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Hands Down, the Best Book About Teaching Shakespeare. Ever.

Worksheets, vocabulary quizzes, multiple-choice, fill in the blank, plot summaries, countless books about teaching Shakespeare. Some are good, some are okay, others are less than okay (I found a book once that was literally just a bound set of boring worksheets, boo). A colleague once mentioned how challenging it is to actually find the “good stuff” on teaching Shakespeare that can be used in a high school classroom. I had to agree. So began my quest in searching for a fabulous Shakespeare book.

When I picked up Reading Shakespeare With Young Adults, by Mary Ellen Dakin, which was just published and brand new (there is something exciting about a book still shrink wrapped!) I knew that this book was different.

What do I love about this book? First off, it is written by Mary Ellen Dakin, a high school English teacher who teaches Shakespeare and draws on her own experience with high schoolers in the classroom. (Note: I’ve never met Mary Ellen Dakin, but I would love to hang out in a classroom with her and watch her teach.) Dakin’s approach to Shakespeare is user-friendly – read “high school friendly” – she doesn’t assume that students know more than they do. She assumes they need help reading Shakespeare. And they do. There is a lot of academic, graduate level writing about Shakespeare and the teaching of Shakespeare – at the university and graduate school level. This is not one of those books. This book is meant for teachers at the high school level, who are likely teaching students at a variety of reading levels. Romeo and Juliet is required reading at many high schools in the 9th grade year – regardless of whether the students are struggling readers or college preparatory bound for AP/IB classes. Dakin’s book will help you figure out how to teach Shakespeare to ALL of your students, at all levels.

So now the nitty gritty. What exactly is in this book that makes it different from the other books about teaching Shakespeare?

1. Vocabulary. It’s obvious that Shakespeare involves a different set of vocabulary, which creates quite the challenge for our modern students. Archaic vocabulary abounds and while I’ve seen my share of crossword puzzles and word searches using archaic vocabulary, Dakin approaches the idea of archaic vocabulary with a different slant. Her approach helps students ease their apprehension about unfamiliar words and they learn new words at the same time. Now for a light bulb moment: stage directions. I’m sad to say that I never spent much time with my students on stage directions. Maybe a quick aside here and there, explaining a specific stage direction if someone asked. But I never actually planned anything with stage directions in mind and I quickly realized the fault in my ways when I read Dakin’s ideas for teaching students about stage directions. This is such an important aspect of reading a play and Dakin will walk you through the process of teaching students functional vocabulary.

2. Vocabulary again. Specifically character vocabulary and tone. Analyzing and discussing characters, generating character vocabulary, discussing tone. Amazing. I love having a tone wall in the classroom and Dakin’s ideas for teaching tone – and how to read lines with different tones – will help you bring more “tone” to your classroom (add words to the wall!) and bring more depth and thoughtful analysis to your class discussions as you read.

3. Prereading. This was another light bulb moment for me. While I had created some halfway successful prereading activities with my students, I had never created anything as deliberate and carefully constructed as Dakin suggests in her book and I immediately saw the value in spending this learning time BEFORE starting the play. Another bonus? Many of Dakin’s ideas can easily be adapted and used with other challenging works of literature. Even better.

Reading Shakespeare with Young Adults by Mary Ellen Dakin

Reading Shakespeare with Young Adults by Mary Ellen Dakin

So “Character Bookmarks” are one idea for prereading a play. (Yes, there are other ideas too!) This is perfect with Romeo and Juliet when students are starting out in unfamiliar territory and organizing the characters into Capulets and Montagues on a bookmark will help them not only with starting the play but also as they continue to read. This tool will help them make sense of the play and keep track of characters. I have taught Catch-22 many times with Advanced Placement Literatuare & Composition and I cannot imagine it without a character bookmark. The students find the character bookmark to be immensely helpful. I also share with my students my own experience reading Anna Karenina. I decided to read it several years ago on my own and I knew that I would need help. I spent significant time online reading about characters and creating my own character bookmark. The time spend reading and organizing was very helpful as I started the novel and I referred to my rather large (even folded in half!) bookmark throughout the entire novel, adding notes and page numbers as I read. This tool made it possible for me to read a difficult novel, just as the book marks help our students make sense of Shakespeare.

4. Writing. Annotating. I love annotating. And I believe that we often do not spend enough time teaching our students how to annotate. It takes time and modeling. But teaching students to annotate as they read, ask questions and make notes (connections!) is always time well spent. Dakin outlines ideas for helping students specifically annotate Shakespeare. Sticky notes, copies of texts, close reading. How do you construct an effective close reading of a passage? Mary Ellen Dakin can help you with that process. All of this adds up to TIME WELL SPENT.

5. New ideas. Storyboarding. Reading in companies. Multiple readings of characters. It is impossible to read this book and not be inspired to try new ideas. Dakin outlines so many new ideas – and focuses on ideas that will help bring the full range of Shakespeare to students (the eyes and the ears!) that you will be inspired and energized to bring out storyboards, draw images, and bring performances to a new level (no reading of the script with eyes looking downward!).

6. And finally, a chapter on sound. Shakespeare is meant to be heard, and Mary Ellen Dakin will take you through the process of exploring sound with your students. This is not always easy and quite often neglected.  What is a sound inventory? How do we tell “sound stories?” What about how a word sounds? And meter? Rhyme, alliteration, puns, repetition, irony, assonance? How can we effectively teach sound?

There are so many reasons to like this book and these are a few. I promise that if you spend time with this book, you will have your own light bulb moments. It is all time well spent! Especially for you fans of the Bard out there! Now go forth and read!

One more great piece of news is that after you are finished reading this book, Mary Ellen Dakin has another book for you to read!  Reading Shakespeare Film First was published in 2012. Stay tuned because I will be reviewing it soon and adding a new post!

Do you have any favorite Shakespeare resources? Have you read Reading Shakespeare with Young Adults? Please share!








3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Howard #


    I can easily place myself in a high schooler’s shoes dreading a class on Shakespeare. I’m sure Mary Ellen Dakin’s approach would dramatically (no pun intended) open my eyes to the material. The character bookmark is a fantastic tool to keep characters straight in my mind.

    Great post!



    November 24, 2014
    • Thank you Howard! It is a great book and I appreciate the comment!


      November 25, 2014

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