Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Shakespeare with a Small Group - Part 2: Guided Reading

In my overview post for this series, I outlined what I was looking for in a Shakespeare study for my older children.  In Part 1 I described our abridged performance and in this post I'd like to describe what I did for my second idea, the a guided reading of the play with a memory work and a small performance.


  • Five sessions, approximately every other week
  • Location alternated between two homes
  • At each session, we began with prayer, then gave the kids an opportunity to share some sort of memory work with the group, then started on Shakespeare.  We would be started with Shakespeare by 1:30
  • The weekend following the 5th session, we had a family performance and potluck on a Sunday afternoon


I used the straight-forward Dover Thrift Edition of Julius Caesar for the kids, and I also used an iOS app by DodgePoint Software on my iPhone for our audio.  I really like these apps for our Shakespeare studies.  The audio is generally good, and having the text and the audio linked is absolutely fantastic.  It is extremely easy to repeat a speech, start in the middle of a scene, or go back just a little to hear something again.  The text is linked such that if you touch the name of a person speaking, the audio will automatically begin again in that spot.  They have twelve of Shakespeare's plays and the app only costs $1.99 for each play.

I prefer to use a very basic version of the text, like the Dover Thrift edition, in a class for a few reasons.  First, I want the students to realize that if we take it slowly, reading the text out loud or following along while listening to an audio recording and stopping for frequent narrations, they can understand a great deal of the text.  Also, I find that if they have access to a simplified version of the text (like the No Fear series), it can become far too easy to just glance over and see the paraphrase rather than put in the mental effort to try and figure it out.  Also, a version like No Fear Shakespeare or even one with heavy footnotes can reveal a little too much about the text - explaining some of the  innuendo that would have gone completely over the kids' heads otherwise.  Also, I want them to know that we don't need to understand every little bit of what we read.  It is ok to have phrases here and there that we don't quite understand - Shakespeare has so much depth we can get overwhelmed if we are trying to understand it all in one go.

I should note that I do think that a version like No Fear or one with a lot of footnotes can be very helpful for the teacher in her preparation, particularly if she feels weak in Shakespeare or intimidated by it.  If that's what it takes to get her going in teaching Shakespeare, then I think it is worth it.  But I think we have to be careful not to offer too much so the students are still being required to do the mind work and aren't overwhelmed with detailed explanations.

First Session

At our first gathering, I used the retelling of Julius Caesar from The Best-Loved Plays of Shakespeare to give an overview of the play.  I read it out loud, pausing frequently for narrations and to update the character map I was drawing on the board.  Each of the students had their own map they were drawing as well.
Finished Product
After reading through the retelling, we stepped outside and I introduced the kids to their group memory work.  We would all work on memorizing the first part of Marc Antony's funeral oration ("Friends, Romans, Countrymen...") together, and to help them I printed out the speech in large type across 14 pages, with each page having a few lines on it.  We ran through the first couple of pages several times, then went back inside for a little time with the play.  I used the audio from the app and everyone read along, pausing ever so often to narrate.  I asked the students to use their character maps to narrate the play to their parents as their homework.

Subsequent Sessions

The subsequent sessions were similar.  We listened to the play, narrated, and took a break in the middle to work on the memory work.  

At the second session, I spread out a selection of speeches from Julius Caesar and invited the students to choose one.  The speeches ranged in length from 8-16 lines or so and were from various parts of the play.  The speeches were to be memorized at home for our final performance.

I also had an additional assignment for the students.  Each family was assigned one of the principal characters of the play (Caesar, Brutus, Marc Antony, and Cassius) and they had to find three or more groups of short lines from the play that described the person's character.  They had to write these lines on index cards, and pick one person from each family to be that character on stage during the performance.

At the third session, we listened to part of the play, but we also watched the movie from a little after the death of Caesar until the end of the funeral narrations scene.  We all enjoyed watching the staging of the play, and enjoyed discussing how the actors matched (or didn't match!) our mental images of the characters.

In order to create a little randomness in who would do our narrations, I used two different methods to choose the narrators.  At first I assigned each person a number and rolled a die, but this proved to be a rather unreliable way of ensuring everyone would get a chance to narrate as frequently as the other students.  I found it worked better to write everyone's name (including mine!) on slips of paper and then drawing them at random, not replacing the names until every name had been drawn.  I also chose the names in pairs, so that they could help each other with narrations.  They particularly enjoyed having me as a narrator too, and I liked how that emphasized that we are all learning and enjoying Shakespeare together.

Family Performance

We met for lunch this time for our family performance, coming together at about noon, eating lunch, then having our performance at about 2.  We met at my house, and again I hung the canvas drop cloth from a beam in our living room and used that as a back-drop.  The kids came up with very simple Roman-ish costumes, such as white sheets and tunics and oversize white undershirts with leather belts and dark pants. (Oh, and play swords, can't forget the swords!)  It gave a nice feel to the performance, and was very easy to put together.

For our performance, we began by sharing our descriptions of each of the main characters.  I had one person come on stage to pretend to be the character, and then other students would come across the stage, say their short line(s) describing that character, then move off the stage.  It served as a nice introduction to the characters, and it was a good experience for the kids to have to dig into the play a little to find the lines.

After this, the students came on stage one by one and recited their memorized speech.  I gave a brief introduction to each speech, placing it in the context of the play.  I had the students come on in the order that their speech appeared in the play.  When it was time for the funeral oration, all the students came on stage and they spoke it in sequence, each student speaking a few lines in turn so that their speech would be more distinct.

What I Might Do Differently Next Time

I think it would have been better to have six sessions rather than five, but we couldn't get the scheduling to work for that.  It was a little tight in the last session, and we ended up needing to add on another hour to the final session so we could finish the play and discuss the performance.  We never even rehearsed the play portion, but it was very simple to stage and the kids did just fine with that. We ended up with seven students, which was a perfectly reasonable number, but we could have easily had a few more.

Amazon Affiliate Links to benefit Charlotte Mason West used in this post


  1. I have so appreciated your Shakespeare in a group posts! I am looking forward to leading the Shakespeare portion in a CM co-op some friends and I are forming for the fall, and am looking forward to using some of the ideas you've shared.

    1. Thanks, Jen! That's great that you'll be leading a Shakespeare portion in your co-op next year, that sounds wonderful!

  2. Ditto everything in Jen's post, Amber. Thanks for sharing your experience in this area with us so that we can spread the Shakespeare feast in our local communities.

    1. Thanks, Dawn! I appreciate your comment and I'm glad it is helpful.