How to engage teenagers with Shakespeare

I know, it’s a tough one, and a topic teachers up and down the country battle with every day. Provably even more so now thanks to the recently reformed English Literature GCSEs.

So what do I, a barely out of university NQT know that could help anyone else out with teaching this? Well, thanks to it being such a tough topic to confront, I’ve taught it almost every term since the beginning of my training. So here are some of the ways I’ve found most effective.

Step 1 — know what gets them interested

My year 10s are a pretty brutal group — they play GTA and talk about hunting (after all, we live in rural Cumbria). So why, please tell me, would I try to force them to read a play about faeries and lovers? What they want is blood, and betrayal and behadings. Macbeth it is then!

Step 2 — sell it to them beforehand

I have a very capable year 8 group at the moment. They took Chaucer in their stride and have loved pushing themselves with their creative writing on alter egos. So I’m about to sell them Hamlet — and sell it I will. “So, guys, who wants to read about a guy who sees his father’s ghost, stabs a man to death with knowing who he is and ends up poisoned and dead along with 50% of the cast?” We need to cheapen it to its most accessible to them. My final pitch for Hamlet? “Oh yeah, it’s also the story Lion King is based on…”

Step 3 — don’t read it

‘But I’m teaching English’ I hear you cry in horror, ‘we must read and devour the books with gusto’. No. Definitely not. Absolutely not. NO! It’s a play, and that’s what we need to remember. The damned thing was written to be watched, so watch it! Make the most of the amazing actors who have brought the production to life — Branagh, Tennant, McKellan, Jacobi, Gibson, Dench. Decades of acting talent for you to choose from.

Obviously I’m not saying spend every other lesson watching a different production, but used sparingly they can make way more impact than your 13 year olds trying to pronounce Demtrius’ name.

Step 4 — don’t read it all

Yes, I know I’ve already said this once, but it needs repeating. Even for GCSE you don’t need to know the entire play inside out and back to front. As long as your students know what happens when and to who, and can pull a few key quotes out of the bag, that’s what matters. Instead, teach them how to analyse an unseen extract. What matters is the skill, not being able to recite the whole play on demand.

Step 5 — have fun with it

Enjoy it! Teach your kids Shakespearian insults. Get them to make up their own words. Pick a story and kill every character off in the most gruesome way possible. Make them get up out of their seat and perform the play in 5 minutes, 2 minutes or even 30 seconds. They need to be excited to get into your classroom, leave feeling exhilirated and looking forward to their next lesson.

Have you got any tips of your own? How do you engage students — especially boys — with the bard? Leave your comments below!

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