Sunday, November 13, 2011

Shakespeare for Everybody! Starting Young for Best Results

I am of two minds about Shakespeare: I love Shakespeare, and I'm over Shakespeare.

During my own high school years, I got almost nothing but Shakespeare (and Hemingway), as if no other authors existed. I had so much Shakespeare that I did not know what else I could write about on my AP English Lit exam.

[Back in 1989, we had a doozy of an open question on the AP English Literature exam.  Go look it up, if you're so inclined. It's the hardest prompt you ever saw, right? I thought so. Just for kicks, compare that prompt to one from three years ago. Notice the dumbing down; it would be funny if it weren't so sad.]

Since we had only read Shakespeare in my senior year AP English class, I wrote about King Lear in response. (It was a stretch.) I thought I had failed; I got a 5--but God knows why. Maybe because I deeply knew King Lear...but that doesn't mean that I would not have appreciated variety in our reading.

As an English teacher, I have taught many works of Shakespeare (and King Lear remains my favorite), but even though I think the themes of Shakespeare's plays are perennially important, and his use of language and imagery impressive, I don't think Will S. is the end-all, be-all.

I once had a supervisor who wanted to know which works of Shakespeare were covered each year in high school English ("a Shakespeare a year" seemed to the prescription under which this admin was operating. I guess that this is old school; needless to say, I don't believe in blanket prescriptions for curricula, and I DO believe in flexibility).

I had to explain that I don't teach Shakespeare in AMERICAN Literature...since Shakespeare was not American. To make up for it, though, I taught two works of the bard in senior year. I would have loved to assign Atonement or Middlesex, instead.

Because that made sense, I was left alone to teach as I see fit.

I am all for varying the reading lists: I find that high school students will turn off reading if the reading feels as if it needs translation, and if they can't see parallels with their own experience. This is why I mix it up and make sure I don't overdo a genre or an author (I also cruise when I teach--meaning, I never spend months on one book or one topic. Not only do I personally find that boring, but it keeps my students more lively, too).

Having said all that, I recently corresponded with a teacher who has some very good ideas about teaching Shakespeare to younger children. I love this; I think it's the messages in Shakespeare that are of the most use to contemporary students, and if we can pique students' interest in Shakespeare when young, then it will become that much easier to engage them and effectively teach other works of Shakespeare later. Classes will be more productive and run faster (which means we can teach MORE!).

Here then, from guest writer and teacher Elaine Hirsch: Teaching Shakespeare to Young Children

William Shakespeare is known for his complex plays, literary genius, and exposing things about humanity that are not the prettiest or most appealing. Most adults have been exposed to Shakespeare at least once in their lives, likely during high school or college, yet a far smaller percentage can say that they were introduced to his works as a young child. Furthermore, some scholars devote their entire studies to Shakespearean texts. Despite the complexity of the language and the dark themes prevalent throughout most of his work, Shakespeare's plays can resonate with a young child and early introduction to it can help them more easily process and interpret these stories as they encounter it throughout their education and beyond.

Here are a few ways to make Shakespeare easier for young children (and even adults as well) to understand and interpret.

1) Modernize the stories. A lot of the language in the books can fly over the heads of adults, let alone young children, so it's best to simplify the outdated language and paraphrase it into something more contemporary. If children are reading the story themselves, each section of the book should be read aloud in a group with the teacher present to elaborate for those who might be confused. If they are being read the work aloud by the educator and do not need to read themselves, it can be easier to use Cliffsnotes/SparkNotes or help students better understand the text and context. There are also many websites that provide links to kid-friendly remakes of these classic plays. Finally, complex expressions should be removed if they do not greatly impact the main storyline.

2) Focus on the main story and try not to get too bogged down in the details of smaller, less important side stories. Shakespeare is known for running several themes throughout his works at once, and it's less overwhelming for a child if you focus on the main theme until it's understood. Then, depending on what else there is to cover, you can explore side themes as needed.

3) Use other forms of media to help children visualize what is happening in the story. Find age-appropriate movies or cartoons that are based loosely off the stories being taught. 'The Lion King' can be used for 'Hamlet' and 'High School Musical' is also a great movie to use to talk about Shakespeare, due to the 'Romeo and Juliet' theme prevalent through the movie. Another great idea is to find a kid-friendly play that is locally produced and take a field trip.

4) Tone down the controversial topics. Shakespeare is notorious for having dark themes in his writing, such as suicide, murder, violence, etc. While some of these themes are hugely important to the storyline, it's best to try to either choose stories with less obvious expressions of these themes or to dumb down the dark themes by slight modification of the 'truth' in the story to something more age-appropriate. 
--Elaine Hirsch

I appreciate Elaine's ideas about teaching Shakespeare and making his work accessible to kids. I especially agree with finding connections to other novels and films and plays. For example, kids never seem to tire of discussing The Taming of the Shrew as compared to Ten Things I Hate About You. They also love to talk about why works of Shakespeare tend to be set in new locales and times (sometimes this works and sometimes it's ridiculous...but it's all good when it comes to having a productive class and getting students to articulate ideas about literature and drama!).

So, whether you have to teach Shakespeare or you want to teach Shakespeare (or both), it's all about finding ways to make Shakespeare sing for your students--whatever their age.


  1. Excellent and so helpful. Thank you! I will use this both for my teaching and to make the case for branching out on our school reading list.

  2. Good luck! Thanks for reading.