A Plea to English Teachers

Stop it!

Listening to records, audio tapes, etc… is not the way to study Shakespeare.  You are wrong.  Talk to anyone who has graduated from an American high school and ask them if they really enjoyed listening to the audio tapes of Romeo and Juliet and I guarantee you that no one loved it.  I’ll give you that it is indeed better than having them read it on their own.  In fact, it makes a nice supplement to a Romeo & Juliet  unit.  But it should not be the end all of teaching Shakespeare.

You have to read it together.  Out loud.  Discuss it.  Take time.  Do not treat it as “The Holy Word of The Bard.”  Shakespeare would fit right in with a contemporary tv series.  His plays are filled with dirty jokes, idiot husbands, jealous wives, and hormonally imbalanced teenagers.  Have FUN with that.  Seriously.  What is the point in having all students read Shakespeare if teachers are not going to put any effort into teaching it?

Don’t take the easy way out.  Watching a video doesn’t cut it by itself.  An audio version is a supplement.  Worksheeting it to death does not help students find the beautiful language and masterful storytelling.  It makes them HATE it.  Is that your goal?  Step back and really examine WHY you are teaching it.  Because it’s required?  What a stupid answer.

In Chicago, a group of concerned educators are using Shakespeare  to improve reading skills in schools that are falling behind with NCLB.  I attended a workshop from two of these teachers and was amazed at the things they do.  On average, the one teacher said, he probably spends 5-6 weeks on a Shakespeare unit.  And, just as importantly, he doesn’t worry if they read every single page of every single scene.  They learn about analyzing the language, identifying tools and techniques, understanding the story, and they enjoy it enough that it sparks an interest in school that wasn’t there before.  They are an inspiration.

So, I ask you, how do you teach Shakespeare?



  1. renaissanceguy said,

    February 21, 2008 at 6:11 am

    I teach Jr. High. I have read simplified prose versions of Shakespeare to my students.

    I remember how well my senior English teacher taught us Macbeth. She had us read it aloud and then paraphased it in very modern language. She explained the themes and the characters. It all made good sense and was very interesting. That’s definitely the way to go.

  2. languagelover said,

    February 21, 2008 at 12:14 pm

    Thanks for the input, RG. The spark for this rant, by the way, was a conversation I had with a parent at parent-teacher conferences recently. This mother demanded to know why we bothered teaching Shakespeare. Her other three children were all good readers and good students, but hated studying Shakespeare. None of them had taken it from me, however. Every one of them had listened to an audio tape of the plays and were bored to tears. She was upset that her last child, my student, might start struggling with English class again because he was the worst reader in the family.

    I feel confident in my Shakespeare teaching skills. I don’ t think this student, nor most others, will have problems. But, it still irks me when I think of how other teachers approach this. My own freshmen English teacher in high school had us listen to records of a very formal performance of Romeo and Juliet. I came away from it thinking it was the worst thing I’d ever read in my life. Now, as I teach it, I thoroughly enjoy it year after year.

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