Looking for teaching ideas on Shakespeare? Today we’re going to cover 5 fast and easy tips for how to teach Shakespeare: sonnets edition.
Suffice it to say, I bored my students to sleep when I first taught Shakespeare because I had no idea what I was doing.
I didn’t know the content. I didn’t know how to engage my students in Shakespeare. And I didn’t know that I didn’t know.
After that disastrous first experience, the next year I set out to try and do it better. This time I knew the content better, although by no means was I an expert. Luckily, I had some ideas for how to engage my students.
So here is what I’ve learned through painful experiences. Use these tips to avoid your own painful early experiences of teaching Shakespeare to high school students.
These tips are especially helpful if doing a short Shakespeare unit, such as studying Shakespearean sonnets, because they are fast and easy. Which is exactly what you need if you’re trying to squeeze a mini-unit on Shakespeare into your curriculum.
#1: Introduce Shakespeare and Elizabethan theater to give your students context
One of the struggles I had with teaching Shakespeare the first time was that my students didn’t know anything about Shakespeare, Elizabethan England, or theater. Part of the reason my first lot of students failed to connect with Shakespeare was that they had no context.
They didn’t know who Shakespeare was. They didn’t know what his life was like. They didn’t know anything about life in Elizabethan England. And they certainly didn’t know anything about Elizabethan theater.
With hindsight . . .
It was obvious that I should have done some context-building. But when you’re a first-year teacher, flying by the seat of your pants, and reading a scene ahead of the kids, it doesn’t occur to you that they would have no idea about anything Shakespeare.
The next year, context was key. I made sure my students had a strong introduction to Shakespeare by looking at who Shakespeare was, why he was a big deal, and the words he invented.
They studied how people lived in Elizabethan England and had more contextual knowledge of why punters paid for plays.
One of my favorite ways to do this was to read a few history textbook pages about life in Elizabethan England. (This was the mid-2000s and my classroom. Located in the middle of outback Queensland, it still had an overhead projector and a stack of blank transparencies as the latest technology. Colorful textbooks were a step up from handwritten and projected notes).
But we are so much luckier now. We have access to YouTube and a plethora of resources for learning about just about everything, including how to teach Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Now, one of my favorite ideas for how to introduce Shakespeare is to use the Crash Course Theater and Drama episodes about Shakespeare. These videos are a great way to introduce Shakespeare because students can quickly and easily learn about
- Shakespeare’s life
- the controversy surrounding his authorship
- the different genres of Shakespearean plays (see here for tragedies and here for comedies and romances).
And I like them because I have ready-to-go visual note-taking worksheets on Shakespeare to accompany the episodes. See here to find out more.
#2: Introduce Shakespearean language in a no-pressure way
Once students are familiar with Shakespeare, Elizabethan England and theater, and Shakespeare’s genres, it’s a great idea to give them a taster of Shakespearean language. So tip number two for how to teach Shakespeare’s sonnets is to do some fun Shakespeare language activities.
I have written about it before, but my favorite way to introduce Shakespearean language is to do a Shakespearean insults lesson. Not only are they easy, fun, and engaging, but they are a very low-pressure way to get students engaging with Shakespearean language.
I like to use my Shakespearean insults lesson. But if you are short on cash, then there are free Shakespearean insults generators and translators floating around the interwebs (such as this generator and this translator).
#3: Use video and audio to show how Shakespeare’s language sounded
One of the problems that students often face when reading Shakespeare for the first time is that they don’t know how the language should sound.
With some of Shakespeare’s plays running over thirty thousand words, teaching Shakespeare’s sonnets can be a faster way to fit Shakespeare into your curriculum.
With so much of Shakespearean language written in iambic pentameter, the rhythm of the words is important for comprehension.
A super-easy tip for how to teach Shakespeare’s sonnets is to use audio or video versions of the sonnets (or play) so that students can hear how the language sounds. And if you are a Star Trek fan, you’ll love Sir Patrick Stewart’s read-alouds of Shakespeare’s sonnets (which you can catch on his Instagram page or this YouTube channel).
Video versions are great for plays because actors’ actions can also help comprehension.
#4: Make Shakespeare fun instead of scary
Another tip for how to teach Shakespearean sonnets is to make Shakespeare fun instead of scary. Easy ways to do this include
- Show students the playful side of Shakespearean language by running an insults lesson
- Watch snippets of Shakespeare’s plays that have slapstick comedy
- If you have the time, watch contemporary adaptations of plays
- Start small when studying Shakespeare by studying his sonnets
- Watch video adaptations or listen to audio versions of his works
- Show students how to read Shakespeare’s sonnets by showing students actors who read his sonnets aloud (this article by BookRiot has a great comparison list of actors reading Shakespearean sonnets)
- Read Twitterature versions of Shakespearean plays
- Show students text-message versions of Shakespearean plays (not an affiliate link, just love the idea) or ones like this Macbeth on SparkNotes
#5: Use Crash Course Literature’s videos on Shakespeare’s sonnets
The final tip for teaching Shakespearean sonnets is to watch the Crash Course Literature video about the Bard’s sonnets. The video is free, quick, and engaging.
- the history and structure of Shakespearean sonnets
- why did Shakespeare write sonnets
- Sonnet 18 ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’
- Sonnet 116 ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment’
- and Sonnet 130 ‘My mistresses’s eyes are nothing like the sun’.
As always, John Green presents with humor and zest. And at 12 minutes, the video is not going to sap too much teaching time from your curriculum.
The videos are a great way to model how to understand Shakespeare’s sonnets, with John Green analyzing three popular Shakespearean sonnets.
The videos are great because you can use them in so many ways, including being
- Set for a substitute lesson with a worksheet for students to complete
- Used as a flipped classroom activity (where students watch the video as homework the night before studying the poems in detail in class)
- Watched in class and then discussing the poems or doing a worksheet
- Used as a ‘catch-up’ task for students who have missed lessons
- Set on a choice board of activities for students to choose from while studying Shakespearean sonnet
Even better, if you’re short on time, you can use my worksheet that pairs with the video.
Want more ideas for teaching Shakespeare and fun Shakespeare activities?
Check out these blog posts:
- 5 awesome free resources to teach Shakespeare
- Fun, engaging, and easy Shakespearean insults lesson you have to try
- 12 excellent teaching resources for Macbeth – make Macbeth easy
- 13 easy, engaging lessons for Romeo and Juliet
- Teaching Shakespeare in high school: 7 easy tips
- 15+ worksheets on Shakespeare for your ELA classroom
- 20 of the best of Shakespeare quotes for your ELA classroom
Another fun activity for teaching Shakespeare is this free interesting facts on Shakespeare poster.