No Fear Shakespeare

By Heidi Jeffries

No milling and seething!

My students at Elkins Mountain School, a placement facility for boys ages 13-17, love to explain these words to the new students who enter our classroom. Shakespeare was a daunting new topic for me as well as for my students this school year. A true confession is that I had only read Romeo and Juliet in high school. Granted, I have seen many of the plays, some multiple times; however, I was not comfortable with the idea of getting through a play with my students who often struggle with reading and lack basic vocabulary. During some history/English cross-curricular collaborative planning, a colleague, Lauren Johnston, English teacher at the West Virginia Children’s Home, encouraged me to go for it, and shared materials she had used successfully.

Just before reading Macbeth, I stumbled across an idea online for using quote cards as a pre-reading activity for the original text of the plays. This simple yet brilliant idea was a hit. Before even reading the prologue, students are introduced to original text quotes that give meaning and anticipation to the play. Students are given a quote card and go through a process together of pronouncing unfamiliar words and practicing delivery of the quote without a context. We did this outside where they were instructed to “mill and seethe” around while quoting aloud to each other. We practiced intonation and then gestures to go with the quotes. Most loved the physical, interactive activity. As a result of this simple activity, students recognized the quotes and understood the context as we read and watched movies and plays using the original texts. Students would excitedly state, “That was ‘my quote,’ Ms. Jeffries!”

Picture books hold a special place in my heart. I try to incorporate them with these young men, always reminding them that it is a very important thing for men to read to their children.

I wanted my students to have a good overview of the play, so I began with the beautifully illustrated Favorite Tales from Shakespeare by Bernard Miles. While I read each of the engaging versions of the plays aloud, students drew an aspect of the story on sketch paper using colored pencils. No Fear Shakespeare by SparkNotes really seemed like cheating to me, a purist about original texts and a critic of condensed or dumbed-down anything. Wow, was I wrong. The text is set up with the original on one side and a modern take on the other. Still clinging to my principles, my first best intention was to have them read the original text aloud while comparing to the modern text. This was not realistic considering the varying levels of reading abilities and the frequent interruptions, absences and new student additions. So, we simply read the No Fear version and, if particularly inspired, each student could read a bit of the original. In this way, we happily and eagerly read through Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Hamlet in just one semester. Students clamored to take parts, even the lower reading level students read willingly for the most part. If not, they were in charge of making up sound effects.

We also created an area of banishment in the classroom. Students who did not participate or attend class were banished. Coats of arms created by students for this unit would be moved to the “Ugly and Desolate Area” until a peer would agree to rescue the student by reciting a key speech from the play using gestures and tone, while wearing a silly hat. Students also provided an aesthetic response to the original text from the Queen Mab passage in Romeo and Juliet when they finished that play.

Boys love swords and shields. Elkins Sewing Center collected empty fabric tubes and cardboard forms. With a little metallic paint, and lots of brilliantly colored duct tape, these were crafted into attractive swords and shields sporting family crests from a research activity. Their artwork was showcased at the local library in April as a display for poetry month.

I feel so rewarded by the comments made by these young men.

Hamlet is one of the most interesting plays I have ever read.”

“It (the unit) was fun, everything about it was interesting. It was a better way of teaching than I have  experienced before.”

“What play will we read next?”

Seeing multiple kids signing out the graphic novel versions of Shakespeare’s plays in the original language was another plus. I am now inspired and determined to learn more myself through a future training on non-traditional teaching of  Shakespeare next fall. The learning was not short–term with these techniques. So often students memorize or remember for an exam or essay and then forget the material. Not so with this multi-faceted unit. They fell in love with the stories and characters.

These at-risk teens strongly related to the themes of family, young love, betrayal, despair and violence. These young men enjoyed themselves with activities that engaged them and will have pleasant memories of an English class years from now. Did I mention that this learning happened without even having to take a traditional test?

Heidi Jeffries is English Language Arts teacher at Elkins Mountain School in Randolph County. 



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