Sunday, June 10, 2007

Teaching Kids Shakespeare, Julius Caesar Edition

I read Julius Caesar with my fourth graders. It turned out not to be such a good choice. It wasn't awful, but kids have done better with Romeo and Juliet, with Macbeth, and with Hamlet. I don't want to get stuck in a rut teaching the same play every year, so I had to try Caesar.

The worst parts were the acts leading up to Caesar's murder. Kids were complaining of boredom. I had taken a day to give background of the play, so everyone knew what was coming, but this is a very talky play. As the murder got closer, interest rose, some even read ahead to the murder. We had a lot of good discussions, and good papers were written on the motives of the assassins and on Antony's funeral speech. Interest stayed petty high through the rest of the play. We were able to discuss and write about better themes than the ones the kids were supposed to read in their basal readers.

Of course, not everyone understood everything. When asked to write why Shakespeare killed Brutus' wife, Portia off-stage, one student wrote that Portia probably did something bad to Shakespeare. I spoke to him in private.

I tried to emphasize throughout the reading that this play is based on historical fact, but just like with movies that are based on actual events, the playwright adds drama and dialogue that probably didn't really happen. We talked about omens, and how the Romans (and sometimes people today) still believe in them. I read them a bit from Seutonius' The Twelve Caesars to show where Shakespeare may have gotten his information, and the difference between historical fact and fiction.

Since they were concerned with what happened to Octavius and Antony after the play, I told them about Octavius becoming Augustus Caesar and of Antony's ill-fated "alliance" with Cleopatra, which of course, Shakespeare also wrote about.

As much as many students claimed they were bored, when I pulled out multiple copies of a collection of Shakespeare's poetry for children, everyone wanted to read them. One student accepted my challenge to memorize Antony's funeral oration and recite it in front of the class.

After the reading, we watched the 1953 movie version with Marlon Brando, James Mason, and John Geilgud. I haven't seen any of the other versions, but this one is really good, and it was rated higher than any of the other versions on Netflix. Brando does an amazing Antony. We visited some Shakespearean websites for kids, and worked in groups to find answers to questions about the play. I bought pizza for the class from . . . I hate to admit it since there is really no connection . . . Little Caesars.

All in all, I think it worked, and I think the class got a lot more out of reading it than they would have if we had just continued to follow the basal. But because the other plays I've read with other classes are more personal and less political, and have more action in them (the battle scene in Caesar suffered from a high "cheese" factor), I will probably use them more often than this one.

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At 8:20 PM, Blogger jennifer said...

Harry I am so pleased to read this! So cool that of the funeral oration was recited!

I am a closet Shakespeare fan and as a home school have done skits, drawings, and research on William, and his plays!

Once I even heard my then 4 year old daughter playing dolls, ask "Romeo, ROmeo, where for art thou Romeo!"

I cracked up thinking of this. Education is so important, and no matter what age, and we must promote the love of learning! I am so excited to see the 4th graders in public school having these opportunities!

The cherry on top of this post was the Little Caesars Pizza!!! Way fun for all of them!

At 10:32 PM, Blogger Jungle Mom said...

I wish I had had a teacher like you. I did not discover Shakespeare until High School.

At 6:24 AM, Blogger Harry said...

I'm amazed year after year at how much children actually do enjoy Shakespeare and want to read him. The first time I read Shakespeare with a class, it was because the students demanded it.

jungle mom,
Thanks, although some of my students would disagree with you. Those would be the lazy ones who don't understand why I get cranky when they don't turn in any work.


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