Distributing copies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream fills me with a bit of hope, but also a little anxiety. There’s always a risk of losing student engagement when teaching a text students perceive to be beyond their level and interest, especially as they are developing their analytical thinking skills. While students may be skeptical (but they are surprised after our work together), I’m aware of what awaits them. The process of reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not about telling students “what the theme is,” but rather exploring the questions that this wild, whimsical play raises. During our work, students develop their own insights into the words and big ideas of Midsummer. And, in addition to speaking and staging the words themselves, they do this in 2 key ways.
My 8th graders benefit from reading and writing with graphic organizers, so we sometimes use a long-term evidence-collection chart focused on the process of reading and befriending Shakespeare’s language. Interpreting a text should not be about a final essay, but the questions, connections, joys, and insights produced along the way! As we read each scene, students think about two major concepts: love and human nature. Students trace these big ideas as they read, and they jot specific evidence based on what each character says, does, or thinks. Students then attempt to interpret what these pieces of evidence tell us about love and human nature. This helps the students as they are able to take control of their learning rather than being told what to think. And sometimes students even discover that later scenes and speeches complicate their original observations…which really deepens their connection to the text, adds nuance to their close reading, and provides the all-important element of surprise.
Another tool we use is a powerful web-based resource called Voyant. This app is fantastic for visual learners as it allows students to “see through the text.” After loading the entire corpus of the play—in this case, Midsummer—into the site, students are given various visual representations of the language of the play. One great visual is a graph showing the frequency of various words in the entire text. Students love discussing the most popular words in the play. [One engaging idea from Folger Education: take the most common word (other than articles and pronouns) and find 10-20 fun-to-say lines that use it. Then, enlarge and print these lines and cut them into strips. In class, have students shout these lines and then reflect on what they noticed. As the teacher, ask questions that encourage making connections and inferences across lines.] For example, my students have noticed patterns relating to the use of “love” throughout the play. They have compared these patterns to the uses of “hate” and “eyes” in the play—and landed at their own striking insights about this play.
While these tools help with the process of digging deeper in the text, we also work on product. These tools also allow students to produce more exciting and original literary essays. When it’s time to write about the play, I let my students pick a topic sparked by their work with these 2 tools, the graphic organizer and Voyant. Giving them choice engages them more than telling them what to write. Reading the text more closely allows students to develop their thinking in order to draw strong conclusions. And it helps them take ownership of this whole Shakespeare experience.