How to Get the Entire Class Engaged in Reading a Play

There is nothing more heart-wrenching to a true drama nerd than to hear her students brazenly declare that "Plays are boring!!" or "Shakespeare puts me to sleep!" How can you, as a teacher, instead make your students excited to approach a new play? How do you engage EVERY student, not just the kids you know will already be at play practice that afternoon? How do you bring a play to life at 7:45 in the morning? Read on to find out how.


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    Play selection. Maybe you are in a school system that lets you choose your texts. If this is the case, try to make the first play you introduce students to one that contains action sequences and themes such as unrequited love, jealousy, or simply blatant comedy. This will tend to draw in interest starting at your introduction. If, like many others, you work in a school system where you are told what plays to teach, then you will have to work with what you are given. For the rest of this article, let's assume that you did not get to pick the play. Let's assume that you were assigned to teach "Hamlet." "NOOOO!" scream your students, "I HATE Shakespeare!" Do not lose hope.
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    Build interest by building on prior knowledge and experience. This step should happen even before you have passed out the copies of the play. Start by asking the class, quite simply, "Has anyone ever heard of the play 'Hamlet'? What do you know about it?" You might get responses ranging from "" to "Isn't that the one where they go all 'Lion King' and Simba kills Scar except with a sword?" to "Ah, yes, Ms. Smith. I know it well. Written in 1601, the play was not originally published until 1603. William Shakespeare utilized source material from the "Histoires Tragiques" of famous French writer Francois de Belleforest. Would you like me to recite the first act?" It takes all kinds to make a classroom. Nevertheless, record the relevant facts that they know concerning the author, plot, and context on a poster that will hang in the room as you read the play.
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    Integrate pop culture whenever possible. A great way to warm students up to an intimidating work is to relate it to something they are familiar with to draw connections. A good example is "The Lion King." Many teachers hesitate to do this, especially in a high school class, for fear of insulting their students with childish material. However, students appreciate the mental break, and the reminder of a childhood treasure they might have forgotten. Do not devote an entire class period to a "Lion King" screening party, but show clips of key scenes so that they see the course of action:Old King is murdered...New King takes over...Son of Old King leaves...New King is Bad...Son returns...Avenges his father. Make sure you map out the basic plot line of "The Lion King" with students in a way that includes these key events. Tell them to keep these in mind as they read "Hamlet," because things will start to feel familiar.
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    Begin Reading. For a playwright like Shakespeare, try reading as a class when time permits. This way, you can check for understanding with your students, making sure they are able to decipher the difficult language. Remember, never force a student to read in front of his peers unless you are certain that he can. One sure way to turn off any student's excitement about a topic is to force them into public embarrassment. Take volunteers at first for readers. It is better, at least at the beginning, to have in mind students that you know will passionately read the text with feeling. This will aid in the other students understanding and engagement.
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    "Translate." Try doing a group or pairs assignment where students find their favorite passage (20 lines) and "translate" it into modern vernacular. Some of your students will be tempted to use the "No Fear Shakespeare" books to do this for them. These books are a great tool for students who struggle to understand the language, and it is good to use this kind of aid to avoid needless frustration. However, for this "translating" assignment, encourage students to put their aids down and take their best stab at it themselves. They will surprise themselves with how much they can understand.
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    Begin viewing. Notice this step does not necessarily come at the end of reading the play, but rather is interspersed throughout the process of reading. Plays are meant to be seen, and that when we write them down we are just freezing them until they can be seen again. After you get through the first act with your students, or sooner if you think it would be helpful, show your students a clip of a famous production of "Hamlet" up to the point they have read. This will serve as a reward for reading so much, and will help students develop a sense of the rhythm of iambic pentameter. Remember hearing the lines helps students to visualize the metaphors and unusual terminology much better than reading it on paper.
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    Get your students up and moving. Fortunately, "Hamlet" is a very physical play. Have your students work to block the basic fight scenes and climaxes of the play. Not only will this help them visualize what is occurring, but it will also help them to think about character. How would the character they are playing react to what is happening? Would they be afraid of the fight? Would they be chomping at the bit to get involved? You can use wrapping paper rolls as a safe alternative to actual weapons, but, of course, take your own classroom climate into consideration before making the decision to stage sword fight. If this might prove too stimulating for your class, instead act out an emotional climax, such as a shouting match or a dramatic exit to similar effect. After the reenactment, discuss as a class how it went, and if this helped them make any insights into character, plot, and so forth.
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    Assess Learning. After you have finished reading the play, make sure you offer a variety of ways for students to show you what they have learned, by working in groups or individually. Perhaps you might have one option be to write a "deleted scene" in iambic pentameter. For this assignment, students would write a scene that did not appear in the play, but that might have happened in the story. For example, what if Gertrude ran into Ophelia alone after Ophelia's mental break. How would their conversation have gone? Or what conversations did Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have when they WEREN'T with Hamlet? Anything goes as long as they can justify how it would fit into the world of the play. Another assignment option might be to create a Vine video that each of the characters might have posted. The video would include their REAL reaction to what is going on, versus how they pretend to the other characters. One final example of an assessment option might be to create a "found poem" from the lines in the play. Poems are created by cutting lines from the original text and pasting them together to form an entirely new work. The poem would serve as a personal reflection on the play.


  • Make sure your school has permission to play clips from "The Lion King" and whatever "Hamlet" adaption you want to show to your students. Often, movies such as these require written permission from the studio before you can show them in class, even for educational purposes.

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