This post was written by NCTE member David Rickert.
The magic of teaching Shakespeare resides in the four walls of our classrooms. It emerges in silliness when students struggle with the iambic pentameter and the archaic words when reading a part out loud. You can find it in the paper crowns and the plastic swords when our students act it out. And most importantly, you feel it by bringing to life something difficult for our students to grasp.
However, much of that magic is gone during online learning. We feel at a loss because our tried and true teaching methods aren’t available to us. We might ask ourselves, given how difficult Shakespeare can be, if it is even worth teaching in an online setting?
The answer is yes. In many ways, Shakespeare is a good fit for online learning. So how can we approach the teaching of Shakespeare in a digital environment?
Do Close Reads
While reading Shakespeare, we want to make sure students are doing the hard work of comprehending passages in the original language. When selecting passages I try to keep the following things in mind: first, it has to be a passage of some consequence in the play. Also, it needs to be a passage that students can handle fairly well on their own. Finally, it has to be relatively short—twenty lines or so. For example, I would give students the first few lines of the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet (up to when Romeo emerges from the bushes) instead of the whole scene.
I’ll usually give them two of these (as PDFs) to do per week, to read and annotate with some simple guidelines. The task starts out relatively easy (such as picking out the metaphors) and eventually becomes more complex as students ease into the language (for instance, doing a rhetorical analysis of a speech.)
Bring the Stage to Students
Many of us show motion picture versions of Shakespeare’s plays as an aid to reading. However, those versions are not all available for us to show our students in their entirety in the digital environment, or may only be available as short clips. However, our students can still experience Shakespeare in its purest form: on the stage.
You aren’t likely to find high-quality stage performances in their entirety either, but there is plenty of great content available on YouTube in the form of important scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. In addition, many Shakespeare companies have performances on their websites for teachers to use in a classroom setting.
When students watch these performances, they can be watching the characters and reflecting on questions such as:
- What parts of the play really “come alive” for you in live performance?
- What lines jump out at you?
- What are the actors doing while they deliver their lines? (They aren’t just standing around!)
Don’t forget you can also have students turn on the closed captioning while they watch!
Harness the Power of Artwork
Shakespeare’s plays have inspired some magnificent artwork. You can find everything from luxurious paintings from the Romantic Era to handsome woodcuts that were used as illustrations when the First Folio was mass produced. Giving students this visual context can help students process the play as they read.
These images can lead to fun activities as part of the reading experience. For example, choose two works of art from the same scene and ask students to consider which one best captures the moment. Or give them a work of art and have them choose a line from the play to use as a caption.
Use Video to Aid in Instruction
A good way to replicate reading of Shakespeare in class is by finding an audio version of the play and, by using a screencasting app like Loom, creating a digital experience in which you add commentary to the audio track as you go. You let the audio play, stop at key moments, and do what you would normally do in class—point out important quotes, explain long forgotten terms, and offer amusing anecdotes. Just be careful that you don’t ramble on too long—you want to keep it moving or the students will get antsy. And it’s a good idea to break it up into shorter videos of no more than five minutes each to give students a break.
The best version of play to use for this are those found at myshakespeare.com, which has the text and the audio presented simultaneously. Just be sure that you are following protocols of how any materials may be used for the purposes of online instruction.
Teaching Shakespeare in the online classroom can be difficult, but it’s worth it!
David Rickert has been teaching high school English for over 20 years in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. Every year, he has taught a Shakespeare play—his favorite is Othello. He blogs about ELA teaching strategies at his website and creates fun Shakespeare comics at his store.