Believe it or not, students don’t always find Shakespeare’s plays quite as interesting as I do. They have an “It’s Greek to me” attitude. It’s sad…heartbreaking. I mean, Shakespeare is kind of like my boyfriend. They don’t call him “The Bard” for nothing! But who can compete with the digital media surrounding kids today? It’s ubiquitous. Reading poetry is generally not at the top of anyone’s “fun list” anymore.
In an attempt to make poor Willy more charming for my students, I have found several activities to be successful at engaging students and teaching important ELA concepts through Shakespeare’s plays. Specifically, I’m going to talk about my experience with literary devices in Romeo and Juliet, but these ideas could be transferred to any of Shakespeare’s plays.
So what works? As you like it. Here goes:
The Human Centipede/Worm/Snake/Etc. – Iambic Pentameter
This one is kinesthetic. When I teach the basics of iambic pentameter, I have always found the most memorable part of the lesson to be when I ask ten students to get out of their seat and form a straight line, standing shoulder to shoulder. Can you see where I’m going with this?
Now, I tell all of the even numbered students to stand and the odd numbered students to kneel. Everyone gets a syllable from a famous line of Shakespeare’s plays. This works really well with the Prologue of Romeo and Juliet but also with individual lines: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” (Richard III). We begin slowly. Each student says their syllable (if you can give them a written one to hold , even better), and as we speed up to normal speaking pace, the rhythm of the iambic pentameter becomes more obvious to students.
A word of caution about using this technique….pick reliable, cooperative students. Otherwise, the exercise might not be as beneficial as it could be. For other ideas about teaching poetic format terms like iambic pentameter, quatrain, and couplet, check out my Prologue Identification Exercise.
So this one is pretty cool. Get some colored chalk and some large black construction paper. Select a passage from the play that is chock (pun intended) full of imagery (like the Queen Mab speech in Romeo and Juliet), and have students pay special attention to the details of that section of the poem as they draw the scene on the construction paper. Even better, if weather and space permits, take them outside to draw on the sidewalk. Why chalk? It’s different. It’s carefree, and you’re tricking students who would normally fight drawing with pen and paper into drawing with chalk, but they are not scared!
Students ALWAYS enjoy this activity. I give them a quick minilesson about imagery the day before, and they receive completion points (basically for effort) on the day of the activity. It’s easy for students as well as for teachers, and the best part is that they remember it!
Epithets & Metaphors
Everyone knows about Shakespearean insults. They’re so catchy. A couple years ago, I began thinking about the Shakespearean insult activity and wishing that it aligned more directly with ELA standards. Realistically, it was just a fluff activity up to that point. Then I had an idea. I had students each choose a name for themselves using the insult list. Bootless common-kissing maggot-pie, for instance. Then I began using these “names” as epithets and metaphors. Students would say, “Thou are a bootless common-kissing maggot-pie.” Clearly, the student being addressed was NOT a maggot-pie, hence the metaphor.
Epithets were a new term for my kiddos, so these insults were a memorable way to teach the concept. Since epithets are nicknames or attributions for someone, like “The girl on fire” and “The great emancipator,” I began having my students refer to each other as the Shakespearean nickname they chose for themselves. (I should probably have mentioned that we made name tags to set on our desks so that students could remember each other’s names.) During class, students would directly call each other by their epithets. It was a hilarious way (not foolproof…obviously, as they didn’t always remember to use the insults – but that was okay with me) to help them understand a more complex literary device.
By the way, have you seen this Shakespearean insulter? Love it!
Other Literary Devices
One other activity I have used and experienced GREAT success with is when I had a group of at-risk freshmen rewrite the ending of the Romeo and Juliet. It was a competition between four classes, and this was quite the project, but oh my gosh how rewarding!!! I mediated discussions, made suggestions, typed out the script, and organized performances, but the kids did the rest. Each of the four classes totally rewrote the ending of Romeo and Juliet (most created funny interpretations), and then they made costumes and performed their skits for the other classes. It was seriously one of the most engaging things I have ever witnessed. They even started pressuring each other to take it more seriously because each class didn’t want to look foolish in front of the others. The pride in their eyes was infectious, and I had finally found a way to lure some love for Shakespeare out of students who could otherwise truly care less. If you have time, do this. I dare you.
So what does it have to do with literary devices? With this particular group, we kept it simple (personification, imagery, metaphor, simile, etc.), but we incorporated our own literary elements that we wrote as a class. As we constructed our script, we discussed where to put the literary elements and why they would make sense there. Golden.
I could go ON and ON. But I won’t. Those are a few of my best ideas, and I hope they provide someone out there with the inspiration to keep the love alive for classic Shakespearean plays. When it comes to the Bard, you really never can have “too much of a good thing.”
Click on the image below to view my Literary Terms by Act teaching materials, which include forty-nine literary terms with engaging notes, links to video and non-play examples, and interesting activities to help students practice identifying examples from the play.