worlds and looked at word roots for some of the terms including prologue). We then asked three students to read individually the entire prologue. Lastly, we asked a series of questions to determine their comprehension. We asked the students to support their answers with evidence from the text and to rewrite the Prologue, for homework, using colloquial language. At that point, their eyes lit up and many of them became excited because we were allowing them to rewrite the Prologue in their own words. As they did this, they were close reading the original language.


The next day of class, my co-teacher and I decided to use editing as a means of teaching another approach to close reading. We elicited from our students their prior knowledge of editing. We explained that we wanted them to edit the first scene of the play. They decided to begin the scene with line thirty-four and to delete half of the Prince’s lines. We then randomly placed the students in four groups of six and had the students choose to perform the characters in which they were interested. They read the lines many times. They were asked to put gestures with the lines and perform the lines according to their own ideas. We had the students practice acting their lines for about fifteen minutes. We saw excitement from them as they began practicing. Lastly, the students performed their edited scenes in front of each other. Everyone both applauded and complimented each group. We asked for general feedback from the students about the performances. The students stated that they comprehended the scene and that they enjoyed watching their peers. The best reward came when a student, who was notorious for truancy, said to us, “Are you gonna combine English with acting in this class?” We said, “Yes.” He then said, “I’m gonna come to school more often then.” We handed out exit slips and asked the students to explain, in at least five sentences, their understanding of the scene.


The first few classes of this school year have been the best. I am looking forward to implementing many of the strategies that I learned during the Folger Summer Academy. I hope to have my students both read (in front of an audience) and perform many edited scenes from the text. The students’ excitement generated from reading the text is palpable. Even my co-teacher is excited about the lessons.