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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