A differentiated approach to engaging middle-school students in Shakespeare

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We’re very proud to announce two Strathcona teachers have had their their article about Teaching Shakespeare to the Middle Years published in Idiom, the journal put out by the Victorian Association of the Teaching of English. It’s a wonderful achievement!

A differentiated approach to engaging middle-school students in Shakespeare

When someone asks you why you decided to follow teaching bas your career path, what do you say? For the life-long love of learning? The structure? The holidays? Or for the students? For us, it has always been the latter. To be a part of an individual child’s journey through adolescence, as we secondary school teachers are, means that we are able to shape and shift our charges’ blearning from one year, one week, one day, to the next.

We are sure that we can all recall those special teachers who provided for us those ‘ahaa!’ moments of celebration and success: we had cracked that subject code, had mastered that required skill. We find the most exciting and rewarding part of our job in many ways to be the production and execution of really engaging lessons; experiences that we hope our students will hold with them when they walk out of the gates as accomplished Year 12s at the end of their secondary school journey.

The question then presents itself—how does a teacher ensure that he or she is doing the right thing and upholding their duty for all of the different personalities and positions of their pupils? How do we ensure that we reach as many students as possible during any given classroom experience? The answer is— differentiated learning.

There are several camps of thinking at this point
in history which place utmost value on and seek
to foster the unique and personal difference in
their charges. Peter Hutton, the outgoing
Principal of Templestowe College, was employed
in 2009 to turn that school around as it was
slowly failing, with only 23 Year 7 enrolments. He
had identified that ‘there’s a significant new push
for innovation’ and creativity in the way that we
approach learning, and he took this concept very
literally when considering the shape of his school
(Klupiec, Colin, The Learning Success Blog, 2016).
Hutton decided to embrace a very ambitious
route—collapse the entire academic system as it
stood in the College, and offer students full liberty
when it came to their start time, subject selection
and co-curricular involvement. Essentially, it has
become an entire school based around a student-driven, differentiated

Over the course of his time at Templestowe College, Hutton has successfully moved the previously declining school into the modern era of education. Hutton’s vision for a differentiated secondary school has proven an overwhelming success for his students, with a current and thriving academic body of over 1200, which includes staff and pupils (TC homepage: https://tc.vic.edu.au/, 2018). It is a model certainly worth considering when we shape our own curricula.

As English teachers, it is our fundamental responsibility to mentor our students in the business of communication, whether it be written, spoken or visually expressed. Hence, when we present our middle-school cohort with a text for the first time, we need to remember that each student walks into our classroom with a different set of thoughts, beliefs and values. Under this banner, they will also have a varied preferential style for learning, whether it be visual, spatial, kinaesthetic, verbal, aural or social. Hattie outlined in his 2009 book Visible Learning, that the chief role of the teacher could be viewed as ‘(to get) the students actively involved’, and to us this means that in the middle-school, if you are not being creative, you are not doing it right. These precious few years from 7-9 provide a period of great upheaval and freedom for students. On a personal level, they are undertaking vast change, but at the same time they should be entrusted to follow their passions and be challenged and stretched academically. They need to be given a voice.

So, enter the Gazis and Ward style of delivering textual literacy to our middleschool girls. We know Shakespeare, and we know that one of the most common complaints of learning the language of the Bard, from parents and students alike, is relevance. Why do our children have to read this? Surely there is a more suitable and contemporary text?

To them we say, think again. Think of the modern themes that underpin Shakespeare’s work: love, deceit, trickery, treachery. Think of the exposure to a rich and constructive narrative that only continues to build and develop over the many years of re-reading and re-assessing. Think of the very fact that your child would likely be unwilling to attempt the reading of such a text alone without the careful scaffolding of an
educated teacher, willing to guide and nurture. Think of the Globe Theatre, Baz Luhrmann, and decades of film interpretations!

As passionate middle-school teachers, we value every student’s difference and capability, and we actively work to foster these styles in our classrooms. During a recent workshop in the Differentiated English Curriculum, we felt confronted when asked to complete a task using a mathematical formula. Wow! We take our hats off to anyone who feels comfortable analysing great fiction, while arranging the quadratic
equation that might solve a set problem (Thomas, Ron, Real Differentiation in the English Classroom, 2018). Not only were we personally challenged, but we were made aware of how difficult the landscape must be for those students who are not naturally gifted with an ‘English brain’. They might be compliant and apparently accepting enough, particularly our girls, but they are also failing to engage. To us, this is a problem. This means that we have been negligent in our duty of care as teachers.

In order to attempt to overcome this obstacle, we think it is vital to develop an understanding of the different learning styles and build these into classroom experiences. Below, we outline for teachers some possible creative angles to teaching a differentiated approach to Shakespeare in the middle years, including a glimpse into the plethora of approaches that we find in our students. Many of these activities can be altered
to suit any text, so do amend them to befit your own contextual needs.

‘Hook’ activities
We are firm believers in giving students an engaging and evocative starting point from which they can hang their learning for a set unit. We introduce Shakespeare to our girls in Year 8 with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and on the whole, the student response is positive. We have girls saying ‘It’s the best thing I’ve ever read’, which is a pretty strong statement for a 14 year old! So why has she said this? Well, she would have started the class with an ‘insults’ game. Who wouldn’t like to explore the ‘naughty’ language of times gone by, in the safe environment of the classroom?

First, we provide the girls with a handout of plain-English explanations, such as ‘you thick idiot’, with posters around the room displaying the Shakespearean equivalent. With careful postulating of insult after insult, the students walk around and match the plain English translation with the poster, Elizabethan version. To have students discovering the joy of screeching, ‘You Banbury cheese!’, without the threat of trouble or exclusion, is a liberating experience alone. This type of activity works to combine a number of different learning styles in the one, 10-minute diorama; kinaesthetic, aural, visual, written and spatial. The more ‘senses’ that a student is invited to employ during a learning experience, the more likely they are to commit that lesson to memory. This activity opens that door into the teaching of Shakespeare for them.

Character jigsaw
When we are looking at text, any text, we must always unpack the given characters for our charges. Who are we experiencing here? From where are they coming? Who are they, and who do they want to be? We have used this activity in many English classes, from Year 7 to Year 12, and both in the co-educational and single sex contexts. At the end of the day, students want to be given the chance to consider things from a different angle and this task can be adapted for that purpose. Begin by assigning each of your key characters a poster. For A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we usually use: Hermia, Helena, Lysander, Demetrius, Oberon, Titania and Puck. The students are then broken down into the seven groups and are given three minutes per poster. We set them the online ‘bomb’ timer here, which adds a sense of theatre and expediency to the task (www.online-stopwatch.com/ bomb-countdown/full-screen/). Students are directed to brainstorm onto their given poster:
• What interests me?
• What do I agree with?
• What do I disagree with?
• Further information or questions?

The posters move upon each ‘bomb’ rotation, until all students have contributed to all posters. For the last few rotations, however, you may find that you need to minimise your allotted time, as key ideas become superfluous. Posters then go up around the room and the students are invited to walk and take notes, while considering:
• What interests me?
• What do I agree with?
• What do I disagree with?
• Further information or questions?

Often students prefer to take photos on their iPad or similar device, to utilise while at their desks. This often helps with the final step, which is a personal reflection centred on their engagement with key characters. The prompts that we provide are:
• What new idea/s did I encounter during this lesson? Either during the first ‘Posters’ task or the second ‘Individual Thinking’ walk?
• Is there a character or idea to which I can relate? Why?
• For example – I can relate to Puck, as I am sometimes cheeky and mischievous. In addition, I feel that I can connect with Helena, as she feels jilted in a love-triangle. I have also felt that way before.

If there is time, this activity can be enriched through a whole class discussion where students can share their thinking and quiz others on their ideas.

With regard to teaching the play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we have found that analysing the original script concurrently with the BBC Globe production to be very well received; an approach recommended by colleague David Pargetter. Reading a play on one’s own is a challenge, particularly when dealing with a cast of around 20 individuals. The combination of theatrical Globe brilliance, amalgamated with clear and focussed textual analysis, leaves the students feeling empowered in the knowledge that they have understood some of the basic workings and motivations of the narrative, and related complex character quests. We have experienced students bouncing with excitement into our Year 8 class because they literally cannot wait to discuss, ‘The Mechanicals famous scene’, or gain further insight into Titania’s resolute strength. As English teachers, this makes us feel very proud and it also makes us understand the importance of including a myriad of learning styles in our classrooms. Our visual girls get lost in the spectacle of the Globe interpretation; our written charges enjoy the rich analytical experience offered, and our aural students are able to hear the script spoken, as well as being given many opportunities to have their say and question as required. By further acting out key scenes, our kinaesthetic learners are engaged in the experience of going beyond merely reading the text. On the whole, the classroom becomes a melting pot of learning styles and encounters. Our differentiated English approach does not stop with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, because the girls then progress into their final middle-school year with a study of Romeo and Juliet. At Year 9, where there is already a naturally heightened sense of drama amongst students generally, we begin by considering what it is we want our students to learn and how we want them to respond to this tale of woe. It is impossible to teach everything in Romeo and Juliet and ensuring students walk away with an appreciation for the characters, plot, themes and language as well as inspiring a thirst and wonder for the Bard, is just as much about the journey as it is about the end product, the assessment.

Before beginning the study of the play, it is important to ensure that all students have the opportunity to fall in love with the performance. Providing students with a basic understanding of the plot
and the characters before you dive into it avoids anyone getting lost and left behind. Similarly, prior to each scene, offering a preview in detail about what is going to unfold, which characters will partake in the scene,
and what is said allows the students to know what to expect and therefore better understand it. This then allows their thoughts to more readily register other elements such as themes and character behaviour.
To reiterate the sentiment above from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that if you are not being creative, you are not doing it right, we offer a task that has appealed to students of all interests and learning styles. Using creativity to explore themes and characters is a great way to engage your audience. This gives students the opportunity to work to their interests and to their strengths. This particular activity explores the themes
of fate and foreshadowing in Romeo and Juliet and would follow a class discussion on themes.

Zodiac task
Students are asked to find someone in the room with whom they share the same star sign. They are instructed to take a moment to discuss what they might know about the elements of this star sign that is common amongst those born in this time-frame during the year. For example, Scorpios are said to be defensive with a sting in their tail. Provide students, now in groups according to their star sign, with a copy of their horoscope on any given day and ask them to read this to gain an understanding of the ideas of predetermination, fate and destiny. This also provides a context for the language of horoscopes and the idea of predicting
the future. In their groups, students discuss these themes, exploring the idea of Romeo and Juliet as ‘ill-fated’ and a ‘pair of star-crossed lovers’. This force of fate is also attributed to the other characters in the play and Shakespeare’s use of foreshadowing can be explored here through both major and minor characters alike.

The task is to ask the students to imagine that they are gifted astronomers employed as zodiac writers for the publication The Elizabethan Times. For each of the characters in the play,  students are to consider their role in the tragedy and employ their understanding of foreshadowing by writing a horoscope for each of the characters.  Students can be as creative as they like, perhaps not just highlighting the nature of predicting futures but also providing warnings as well as dropping hints in their writing so that readers are able to ascertain which character the horoscope has been written for. In most cases, students naturally adopt an Elizabethan English voice with exclamations of ‘alas!’ and ‘thou must not…’ and thus this task also opens them up to exploring Shakespeare’s language in a way that is accessible to all, non-confrontational and truth be told – fun!


In this issue, we hear from English teachers about the ways they define the inclusive English classroom, and how they design, implement, assess and reflect on their work within these classrooms. Idiom is committed to providing a forum for teachers to share what we do, and how we do it, and why it is valuable. We seek to highlight the vision and the work of teachers, and this issue is another example of this commitment.

To find out more about Strathcona’s Middle School please click here