When you’re trying to teach 17th century language to 21st century students, it pays to be innovative in your approach, suggests George Hammond-Hagan
Shakespeare’s plays are timeless classics, invariably taught in schools around the world. Yet how many children actually understand the language he uses? It’s certainly an age away from how teens speak today, so how can teachers ensure that students are fully able to access and critically respond to literature like Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth? Here are just a few ideas for creative ways in which teachers can introduce young people to the work of The Bard and have it really resonate with them…
All the world’s a stage
Shakespeare’s works (with the exception of his poems and sonnets) are first and foremost plays. So what better way to understand one of his texts, than to immerse yourself in it, and act it out? When students physically move around they will be more engaged with a lesson, and as a result, more likely to remember the themes and plot developments.
There are many ways to incorporate motion and movement into the classroom environment. For example, assign students a character and act out an excerpt of the script; or, to incorporate more students, some could voice the characters while others mime the physical actions.
‘Hot-seating’ is another effective way of helping learners understand scenes and plots and develop their interpretations of a play. You could choose a student to become a particular character and then get other learners to ask questions about their role, what they’ve done, are they good or bad, what are the consequences of their actions, how do they feel, and so on.
If music be the food of love, play on
Some of Shakespeare’s language can be especially difficult to digest, so it’s necessary to think about how we can present a modern interpretation and encourage active participation in discussions around the themes and characters in each play. Taking this to the next level and mixing key information with rhythmic patterns or music not only affects brain stimulation but will also help students to memorise facts, figures and quotations – which will be particularly helpful when it comes to their exams.
Summarising details like location, main characters, and important events in plain English helps students understand the basics of the narrative. Merging these facts with modern music that ‘speaks the language’ of today’s students, will effectively capturetheir attention. The repetition of the lyrics enables learners to memorise and recite words just like they would with any other chart topping song – regardless of whether they’ve heard it recently or not.
Wherefore art thou Romeo?
Another way to engage students with Shakespeare more deeply is visually. Many blockbuster movies are based on famous Shakespearean plays: Disney’s The Lion King uses Hamlet as its underlying text; the 1999 cult classic 10 Things I Hate About You is based on The Taming of the Shrew; and West Side Story is a 1950s version of Romeo and Juliet. By showing students movies that follow the classic story, using language that doesn’t impede understanding, we can help them to draw the parallels themselves. Watching the plot unfold through a different lens can open up new connections to the story and the characters.
To be or not to be; that is the question
Shakespeare may not always be instantly and easily accessible for everyone, but that doesn’t mean anyone need be excluded from relating to his work. The core goal of the curriculum is for students to connect with the stories, ensuring that they understand the themes and plotlines. The social structures and norms of yesteryear are sometimes lost on today’s teens so by employing a mix of delivery methods, we can encourage students to be more engaged and more willing to participate in discussions of Shakespeare plays – or any other literature for that matter. His stories are still relevant, we just have to teach them in a way that connects to the modern world.
About the author
George Hammond-Hagan is an Ivor Novello award-winning music producer and founder of Studytracks, an app that fuses music with study materials (studytracks.education).
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