Step 1: Choose the right play (start with comedies)
Step 2: Buy the NO FEAR Shakespeare version of the play
Step 3: Begin reading- first the Plain English Translation, then the Original Text
Step 4: Watch a good production
Step 5: Discuss and write
That's it! Now I'll explain how I developed this method of teaching Shakespeare to my elementary students:
I first fell in love with Shakespeare when I was in 3rd grade. The high schoolers at my K-12 school were putting on a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. At first, I saw it incidentally at the dress rehearsal performed for the student body, but I ended up seeing it 5 or 6 times because I kept asking my parents to take me back to see each performance. I thought it was the most hilarious thing I had encountered in my 8 years of life and that positive experience with the Bard stuck with me.
I fell in love with Shakespeare again when I was in 8th grade. I was taking a summer workshop class on history, economics, and literature, and one fortuitous day we watched and analyzed the Kenneth Branagh version of Much Ado About Nothing. It was an absolutely eye-opening experience for me. Never before had I encountered such brilliant humor. I just had to buy a copy of the play so I could revisit my favorite lines whenever I wanted. I rewatched the movie repeatedly over the years and always enjoyed reading or watching other Shakespeare plays.
So, when I first became a 4th and 5th grade literature teacher, I wondered: Was I just a quirky kid who “got” Shakespeare? or would I be able to give my students the same joyful experiences I had when I first encountered Shakespeare’s plays? I was not sure, so I decided to try it out and see. I introduced each class to Shakespeare by reading Romeo and Juliet from Leon Garfield’s Shakespeare Stories and watching the Julian Fellowes adaptation of the film, which I felt would be the most accessible to 9 and 10 year olds. Then, once they were somewhat familiar with the language and style, we set off to read a real Shakespeare play. I purchased the NO FEAR Shakespeare versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the 4th graders and Much Ado About Nothing for the 5th graders.
I assigned each student a character they would be for the entire play and without any unnecessary backstory or historical context set, we simply plunged right into the story. The students read each scene from the Plain English Translation side of the book and, at the end of each scene, we went back and I read the Original Text to them using the appropriate expression and tone in order to deepen their understanding. Since, by this time, the students were already familiar with the events of the scene, they were able to get so much more out of the language than they could have before.
I occasionally stopped and explained a word or phrase, but not everything they didn’t understand. My goal wasn’t for them to understand every little thing— I certainly didn't when I developed my fondness for the plays— my goal was for them to understand enough that they can enjoy the overall story and glean the best bits of humor from the language. We continued in this fashion reading 1-2 scenes per class, until we finished the play. I paused the reading from time to time to discuss an important line or event, and gave short quizzes a few days a week to gauge the students’ understanding.
After we finished reading the play, we watched a production of it right away. For A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I like the Rice University production. This version has a several qualities that make it a good fit for my purposes: the play is staged in a beautiful outdoor setting and does not have the risqué nature many of the movie productions have, and, since the actors are all fairly young, the students don't get the impression that Shakespeare is just for old people. For Much Ado About Nothing, I prefer to show my students the Kenneth Branagh version since it is very straightforward, and I only have to censor one scene. The Joss Whedon version is very good too, but there is a little more censorship required, and it is in a modern setting. This year, I showed my students the Branagh version first, then we compared a few of the most memorable scenes to the Whedon version- an activity they absolutely loved.
After we finished watching the production, the students completed a writing assignment of about 8-10 questions that required short paragraph answers. The questions were not simple recall questions, but ones that required reasoning and explanation. The students were very comfortable with the play and well-equipped to answer this type of question by the time the were asked to do the assignment because they: a) had read it, b) had had it read to them, c) had had discussions about it, and d) had seen it performed.
Every year, I am amazed at not just how well my students understand the plays, but how much they enjoy them. It is common for the entire class to laugh aloud during the readings and make comments with each other that a character has been “burned” or “friendzoned.” I’ve seen the students develop inside jokes with each other based on the play that they reference outside of class. Every year, I’m a little surprised at just how much these 9 and 10 year olds are truly getting out of the plays. They don’t need (or want) gimmicks or dumbed-down versions. Those would actually destroy their ability to enjoy the plays.
The students don’t feel that Shakespeare is confusing, irrelevant, or boring. They think he’s poetic, witty, and clever. They know the characters and remember them well. They compare them to other characters in books and movies. Their writing demonstrates their understanding and, sometimes, their own attempts to imitate Shakespeare’s humor. I encourage any teacher or parent to try this method with your students or children. For me, the chance to introduce so many children to Shakespeare has been one of life’s greatest joys.
This year, the day after we finished reading Much Ado About Nothing, one of my 5th graders came into class to get ready for the day, and I notice him take the NO FEAR Shakespeare version of Hamlet out of his backpack and place it on his desk. Two days later, I heard him say to another student: "I'm pretty sure Hamlet is a psycho..." He finished that in about two weeks, but he wasn't done. The next day he came in with Macbeth which he later described as "a complete bloodbath." Another week passed, and he came in with The Comedy of Errors because he "needed a break from all the tragedy." Does he have a scholar's level of understanding of these works? No. But, he wanted to read Shakespeare, and felt confident that he would be able to understand and enjoy the plays on his own. That is what it's all about.
Watch my 4th graders perform our own adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream set to the music of Vivaldi and other composers here.
1. It is a point of pride for many of my students that have read and understood a Shakespeare play. The act of having taken on such a difficult work and having understood it builds their confidence in taking on challenges and working through struggles. It teaches them what it really means to learn something new.
2. It has been my experience comedies are much more well-received than tragedies by this age group.
3. I have found the text of the plays to be appropriate for the students, but sometimes the footnotes in the NO FEAR versions explain things a little more descriptively than necessary for a 9 or 10 year old. I have decided to white-out some of the footnotes in my class set. You may choose to do this or not depending on your context.