All The World's A Stage: BYO Props!

Welcome to my very first choose-your-own-adventure blog post!  Here you have three options:

1. Click the image below to donate to my current Donors Choose project! 
2. Continue reading for an in-depth overview on how I plan to use each resource I've applied for in my Donors Choose project!
3. Just read my blog and steal the amazing resources as you see fit!

The choice is yours... Let the adventure begin! :)

I am a planner. My life is a series of checkboxes and sticky notes curated within a personally-designed bullet journal with digital calendars and cell phone alarms and reminders thrown in to keep it interesting. And though I only teach Shakespeare for 10 weeks each year, I never, ever stop thinking about it. This is primarily because I am never, ever happy with how my units turn out.

In my infinite planning loop, I recently realized that I am not teaching Shakespeare to 7th graders in a developmentally-appropriate way. What's worse--I actually suspect I am making it so overly rigorous that they end up really disliking Shakespeare. Then, when I teach them the next year as 8th graders, it is not lost on me that they politely bite their tongues as our Shakespeare unit begins. Sure, they're being kind about it because they like me and they know how much I love teaching that unit, but I've already failed if they feel like they have to fake their enthusiasm. I mean, really?

Unacceptable. It's time for a seventh grade reboot.

I scrapped months of work and decided to start from scratch (I do this a lot). I came up with the following goals for the 7th graders during their first real exposure to Shakespeare:

1. Know the basics about Shakespearean plays (the structure, the genres, etc.).
2. Become comfortable with the features of a dramatic text (stage directions, line numbers, etc.).
3. Decode Shakespeare's flowery writing style (ev'ry thou an' thine).
4. Enjoy playing with language, plots, and characters.
5. Do some groundling-level analysis of themes and conflicts (Ah yes, the standards never die).

In my heart of hearts, I would make the 7th grade unit a "survey" of Shakespeare, in which I expose them to multiple genres, plays, characters, themes, and conflicts through acting and guided analysis. However, I am a special education co-teacher, and my general education counterpart loves Julius Caesar. So, Julius Caesar will be our core text. See my previous post for my true feelings on this.

Regardless of core text, I think I can amp up the enjoyment factor during 7th grade and reap the benefits of this work during their 8th grade year.  Here's an in-depth break down what I'll need:

In Julius Caesar, the togas make the man. At least, in a classroom they do. I've selected these easily-adjustable toga costumes which should fit a variety of my students. And when things get stabby (as they do in Act 3), these retractable daggers should make for an unforgettable moment on our classroom stage. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, no one gets a bigger laugh than Bottom when he enters the action completely unaware of his donkey head. Yes, I selected the creepiest donkey head I could find. I also thought this flowered crown would be a good way to set Titania apart from the rest. I also found a cauldron for students to use, because I am taking them to see Macbeth on stage next year, and this will serve us well as we prepare to see that performance.

I found a couple of games that will require my students to interact with Shakespeare's language, thus removing the barrier of fear and unfamiliarity, that look super fun and engaging! When playing Brain Box, for example, students test their memory by studying a card (which includes a picture from an important Shakespearean scene, a quote, the name, act, and scene number of the play, etc.) and then recall as many details from it as possible. This deck of Shakespearean Insult Cards can be used in more ways than I can imagine! We will use them to stage an Insult-Off, in which students form two lines on either side of the room and practice delivering their insults in the most "biting" tones they can muster. Hilarity ensues, and students don't even realize how difficult the language they're using actually is. Likewise, the Great Shakespearean Deaths Card Game can be played like a game of War, but the introduction to the terrible ways Shakespeare ends his tales is sure to draw in the most skeptical scholar.

I'm not about to spend a bunch of money purchasing student copies of Shakespeare's plays, when we can find them anywhere on the internet for free! But there are a few books that I plan to use to spice up this unit. As my regular readers will attest, I believe in getting students up, moving, and acting The Second City Guide to Improve in the Classroom. Second City, as you may know, is a mainstay of improv comedy here in Chicago, and though I have attended trainings that center on the teachings within this book, I don't actually own the book yet. The next book I'd like to use is entitled Pop Sonnets, by Erik Didriksen, which I recently learned about via the Folger Library's Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. This is a collection of pop songs lovingly re-worked into Shakespearean sonnets--down to the very last iamb. I plan to use these as warm-ups a few times a week; students will read the lyrics, try to guess the song based on its content, and then we'll decode it together while listening to the song itself. Once again, my goal here is exposure to the language without all the pressure. My last book selections are also all about exposure. Kill Shakespeare is a series of comic books in which all of Shakespeare's most famous heroes team up against his most famous villains to search for a long-lost wizard (Shakespeare himself). The combination of comic-style storytelling, the visual artwork, and the mash-up of these complex characters will definitely get the wheels turning in the minds of some of my hardest-to-reach students.
during this unit. But even my acting games and strategies can become stale over time. That's why I'd like to invest in my own copy of

Other Necessities:
During our Shakespeare unit, I allow students to choose a monologue to memorize and perform as part of their final grades. Headphones are absolutely crucial to the implementation of this project, especially for my English language learners. I set them up with everything they need, including easily-accessible videos of their speeches being performed by professionals. To see how I set up this assignment and make my students fully-independent in their preparation, check out my previous post here.  Lastly, I want to do everything I can to make my Shakespeare unit as hands-on as possible. As an extension project (or as a modified final), students will have the opportunity to construct their own Globe Theater out of paper. In the meantime, they can research its history, structural components, audiences in Shakespeare's time, and superstitions that were widely believed in Elizabethan England. Sounds like a great presentation to me!

As I've mentioned above, feel free to steal any of the resources I've compiled above and find your own creative ways to use them in your classroom. However, this collection of resources isn't cheap and I certainly don't have funding to infuse my classroom with them. If you feel inclined to donate to my Donors Choose project, I would greatly appreciate it. And stay tuned for a full 10-week lesson plan to see how I incorporate each of these resources into one, cohesive unit!

Thanks for reading!

Which Plays and When?

I consistently get into disagreements with other teachers, administrators, department chairs, and others over which plays should be taught to whom and when in their educational careers each play fits best. I feel rather strongly about it, but I also acknowledge that there are plenty of great reasons to consider assigning completely different plays to completely different age groups than what I will argue here.

To preface this post, I will merely be laying out my argument for the students I see every day while taking into consideration the ways in which students of different ages acquire critical thinking and analysis skills as well as mental and maturational development.  I am writing this in the hopes of highlighting the depth of consideration that should go into each assignment of each play---not to convince you that you should fight to assign the plays exactly as I would prefer to see them laid out in my school.

Some personal background: I am a 7-12 special education teacher at a public, JROTC-focused school in the Chicago Public Schools district. I studied secondary English education in my undergrad and have a master's degree in special education, so I spend most of my time teaching inclusion reading classes. Our school includes a middle school and high school combined into one building. Our population consists of roughly 75% Latinx students and 25% African American students.

7th Grade: A Midsummer Night's Dream
In our school, seventh graders are in state of tumultuous transition--they have just emerged from grammar school and now share the hallways with terrifyingly large high schoolers, new teachers, tougher uniform and conduct expectations, and a difficult academic curriculum. Given all the stressors they already face, expecting them to digest Shakespeare could easily be the tipping point that makes them reach frustration and give up. Midsummer is, in my opinion, is the answer to these issues. In addition to being The Bard's shortest play, this is easily one of the most accessible and enjoyable for a young audience. The themes included within Midsummer are ones a young audience can easily relate to: love (of the mutual and unrequited persuasions), parental rule, magic, appearance vs. reality, the roles of men and women in relationships, damaged friendships, jealousy, transformation, identity, and so on. Bear in mind that students' first interaction with Shakespeare is critical: they need to find enjoyment within the hard work. If they don't, they'll shut down and disengage from Shakespeare in the future, and it'll be twice as hard to get them to come back and try him again. I also like to start with Midsummer because the costumes and settings are vivid and fun. The comedy is easy to follow and not hidden within complex contexts or meant to teach us deep lessons about life. Also, the 1999 film adaptation with Kevin Cline, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Stanley Tucci is fantastic and the students really enjoy seeing the characters brought to life on film. It is especially important to share performances and films of Shakespeare's work with younger audiences because these boil off all the hard work and leave them with the pleasure of the play itself--just the way Shakespeare intended it.

8th Grade: Romeo and Juliet
The differences between 7th and 8th graders are more pronounced than I ever could have imagined during my years of exclusively teaching high school. Our 8th graders are working toward middle school graduation, after which they will join the ranks of our high schoolers and continue on their college-preparatory path. It's a benchmark year with a lot of academic and social pressures, and they are beginning to determine with increased clarity which adults they can trust and which ones they cannot. Pyramus and Thisbe (Midsummer's play within a play) is, of course, a parallel of Romeo and Juliet, and teaching these plays back-to-back opens up opportunities for students to make that connection. We once again see themes that younger students can relate to: love, parental rule, teenage rebellion, expectations for women and girls, chances vs. choices, etc. Further, let us not forget that Romeo and Juliet are the same age as 8th graders. But we can even make deeper connections. Students at this age are experimenting with issues of loyalty (both in circles of friends and in relationships of all kinds) and their sexual identities begin to develop as they enter puberty. They are constantly caught between the expectations of their guardians and their undeniable desire to rebel and to take risks. The instances of relatability with this age group are infinite. And don't even get me started on the 1996 version of Romeo and Juliet starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes! The movie definitely toes the line at what's acceptable for 8th graders, and so I recommend a soft permission slip before you show it, but if we don't think these ideas are already heavily on our students' minds, we're kidding ourselves.

9th Grade: Julius Caesar
In my opinion, one of the toughest Common Core Standards to effectively address in the 9th grade is RI.9-10.6: Determine an author's point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how an author uses rhetoric to advance that point of view or purpose. Rhetoric is a tricky subject that is hard to boil down to teachable matter. It takes years to understand it fully. But Julius Caesar is a remarkable study in rhetoric. In fact, if we take Julius Caesar and strip any acknowledgement of the rhetoric, the story seems shapeless, one-sided, and flat. The characters seem weak and easily malleable. Rhetoric allows us to understand why Brutus is swayed against his better judgment, why the plebeians are quick to turn from Brutus to Mark Anthony at Caesar's funeral, and why organized government is a churning, restless machine. As many 9th grade students are just beginning to study history and the foundations, strengths, and shortcomings of government, Julius Caesar fits right in and can potentially push students to investigate their own political preferences and experiences. Julius hits the mark with relatable themes for 9th graders as well: these include friendship, loyalty, gossip, karmic retribution, and peer pressure. Though there lacks a decent movie for Julius Caesar (sorry, Marlon Brando, but I find you unrelatable...), digging into the text will be rewarding if students have the proper

10th Grade: Macbeth
The sophomore slump is alive and well at our school. It's an easily understandable phenomenon, yet we marvel at it all the same--freshmen get all kinds of extra support to ensure they are on track when they enter their high school careers, juniors have the pressure of the SAT hanging over their heads, and seniors are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Sophomores, however, seem to get left out in the cold. Further, for some reason this slump seems to gobble up students' creativity and curiosity, and though they emerge from the slump, their curious natures do not. Let's give them something to be curious about--magic, witches, fate, free will, destiny, gender identity, what makes a good leader, the dangers and merits of being ambitious, and the corruption that is associated with absolute power. And let's wrap it all up in a tumultuous, murderous saga! Eat your heart out, Game of Thrones fans! Macbeth is a tale that moves quickly, that constantly demands your attention, and that, with a little bit of guided critical thinking, is absolutely horrifying and real to us. Macbeth lends itself to being doled out with natural cliffhangers--the type that make students Google the ending ahead of time and come in the next day demanding to know why Lady Macbeth kills herself. In one fell swoop (see what I did there?), we can get these students engaged again. Film versions are plentiful for Macbeth, but the 2015 rendition starring Michael Fassbender is terribly dark, violent, and dramatic--even jaded sophomores will be drawn into it.  

11th Grade: Othello
Currently, my students are all people of color. But even if they weren't, I would still be remiss if I allowed any of my students to graduate without having read Othello. I will state an unpopular opinion: I think this play is more important and relevant than Hamlet. They need to read Hamlet because everyone reads Hamlet; they need to read Othello because we are all parts of Othello's world. Juniors are naturally entrenched in important work: preparing for college, studying for and scoring well on the SAT, beginning to work in addition to going to school, planning for the future, etc. Uncovering, acknowledging, and deconstructing systems of oppression that exist in the world is paramount. Juniors will be eligible to vote and enroll in the military soon; they are firming up their political identities and determining what they will stand for and what they will fight for. They are learning to be allies and reflective thinkers, and they are beginning to see that not everyone starts out on a level playing field. Dig into these issues when you teach Othello. Even if students reject the harsh, systematic realities of the play, they're going to see Iago for what he is (Shakespeare's greatest villain) and react accordingly. And if you're looking for a film version that doesn't quite hit the mark but that will be highly engaging and open students up to different conversations, the 2001 version entitled "O" isn't the worst place to start.

12th Grade: Hamlet
I somehow managed to graduate from high school and college having never read Hamlet in an educational setting. And for the record, no one in my school is teaching Hamlet to students of any age. Upon reading it on my own the first time, I wasn't impressed. Then I bought tickets to go and see it performed in Stratford-Upon-Avon while I was there geeking out on Shakespeare, but the production was cancelled due to the theater's air conditioning being temperamental (just like Hamlet). Since then, I've read it again and seen two film adaptations (one produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the other starring Benedict Cumberbatch), and I think I get it now. One could experience this play all throughout one's life and draw a different interpretation from it every single time. That is a rare feat for a single work of literature. To send students off into the "real world" without basic knowledge of Hamlet is to deprive them of understanding countless references, quotes, and analysis of human life that they will be able to draw from for years to come. If you're looking for a great film adaptation, there are many.  Skip the Mel Gibson version and opt for the 1996 Kenneth Branagh version, which offers an interesting look at Hamlet as a Christ figure (one of only about a million interpretations to make). And don't forget about the Simpson's episode, which is a highly entertaining overview of the play as well.

I'm interested to hear what you think about my proposal above.  Feel free to share how your school distributes Shakespeare's works in the comments below! 

Thanks for reading!
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