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5 Things Shakespeare Week taught me about teaching Shakespeare to kids

By: Natalie Dewan

For many people, teaching Shakespeare can be a challenge.

Some people wonder if we should be teaching Shakespeare at all. They say he’s just an old, outdated white guy whose work they were forced to study in high school.

To these people, the idea of inflicting this obligation on the next generation is both cruel and useless.

True, Shakespeare did live over 500 years ago, he was another white Englishman, and there are lots of other great playwrights and authors for students to study. But I still believe that teaching Shakespeare is important.

There is clearly something unique and wonderful about Shakespeare’s work, which has touched millions of people all over the world for over five centuries and has been undeniably influential in Western culture.

Understanding just a little bit about Shakespeare’s work can open up a whole world of fascinating topics, from Italian opera, to Japanese cinema, to the question of why Shakespeare became the most famous playwright in the world.

Shakespeare Week at Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

All this to say that I believe it’s important to introduce Shakespeare to young children.

It’s important that Shakespeare is taught in a manner that provides youngsters with meaningful, and memorable, opportunities to engage with his work and decide for themselves if they would like to learn more. This is that basic principle behind Shakespeare Week, a national campaign launched in the UK in 2014 by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT).

As in Canada, many in Britain are introduced to the Bard only as a topic that they must slave over for high school exams. The SBT started Shakespeare Week as a way to introduce British children to Shakespeare (his work, life, and times) in a fun way, at a young age. By teaching Shakespeare to children in this way, the SBT hopes that by the time they reach high school, students might understand a bit about the relevance and even the fun of Shakespeare, rather viewing him purely a source of stress and confusion.

I had the opportunity to join the SBT as an intern for two months this past winter.

Herm Island Primary School

Herm Island Primary School

As part of the Shakespeare Week team, I saw first hand how excited (yes, really excited!) kids can get about Shakespeare if he is introduced in the right way.

With the SBT I had the chance to take part in preparations for Shakespeare Week, and to travel around England visiting various museums, theatres, and historic houses that were running Shakespeare Week activities.

If you want to read some of my effusive thoughts on this experience, you can visit one of the SBT’s excellent blogs, Finding Shakespeare.

Lessons From My Shakespeare Week Travels

Below I’ve compiled a few lessons from my Shakespeare Week travels (as well as my time at the SBT and my subsequent M.A. research on designing museum education activities for children). So here it is, 5 things Shakespeare Week taught me about teaching Shakespeare to kids:

1. Blood, fairies, and forbidden love are not boring
Teaching Shakespeare

In my experience, many people are hesitant to introduce children (or adults, for that matter) to Shakespeare because they think that the topic will be boring.

My question for those people: have you read this stuff? Shakespeare’s plays are full of mythical creatures, shipwrecks, plotting, back-stabbing (literally), murder… the list goes on.

Children might need a little bit of help understanding the words (more on that shortly), but once they understand the plot they will be interested.

During Shakespeare Week (and I suspect in most classrooms), by far the most common plays for children to work with were “Macbeth,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and “Romeo and Juliet.” And the children loved them.

While their fascination with the murder and ruthlessness of “Macbeth” was a little concerning, it definitely got them interested in Shakespeare and his more subtle plot points.

2. Kids want to be involved
Teaching Shakespeare

Certainly every child is different, and some may want to play a more active role in a given lesson or activity than others. But on the whole (certainly during my Shakespeare Week experience) children want to be involved. (Academic research also supports the idea that children learn more when they feel that they have some control over their learning.)

The Shakespeare Week activities in which I observed kids becoming the most engaged were those that allowed them to take control and get actively involved. One school group, for example, created an entire production of Macbeth in just one day. They were wildly excited by the idea, and by the end of the day one of the most reserved students asked if they could all take a bow, and stepped up centre-stage to lead the charge.

3. Kids understand… a lot.
Teaching Shakespeare
Shakespeare (and especially Shakespearean language) can be daunting, even to the most well-educated and intelligent adult.

This is probably why most people assume that, if you are going to teach Shakespeare to children, you should probably stick to plot more than language. But while handing a young child a copy of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” and expecting him or her to comprehend the language is probably not a good idea, children are capable of understanding a lot more than we give them credit for.

“I Bite My Thumb at You Sir”

My favourite example of this was two young boys who took part in a theatre workshop focusing on “Romeo and Juliet.” They were acting out the opening scene and, after just a bit of guidance from the workshop directors, they understood it perfectly.

The flawless inflection and tone with which one boy spat, “I bite my thumb at you sir” would have put the finest Stratford actor to shame.

4. Adults are important
Teaching Shakespeare

Kids can pick up a lot on their own, but that doesn’t mean that adults are not important. In both my SBT experience and my M.A. research, the importance of family members, teachers, and cultural educators (museum educators, workshop directors, etc.) was abundantly clear.

Adults set the tone; they can provide a great experience by creating a positive atmosphere, understanding the needs of individual children, and, of course, teaching. Adults can also be uninterested and disengaged, and children will follow their lead.

This is why enthusiastic, passionate and curious teachers, like you if you’ve read this far, are worth their weight in gold. Learning activities outside of the classroom are also far more effective if they are led by an equally-passionate museum educator.

5. Shakespeare can fit into any curriculum
Tecahing Shakespeare
The main reason that most people aren’t introduced to Shakespeare until their stressful high school English exams is that Shakespeare is not on the curriculum (in Canada or Britain, as far as I am aware), for young children.

As worthy or interesting as they might deem many topics, teachers simply have to be concerned about the curriculum, especially if they want to justify the expense of a field trip or in-school workshop.

But Shakespeare Week reveals that, with a little creativity, Shakespeare can fit into any curriculum. Shakespeare Week was celebrated by thousands of schools across the UK, who registered for access to the SBT’s online cross-curricular resources. Parents and teachers could use these resources to teach their children about Shakespeare while also developing curriculum and age-appropriate skills in everything from language to math. (See the Shakespeare Week website to learn more; international parents and teachers can also register and use the resources!)

Introducing children to Shakespeare doesn’t have to mean reading a play. Children can also learn about the Bard by calculating the profits of a show at the Globe, unscrambling words invented by Shakespeare, or even cooking Tudor pancakes!

A Positive Start

Children are innately positive.

While some parents, siblings, and even teachers might view Shakespeare as boring, younger children don’t usually have such preconceived notions.

Shakespeare Week is intended to introduce children to Shakespeare while they are still, well, children, innocent and unjaded. The project’s success shows that children can easily form a very positive relationship with Shakespeare – they just need the right introduction.

Photos sourced from Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and Shakespeare Week

More stories by Natalie Dewan

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