Reading Shakespeare is a daunting task for school age students. In schools where the majority of students are struggling readers, it can feel almost impossible to implement teachings around the poetic devices and performative structure of Shakespearean text. In my time teaching in the New York City public school system and coaching teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I’ve employed some techniques that have resulted in students engaging with the text and story lines that have even increased my own love for The Bard. Here are three simple ways that I employ my love of theater and learning in the context of Shakespearean language.
Paraphrase the text by encouraging our students to use their contemporary vernacular. This method is great for teachers to learn and honor their students’ dialects and to recognize that language is fluid and evolving. If we are requiring that students understand the origins of the English language, we should also acknowledge and recognize value in today’s language; we should accept its meaning while giving today’s poets and artists credit for inventing new slang, much like William Shakespeare did.
Power of Language
While teaching Shakespeare, it’s important to show the English language as a dynamic force in our society. We need to make the link for our students between studying English and using English. Connect the idea of Shakespeare’s language to modern poetic performance methods. Hip hop is poetry in song, song writing is poetry, but also live theater is the public study of language. Always read Shakespeare aloud. He wrote orations and plays that are meant to be read in front of and to move audiences.
For students, the most daunting characteristic of Shakespeare is the written text itself. The storylines are familiar but the words feel like a mystery. Play into its mysterious quality and turn it into a puzzle. Show them the “code” of Shakespeare and have them use this “code” to unlock the puzzle of the text. This takes some preparation on the teacher’s end but if students acquire the tools, they will be able to decode the text while reading it aloud or during a performance, making the process much more rewarding and fun. Shakespeare should be fun!