Teaching Shakespeare to Kids: Making the Process Fun

By Herman Davis. Herman is passionate about K-12 education and loves exploring different ways to make learning a fun experience. He volunteers at an after school program teaching 4th, 5th, and 6th graders Shakespeare. He is starting the process to apply to grad school where he will pursue a masters degree in education. If you can’t catch him the classroom, you might be able to find him at the gym, or watching football (Go Broncos!).

In all honesty, reading Shakespeare can be a bit difficult and seem much like a foreign language to both children and parents. Despite having studied Shakespeare for three years in college and working as an after school director, teaching it was no easy task. I didn’t want the kids to just read it, and not really appreciate Shakespeare’s work. Granted, that’s true for any piece of literature, but Shakespeare tends to seem even more overwhelming because of the format and language.

Shakespeare was written in order to be read, and scripted to be performed. Shakespeare wrote popular entertainment, not a philosophical treatise. We can draw out deep themes and discuss grand philosophy using monologues and plots found in Shakespeare’s writing; but children should never study his work without understanding the art behind it – after all, Shakespeare was meant to be fun.

Last year, for example, my little group of elementary students ages 8-11 enjoyed three Shakespeare plays and next year, we’ll just focus on one play. Here are three steps I used to put together a simple, enjoyable Shakespeare fun packet:

1. Introduce the Play

As a teacher, the first step is to become the expert. In other words, consider using CliffsNotes to further understand the play you’re teaching. When the plot and the story line are known beforehand, then the students’ attention is free to enjoy the small details without having to keep track of which character is which.

We also don’t want the introduction to create this idea that Shakespeare is dreadful. A plain description of the characters and plot points makes for a boring introduction and a terrible starting point.

That being said, it’s best to introduce the play with an engaging story. This is especially important if it’s the first play they’ve read together or even if it’s just the first play of the school year. When I taught A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for instance, I started off the first week with a little history lesson about who Shakespeare was and what his Globe Theater was like. In doing so, this allowed children to create some context for the plays. To properly introduce the basics of the plot, I relied on images. Although his language was more difficult for us, Shakespeare’s language was plain as day (though punning) and bold during his time period, which led me to believe that modern adaptations tend to get closer to his original intention than Victorian-era versions do.

2. Watch the Play

Shakespeare’s work was meant to be seen. Think about it: how many movie scripts make it into students’ literature classes? Not many at all; that demonstrates his work. If you were a student, which would you prefer? Reading a movie script or watching the movie made from it on a big television? Of course, students would much rather watch the movie because the movie is the point of the script. In the same way, Shakespeare was meant to be acted and interpreted. From a teacher’s point of view, I love to watch multiple versions of a play and see the differences in dialogue, settings, and stage props.

This is the beauty of Shakespeare. None of them are “right” (though some can be wrong). Scripts give actors the ability to interpret their characters and get into character, reflecting different facets of humanity.

Check for Live Productions

Children are sometimes surprised by this piece of information, but movies aren’t the only way to watch Shakespeare’s art. Before movies, there was still theater. As an added bonus, many schools and/or local Shakespeare fans will refrain from excessive violence during the play. High schools, local parks, theaters, and acting companies are all likely places to find occasional Shakespeare plays.

3. Listen to the Play

Although Shakespeare wrote and performed, there’s still a great value in reading his plays. There is, however, more than one way to read the text that combines the beautiful English language.

Audio + Visual = a fun read along.

One of the best ways to read Shakespeare with kids is to give each one his or her their own paperback and play an audiobook version while you all follow along. Hearing someone read those difficult lines helps tremendously with comprehension. If I have an unmotivated student in the group, I’ll give them a page to color in order to keep their hands and eyes busy while they listen to the audiobook version. Dover typically publishes a collection of Shakespeare coloring pages. Having Shakespeare come in through both the eyes and ears are great ways to foster success and engagement with young students.

How did the kids respond to the context and weekly lesson plans?

Shakespeare can, without a doubt, be a powerful tool for impact school teaching and development for all kids. The process, however, doesn’t happen overnight. Although it’s not a quick and easy process to master the English language during the Elizabethan time, the subject can still be described as autodidactic. To put it a different way, as described above, there’s a variety of ways to learn Shakespeare, and it does not mean simply reading a lot of books. Instead, it means utilizing activities, creating art-based approaches, and presenting problems as puzzles.

When I volunteered at a local elementary school, I was only given six weeks to turn average kids into Shakespeare experts. At first, I felt like the students didn’t have much confidence in their abilities. This then made me question my teaching abilities as well. I considered starting all over and creating a new lesson plan. I also considered if this was even the right job for me.

So, how did I overcome this obstacle?

I relied on the older students to help. When performing on stage, confidence is everything. In other words, students needed to understand their characters, both inside and out: the dialogue, the costume, the hand gestures, and the body language all needed to be mastered. That’s where the confidence and the experience of the older students came into play. They helped the younger ones understand that Shakespeare is fun and can mastered by anyone who is dedicated to comprehending the language.

In the end, Shakespeare’s a great tool for building student’s executive functions. Executive functions are a relatively new and helpful way to improve planning, memory, multiple perspectives, and impulse control.

Thanks for the read! Did I miss anything? What are some other ways Shakespeare’s work can make learning fun for kids? Feel free to leave comments below.

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