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    Educational Philosophy, Home Education

    Shakespeare for the Seemingly Inept

    September 6, 2018 by Hayley Beck

    I almost didn’t write this post.  Well, actually, I wrote it but almost deleted it.  Humility. The extent of my knowledge and education and introduction to Shakespeare was this: “Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?” I don’t know when I heard that line, where I heard it, but I knew it was a line from Shakespeare.  And that was all I knew.

    I was born and raised in Australia. I came to live in the United States when I was 20 years old after falling in love with an American. I considered myself well-educated and more sophisticated in my writing ability than most Americans I communicated with.

    The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.
    – William Shakespeare

    Then I began year 1 of AmblesideOnline.

    Really! My world of education was just beginning and I loved year 1, and therefore, realized how little I actually knew and how uneducated I really perhaps was. And then I traveled through year 2. And year 3. Every time my eldest daughter finished a year of AmblesideOnline, I finished alongside her. And I loved it all! Everything was new for me. Growing up, like many a person, I learnt to retain nothing, merely pass exams to graduate to the next grade. Everything was new for me because I was truly learning nearly everything for the first time. I have to admit that I loved when I had the opportunity to journey through year 1 and year 2 and year 3 a second time with my next daughter. And I could tell I was beginning to retain things from the previous years when I walked year 1 last year with my third daughter. I get to do this seven times, I told my husband! Even though each year is somewhat different from the last time, I am still reading and learning a second and third time at the moment. (Clearly, I have not recovered from my “pump and dump” education growing up.)

    Today’s post is not so much about my education though (although it kind of is). Specifically, I want to share with you my Shakespeare learning journey. As noted above, the only thing I knew about Shakespeare was that some guy who went by the name of Shakespeare wrote a play called Romeo and Juliet and there was a line in it that everyone knew, even me!

    Henry V

    You Gotta Start Somewhere

    (or “To be or not to be, that is the question … ” – William Shakespeare, Hamlet )

    In year 1 of the AmblesideOnline curriculum I used Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. I loved it, but admit, that at times I was drawing stick figures to keep up with the plot, ahem, I mean to help my children keep up with the plot. My daughters have each found it difficult to narrate our Shakespeare stories in year 1 so I often narrated in the beginning to help them along in following the story as well as for them to learn to narrate. I loved narrating because it helped me retain what we were reading.

    Now, here’s how much I knew about Shakespeare: I didn’t know that while I was reading Tales from Shakespeare that I was reading an abridged version until my local Charlotte Mason group had a Shakespeare Immersion evening. I found myself literally wondering how on earth I was going to graduate myself from Charles and Mary Lamb’s abridged version in year 3 to Shakespeare’s actual writings of his plays in year 4. What if I didn’t understand Mr. Shakespeare’s actual scripts? Secretly, I was a bit nervous.

    Be just and fear not.
    – William Shakespeare

    Year 4 began and my eldest daughter and I tackled Shakespeare together using Librivox after I realized that she and I would most likely follow along with the story line easier if we were listening to a cast of people. (We begin our school year in June so we were ahead of our friends whose school year would start somewhere mid to late August.) I wondered how much richer our reading would be if our local Plutarch group (which met every other week) met weekly and on the opposite weeks read Shakespeare together. I threw it out as a consideration and I was hoping someone would raise their hand and be glad to lead. No one did. In fact, they encouraged me to lead and were thrilled that I was so willing. But, they didn’t know I hadn’t even read an entire Shakespeare play in my entire life yet. And, I was now 40 years old. I disclosed this fact because I felt like it needed to be known — not that I was now 40 but that I didn’t really know much about Shakespeare at all. And, I would be teaching their children.

    Words are easy, like the wind;
    Faithful friends are hard to find.
    – William Shakespeare

    And, so this is where my teaching of Shakespeare began.

    Me, of all People!

    (or, “The game’s afoot” -William Shakespeare, Henry V )

    I first had to choose a play. I had 15 year old boys down to 4th graders. So, I blindly chose Henry V because I wanted the older boys to really enjoy it, and somewhere I read that boys really like this play. Also, I asked the moms of the students as to which plays they’d read in their schooling and only one other family had read Shakespeare. Neither their family nor mine had read Henry V with our student(s) yet (there is no Henry V in Tales from Shakespeare) so it seemed like a great choice.

    I was way out of my league, or

    Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand?
    – William Shakespeare, Macbeth

    I read the play and didn’t understand it really. My husband encouraged me to watch the movie so as to help me. I watched the movie with my husband but fell asleep. This idea, this notion of me teaching Shakespeare really was not working so well.

    … it was Greek to me.
    – William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

    Instead of giving up I decided to look at this like a challenge for my own growth and education. I could teach teenagers and children. I think. And, I could search online to see if there were any helpful websites that could shed some light on the synopsis for me. There were. And, I could take it slow. I’ll just read and learn as I go, like my students.

    Preparing for Each Lesson

    (or, “Nothing will come of nothing.” – William Shakespeare, King Lear)

    I only pre-read what I thought we would have time to read through at our upcoming meeting. I photocopied my pages and enlarged them 25% in size so I could write notes by certain lines. Sometimes, I felt the need to write notes next to practically every line so I could fully feel equipped to understand the text and follow the story line myself. Secretly, there were times I hoped my students didn’t ask questions. But, what I learned to do (over time) was anticipate what questions might arise, but before I answered it, asked if any other student had an answer.

    Our chief concern for the mind or for the body is to supply a well-ordered table with abundant, appetising, nourishing and very varied food, which children deal with in their own way and for themselves. This food must be served au naturel, without the predigestion which deprives it of stimulating and nourishing properties and no sort of forcible feeding or spoon feeding may be practised. Hungry minds sit down to such a diet with the charming greediness of little children; they absorb it, assimilate it and grow thereby in a manner astonishing to those accustomed to the dull profitless ruminating so often practised in schools.
    – Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, pp. 71-72

    Then, I reviewed the words in the footnotes and pulled the ones that were most pertinent. The version of Henry V we used was Dover and it often had a lot of footnotes. In classic Charlotte Mason style I pulled the words that I thought may trip up my students (or perhaps they’re the words that tripped me up on my first read through) and I typed them out. This is just something I wanted to do to help reiterate to me the new word I’d just discovered. I also highlighted it in the text and in the footnotes. I printed my paper out, hole punched it, and placed it as my first page for that day’s reading.

    I also decided on who would read which part. For the first few weeks I sent messages to the moms to let them know the part assigned to their child/ren. This way, their child/ren could look over their part beforehand if they wanted to, to help ease the students in, even though we all knew each other and have interacted with each other in different settings. And, these same students were Brandy’s Plutarch students on the opposite weeks. But, I wanted them to have the chance to read ahead in the script if they wanted. After some weeks I stopped sending advance notices.

    After I decided on the speaking parts for the students (I always tried to alternate if there weren’t enough speaking parts that whoever read the previous week would not read this coming week), I quickly ran into a quandary. Naturally, and not necessarily because of the age range, I had students who were stronger readers than others, and students who tracked with the story line easier than others. So, for a good few months I didn’t really use a die to call on narrators. I wanted to see who my stronger narrators were, but more than that I wanted the stronger narrators to pull along and lead the less-inclined students or those who had a more difficult time grasping and following the plot. I looked at this as though it was me reading Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare to my Year 1 student — in those days, we would read shorter readings and I would narrate, so as to keep them captivated by the story and not get woefully lost with the strange wording and lose complete interest. And, that’s what we did — we read shorter portions and took it really slow. Sometimes I stopped the readings often to obtain a quick narration and be certain we were all following along, other times we would read a little more. After a good few months I began to stretch the students (or maybe it was stretching me) to read longer portions at a time … plus, I really wanted to finish the play before the end of the school year (seeing as we did start in September and May was coming soon). There were times I think I stopped the readings too often for a narration and times I didn’t stop soon enough. Really, I was just learning as I went. And my students were oh! so gracious.

    Go wisely and slowly. Those who rush stumble and fall.
    – William Shakespeare

    Toward the end of our school year I had a student approach me to ask if they could be assigned a longer reading. I was surprised because this student seemed completely disinterested and distracted every time we met. They didn’t narrate, they didn’t seem like they tracked with the story, and I was just stumped with what to say. So, I wrote this student a note and told them I would love to give them a longer part to read when they narrated in class and when they showed they were tracking with the story. My reason for this was of complete encouragement. I took the opportunity to see if I could challenge the student to become more engaged and contribute more to our group for their benefit as well as our group. I couldn’t wait to see how this would enhance our group. Lesson learned: be specific ahead of time about the expectation if you want to read more. (Story update: the student I refer to took the challenge and amazed me. Within a couple of lessons this student narrated well, tracked with the story, and was more engaged from that point forward.)

    Their power to understand, visualise, and ‘tell’ a play of Shakespeare from nine years old and onwards is very surprising. They put in nothing which is not there, but they miss nothing and display a passage or a scene in a sort of curious relief.
    – Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, p. 182


    (Or, “Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot, But he’ll remember with advantages what feats he did that day…” – William Shakespeare, Henry V The St. Crispin’s Day Speech)

    At the very beginning of the school year I gave them King Henry’s St. Crispin’s Day speech to memorize. It’s possible I did this all wrong. I approached it with the notion that everyone is in charge of their own education and so I didn’t assign how much to memorize between each lesson. I was met with resistance from a student or two who said they were already too busy, that they couldn’t memorize all the text, and a few other reasons.

    The child must not be allowed to get into the mood in which he says, ‘Oh, I am so tired of sums,’ or ‘of history.’ His zeal must be stimulated; and there must be always a pleasing vista before him; and the steady, untiring application to work should be held up as honourable …
    – Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, pp. 149-150

    And so, I encouraged them to try. And I encouraged myself to try, too. As time went on I just had us read it together at least once before or after our time reading the script. I really wish I had assigned chunks to memorize between each lesson. I think it would have been a far more amazing accomplishment to memorize the entire thing. We had the entire school year for goodness sake, we could have all done it, including me. Even though truthfully, I myself found it really difficult to memorize. Lesson learned: be specific about memorization.

    Finishing Strong?

    (Or, “all’s well that ends well …” – William Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well)

    There were times I had to go to the moms and say, “How do you want me to handle this part of the script?” I had a wonderful group of moms surrounding me while I was venturing out in this journey. I am really blessed, always encouraged and inspired by these women, and never did I feel as though I was doing it alone. Perhaps that is why I felt I could take on this challenge in the first place.

    We were coming up on our final weeks of meeting. I was 8½ months pregnant with baby #7 and knew that time could come to a standstill at anytime if the baby arrived. Then, before I knew it our co-op was no longer meeting for P.E. and bam! no longer meeting for Shakespeare either. I really had failed, I thought. How could I consider this a success if we hadn’t even finished the script together? Lesson learned: life is … life. It doesn’t mean failure it means we roll with life and look back on the lessons learned anyway. I sent a note to everyone to encourage them to read the last few scenes. My daughter and I did just that.  In our own schedule we read the final pages of Henry V.

    In Hindsight

    (Or, “the best is yet to come … ” – William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night)

    I would require all students to have the exact same book to follow along. And each student would be required to have their own copy, even in the same family. The Dover copies are (usually) approximately $3.00 on Amazon and certainly affordable if multiple copies are needed in any given family.

    I would consider reading an abridged picture book version of the story first, but I’m not completely sold on this idea, I must admit.

    I would be more informative early on about parts. Yes, you’ll have a part to read but no, it may not be very long (if the student struggles with reading or if the student chooses to be disengaged and distracted).

    I would roll a die to have a random person narrate instead of relying only on the stronger readers. I love it when people (even myself) grow through a challenge. I also wouldn’t let the response “I don’t know what’s going on to give you a narration” fly every time (I had this happen with one of my students) for the entire year. Lesson learned: ask “What is one thing that you can tell me from our text we just read?” and then be patient if there is silence.

    I would be more definitive about how much to memorize between our lessons. And, I would roll a die to have a student at random recite. This would be to keep the challenge alive throughout our time together with the script.

    I would really want to finish the script together, but if we didn’t, well … I would once again be reminded that life happens and it’s fine. Really, it’s fine. And I’d be fine (I think). I know my students will be fine.  All will be fine in the world.

    If I Can Anyone Can

    (Or, “To thine own self be true.” – William Shakespeare, Hamlet)

    Oh, and if there’s a next time? Well, there is. In two weeks our co-op, Charlotte Mason Al Fresco, will have me teaching Shakespeare yet again. Imagine that! My script choice is a comedy, Taming of the Shrew using the Dover editions once again. I have read this story in Tales from Shakespeare so I feel I’m a little further along than I was when beginning last year. And isn’t that what we always want to notice — the progress? I feel like I’ve made so much progress from where I started pre-Year 1 AmblesideOnline. And I am still astonished that I am teaching Shakespeare. And the very reason why I’m sharing with you this very transparent, humbling story is this is one of those things that if *I* can teach Shakespeare it is incredibly true that if you think you can’t, you really can.

    And that is the long and short of it.
    – William Shakespeare

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  • Reply Meredith Candler September 7, 2020 at 9:34 am

    This is wonderful. Can you explain how you roll a dice for narration? Do you assign kids number?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel September 7, 2020 at 2:35 pm

      I am not Hayley, but I think we do it similarly. If the class is small enough, I just assign each child a number. If I have a small group, I can also weight it so that certain kids have greater probability. Example: let’s say there are 4 children. I would like 2 of those children to narrate more often (maybe they are older, reticent, need more practice, set a good example, whatever). Those 2 children get two numbers assigned to them.

      I don’t tell the children their numbers; I just know them in my head.

      If I have a large group, I mentally divide it into 2 smaller groups. My first roll is just for even (the group on my left) or odd (the group on my right). From there, I roll again and the children in the selected group I just number from left to right in order from 1-6.

    • Reply Hayley Beck September 7, 2020 at 4:17 pm

      Meredith, I get a lot of my helpful tips from Brandy! I learned the trick of rolling a die or dice from her so I do it just like she described. 😊

  • Reply Amber Vanderpol September 8, 2018 at 1:08 pm

    Good for you, Hayley! I can definitely say that it gets easier over time. I just started my 8th or 9th Shakespeare play w/ a group yesterday afternoon and it went pretty well. I’m kicking it up a notch this time though – previously I’ve only done histories and comedies with kids, and this time we’re studying Hamlet. It was a little rough getting going, but I think we’ll do well once we get a little more into it. Taming of the Shrew should be a lot of fun this year – you’re picking some great plays to get going with!

    I have a great group of kids – 2 each in 4th – 9th and then one each in 10th and 11th grades. I’m hoping to be able to finish it before the end of our term – we meet 4 more times to read and discuss for about an hour, then we’ll meet with the families to have a performance of some scenes from the play in early November. Shorter lessons would be nice, but the shorter term makes it doable for the other families to commit.

    • Reply Hayley Beck September 9, 2018 at 11:47 pm

      Hi Amber, isn’t it so true with everything — that it gets easier over time? And see, kicking it up a notch — that’s also encouraging, and I think comes from confidence of teaching a few Shakespeare plays.

      Tell me, Amber, how and when do you prepare for the performance? Is it part of your scheduled meeting times? I know if I considered something like this that my hubby (who is a thespian) would want anything performed without a script in hand, from total memory. Possible?

      Thanks also for your encouragement with the choice of plays. Another thing that is just done blindly and with high hopes that it’s a good decision. 🙂

      • Reply Amber Vanderpol September 10, 2018 at 8:29 am

        Yes, preparing for a performance – I encourage the kids to figure out what scene they would like to perform at the second to the last meeting, and in the two weeks between that meeting and the last, they are supposed to be working on memorizing their lines. At the last meeting, we are either finished with the play already, or we read through the last scene(s) of the play, then the kids can rehearse together. I used to insist on complete memorization, but now I encourage them to memorize and leave it to the parent’s descretion as to if it is required. Because if the parent isn’t on board with memorization, the child will not memorize the material. If they are not going to memorize, I do try to have them familiar with it enough that they can use the book more as a security blanket and occasional cue rather than needing to read everything from it. On the performance day, the kids will also spend a little more time rehearsing together.

        Generally, I have each child in an individual scene with other kids, performing from (mostly) memory, and then I also have everyone performing the last big scene together (or at least part of it) with everyone having a part. Sometimes I split parts to have enough parts for everyone. With the last scene, I have everyone in costume and I try to have them doing appropriate stage actions, but they do get to read from the script. This way we can tell more of the story of the play, and show the last big scene where everything gets wrapped up.

  • Reply Dawn Duran September 7, 2018 at 3:09 am

    Absolutely brilliant, my friend!!! This had me laughing and nodding my head in agreement the entire time I was reading. If more moms were “real” like you were in this article, then there would be a whole lot less discouragement in our CM world. Bravo!

    • Reply Hayley Beck September 9, 2018 at 11:43 pm

      Oh Dawn, you are always encouraging! It’s definitely humbling to write a post whereby you believe everyone around you is more loftier in their abilities. Come to find out (thank you to those of you who returned the favour with transparency) it seems there are quite a few of us embarking in unfamiliar waters when it comes to teaching Shakespeare. Maybe someone should start a Facebook group for CM mama’s desiring to teach Shakespeare where the requirements are transparency without loftiness. 🙂

      • Reply Amy Johnson September 23, 2018 at 4:02 pm

        Thank you for this post! I am going on my 4th year teaching Shakespeare in our Fine Arts Day Co-op and I found this article AND all the comments so encouraging! I think a FB group focused on CM moms teaching Shakespeare would be fun ?.

  • Reply Kim September 6, 2018 at 7:01 pm

    Such a great post! Thank you for your transparency, Hayley. Shakespeare is definitely one to be a bit intimidating. And we totally do the stick figures to keep things straight, so helpful.

    • Reply Hayley Beck September 7, 2018 at 1:56 am

      Thanks Kim. I do love those stick figures!

  • Reply Suzanne Biase September 6, 2018 at 12:38 pm

    Hayley! This was soooo encouraging. I had never thought about teaching a class having just had my sixth but this made it sound so doable and forgiving. Thank you so much for posting this. I really feel like I could teach a Shakespeare class after this encouragement 🙂

    • Reply Hayley Beck September 7, 2018 at 2:03 am

      Suzanne, I bet you hands-down that you could teach a Shakespeare class! You could totally do it next year when your oldest starts year 4. Your baby will be that much older that it could be even more doable.

  • Reply Jessica September 6, 2018 at 5:12 am

    Oh, I ate this post up! I am similarly new to Shakespeare and leading a co-op class this Fall. So much of what you wrote is my story too. I am using some of your ideas, like rolling the dice for narrations and being sure that we all have the same Dover copy next time. Navigating reading levels and students who don’t narrate is also a challenge for us. We are having a great time though and learning a tone! Thank you for your insights. 🙂

    • Reply Hayley September 6, 2018 at 7:52 pm

      Well done for leading a co-op this Fall. Some day Shakespeare may become ‘old hat’ for us. I would say my biggest challenge was reading levels as Shakespeare is already challenging to understand the story line (at least for me) so throw in words pronounced incorrectly etc. and that increases the struggle for some. I am sure that each person having their own copy to read and follow along with definitely helps in tracking with the story.

      I really just have to know as the teacher that it’s OK for the person who’s struggling to read to only read a small part. My friend, Dawn (Swedish Drill), suggested that I have the students who struggle to read to practice a longer part as a homework exercise and if they rise to that challenge and read well, then to use that option as needed.

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