Teaching Shakespeare to Middle Schoolers in Spring

teaching shakespeareGuest blog post from English teacher Robert Dale,.

“It’s Spring!” My English teacher used to yell, usually at the boys. “The sap is rising!” She would look at us meaningfully, then repeat, “RISING” in a tone of great meaning and portent. Not that we got what she was saying, the boys far too distracted with the sight of the girls in warm weather skirts and low-necked shirts, the girls either savoring or suffering the boys’ attention.

In that same time of year, the time of the rising sap, we would read Shakespeare—most notably Romeo & Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was fairly fun—we got to talk about suicide and swordfights and somebody got to say, “This is to make an ass of me!” when we read the plays out loud in class—but my school being a Catholic school, the teacher could only discuss the bawdy elements of the Bard about as obliquely as she could discuss our raging hormones. It wasn’t until college that I learned what biting your thumb at someone really meant, let alone what Mercutio meant by “the prick of noon.”

And it’s a shame, really. Because like with so many other things, Shakespeare manages to capture all of the awkward longings of adolescence, whether it’s the problems of disapproving parents, the drama of love triangles and unrequited desire, or the fascination and fear all teenagers have of the great forbidden act that is sex. And by addressing these things, by frankly discussing them through the safe medium of a play, there’s so much that can be discussed to help teens make sense of their new world:

· Why do so many stories cast love and desire in such a negative light? Why is it that we equate sexuality with destruction, so much so that Shakespeare and his cronies endlessly used “death” as a slang term for orgasm?

· Is a healthy relationship one that works like that of, say Romeo & Juliet or Helena & Demetrius? (assuming that one is not actually into the 50 Shades of Grey-level of slavishness that Helena embodies when she humiliates herself for her boyfriend’s attention)

· And, of course, that old chestnut: is there really such a thing as love at first sight? And how fast is too fast? And how do you really know when you’re in love, or why you’re in love, or who’s the right person to love?

And while I’ll let them wait until their college classes to really delve into the dirtiest plot points of Shakespeare, we can analyze a lot…and they, in turn, can better analyze and understand themselves, sap and all.

Guest blogger Robert Dale is an English Teacher at Atlanta International School. His first book, a retelling of Midsummer Night’s Dream called A Most Rare Vision is available on Amazon.

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