Four weeks ago, I was thrown to the Internet wolves like the rest of New York City teachers. To slow the spread of coronavirus, my school closed to students on Thursday, March 12. We got trained on Zoom, and with hysterical glee, learned that teachers had finally been given the God-like power to mute students who are disruptive. Hallelujah. As I typically run a discussion-based class, I thought I was set. Students would come to class having read and written something, and then we would talk about it. And if anyone called out, I would just mute them (insert evil cackle here). Seemed simple enough.
But after a few days of Zoom teaching, the excitement and novelty of the mute function wore off. The discussions were feeling a little awkward and stale; without body language and eye contact, students couldn’t easily build off of each other. I started to wonder how I could hear every student voice without relying so heavily on the cold call. And then, as if I wasn’t already feeling like enough of a failure, I realized: 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 do I teach Shakespeare online?
In the past, I’ve 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 opportunity to be in a room together acting it out, I feared that they wouldn’t understand or like it at all.
I frantically Googled various versions of the phrase “teach Shakespeare online coronavirus.” I assumed, given that Shakespeare is taught so widely in Western secondary schools, and that Shakespeare poses a unique challenge in the online learning space, that people would be talking about it. I mean, how many American teachers have a spring Shakespeare unit in their curriculum? A thousand? Ten thousand? There must be blog posts, lesson plans, webinars about teaching Shakespeare online, I thought. However, my Google search came back shockingly empty. Fueled by boredom and isolation, I began investigating popular online tools, watching how-to videos on YouTube, and developing a from-scratch online Shakespeare curriculum. I’m only two weeks in, but here are the best tools I’ve discovered to teach Shakespeare online during coronavirus:
1. Use Google Docs to do collaborative annotation and silent conversation on articles, sonnets, and monologues.
We started our Shakespeare study by reading this article: Shakespeare Wrote His Best Works During a Plague, to connect to our coronavirus experience right now. I copy/pasted the article into a Google Doc and changed the sharing settings to “anyone at my school with the link can comment.” I added the link to Google Classroom, and asked my students to highlight 1–2 passages that struck them and respond in a Google comment. (NOTE: Actively Learn has a more sophisticated version of the annotation function — see #3.)
After annotating, we met on Zoom to share our responses, ask questions, and connect it to 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. Use Nearpod to teach new content, like historical background, sonnet structure, and iambic pentameter.In our next Zoom class, we learned about sonnets using Nearpod. Nearpod is an online teacher’s messiah. It allows teachers to create interactive slideshows 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 feature 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’s perfect for teaching new content.
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 assess viewing comprehension. The students took a few more notes and related polls, and then I ended the class by assigning homework: write your own sonnet about a topic of choice. Try out this Nearpod, from a student’s perspective, here: Introduction to Sonnet Structure Nearpod (Code NBKUL).
Nearpod offers free teacher accounts (with some minor restrictions), or you can pay for all the bells and whistles. There is a library full of pre-made lessons, or you can create your own as I did. Although it requires that the teacher put in about an hour of initial exploration and experimentation, it’s really fun to use. The best part is that students do not need Nearpod accounts or any training to be able to use it. You send them a link and a code, and when it prompts them to do something, they’ll do it, and it saves all the data for you to see later. If you are teaching live, you would choose the “Live Lesson” option, and if you are teaching asynchronously, you would choose the “Student-Paced” option.
3. Use The Folger Library and ActivelyLearn to provide audio, video, and interactive reading options.
As we all know, Shakespeare’s language is really, really hard and can be offputting to struggling readers. Although I asked my students to find a physical copy of Macbeth (so they weren’t constantly on a screen), I am also providing them with three ways to make Shakespeare’s language more alive and less confusing. First, I posted a link to a free “audiobook”: the Folger Library offers audio recordings of seven Shakespeare plays, Macbeth included. I recommend that they listen while they read the text. In addition, the organization provides access to a free full-length video of a Folger Theatre production of Macbeth. Even if you are not teaching Macbeth, various other theaters and media companies are offering free full-length plays online right now because of COVID-19. The Public Theater put last summer’s Much Ado About Nothing online. And sometimes you can find small theaters with decent Shakespeare productions on YouTube. Many people think Shakespeare’s plays are better on stage than on the page, and these are more-than-decent alternatives to a live performance.
A third option to engage readers is Actively Learn. Actively Learn is a tool I’ve explored, but haven’t yet assigned to my students. It’s a free database of standards-aligned texts for teachers and students. There are thousands of nonfiction articles, short stories, poems, and most importantly for our purposes, 11 Shakespeare plays! Each text contains helpful margin notes, relevant videos and images, and checkpoint questions for students to check their understanding. A teacher can add notes and questions as needed to any text (or import their own texts). In addition, students can highlight sentences, listen to parts read aloud, get any word defined, and add annotations. These annotations can be public for other students to see and respond to. Thus, this might work even better than Google Docs for collaborative annotation and silent discussion. And everything the student does is automatically recorded and organized for the teacher in an ActivelyLearn gradebook. If you’re worried about making sure students are actively engaged while reading Shakespeare, Actively Learn takes care of this.
4. Use FlipGrid to collect videos of students reading and performing Shakespeare.
I knew I wanted students to perform parts of Macbeth, but I didn’t know how to do that while we are all isolated in our own spaces. Although I am using the breakout room function on Zoom to give students some time to read scenes with each other, we only have two live lessons a week and it simply isn’t enough time! I found FlipGrid so that students could perform on their own. I was already planning to ask my students to take videos of themself reading Shakespeare, but the idea of fielding student emails with video attachments, or trying to organize folders of student videos from Google Drive, seemed like a huge headache. FlipGrid makes video-based assignments easy. A teacher posts a prompt, and the students reply in a short video. All they have to do is press the record button on FlipGrid and start reading the text. The interface is really useable, and the videos are immediately organized and posted to the class’s page.
I have only just begun using FlipGrid, but I’m excited by how it is so easy for students to post short videos of themselves reading particular lines or monologues. I assigned students to pick a line that strikes them from Act 1, Scene 3, read it aloud, and explain what it means and why it’s important. My next FlipGrid assignment is for students to perform Macbeth’s “Is this a dagger I see before me?” monologue — with as much feeling as they can muster (props optional). And when they get to the iconic banquet scene, I’m planning to ask students to post videos of themselves acting out the scene with dolls, legos, or popsicle sticks. Although my 8th graders might initially balk at an assignment that requires playing with toys, I suspect they will secretly love it.
I don’t recommend rolling out all these tools at once. If you choose to use them all, I think students will need at least a week to adjust to each one. Pick and choose what works for you and your virtual classroom. I’ll finish with a sonnet one of my students recently wrote, about her experience 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
Spring 2021 Update: The above article has been read 1500 times in the past year-- wow (I'm famous!). However, I wrote this article only a few weeks into my unit, and I have far better advice to give now. Here are a couple ideas:
- Use MyShakespeare for a free interactive reading experience. In particular, they provide free line-by-line audio readings of several major Shakespeare plays. They also embed performance video clips and modern English translations. Many of my students used this as an additional resource while we read a Folger hard copy of Macbeth.
- If your students are entirely on Zoom, I had a lot of success asking them to adapt a Macbeth scene to Zoom. Prior to doing this project, I showed them some examples of Zoom theater, and we did some in-class practice.