By Mark Miazga

The International Baccalaureate (IB) English Higher Level curriculum and assessments are still an ideal place for Shakespeare, even though the revision of the curriculum a couple of years ago no longer makes his inclusion compulsory. While he does not fit into Part I Works in Translation of the curriculum (at least in an English speaking school), he works well in Detailed Study (Part II), Groups of Works (Part III), or Free Choice (Part IV).

I’ve been an IB English instructor for seven years, and have used Shakespeare plays each year, including Much Ado About Nothing, King Lear, Othello, and Richard III. I currently use Shakespeare in Detailed Study, and Shakespeare is, of course, ideal for close study. Furthermore, IB is interested in students knowing the implications of the genres that they are studying: for example, how the study of a Drama is different than studying a novel or non-fiction. They are not interested, so much, in students being able to write essays about, say, celestial imagery in Romeo and Juliet or mirrors in Richard III. Instead, they want students to be able to analyze the choices that the playwright has made and how these choices create meaning.

With this in mind, putting students in the mind of the playwright – or a director or actor – is the best way to help students to do well on the IB assessments. The assessment for Detailed Study is a 10-minute oral discussion recorded with the teacher, and students will have to answer, without rehearsal or notes, authentic questions about the experience of reading the play. Therefore, putting students in authentic assessment experiences in the classroom – making them directors, letting them cut scenes, encouraging them to play around with the language and the setting, compelling them to think about and explain why they made the choices they made – is the best way to prepare students for an authentic 10-minute oral assessment about the play.

My students’ big project at the end of reading a play is planning, directing, performing, and recording an adaptation of a scene from the play. I encourage them to change the setting, to cut the language, to add music, to make it their own – without changing the original language (they can cut it, just not change or modernize it). Afterwards, they both write and explain their rationale for their choices: what elements of the play their performances and direction helped emphasize, what choices they made as directors and actors to convey ideas about theme, character, and other elements of the play.

It’s important to trust your students to get into the language. For the day of filming, I send them off around the school grounds with their smart phones to record, and check on them by rotating between groups. The conversations about which lines to cut, about what actions to include, about where to pause, etc., are what we want to hear when teaching Shakespeare; these conversations give them ownership of Shakespeare, and of their own learning. I’m attaching my assignment here (and including a couple of YouTube clips that resulted from this assignment below):

By putting them in the director’s and actor’s chair, students are compelled to get into the mindset of the playwright, which uniquely prepares them for the IB Literary Discussion. This is scored based upon knowledge of the text, interesting and insightful answers to the questions, and the student’s language. Here are a few sample questions that I use in the individual discussion with students about Richard III this year:

1)  What for you was the most riveting or satisfying moment in the play? Can you account for how the playwright managed to achieve that effect?

2)  Who was your favorite or least favorite secondary character in the play? Can you see how the playwright elicited such a response? Follow-up: Why is that secondary character included?

3)  If you were asked to direct ________________ (for example, the Richard’s death scene; or the wooing of Lady Anne scene; or another important scene), what choices would you make in your direction and what important ideas of the play would your choices help to emphasize?

4)  In a play about royal families, why are common everyday people included? If you were directing, how would you present these characters and why?

5)  Richard often talks directly to the audience in the play. What is the effect of this choice by the playwright?

6)  Sometimes parts are cut from this long Shakespeare play. What is a character that some directors might consider cutting? Can you give cases for and against cutting this character?

7)  This is the only play of Shakespeare’s to begin with a soliloquy, with a character alone onstage describing a long speech. What effect does this soliloquy have on both the audience and the ideas of the play?

8)  How does the dramatist use rhythm and breaks in meter to convey theme and character?

Lastly, I’ll include two of my students’ presentations from this year, including a film noir version of Clarence’s murder in Richard III and an all-female version of Act 4, Scene 4, the scene where Richard starts losing power. Note the the last 10 minutes of the first clip, which details the students’ choices in developing their scene (the other group had it as part of their presentation to the class). Not included were other groups who made it their own in other ways, such as setting Richard III in the Antebellum South or in a modern high school.

Mark Miazga is in his 13th year teaching English and coaching baseball at Baltimore City College High School, the third oldest public school in the country. He teaches in both the Diploma and Middle Years Programs within the International Baccalaureate and is an IB Examiner.  A recipient of the Milken Educator Award in 2014, Mr. Miazga is also a 2008 Teaching Shakespeare Institute scholar and a 2013 Steinbeck Institute Scholar. He received his B.A. in English and Education from Michigan State University, and his Masters in Secondary Education from Towson University. He blogs about education matters at Epiphany in Baltimore (http://epiphanyinbmore.blogspot.com).


Yeats is the guy who said that education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.  What I think about all the time is how that fire gets lit.  What’s the spark that turned you on to Shakespeare?  Who or what lit that fire or that fuse for you?

Why am I thinking about the fire and from whence it comes?  Since the beginning of March—a scant six weeks ago—here’s what’s been visible at this lively shoebox of a library:

  • 1500 middle and high school kids packed into our theatre performing Shakespeare scenes for one another to wild applause during the Secondary School Shakespeare Festival
  • The Folger Theatre’s sold-out run of Richard III
  • Our Shakespeare’s Birthday Open House brought thousands home to us–every age of  man (and woman) touring our spaces, performing on our stage, building coats of arms, taking a turn in Elizabethan clothing, speaking Shakespeare, and loving it all
  • Shakespeare and The Problem of Biography, a three-day conference at which 150 scholars from across the world wrestled with the concept of biography in general, and of Shakespeare’s and others in particular
  • A hefty pile of applications from teachers who wished to participate in Teaching Shakespeare Institute 2014, our NEH summer institute for schoolteachers
  • A growing pile of applications from rising tenth, eleventh, and twelfth graders who wish to be Folger High School Fellows during Fall 2014
  • A lovely slate of third through sixth graders from 30 elementary schools, all set to participate in our Children’s Shakespeare Festival in a couple of weeks’ time.

Kind of a roaring fire, no? We’re lighting some tapers for sure. At the same time, we receive the benefit of lots of sparks started by others. Will the little girls and boys rapt at the stage combat demo on our front lawn grow up with an appetite for Hamlet or Macbeth? Spark? What happened in the lives of their parents (or uncles or friends)–who brought them to our Shakespeare’s Birthday party–that caused us to be a destination on that great and wonderful afternoon? Spark? Check out even a handful of Teaching Shakespeare Institute applications from teachers across the country:  sparks for sure. Received from whom?  We’re not sure.  But now shooting out sparks to generations of students.  Thank goodness.

Who lit the spark for you? A teacher? A production? Your mom? Kenneth Branagh? Julie Taymor? Baz Luhrman? Denzell in those fabulous leather pants? (Especially when he’s speaking Shakespeare.)  Since teaching is the business of ignition, we’re all about sparks. Tell us about yours in the comments or send me an email at pobrien@folger.edu.

Peggy O’Brien is the Director of Education at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Follow her on Twitter at @obrienfolger 

Find this quote in context at folgerdigitaltexts.org

Guest post by Josh Cabat

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

While the average ELA Chair or Director has little to fear in terms of civil unrest in the Northlands, we have all, as did Henry IV, struggled with internal resistance to change.

How often have you found a great idea at a conference or in a journal, and then presented it at a department meeting only to have it greeted with smiles and nods and subsequently ignored? Reflecting on and changing our own process is challenging enough; to get others to do so is often a steep mountain indeed.

This is even more true when it comes to Shakespeare. Resistance to new ideas in teaching Shakespeare usually comes in two flavors. One comes out as “You expect those students to do Shakespeare?” which usually signifies the teacher’s own insecurity with the material. The other is the complete opposite: “You’re telling me how to teach Shakespeare?” Take heart, though; there are many ways over, around, and through these walls.

Ownership, Performance, and the Common Core

Not surprisingly, the solution begins and ends with ownership. One simple way to begin is to start a department meeting by giving your staff printed copies of a scene from a play they probably don’t know, like Coriolanus III, iii, or Troilus and Cressida II, i. Give your teachers some time to look it over, and then ask them a simple question: how would you teach this? Inevitably, someone will mention teaching through performance, and that’s when you hit them with something like Michael Tolaydo’s “3-D Shakespeare” from the Folger’s Shakespeare Set Free.

Without editorializing beforehand, elicit reactions to the activity from the group, which in my experiences have been almost invariably positive. Then, to preempt questions regarding the Common Core, ask your teachers how the activity they have just completed relates to a standard like RL.9-10.1, which reads as follows: “cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly, as well as inferences drawn from the text.” They will come to the idea that thoughtful line readings require understanding and interpretation, which is exactly the kind of close reading and exploration of authorial intent demanded by the CCSS.

This opens the door to other activities that ease students into Shakespearean language in a scaffolded, safe way. It also helps to assuage the fears of teachers who have no stage training, which is probably most of your department; as is the case for the students, no experience on the teacher’s part is required.

This is the true “no-fear” Shakespeare; not the patronizing translation of the text into modern English on the opposite page, but creating a safe environment where students and teachers can get their hands on his words and ultimately turn close reading into performance. It is our charge to allow them to be comfortable with “failing” at first; we must encourage them, in Beckett’s famous admonishment, to “fail better.”

Using Technology

Finally, another pathway for teachers and students is technology. I am fortunate to work in a school that is one-to-one iPads, but most of these activities can be done by anyone with a smart phone. Have your teachers encourage students to use social media. Use Vine to create two-line dialogues that explain a vocabulary word; take the old Folger telegram exercise in cutting text, and have them cut a speech down to 140 characters on Twitter instead.

There are endless examples of these activities, most of which can also be implemented in an “analog” way if the tech is not available at all. From there, teachers will often bring in ideas of their own, often based on apps or websites they’ve learned about from their students. Gradually, Shakespeare becomes less daunting for all, and all stakeholders have some ownership of the process.

Ceding Control and Completing the Circle

In the summer of 1993, I had the privilege of attending the month-long Teaching Shakespeare Institute at the Folger. Before then, I was laboring under the misapprehension that I was doing a great job. The students appeared to be enjoying themselves, but it was really the Josh Cabat Show; entertaining, but was it sound and effective pedagogy? TSI taught me the power one gains in relinquishing some control to my students. For Chairs and Directors, the same power will be derived in ceding some control to your teachers.

The moment that really brought this home for me was when Sara Lehn, one of the members of my department, was selected for TSI 2012. It kind of completed the circle for me, and I was as proud of her achievements as I was of the things I had accomplished two decades before. She now takes the lead in department PD relating to Shakespeare, and has taken over and grown our school Shakespeare Festival.

So don’t take on the PD burden yourself; get your people to conferences and PD, sort through the ideas as a group to find the ones that work, and have yourself a little festival, to provide something for teachers and students to shoot for. To steal a trick from Falstaff, let your crown be a cushion; it will be more comfortable for everyone.

Josh Cabat is currently serving as Chair of English for the Roslyn (NY) Public Schools. For the preceding decade, he taught English and Film Studies at Roslyn High School in Roslyn New York. Previously, he taught in the New York City public high schools for more than a decade. He was the co-founder of the New York City Student Shakespeare Festival. He has published many articles on Shakespeare and Film in publications such as the English Journal. He earned an MA from the University of Chicago and a BA from Columbia University.   


As you probably know, April 23 is Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, and the Folger Education staff wants to get everyone involved in the celebration. So we are hosting a Balcony Scene Flash Mob Festival. It’s simple. It’s fun.  And it will get a lot of people speaking Shakespeare.

UNCWe hope to get groups from all across the country to take part.

So please join us!

All you have to do is use this Edited Balcony Scene, divide your group into Romeos and Juliets, and read the scene chorally.  As shown in the photo to the right (performed at the University of Northern Colorado in February), the definition of a balcony is very loose. It can be a stage in the school auditorium, the top row of the bleachers, the roof of a building, chairs in the cafeteria, or what you will. The photo below was taken at the Folger Library’s Flash Mob during the April 6 birthday bash and open house.

Folger flash

We will be posting all the submitted videos on our own YouTube page. While this is not strictly a competition, we will acknowledge and award entries in a variety of categories such as most creative or unusual setting, best costumes, most passionate or whatever else we think of at the time.

Just be creative and have fun!

Here are the rules:

  • You need to use the Official Edited Script of the Balcony Scene from Romeo and Juliet that we’ve posted here. It takes about 3 1/2 minutes to perform.
  • The scene needs to be performed chorally–all the Romeos must speak together and all the Juliets must reply together.
  • Have the Juliets elevated somewhere and the Romeos standing below them.
  • Record the scene on video and upload it to YouTube.
  • Send the YouTube link by April 30 to EducationGroup@folger.edu.
A scene from Romeo and Juliet. By John Massey Wright. Folger Shakespeare Library.

A scene from Romeo and Juliet. By John Massey Wright. Folger Shakespeare Library.

In an earlier post we wrote about the Balcony Scene Flash Mob in Boston that broke the record previously held by the University of Northern Colorado.

We’re hoping some group will break the record of 160 “actors” this month, so consider this a challenge.

But even if your “mob” consists of 20 fifth-grade students or a group of senior citizens at the local assisted living center or a class of theater kids at the local mall, we want to see it. And if you can get any local media to cover your mob event, let us know that too.

Any questions? If so, contact me at Mlomonico@Folger.edu

And be sure to check out our Romeo and Juliet board on Pinterest for a collection of beautiful images and famous quotations from the play.

Guest post by Michael Klein

It didn’t take me long to rethink how to look at Shakespeare texts after listening to Dr. Ann Cook Calhoun compare them to a musical score.

“Reading texts sitting at a desk is like looking at musical notations without hearing the instruments” she said during the English-Speaking Union’s Shakespeare Teacher Intensive two-day, low-cost, non-residential institutes for teachers.

She went on to explain the performative nature of Shakespeare texts, which essentially serve as scripts. The idea behind the intensive institutes is to present a unique teaching methodology designed to help teachers put students “inside the texts, and get the words up on their feet.”  Dr. Calhoun’s message was clear, not only did I need to “play” the “music” in front of me, but also its meanings and beauty would be much louder and clearer with other “musicians” around to discuss the meaning, and then perform the score.

The workshops aren’t just lectures presenting nifty ideas either. The English-Speaking Union has partnered with the Folger Shakespeare Library, which provides a master teacher to present curriculum ideas using a variety of methods, most of which are included in the Shakespeare Set Free Toolkit teachers can take home with them. The Toolkit includes a flash drive with handouts, cut scenes, images from the Folger collection, 10-30 minute performance-ready versions of some of the plays, and a copy of Shakespeare Set Free, Teaching Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Macbeth.

Courtesy of English-Speaking Union

Courtesy of English-Speaking Union

Not only does the workshop create a collegial atmosphere among the teachers in attendance–sure everyone is there voluntarily, even paid to be there–but the workshop also allows a teacher to recreate the collegial atmosphere with students in his or her own classroom on two levels – scholarly and practically.

One scholarly lesson I employ in my classroom comes directly from a lecture from Gail Kern Paster, former director of the Folger Shakespeare Library. Her lecture dealt with the Humours – the Elizabethan physiological understanding of the bodily fluids and how their balance affects human emotional states. Her lecture has allowed me to address, naturally and in context of the play, Elizabethan belief systems as they come up in the texts; Hamlet, for example, when his “melancholy” is addressed. I am now able to enlighten my students to questions they bring up themselves instead of forcing information on them which only I may find interesting. When students see their peers engaging the text and asking questions and getting answers, they tend to be more responsive as well as inquisitive, providing a far more logical approach to teaching students about Elizabethan England.

Courtesy of English-Speaking Union

Courtesy of English-Speaking Union

Over the two days, I worked and performed with teachers from around the country, of different levels and from both public and private schools. We worked together first in cutting, then performing our scenes to the group. It wasn’t just two days of lectures; I was given access to lessons and exercises I could apply immediately and confidently in my classroom. It was two days of learning how we can make Shakespeare far less intimidating and far more fun in our classrooms every time we pass out a text to our students. Since I attended the workshop, I’ve frequently heard from my students “I never had so much fun learning Shakespeare before” and “Hamlet was my favorite work we did this year.” I always smile, because it never gets old hearing it.

This summer the Folger Shakespeare Library and the English-Speaking Union will be changing these programs somewhat by focusing on a single play: Romeo and Juliet. The ESU is hosting these 2-day Intensives on Romeo and Juliet at several locales:

For more information and registration you can go to the ESU’s Website.

Michael Klein teaches twelfth grade honors and AP Literature at Sachem High School North on Long Island in Lake Ronkonkoma, NY. He is a 2008 Teaching Shakespeare Institute (TSI) alum and has been involved in the FSL/ESU Shakespeare Set Free workshops since 2010. He teaches four Shakespeare plays a year – Hamlet, King Lear, Much Ado About Nothing, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Guest post by Deborah Gascon - Dutch Fork High School, Irmo, SC

Performance in AP?  Didn’t think you had time with all the other pressures? Make time. Using Folger strategies in my AP classes has transformed student comprehension of difficult texts and improved their abilities to read closely–and has actually SAVED me time.

This week my AP Lit and Comp students completed poetry presentations.  There were several requirements but one of them was to make the presentation engaging–there is nothing worse than sitting through 57 poetry presentations, is there?

I was impressed and amazed at how many of my students incorporated some sort of performance in their presentations.  Josh taught Frost’s poem “Home Burial” and had 3 volunteers perform the different parts to show the contrast in mood.  Tyler assigned each of his classmates a line of a Plath poem and asked them to create a physical movement to express the tone in the line.

My students quickly realized that performance is key to understanding and chose to incorporate in all facets of our classroom.  I know that with performance my students are engaged, class is interactive, students aren’t insecure about delivering presentations and the senior slump hasn’t happened.

Here are the top 5 things I did (and suggest!) to incorporate Folger strategies in the AP classroom:

1. Start early.  On the very first day of class we studied Shakespeare’s  “Seven Ages of Man” — then we performed it. I asked students which helped them understand the poem more — sitting in desks and reading it or standing and moving?  You can guess which they chose (moving!).  They were hooked from day one.

2.  Take it to a new level.  Ask students not just to show plot with their performances but also tone and mood (and all the other AP Lit buzz words).  Tone and mood are tricky to teach and getting students to label facial expressions and motions with tone words has been helpful in eventually writing about and analyzing tone and mood.

3.  Tableaux the theme.  Theme is another one of those AP Lit buzz words and tableauxs can take as little as 5 minutes to pull together. I put students in groups, tell them to discuss the theme and find a physicalization of that theme then we FREEZE.  This is an effective way to get students to visualize the author’s purpose.

4.  Compare and contrast performances.  The AP exam could potentially have two poems on the poetry essay question (could this be the year it appears??) so we have spent a good chunk of time this year comparing performances which leads to comparing tone, theme and text analysis.

I’ve done this in a variety of ways:  compared actors’ performances (for example several versions of Hamlet), compared student performances of a scene (give the same scene to two groups of students and see how they interpret it) or compared how we interpret something to how a director interpreted it — and WHY.  While comparing we discuss the “why” a lot.  Why did you do that movement?  What in the scene made you think that?  What line from the text (evidence!) made you think that was the way to interpret that?

5.  Encourage performance.  I’ve found performing and earning the endless applause of classmates increases self esteem and confidence in close reading and analysis of text.  My students have the confidence and believe they WILL pass the exam–I truly believe that is half the battle.  They have been armed with strategies to make the poem come alive or the prose jump off the page.

Don’t be surprised if during the exam my students start acting out the lines! What will your students do on test day to guarantee a passing score?  What tricks have you taught them to be successful?

A while back I wrote Shakespeare in Other Words citing the reasons teachers should avoid using “No Fear” or “Made Easy” or any other parallel text edition in their classroom. Needless to say, it generated over 40 comments, including some from an author of “The Shakespeare Novels.”

But now I realize that simply dismissing those books wasn’t enough. What should teachers do, who not only find it difficult to teach the real stuff, but who may struggle with the language themselves? So here are a few suggestions:

  1. Since students can access the No Fear versions online for free, why not suggest or even encourage them to read them at home. And then read and teach the real text in class.
  2. Start with “baby steps.”
  3. Begin with a 15 Minute Play. There are eight of them on the Folger site.
  4. Pull out 30 juicy lines from the play you’ll be studying, put each line on a 3×5 note card, and give one to each student. Then they find a partner, come up with a scene using only the words on the cards, and perform the scene for the class.
  5. Instead of Made Easy texts, create a Made Shorter text. Using the Folger Digital Texts, copy a scene, paste it into a Word file, and edit it to a version that your students can handle.
  6. If you want to teach Iambic Pentameter, watch the video called Living Iambic Pentameter, but DO NOT SHOW IT TO YOUR CLASS. Instead, do your own version in class. No kid wants to watch other kids having fun.

Those are just a few ways to get past the fear and teach Shakespeare for Real. Post your comments below with other suggestions.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,721 other followers