Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Begin Anew: Notes from a Folger Teacher Workshop in New Jersey

On Super Tuesday, March 1, 2016, forty teachers from five New Jersey counties met at Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey. As the nation turned toward the primaries, this group focused

(Image: Kimberly Dickstein)
(Image: Kimberly Dickstein)

on strategies for teaching Shakespeare.

The Folger undoubtedly gives us the tools and strategies to attempt new teaching methods and collaborate with our colleagues. This workshop marked my first day on the road as a Folger National Teacher Corps member, supporting Folger mentor teacher (and fellow Corps member) Josh Cabat. Upon completion of the day, we made the following discoveries as a community:


  1. Teaching Shakespeare is an endurance sport.


You cannot rush the process of getting a scene on its feet. By the end of the eight hour workshop, teachers ascended the stage as performance troupes, taking full ownership of blocking and performing the Cinna the Poet scene from Julius Caesar. We did not start that way, however. Physicalizing the text requires a different kind of energy and endurance. Josh Cabat planned the day by scaffolding close reading exercises using gestures, wordless acting, tone and stress. All participants played with language and subtext from the First Folio to scene editing and film analysis to engage with the timeless sport of word play.


I remind my students constantly that studying Shakespeare is like training the brain. By building muscle memory with complex texts, we’re developing enduring practices for strength conditioning. This has endless application.


  1. Drop what you know.


Every teacher including myself walked into that theater with a “story of the past.” We know what we know about Shakespeare. Some of us have a tumultuous relationship with the Bard. Maybe that laborious “building the Globe from popsicle sticks” project still gives you nightmares of picking glue from your hair. Maybe the endless weeks of reading Romeo and Juliet from the seats still makes you cringe every time you sit down to plan. Even worse, you gave your students a dumbed-down version of the play because at some point you let doubt trump your faith. We’ve all been there. We know what we know. Until we don’t.


Each teacher went on a different personal journey during the workshop. Upon our return from lunch, I distributed lines for an activity called “Famous Last Words From Shakespeare.” One teacher read her line and immediately wanted a new quotation because she didn’t understand the context. I asked her to build new context. It was not about getting Macbeth right; it was about being on your feet and breathing your last breath of life into that one line. It’s about ownership. I asked my new colleague to “drop what you know and let the line be new.”  Fear came over me as these words left my mouth; however, it was oddly liberating — and it worked. My new colleague discovered for herself that you don’t need to know it all to access Shakespeare. So when she dramatically, courageously, brilliantly “died” with those words and got back up for another four hours of professional learning with a smile, it felt like a win for words.


  1. Begin anew.


We all had to drop what we knew to begin anew. No matter what each of us entered the room knowing and feeling, we all discovered the possibilities and opportunities that teaching Shakespeare gives us. All of us. And we left with hope and confidence that our students’ next learning experiences would be their best yet. What a Super (Shakespeare) Tuesday it was! Begin anew, and play on.


This ESU-Folger teacher workshop was co-hosted by the Monmouth and Princeton branches of the English-Speaking Union with support from Two River Theater to commemorate the 400th year of Shakespeare’s death and the Folger Shakespeare Library’s traveling exhibition of First Folios. To learn more about the day, read The Journal NJ’s article “Folger/ESU Teaching Shakespeare Workshop at Two River Theater.”