By Sara Lehn
In ten short years as an educator, I have taught every grade from sixth through twelfth, and every level of ability from AP to self-contained special ed. I say this not to impress you with how many different preps I have tackled in ten years, but to highlight this fact: I teach Shakespeare to every single one. Some groups read excerpts while others do whole plays, but I have an unwavering belief that anybody can learn Shakespeare with the right tools and framework.
To illustrate this idea, let’s talk about crayons.
Everybody loves crayons.
Present an eighteen-year-old with a box of crayons and you will see his eyes light up.
“Is this a ‘Fun-Friday’ activity?” students ask, regardless of the actual day of the week.
“Yes,” I say. I have no idea where ‘Fun-Friday’ comes from, but students say it as if it’s a title for something. I assume that this was a routine presented by a fuzzily but fondly remembered elementary school teacher.
Suddenly my over-stressed seniors are distracted from their impending college applications and a buzz develops. Crayons. She brought crayons.
Or markers. Or colored pencils. Or… whatever.
As children, before we learn to write, we are given crayons as a tool to express our thoughts. Something about coloring throws us back to the simplicity and contentment of early childhood. Students get nervous that I will grade their artistic abilities, so I demonstrate for them my own lack of skill. Stick figures are encouraged. Laughter ensues; everyone relaxes.
When I attended TSI 2012, Sue Biondo-Hench introduced us to the idea of creating illustrations to represent imagery in a piece of text. This exercise can be applied to any richly visual piece of text and highlights for students the importance of imagery and figurative language.
For your younger or less advanced students, keep it simple. Move slowly, working through the text together line by line. Then, ask them to pick out the most vivid images and create an illustration representing those ideas. A brief written response explaining how these images develop meaning in the text might accompany their illustrations. Students could do storyboards or comic strips to show the images in a more linear fashion. They could even create video projects incorporating audio of the lines and setting the images to music, a project that Sue called Sonnet Illumination. Students will not only develop an understanding of what the text actually says, but also a greater knowledge of how imagery works, all while creating a fun, low-pressure association with studying Shakespeare.
For your more advanced students, add layers of meaning. This is a fantastic exercise to highlight the usage of metaphor and symbolism in Shakespeare’s imagery. Students might create two illustrations: one representing the literal images in the text, and one to show what these images represent for the character. We can explain to students that Hamlet’s “unweeded garden / That grows to seed” (Hamlet 1.2.139-140) is more than just an overgrown vegetable patch, or we can ask them to picture for themselves what that garden might look like and how this might serve as a metaphor for Hamlet’s world. What does this image communicate to you about the character? How does this inform your understanding of his relationships with others? Detailed written explanations of their interpretations of the speech will round out the exercise and help them to marry creative analysis and more traditional expository writing.
It may seem silly to bring crayons to an AP Literature class, but my students perk up and produce some truly thoughtful representations of these speeches. When I co-taught a special ed. inclusion class, I had a young man who was reading years below grade level tell me that Macbeth was his favorite unit of the year. Anybody can learn Shakespeare. A box of crayons, a bucket of costume hats, an armload of toy swords: regardless of age or ability level, these can be some of the best teaching tools that we have.
Sara Lehn teaches at Roslyn High School in Roslyn, New York, where she has worked with all grade levels from 6 through 12, as well as organizing the school’s annual Shakespeare Festival and advising the school Shakespeare Society. She is an alumnus of the 2012 Teaching Shakespeare Institute, and still dreams at night of the sweet scent of old books in the Reading Room. Sara can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.