Bad Bard Encounters?

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As a self-proclaimed Shakespeare fanatic, I take it for granted that anyone would not be completely enthralled with reading, reciting, or otherwise obsessing over iambic pentameter. What’s not to love? Shakespeare has something for everyone.

I equate reading Shakespeare with selecting the perfect movie to watch on a Saturday night. Shakespeare’s selection of works offers a genre for all.You’re a hopeless romantic? Shakespeare has enough wooing and love professing to satisfy those with the most incurable cases of lovesickness. Got a taste for violence? See Macbeth, Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, and King Lear for the most cruel and lamentable tales of murder, dismembering, eye-gouging and other assorted stories of the depraved.
Love to laugh? With more duelling verse than a Tracy and Hepburn movie, the Bard’s got you covered there, too.

Be this as it may, it cannot be denied that some people cannot get past their unpleasant past experiences with Will, which may leave them closed off to discovering the fun world of Shakespeare that awaits them.

I was one of the lucky ones who were exposed to Shakespeare as receptive and willing followers led down the iambic pentameter-paved path by a trusted and very enthusiastic English teacher. Now an English teacher by profession, I strive to provide the same positive, initial reading, viewing, and performing experiences for my students. When sharing the Shakespeare work I do with elementary English Language Learners (ELLs), I usually encounter two opposing reactions: encouraging support or cynical disbelief. The former usually results from persons who also had positive previous encounters with Shakespeare and the latter from those who would rather experience a root canal than read one of his sonnets or the first act of a play.

While some, initially sceptical of Shakespeare, may have had the fortitude to persevere through subsequent readings and literature classes, many close the book on Shakespeare for good. A bad encounter with the Bard can take years of literary therapy to restore trust in the significance of his works.

As Shakespeare wrote in King Henry IV, Part II “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”, which aptly applies to those whose responsibility it is to pass down the works of great writers to future generations. As English teachers, our job is not merely to expose students to required reading within a language arts curriculum. We must also acknowledge our responsibility for shaping the literary habits of our impressionable students. If we provide negative reading experiences for our young students now, it may inhibit the impact and considerable influence that literature may develop later on in their lives.

While encountering the occasional anti-Shakespeare cynic may be frustrating at times, I’m actually grateful for the opportunity. Having to justify the work I do with an ELL population further motivates me to instill a deep appreciation of literature within my students, which will allow them to share in the great literary legacy left to us by Master William Shakespeare.

I am firmly resolved that none of my ELL students will become beaten down and fearful of the task of acquiring challenging vocabulary and that no child will be left behind as they are immersed in Shakespeare’s world of colour, characters and complex plot lines.

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Author:Holly Rodgers

Holly Rodgers is an educator, musician, and writer in the greater Washington DC area that has worked collaboratively with the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC to design lesson plans to promote the use of Shakespeare's works with English language learners. She has over a decade of experience in the field of education working as a band director, ESL teacher, presenter, and curriculum developer and is the founder of teachingtolkien.com, a blog designed as an education resource for teachers wishing to share the works of J.R.R. Tolkien with their students. Holly has presented at the Folger Shakespeare Library Elementary Educators Conference and their webinar and teacher-to-teacher technology sessions. Her elementary ESL students performed at the Folger in 2010 for the Emily Jordan Folger Children's Shakespeare Festival and were featured on the Verizon cable television program Push Pause. Holly has also presented her work with Shakespeare and English Language Learner (ELL) students at the WATESOL (Washington Area Teachers of ESOL), KYTESOL (Kentucky Teachers of ESOL), and NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) conventions and her work with Tolkien and ELL students at Mythcon, the conference of The Mythopoeic Society. Follow Holly on Twitter @hmrodgers
  • Holly Rodgers

    Thanks for your feedback, Arthur. I meant that I can understand why some people’s bad experiences in the classroom can lead them to feel closed off to Shakespeare, but I feel if they really knew what they were missing out on; they would regret it. I love the story about your experience with second language learners and Shakespeare. Thanks for sharing!

  • Arthur Kincaid

    I’m puzzled by your saying you understand that some people won’t be interested in Shakesepeare then go on to suggest it surprises you. I’m interested that you teach Shakespeare to language learners. I discovered the efficacy of doing this quite accidentally over 40 years ago by casting foreign students in a Shakespeare play, rehearsing and performing it with them. I had expected them to end up speaking Shakespearean English. They actually didn’t, but interestingly could (and did) quote it a lot. The boost to their speaking ability was immeasurable. The work of rehearsal had provided a “real” situation for conversation, as opposed to the planned Conversation Classes they’d otherwise have been doing. And by learning a role they owned a corner of the language, which gave them tremendous confidence. I met one of the students years later at an RSC performance. She told me she had applied at her home university (Copenhagen) to do a higher course than they wanted to let her do, and she drew herself up and said, “Ah, but I have played Shakespeare.”

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