So you’re ready
You have made the decision to do Shakespeare with your K-8 students. Now it’s time to write the lesson plans.
In the back of your mind, you might be wondering, “What is my principal going to think about all this?”
Some administrators are immediately enthusiastic about this type of enrichment program for all students; they trust their faculty to ensure that all essential standards are fully met, and that doing Shakespeare will not take time away from the core curriculum.
Other administrators are more wary. Shakespeare is not considered to be on grade level, for obvious reasons. He’s not on a TAKS test (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills). In the current educational climate of testing and mandated standards, there is less time than ever for the type of creative, open-ended projects elementary teachers could usually undertake freely 20 years ago. Lesson plans are under scrutiny as never before.
Students are given benchmark tests throughout the year, to chart progress in advance of the actual test; if a teacher doing a Shakespeare project can’t point to healthy and rising reading scores, that project may be in jeopardy.
But if you take a look at the Language Arts section of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), we think you will be amazed at how many required elements can be met through this work. (If you are a teacher in another state, you are probably working with a similar set of state or district standards.)
We believe, along with many veteran schoolteachers, that Shakespeare can be a powerful educational tool for developing skills and increasing a student’s knowledge. A well-written lesson plan, with correlations to specific TEKS elements, can go a long way towards reassuring your administrators of the soundness of your proposed project.
What we have done here is taken the Grade 4 Language Arts TEKS from the website of the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and pulled out the ones we believe can be vigorously addressed with a carefully planned Shakespeare project. You will still need to consider, as you write your plans, which TEKS you want to emphasize – but there are plenty of important ones here from which to choose.
are fairly consistent as you move up to grade 5, even sometimes to grade 8; once you understand how the TEKS fit for one grade level, this can be applied with some adjustment to other grade levels.
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Elementary TEKS addressed by Shakespeare work
One note first about how Shakespeare fits in here:
There are many excellent types of Reader’s Theater texts one could use to address these TEKS, and the traditional thinking would argue that children in grades 4-6 would be at a “frustrational level” if working on scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which, according to the scale, would be way up there as college-level material.
But Shakespeare has a little something extra in the tank. He has a unique ability to intrigue audiences and invite curiosity, even at this age. His words may not be all on grade level, but these are stories and characters that have lasted 400 years and are still going strong.
We have seen fourth grade students who are struggling readers embrace the fun and mystery of scenes from Shakespeare, without being concerned about the difficulty of the vocabulary. In fact, the fun of the plays actually encourages children to investigate these strange new words. They are delighted by them, rather than oppressed or intimidated. They are willing and indeed eager to say them over and over, with a different intonation or inflection each time.
One of the keys to our work, then, is making it clear in the early stages that Shakespeare is not – as other subjects are compelled to be in the age of standardized testing – about zeroing in on the right answers. Nor is it about understanding everything as quickly as possible to pass a test. It is about building relationships, word by word, gesture by gesture, person by person. It is about listening and accepting that you don’t know everything yet – while, at the same time, awakening your desire to learn and do more.
So when we approach the TEKS, we often think of this kind of work as a back-door approach to reaching many of these objectives. Students, who are so used to seeing those TAKS preparation materials come marching in right through the front door with banners waving, often enjoy the freshness of this approach. They will learn much about listening, interpreting, and analyzing character when they work on a Shakespeare scene; but they will be much too busy having fun to notice that they are doing so. They will be sounding out new words, using context clues, absorbing complex new vocabulary, and digging into word origins; but it will all be in service of something grand and exciting – putting on a real grown-up play with classmates.
Part of our educational philosophy, clearly, is that children crave a meaningful challenge and want to aim high and reach for excellence. Shakespeare can provide a unique opportunity for this kind of achievement.
To use a
swimming analogy: If introduced in the right way, Shakespeare gives kids the joy of jumping into the deep end of a spring-fed pool without the fear of drowning. We provide them with the oxygen tanks and the fins; they get time to swim around and do underwater somersaults and try to touch the colorful fish that are darting about. Often, one simple statement from the teacher such as, “Don’t worry about understanding everything at first, or all the words – we’ll figure them out as we go,” will release the students from any anxiety about the material, and they will swim freely.
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Relevant grade 4 Language Arts TEKS
Listening/speaking/purposes – critical listening – appreciation
Listening is a vital part of this working process. Students must listen to each other while in the scene, so they can know their cue; they must listen to their classmates perform, so that the class can discuss the meaning and action of each scene and offer suggestions to the other performers. Also, when the teacher takes a role and reads with inflection and purpose, students can listen and attempt to “read” the character’s motives and desires.
Obviously, the speaking skills are developed with this kind of work, especially through the repetition of memorization and practice. Through gradual work, students learn to focus on stage presence, projection, word emphasis, fluency, tone, gesture, and how they all affect meaning and communicate the speaker’s purpose.
Here are some of the listening/speaking/purpose TEKS we think fit this work well. (Remember that many of these, as indicated by the grade range in the parentheses, are identical for the next grades up. When citing the number, be sure to change “4.2” to “5.2,” for example.)
The student listens actively and purposefully in a variety of settings.
The student is expected to:
- determine the purposes for listening such as to gain information, to solve problems, or to enjoy and appreciate (4-8);
- eliminate barriers to effective listening (4-8); and
- understand the major ideas and supporting evidence in spoken messages (4-8).
4.2 Listening/speaking/critical listening.
The student listens critically to analyze and evaluate a speaker's message(s). The student is expected to:
- interpret speakers' messages (both verbal and nonverbal), purposes, and perspectives (4-8);
- identify and analyze a speaker's persuasive techniques such as promises, dares, and flattery (4-5);
- distinguish between the speaker's opinion and verifiable fact (4-8); and
- monitor his/her own understanding of the spoken message and seek clarification as needed (4-8).
The student listens, enjoys, and appreciates spoken language. The student is expected to:
- listen to proficient, fluent models of oral reading, including selections from classic and contemporary works (4-8);
- describe how the language of literature affects the listener (4-5); and
- assess how language choice and delivery affect the tone of the message (4-5).
The student speaks clearly and appropriately to different audiences for different purposes and occasions. The student is expected to:
- present dramatic interpretations of experiences, stories, poems, or plays to communicate (4-8);
- use effective rate, volume, pitch, and tone for the audience and setting (4-8);
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Reading/word identification – fluency – vocabulary development – variety of texts – literary response
Reading in a Shakespeare project for elementary students is a gradual, cumulative act. Even the highest readers in fifth or sixth grade will need help the first few times they even a short speech. In the beginning, one key is to only give students small sections of verse or prose – even as small as 2 or 3 lines – so that they can feel a sense of mastery within 10 minutes.
Shakespeare is like a puzzle at first for kids. Some parts they can figure out; some parts they get help with; others remain baffling for a while. We don’t need to look up every word the first time through. The great thing is that Shakespeare’s words can entrance, even before their full meaning is known. So when the fairies in Midsummer tell Puck:
Over hill, over dale
Thorough bush, thorough briar
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire
I do wander everywhere
Swifter than the moon’s sphere
And I serve the fairy queen
To dew her orbs upon the green!
…then you have plenty of new words to figure out; but the rhythm and the zip of the speech already tells you much about the spirit and energy of the fairies. Children don’t need understand every word immediately – once they get the basic idea, they are off and rolling, shouting out the words happily.
Because the students fall in love with the characters and their lines, over time something interesting happens: students gradually absorb not just their lines but others’ lines as well. The language has been given time to “steep,” especially in a year-long project. The code has been broken. The students’ awareness of what is going on with the words has grown layer by layer. Over time they can even appreciate the multiple meanings of key words.
As confidence grows, so does the fluency. The wonderful thing about this is that once a child is fluent with Shakespeare, any other kind of reading is a piece of cake by comparison!
We have heard feedback from several students and teachers that this work is especially helpful for children who are still working on learning English as a second language.
Comprehension is fun to work on with Shakespeare, because the students are so fascinated by the characters and their dilemmas. In a longer-term project, you can gradually tell the story of a play, and put a spotlight on the dilemmas faced by the characters. Should Hermia run away to follow her heart? Why does Helena feel so down on herself? Why is Lysander so mean to Hermia when the love-juice is on his eyes? The interest in the story promotes closer listening, especially if you mix in judicious use of short film clips and, if you’re able, performances by adults (even a short scene performed by teachers!).
This leads, then, to plenty of exercises on summarizing and recalling sequences of events. We often ask fifth graders, for example, to write a one-paragraph summary of how they would explain the opening scenes of Midsummer to a third grade audience. Then we actually have them perform a scene to a third grade class, using their summary as the opener.
Imagery is rich in Shakespeare, especially in Midsummer, so it’s a perfect vehicle for exploring the power of language to create worlds.
So here are some of the reading TEKS that we often see being addressed with Shakespeare performance work at the elementary level (again, this is from the 4th grade TEKS chart on the Texas Education Agency website, so remember to change the number citation for other grade levels – “4.3” to “5.3” etc.):
4.6 Reading/word identification.
The student uses a variety of word recognition strategies. The student is expected to:
- apply knowledge of letter-sound correspondences, language structure, and context to recognize words (4-8);
- use structural analysis to identify root words with prefixes such as dis-, non-, in-; and suffixes such as -ness, -tion, -able (4-6); and
- locate the meanings, pronunciations, and derivations of unfamiliar words using dictionaries, glossaries, and other sources (4-8).
4.7. – Reading/fluency.
The student reads with fluency and understanding in texts at appropriate difficulty levels. The student is expected to:
- demonstrate characteristics of fluent and effective reading (4-6);
- read aloud in selected texts in ways that both reflect understanding of the text and engage the listeners (4-8); and
4. 8 Reading/variety of texts.
The student reads widely for different purposes in varied sources. The student is expected to:
- read classic and contemporary works (2-8);
4.9 -- Reading/vocabulary development.
The student acquires an extensive vocabulary through reading and systematic word study. The student is expected to:
- develop vocabulary by listening to selections read aloud (4-8);
- draw on experiences to bring meanings to words in context such as interpreting figurative language and multiple-meaning words (4-5);
- use multiple reference aids, including a thesaurus, a synonym finder, a dictionary, and software, to clarify meanings and usage (4-8);
- determine meanings of derivatives by applying knowledge of the meanings of root words such as like, pay, or happy and affixes such as dis-, pre-, un- (4-8); and
4.10 – Reading/comprehension.
The student comprehends selections using a variety of strategies. The student is expected to:
- use his/her own knowledge and experience to comprehend (4-8);
- establish and adjust purposes for reading such as reading to find out, to understand, to interpret, to enjoy, and to solve problems (4-8);
- monitor his/her own comprehension and make modifications when understanding breaks down such as by rereading a portion aloud, using reference aids, searching for clues, and asking questions (4-8);
- describe mental images that text descriptions evoke (4-8);
- use the text's structure or progression of ideas such as cause and effect or chronology to locate and recall information (4-8);
- determine a text's main (or major) ideas and how those ideas are supported with details (4-8);
- paraphrase and summarize text to recall, inform, and organize ideas (4-8);
- draw inferences such as conclusions or generalizations and support them with text evidence and experience (4-8);
- answer different types and levels of questions such as open-ended, literal, and interpretative as well as test-like questions such as multiple choice, true-false, and short answer (4-8); and
represent text information in different ways such as in outline, timeline, or graphic organizer (4-8).
4.11 – Reading/literary response.
The student expresses and supports responses to various types of texts. The student is expected to:
- offer observations, make connections, react, speculate, interpret, and raise questions in response to texts (4-8);
- interpret text ideas through such varied means as journal writing, discussion, enactment, media (4-8);
- support responses by referring to relevant aspects of text and his/her own experiences (4-8); and
- connect, compare, and contrast ideas, themes, and issues across text (4-8).
4.12 – Reading/text structures/literary concepts.
The student analyzes the characteristics of various types of texts (genres). The student is expected to:
- judge the internal consistency or logic of stories and texts such as "Would this character do this?"; "Does this make sense here?" (4-5);
- compare communication in different forms such as contrasting a dramatic performance with a print version of the same story or comparing story variants (2-8);
- understand and identify literary terms such as title, author, illustrator, playwright, theater, stage, act, dialogue, and scene across a variety of literary forms (texts) (3-5);
- understand literary forms by recognizing and distinguishing among such types of text as stories, poems, myths, fables, tall tales, limericks, plays, biographies, and autobiographies (3-7);
- analyze characters, including their traits, motivations, conflicts, points of view, relationships, and changes they undergo (4-8);
- recognize and analyze story plot, setting, and problem resolution (4-8);