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English teacher techniques to engage students in Shakespeare

05/09/2018 Anthony

Despite his material being written more than 400 years ago, William Shakespeare’s work continues to be a core pillar of English classes the world over. This is particularly true in England, the birthplace of the man regarded as the greatest writer in the English language. With the National Curriculum featuring more Shakespeare than ever – and today’s students seemingly worlds away from the language and themes explored in much of Shakespeare’s works - teachers and educators must be creative in the ways they bring Shakespeare to life in the classroom. The following tips should help to engage and inspire pupils to connect with Shakespeare.

Give students some background

Many students find it beneficial to understand the general themes or plotlines of Shakespeare before diving into a closer reading. Shakespeare’s plays can seem dense and onerous to young people, and this will be magnified if they don’t understand the general idea and storyline as they read. Known for his dramatic irony and intricate character developments and relationships, Shakespeare’s work could be re-read over and over and there would still be nuances left to discover. Give your students a leg-up by running through a play’s basic plot (such as “a man and a woman from warring families fall in love but are tragically doomed”) before they start studying it.

Reduced scripts can help to get students familiar with Shakespeare’s material. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has a broad range of these and other teaching resources that can be used in lesson plans.

Act it out

Shakespeare’s plays are designed to be acted out, but English teachers without access to drama studios and resources can feel limited in what they can deliver. While you don’t need to put on a full production, even reading scenes aloud can help students to think more deeply about the story and understand it as a performance. Beyond simply reading from the text, students can participate in ‘hot-seating’, where pupils take turns putting themselves in the shoes of a Shakespeare character and responding to questions about what they’ve done, what they’re thinking and how they feel towards other characters.

Make it relatable

Shakespeare enthusiasts – and English teachers – know that his work is full of complex characters, engaging plots and themes that are as relevant today as they were centuries ago. The challenge is conveying this to students.

Pick out key themes in the texts – such as jealousy and racism in Othello, ambition and corruption in Macbeth and love in Romeo and Juliet – and explore these both in the context of the plays and in modern life. Hamlet’s anguish, Othello’s jealousy and Romeo and Juliet’s powerful, passionate love will be recognised by young people the world over, and these themes can be found in modern literature, cinema and music – and indeed, personal lives. Encourage open conversation about these themes and how they are weaved into both Shakespeare’s plays and modern society.

Look for film interpretations

As the most adapted writer in recorded history, Shakespeare’s work has been interpreted hundreds of times. While some teachers may be reluctant to prescribe modern adaptations of his work, some students benefit enormously from seeing themes explored in a current context, complete with more modern language, recognisable actors and cinematic styling. The 1995 version of Othello features some great acting, while Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet is a modernised, stylised version of the eternal tale. If you can bear language changes and complete modernisation, 10 Things I Hate About You is a brilliant interpretation of The Taming of the Shrew, while purists will appreciate Kenneth Branagh in the 1996 interpretation of Hamlet.

Approach it from new angles

Encourage pupils to consider different points of view within stories and ask questions of them. What were Iago’s motives, and does he have any redeeming qualities? What does Desdemona think of Othello, and what is her relationship with Emilia based on?

You can also change your approach to how students absorb Shakespeare’s works. From No Fear Shakespeare – full original text with translations into modern English – and audio versions of plays through to the animated Shakespeare in Shorts series, there’s something for every style of learner. To ensure students understand and engage with plays, set tasks afterwards. This could include telling a play’s story through a one-page comic, learning how to write like Shakespeare and taking interactive quizzes.

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