Shakespeare can be an effective tool for teaching children of all learning levels and backgrounds how to interact with others and explore meaningful topics that mirror everyday life. Who else besides the Bard himself wrote about such a wide range of human emotions that span the centuries?
As an educator, I want to expose all types of learners to dramatic arts and literature, and different learners need different things. In teaching mainstreamed, high-functioning children on the autism spectrum, I have found that along with the challenges come many delights and surprises. Some may argue that for students with exceptionalities, Shakespeare is an inappropriate or laborious author to tackle, but I have found that for students working on social skills and academic collaboration, Shakespeare presents an opportunity to grow and realize their potential.
Here are some ideas and practices I’ve found successful in working in a mainstreamed classroom:
- One does not need to “teach” the entire play. Give a synopsis and select scenes around a focus. These should be situations that will have broad appeal for all your students.
- Read aloud. Plays are meant to be performed, so have the students read scenes and interact. The goal is not to have students become the next Derek Jacobi or Laurence Olivier. Our aim has to do with the learning process: to have the child become more comfortable in social settings and build self-esteem while developing a knowledge and love of Shakespeare. Mind you, iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets can be tricky. (“God grant us patience.”) However, when students get to speak and own pieces of text, they discover that the cadence, rhyme, and Elizabethan language merely enhance the play. Also, since Shakespeare coined many of the idioms we frequently use today, the students enjoy hunting for particular common phrases. So, when your students proclaim, “It’s all Greek to me,” you can remind them they have Shakespeare to thank for that retort!
- Choose passages that deal with everyday problems and identifiable feelings. Choose scenes that feature dialogue and enable listening skills—all significant learning opportunities for students with or without autism. For example, ponder the conflict between Egeus and his daughter Hermia, the banter of the rude mechanicals, or Oberon and Titania’s skirmish over the changeling boy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. These scenes serve as a springboard for further discussions in the class. Regardless of which Shakespearean play you choose, the point is to meet the children where they are emotionally, socially, and chronologically.
- Let it be known that you must also be willing to take risks, act goofy, initiate eye contact, open the arena for folly, turn things over to the students, and allow the magic to unfold—without expectations, judgment, or inhibition. (“Screw your courage to the sticking place,” and “Speak the speech, I pray you.”) If you show them you are willing to do something a little outrageous, then maybe they will try something a little unconventional, too. In class, we all open ourselves up to the possibility of making mistakes, forgetting lines, behaving oddly and experimenting.
- Should you be fortunate enough to have a mainstreamed classroom filled with students of all learning levels and styles, you will have additional opportunities to facilitate the children’s understanding of interpersonal situations; allow the children to explore feelings and ideas; encourage problem solving through creative and imaginative thinking; foster self-esteem and self confidence; and ease anxiety in social settings. Performing Shakespearean scenes in the classroom opens up students’ worlds, allows them the opportunity to appreciate the language, and offers a pride point.
Teaching and learning this way can help all students feel secure in their ability to handle social situations and remain self-assured as they mature into adulthood.