I have been teaching my middle school English classes online for over three weeks now. After a few days of it, the excitement and novelty of the mute function wore off. I grew accustomed to the daily routine of half-heartedly putting professional clothes onto the upper half of my body. And then suddenly, it occurred to me. My 8th grade media essay unit was coming to a close in a week, and the next unit I had planned was.... Macbeth! Holy crap, I thought. How does one teach Shakespeare online?
In the past, I have found that the most effective way to make Shakespeare accessible to middle school students is a lot of on-your-feet action. We toss lines, we find props, we stage scenes. For my 8th graders, this would be their first foray into Shakespeare, and without the ability to be in a room together acting it out, I feared that they wouldn't understand or like it at all.
I am speaking in the past tense, but to clarify, I STILL have that fear! I am only a week into my Shakespeare unit, and we haven't even started the play yet. But here's what I've done so far, and it's worked pretty well.
1. We read and discussed this article: Shakespeare Wrote His Best Works During a Plague, to connect to our coronavirus experience right now. We are New Yorkers, so this article, inspired by the shutdown of Broadway, really resonated with my students. Prior to our morning Zoom meeting, I asked my students to do some collaborative annotation on a Google Doc version of the article. They each highlighted 1-2 passages that resonated with them, and responded in a Google comment. During our thirty minute Zoom class, we broke into small groups, shared our annotations, asked questions, and connected with our personal experiences of quarantine. Although the Zoom discussion was a nice way to hear student thoughts aloud, I'm not sure that it was a critical part of the process. I think this would work just as well with an asynchronous learning set-up; in order to encourage dialogue, a teacher could simply require their students to respond to another student's Google comment.
2. In our next Zoom class, we learned about sonnets using Nearpod and TedEd. Nearpod is an online teacher's messiah. It allows teachers to create interactive presentations in which students can take polls and quizzes, post ideas to a collaboration board, experience 3D "field trips", watch videos at their own pace, and draw doodles. The teacher can share poll and quiz results with the whole group as soon as they come in. The teacher can also highlight and share individual student answers for the whole group to see on their own devices. Although I don't think Nearpod is quite as useful for prompting discussion, it is perfect for teaching new content. Nearpod offers free accounts (with some minor restrictions), or you can pay for all the bells and whistles.
The first lesson I created focused on learning about the structure of Shakespearean sonnets. We read Sonnet 130, a light and funny starter-sonnet for middle school students, and then we watched a TedEd video explaining iambic pentameter. After the video, students took a quick interactive quiz to test viewing comprehension. After a few more notes and polls, I ended the class by assigning them to write their own sonnet about a topic of their choice-- due in a week.
Introduction to Sonnet Structure Nearpod (Code NBKUL)
In the second lesson, we began with a quick refresher competition in which students competed to see who could remember the structure of sonnets most accurately and quickly. Then we spent the rest of the class annotating, analyzing and discussing the figurative language of Shakespeare's Sonnet 73. I find it important when teaching this sonnet to have students read it over three times. With some pressing, and close reading, most middle school students can come away with a solid understanding of Shakespeare's metaphors and message.
Sonnets, Part 2 Nearpod (Code XILYZ)
3. After these two lessons, students were equipped to write their own sonnets. Although I did not require it, many students chose to write about life in quarantine:
The sun gleams shining through the window panes
Locked away behind the panels of glass
We look down at the little people’s show
As time continues on to slowly pass
Her eyes dart over to the piercing sounds
A melodically catastrophic feat
Her confidence to speak could not be found
And in the midst of panic, their eyes meet
My heart lays filled with panic all inside
All while my back creaks with pain and sorrow
And so my dreams were at last clarified
I would have to repeat the day tomorrow
My eyes shall lay awake till the day breaks
Perhaps she won’t repeat the same mistakes
We came together again on Zoom to share pieces of our sonnets aloud. Using the new rubric function in Google Classroom, I graded them quickly. And now, onto a much more arduous undertaking... teaching Macbeth!
This blog post is also published on Medium.