Posts Tagged ‘teaching Shakespeare’

By Quintin Burks


Well, it’s that time of the year again; the leaves are starting to change, the nights are getting cooler, and the school year has begun. As I start to see new and familiar young faces fill the hall of my school, some filled with excitement and some apprehension, I’m reminded of just how important the beginning of the school year is. Every year, it becomes more and more apparent to me just how important the first few weeks of instruction are in setting the tone for my entire class. It is for this reason that Shakespeare has become my go-to for starting the year off right.


Though it may seem crazy to start students off with literature that they most likely identify as especially difficult or only for the intellectual elite, the immediate dispelling of these popular myths by interacting with Shakespeare’s works is a profoundly beneficial practice. Students actively engage with Shakespeare’s words and, in so doing, are empowered by a form of success that seems, and is, particularly momentous. Moreover, teaching Shakespeare according to the Folger Approach produces a high level of investment in your class because it is ridiculously fun, in addition to being incredibly effective.


One approach to beginning the year with Shakespeare is to teach a variety of excerpts instead of an entire play. I find that this approach is particularly beneficial, because it allows students to develop the literacy skills that we are trying to teach, without some unintentional road blocks that come with reading an entire play. Instead of trying to remember plot and character details (which are sometimes highly confusing, even in short plays like Midsummer) students will be focused on working with short excerpts from a variety of plays that serve, for all intents and purposes, as a whole play.


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By Mari O’Meara


Like most teachers, when a Shakespearean unit is announced, I am greeted by many loud groans and a few students voicing the usual (whiny) complaints- “It’s so boring!” “I don’t understand it”; “Do we have to?”  Tuning out students’ complaints is a well-developed skill of all teachers.  The one complaint I always find satisfaction in responding to is “Do we have to?”


To my students’ surprise and premature glee, I tell my students, “no, you don’t have to study Shakespeare”; however, like all curriculum, the reasons to NOT study Shakespeare in an English curriculum must be carefully researched, supported, and presented.  Thus, I challenge my students to take on the task of proving me (and the school board) why we shouldn’t study Shakespeare in a secondary English classroom.


Thinking they are getting out of learning, the students embrace the challenge, and thus, immerse themselves in formal and intense Shakespearean scholarship. Before they begin, I make it clear the only argument that garners no merit is to argue that Shakespeare is boring. Students offer subjects ranging from racism, sexual content, misogyny, religious issues, plagiarism, to the difficulty of Shakespearean language, the importance of a global curriculum, and even the authorship debate as reasons to not study Shakespeare—all topics that pique their interests and motivate them to want to learn more.


I have yet to find students come to the conclusion they shouldn’t study Shakespeare.  In fact, their overwhelming response is that studying Shakespeare is a valuable and necessary experience. Even though they eventually embrace the study of Shakespeare, they are students, and they will continue to complain; it’s just that their complaining shifts to “why can’t we study more Shakespeare?”


Mari O’Meara is a member of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s National Teacher Corps.  She teaches 12th grade English and Film Studies at Eden Prairie High School in Eden Prairie, MN (a suburb of Minneapolis).  She can be contacted at mmomeara@msn.com.

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By Folger Education


According to students at Phelps Architecture, Construction, and Engineering High School, a lot.

When Ashley Bessicks’ students finished their Hamlet unit, her 10th grade students at Phelps ACE High School, a DC public school, were on fire for Shakespeare. They wanted to know more about this play and the man who wrote it, so we worked with Ashley, who studied here last summer, to arrange for a special field trip. On June 8th, the students visited the Folger, where they took a tour of the historic building and its current exhibition, performed on our stage, and—this is pretty extraordinary—got up close with some rare books from the collection: Paul Robeson’s promptbook for Othello, versions of Hamlet from 1603, 1604/5, and 1623, John Barrymore’s promptbook for Hamlet, Ortellius’ Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, and more.

Here’s what the Phelps students—who are pretty extraordinary themselves—had to say about studying Shakespeare at school and at the Folger this year. We feel so honored to have worked with Ashley and her impressive students!


The Hamlet play in class and the trip to the Folger Library was a great experience for me that I believe strongly helped me in numerous ways, from the Hamlet essay I had to write for class to the finals. The play we performed in class gave me a better and clearer understanding of the whole story because I played the role of Hamlet in my scene, and the collaboration with my group team helped me to feel and actually understand the real story.  I was able to portray the character of Hamlet in my scene to the best of my knowledge and that helped me understand most of his emotional problems he had and how he made the poor decisions to expose his family’s secrets and to confront his mom.

The trip to the Folger Library gave me another view of Shakespeare and why he chose to write his plays and other literary poems the way he did. I learned about Mr. and Mrs. Folger and how their love for Shakespeare encouraged the building of a library and importing different works that he wrote. Finally the whole experience which included the acting, reading, and trip was so fantastic that it made me develop a love for Shakespeare too.

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Hamlet was an interesting play. It included drama, comedy and heart clenching events. It was remarkable. Not only this, but I’ve learned a valuable lesson from Hamlet. I learned that adversities can either make you stronger or make you weak. When facing adversities true colors are revealed based on how you react to what’s going on. In Hamlet’s case, he became crazy.

In addition, learning how to act for a play was an unforgettable experience.  We engaged in multiple activities and games. We did this to get prepared, and to put on our acting shoes. This was great, especially for someone like me. I’ve never been to a play or acted in one, and to be involved in a famous play and learn techniques to help me act and understand stage actions were amazing. I am glad I had the chance to act out the play Hamlet.


My experience with working with the play Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, in Mrs. Bessicks’ class was fun and informational.  When we divided up the scenes and started working in groups to pick our setting and our costumes we got into the mind Shakespeare and the characters he created. It makes you think where the scene would take place. And how it would affect the character/s. It opens your mind and gives you a measureless understanding of how each character is feeling and why they are feeling that way.

I would recommend that when it comes to teaching plays in high school that working with them like the way we did with Hamlet would benefit all students. Learning this way gave us a chance to be the character and analyze how that character became the person that they are in a specific scene, which in the end then causes us to be more interested in what we are learning. I believe that working with Hamlet this way helped me have a deeper understanding of the play even though I had read it before.


Ashley Bessicks is an English teacher in DC Public Schools and an alum of the Teaching Shakespeare Institute 2014.

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By Folger Education

Today we bring you an idea for a final project in a Romeo and Juliet unit. Watch how Teaching Shakespeare Institute 2014 alum and English teacher David Fulco blends performance, language study, and digital research in this student-centered assignment. We love how he uses web tools to promote exploratory, independent learning in his middle school classroom! 

Here’s David:



I am constantly trying to find ways to talk less in class and to have students do more. Ultimately, this should lead to more student independence and free up time for me to focus in small groups and in one-on-one conferencing. A webquest is the perfect tool to encourage this type of independence. Students are able to move at their own pace and have an answer to the inevitable question, “What do I do next?” (hint: continue to explore!). But webquests are also fun and provide a way for students to engage in the text in an interactive, exploratory fashion.



A Webquest as a Culminating Assignment:




While I did not teach Romeo and Juliet this year, I did use a Webquest to build content knowledge before teaching The Odyssey. My students have a basic idea of Greek Mythology, but I wanted to deliver content on the Iliad that didn’t require me to drone on and on in the front of the classroom. I built the Webquest and filled it with pictures, links and Easter Eggs (secret hidden links that the students could click on for extra information). We also asked the students to create their own “slides” to include in the Webquest based on items that I had not already included. Many focused on current events or current discoveries tied to Homer’s time allowing the work to continue to feel relevant.

While students were engaged in exploring and creating, my co-teacher and I were able to meet individually and in small groups with many of our students who needed extra help. I realized that some of the links that I chose were dense, so it was important that I had this time to work one-on-one with students who needed it. This is important to keep in mind. The links that are included need to be challenging for the highest student, but still accessible to every student in the class. Keeping ALL of your students in mind when creating a Webquest (or multiple Webquests for differentiation) is an important step to ensure that you will have success.

Feel free to send me your questions or ideas on Twitter (@FulcoTeaches).


Read Teaching Romeo and Juliet with Technology: Part Three


David Fulco is a 10th grade English teacher at The Laboratory School of Finance and Technology (MS/HS223) in the South Bronx. He also runs an after school Shakespeare club for seventh grade students who will be putting on A Midsummer Night’s Dream later this spring. 

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By Folger Education

In July 2014, 25 teachers from all over the country gathered at the Folger for an intensive month-long study of Shakespeare sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities: the Teaching Shakespeare Institute. Working through the lenses of scholarship, performance, and pedagogy, participants completed three major projects: 1) a research paper using items in the Folger collection, 2) a collaborative performance presentation, and 3) two short video tutorials on technology-rich strategies for teaching Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night. This last one is directed especially at you, our teaching colleagues.

In the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing participants’ videos with you. These clips demonstrate how to use a particular tech tool to teach a specific literacy skill or aspect of a text. First up: Romeo and Juliet. (If you teach Twelfth Night, stay tuned—those videos will be next!)

Today we’re diving into Act 1 of Romeo and Juliet, and we’re lucky to have English teacher Stefanie Jochman as our guide. She’s going to walk you through what to watch for in her videos—and how she’s adapted the strategy this year in class.


This video lesson explains how teachers can use Mozilla Popcorn Maker, a web-based video-editing program, to explore Act I, Scene 5 of Romeo and Juliet, specifically the “Holy Palmer” sonnet. My Popcorn Maker video seeks to solve a problem teachers sometimes encounter when conducting multimedia studies: lag-time between loading video clips or showing images. Using Popcorn Maker, I knit film clips, ballet excerpts, and digital images from the Folger Library’s Luna database into one fluid video that also displays focus questions for each medium. Compilations like the one I create in this demonstration help students to analyze the representation of a key scene in a variety of artistic media (Common Core Reading Literature Standard 7) or analyze how artists like Sondheim or Zeffirelli draw on source material from Shakespeare (Common Core Reading Literature Standard 9).

THE VIDEO: Popcorn Maker Tutorial


THE BONUS VIDEO: The Finished Product, a Popcorn Version of the “Holy Palmer” Sonnet



The Romeo and Juliet multimedia study remains one of my favorite lessons in my Romeo and Juliet unit because students’ responses to the discussion questions are so impressive. Some of my students have never watched ballet before this lesson, but their knowledge of Romeo and Juliet the play, one seemingly-difficult medium, helps them to make sense of another. During this lesson, students recognize and hone the analytical skills they already employ whenever they go to the movies, watch TV, or glance at a piece of art on the street, in their houses, or in a gallery. When asking freshmen to compare representations of Act 1, Scene 5, I try to focus on the scene’s essential elements: the language of the “Holy Palmer” sonnet, Romeo’s feeling of “love-at-first-sight,” Juliet’s youth, and the tension between the Montagues and Capulets (personified by Tybalt). I think students surprise themselves with how quickly they notice details in costuming and performance that communicate those elements.

My Romeo and Juliet multimedia study inspired a similar exploration with my IB junior class of Shylock’s “To bait fish withal” speech from The Merchant of Venice. I challenged those older, advanced students to determine the scene’s “essential elements,” and I let their observations (rather than my own pop-up questions) guide discussions of the clips. Actors’ interpretations of Shylock’s speech vary so wildly that the end result of our study was a greater appreciation for the nuance of Shakespeare’s language. I also shared Popcorn Maker and other video tools with some of my senior IB students, and they used the program to demonstrate how the Byronic hero survives in superhero movies.

In the future, I hope to develop a compilation and analysis assignment that requires students to independently assemble and analyze multiple representations of a scene, poem, chapter, or character.

Feel free to send me your questions or ideas on Twitter (@MsJochman).

Stefanie Jochman teaches 9th grade and International Baccalaureate English classes at Notre Dame de la Baie Academy in Green Bay, WI. She received her BA in English and Secondary Education from St. Norbert College and her MA in English from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. Stefanie is a proud alumna of the 2014 Teaching Shakespeare Institute. 


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By Gina Voskov

Act 1 from "Twelfth Night". (Photo: Folger Education)

Act 1 Scene 2 from “Twelfth Night”. (Photo: Folger Education)

NYC teacher and Folger National Teacher Corps member Gina Voskov is back with the second installment in her series “Inside the Classroom,” which takes us into her middle school classroom during a Shakespeare unit.

Today, we hear Gina’s perspective as teacher, and Thursday, we’ll hear from her students. You can read the first installment here.



So we’ve begun our unit on Twelfth Night, a play I love but haven’t taught before. My colleague and I are looking through the Shakespeare Set Free teacher book for ideas, but, like much of what guides what I do in the classroom—as I imagine it does for you, too—this most recent idea came from a student.


I asked everyone to buy copies of the Folger edition of the play. Our end goal is to perform a scene of students’ choosing, so I wanted them to own the book to write in. As we were looking over the opening lines, I noticed one boy slyly holding his copy up higher and more awkwardly than everyone else. Snaking my way behind him, I saw he had a brand new copy of the “No Fear Twelfth Night” hidden inside the Folger edition. When he saw I’d discovered his not-so-sneaky antics, I asked him if I could hold onto the book: there was some studying I needed to do.


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In this special series we’re calling “Inside the Classroom,” we’ll follow middle school teacher Gina Voskov and her students as they embark on a Twelfth Night unit. Today, it’s all about pre-reading—check back for notes from the group throughout the learning process.

By: Gina Voskov

Photo: Gina Voskov

Photo: Gina Voskov

I am so pleased to introduce Won Jae, Lois, and Alexandra, three of my 7th grade English students.

As you’ll see, these students have a wide range of experiences when it comes to engagement in English, comfort with public speaking/performance, familiarity with Shakespeare, and with the English language. My challenge is to make the story and language accessible (and hopefully enjoyable and meaningful) to everyone.

Shakespeare’s works were formally added to our 7th grade English curriculum three years ago and the Shakespeare unit has quickly become a favorite for both teachers and students because we use the Folger approach. In two weeks, we will begin our study of Twelfth Night, a play I really love but have never taught before. My colleague and I will be using the Shakespeare Set Free materials for the play as well as other performance techniques I learned at the 2012 Teaching Shakespeare Institute.

This first post is an introduction the students have written about themselves and a brief overview of their thoughts about learning Shakespeare and studying Twelfth Night. I suspect the concerns they share with you will mirror the concerns many of your students have about learning the language. A second post will follow, mid-unit, where the three will be able to share specific activities that challenged them the most to learn. The final post will be a reflective piece after their performance project has ended.

It is my hope that my students will be able to see growth in confidence, skills, and excitement as we use the Folger approach to studying this play. It is truly a joy to be able to share these students’ words with you, and I hope you’ll check back in on their journey through our unit.


Meet Won Jae: (more…)

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