Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

When Your Students Don’t Love Your Favorite Play…and Prompt You to Step Up Your Game

"Stay, stay thy hand! Thou art an Amazon, and fightest with the sword of Deborah", King Henry VI [part 1], act I, scene II [graphic]. Folger Shakespeare Library
“Stay, stay thy hand! Thou art an Amazon, and fightest with the sword of Deborah”, King Henry VI [part 1], act I, scene II [graphic]. Folger Shakespeare Library
I consistently feel like an incredibly lucky teacher for many reasons: the incredible young people I work with, the supportive and progressive district which employs me, the opportunity to engage

with material I love every day, and so many more. One quality of my job that makes me feel particularly fortunate at the beginning of each school year is that I get to teach a semester-long senior course focused solely on the works of William Shakespeare. The course is designed for students with a variety of skill and interest levels, and my goal each year is to use Shakespeare’s language to engage struggling students while also challenging high achievers.

In my pursuit of this goal, I discovered that the structure of the course and the plays I chose really influenced student success. First of all, I discovered that moving through the plays according to genre (comedy, tragedy, history, and late romance) worked for all kinds of students as it allowed them to interact with a variety of Shakespeare’s works and discover their interests accordingly. Moreover, I realized that not all plays are created equal when it comes to teaching high school students, and neither are all teaching strategies. After my first year teaching the course, I found that my students enjoyed Twelfth Night, Othello, and The Tempest almost equally (albeit for very different reasons), very few had enjoyed 1 Henry IV because they just didn’t “get it.”

Ouch. Ouch for a few reasons. Ouch because I clearly hadn’t been successful in teaching the play, and ouch because the history plays are my favorites. I determined that my instruction of Henry hadn’t been successful because it was the last play we read during the semester and we had to rush through it; though just removing the play from my course seemed like the most obvious solution, I didn’t want to do this because the history plays are so essential to the body of Shakespeare’s works (and supremely cool).

So, I decided that instead of reading one history play in its entirety, we would focus on some of the best moments from the histories. This way, my students would be able to experience some of the greatest moments from Shakespeare in less time, and without lengthy descriptions of British history. It worked! The following year was much more successful as my students actively demonstrated both their understanding of the individual scenes that we worked with and, in many cases, a genuine interest in exploring plays which we had worked with on their own.

So, I decided to begin my course with the history plays this year in order to generate as much interest and understanding as possible. Towards this end, what better moment to begin with than Queen Margaret’s defeat of York in 1.4 of 3 Henry VI? This moment has everything a teacher needs to get their kids engaged—a powerful and vengeful queen, murder, the promise of beheadings, and some truly great insults. We begin by performing a choral reading of the scene, with students reading up to end marks. I then ask the students what they know about what’s happening, who the characters are, etc. As the students are telling me what they know, I start to write the names of the characters involved in the scene upon the board in two columns. In one of these columns I write down characters who belong to the house of York, and in the other column I write the characters who belong to the house of Lancaster. I follow this up with a mini-lesson on the history which has led up to the feud between these two groups, and both years a student has commented on how much what we are talking about sounds like something that would be on Game of Thrones.

And that’s exactly why this scene is such a great hook to get students interested in Shakespeare. It so closely resembles the media that they are already passionate about (because it so heavily informed that media, in the case of Game of Thrones), that their passion effortlessly becomes transferred to the play and their work with it.

So, here’s where things get really cool. I break my class up into groups of four and have them begin to cut the script so that only what is essential to the plot and action of the scene remains. They then plan this newly cut scene for performance by marking up the script for movement, gestures, intonation, props, etc. Then, everyone puts on funny hats, attaches a prop sword to their belts (except for poor York), and acts out their scene. As an additional component to the activity this year, I showed the “molehill” scene from the BBC’s new Hollow Crown film, and had the students compare their version of the scene with this new film version. After this activity, my students were engaged and excited to move on to the next piece, which is such a great feeling for a teacher. It just goes to show how reflective practice can quickly transform a problem into a triumph.