Even though teaching Shakespeare in a digital learning environment is a difficult task, it can be done! Below are some tip for getting set up to teach any Shakespeare play.
Which Version of Shakespeare Should You Use?
The first thing you have to decide is which version of the play to use. It’s likely that your students don’t have a copy of their own, so you’ll want to find a good online version that provides that with plenty of support. Shakespeare is a struggle for most students, and we can’t assume that they’ll be up for reading it in the original format on their own. Many online versions don’t have explanatory notes, so you’ll want to guide them to the resources that provide them with the support they need.
Of course you always direct them to the No Fear version of any play and they can read it side by side with a modern version (or, let’s face it, most of them will just read the modern version.) But my favorite Shakespeare website is My Shakespeare. This site really does have it all. There’s audio recordings of the play that follow along with the text. The difficult words are explained underneath the text. There are helpful popup windows that explain context and literary devices. And my favorite are the videos on each page where characters from the play are interviewed.
I used this version of Macbeth last year and my class loved it. There is more than enough to support reading the play in this environment. The only drawback to this site is the don’t have every Shakespeare play, but the biggies are here.
Shakespeare Activities that work well remotely
Yes, a lot of the fun of teaching Shakespeare in the classroom is gone. You can’t read it aloud. You can’t act it out. It just won’t be as good as it could have been.
But fortunately there are still a lot of activities that work well in a digital learning environment. And there’s a lot of good free content out there.
For example, The Folger Shakespeare Library has opened up a bunch of free content during the COVID-19 pandemic. They have audio versions of the play, and they’ve always been a good source for learning activities.
Here are some examples of other things you can do.
If you’re reading Shakespeare, you absolutely want to get them interacting with the text. Close reads are a great way to do this. For one thing it allows you the opportunity to Pick a passage that’s especially important or rich. For example, a good passage from Romeo and Juliet is the dialogue between Romeo and Benvolio about why Romeo is sad. There are also good passages from the balcony scene. For Julius Caesar choose an excerpt from the funeral orations. Pick a section of the text that isn’t any longer than a page so that students don’t have more they can handle. The MIT Shakespeare site has online versions of the text you can use to grab chunks of text.
When you have them annotate the close reading passage, it’s always good to give them something to look for. Here’s a list of basic questions you can tweak for any passage:
- Why are the characters behaving they way they do?
- How might the actions in this passage change things later?
- What makes this situation difficult for the characters?
- What can we learn from this situation?
- What is repeated multiple times, either a word or an idea?
Watch stage versions
You won’t be able to show the movie versions of any of the plays, but there are plenty of excerpts from stage productions out there on YouTube and other sites. My belief is that staged versions are the best way to experience Shakespeare anyway, so this is a great way to allow students to see and hear Shakespeare as it was meant to be performed. For example, I love this version of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet from the Royal Shakespeare Company:
There are lots of things you can do with these clips while student watch them. You can have them find a couple of different versions of the same scene and compare them. Sometimes this work has been done for you. Here’s a video that includes five different versions of the three witches:
Another task you can have them complete is to watch a clip with the sound off and observe the body language. Have your students respond to what they see without the distraction of dialogue. What are the actors doing? What emotions are they expressing? How do you know? Because Shakespeare plays don’t feature many stage directions, this can be a helpful way for students to think about what actors do when you are delivering lines of dialogue.
If you’ve been hanging out on Instragram and following a bunch of teachers, you might have seen them posting pictures of Sketchnotes. Sketchnotes are visual guides to a novel or play. If you’re familiar with my work, you’ll know this is right up my alley. Not only do Sketchnotes get kids thinking differently about what they are reading, but it can get them away from their devices and doing artistic things on paper.
Lots of teachers are using Sketchnotes these days because they are such a good instructional tool. If you want to know how to use Sketchnotes with your students, check out this blog post on how to get started. There are plenty of resources there to help you.
Do Creative Activities
Shakespeare plays lend themselves to lots of different creative activities. I like those that get them thinking about how the play would be performed. And there’s a good chance you have some creative types in your class that will jump at the opportunity to create costumes or analyze set design.
Have Students Look at Artwork
Now’s a great time to hit the standard where students have to examine a work across different media. For example, I will find a bunch of artistic rendering of various scenes from Othello and ask the students these questions:
- What part of the play is this?
- How do you know?
- If you could use a line of dialogue from the play as a caption, what would it be?
Or I might choose several artistic interpretations of the same scene, such as the death of Desdemona. I’ll ask students to comment on the use of color. Or emotion. You can have them look at composition. What’s the first thing you notice? What’s the next thing you notice? Where does the artist want the focus to be in this particular scene?
Have Some Fun!
During these difficult times, everyone needs to have some fun. I’ve been dedicated to helping students enjoy their study of Shakespeare in the best way possible- through comics! I have comics and activities for all of the major acts of each play. Each set has a one page comic summary of the act. What makes them fun? Not only are they humorous, but they have hidden Easter eggs for students to find. Not only will they find important images from the play hidden, but they might see important pop culture figures lurking in the background!
You’re not around to help them with this. These comics can help students figure this Shakespeare stuff out. If you’d like a FREE intro to Shakespeare comics and activity, click below!
I also have a series of lessons done as comics that address various ELA topics like grammar, poetry, editing, all of which are well suited to a remote learning environment. All the fun is there for you, and your kids will love studying any of these topics because they’ll get a new comic every day! Please check out my resources and let the learning begin!
If you’d like more help with Shakespeare check out these blog posts on these plays:
If you need more Remote Learning resources ….
Here are some more blog posts on remote learning: