5 ways to teach Shakespeare without baking cookies

freeimages.com/demian adrox

freeimages.com/demian adrox

There are always buzz words and trends coming and going in education.

One that I'm hearing quite often lately is 'relevance'. This is a good thing, right? We want our kids to connect the information they are learning to their everyday lives. 

I don't think that word means what some people think it means.

Are we making lessons relevant, or entertaining?

I'm all about deschooling and using delight-directed, hands-on methods to help my kids learn and apply knowledge. This means I've looked at DOZENS of unit study programs and projects over the years. Many of them are amazingly creative, but some of them seriously lack relevancy. However, this lack of relevancy is buried in eye-catching hands-on projects that have nothing to do with the subject.

Let's take the study of Shakespeare. How would you go about making Shakespeare relevant to today's kids?

  • Baking cookies that look like Shakespeare.
  • Making costumes for the characters of Henry VIII.

Those projects sound fun and interesting, something kids would enjoy doing. However, what are they learning about Shakespeare, and how do they apply what they've learned? 

If they bake cookies that look like Shakespeare, they've learned to bake cookies. 

If they make costumes for Henry VIII, they've learned to sew a period costume. 

I think what we've done is confuse 'engaging' with 'relevant'. We can engage a student by using things they are interested in, but they won't see relevance until it's applied in a sensible context in a real world situation.  

Do math problems about rock bands, basketball players, and Minecraft help kids understand math concepts better? No. What we are trying to do is engage a child's interest by using the familiar, stuff that is cool or connected to pop culture. But rock bands and basketball players do not teach math concepts by themselves. Talking animals aren't essential for language arts instruction. Programs and curricula with lots of pictures and amazing graphics look appealing, but that's not where our focus should be when choosing teaching materials for our kids.                                                                                    

What kids really want to know is "How am I going to use this math concept in the future?" "Why do I need to know about dependent and independent clauses?" They want to comprehend how parents, teachers, and other adults are using grammar and math in their everyday lives.  

West Side Story (Full Screen Edition)
Starring Natalie Wood, George Chakiris, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno

How many times have your kids asked, "When am I ever going to use Algebra?"  

Let's be candid here – Algebra can look like nonsense, and after high school it's highly unlikely that they will ever diagram a sentence again – so no matter what kind of package you wrap it in, unless a child understands the relevance of a subject or concept, they aren't going to internalize it.  They'll memorize enough to get by, and forget about it.

We need to translate subjects like Grammar and Algebra from a bunch of rules and formulas into real life applications instead of depending on workbooks or videos using their favorite cartoon characters.  

For example, any time you have to figure something out from a limited amount of information, you are using Algebra. Are you calculating the costs of a vacation, or trying to decide how to spend your resources in your favorite RPG? That's Algebra. Your kids need to know how Algebra prepares them for logically thinking through these kinds of questions, the kind they will face again and again long after they've graduated from school.

When you write a Thank You card, speak to a group, or learn another language, you are using the principles of language structure. Grammar is the basis for communication, and success in any field is dependent on communication skills.

Now back to Shakespeare – what methods would I recommend for teaching Shakespeare in a way that make his plays and poetry relevant, without baking cookies or sewing a doublet?  

Much Ado About Nothing
Starring Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, Reed Diamond, Clark Gregg
  • Recognize that stories do more than just place characters in situations to entertain an audience – they examine ideas, such as love, loyalty, faithfulness, betrayal, death, survival, consequences, and the meaning of life. Shakespeare explores personality in a way that was rather unique in his time. What's more, those themes continue to resonate, which is why Shakespeare is so often quoted in our modern world, and so many stories are adaptions and re-tellings of his plays.  
  • Cultural literacy is the ability to understand and participate in one's culture. Since Shakespeare's works serve as the underpinnings of much of our vocabulary and many modern stories, we need to show our kids how having some acquaintance with Shakespeare will increase their cultural literacy.                                                                               
  • Use a site like Sparknotes No Fear Shakespeare that places the original plays side-by-side with a modern English 'translation'.
  • Investigate the Elizabethan vocabulary with this Glossary from PBS.
  • Explore some of the words invented by Shakespeare that we still use today. 
  • Watch movies that bring Shakespeare's plays to life, like Franco Zeffirelli's Hamlet or Joss Whedon's adaptation of Much Ado about Nothing. Did you know West Side Story was a re-telling of Romeo and Juliet, or that Taming of the Shrew is re-imagined in 10 Things I Hate About You?

This year as you are choosing your homeschool curriculum, remember to pay attention to whether or not the material is relevant, or merely entertaining.

Do you have questions or comments about teaching methods and choosing curriculum?

Ask them in the comments below -

Note: Please see ratings information for these movies at Kids in Mind to decide if they are appropriate for your kids.