Grammatical Insults

Standards Met: CCSS-ELA.Literacy.CCRA.L.4; L.5

What You Need: Folger Shakespeare Library’s Insult Kit (PDF available here)

What To Do: When Leanne Shirtliffe, a high school English teacher at Webber Academy in Calgary, Alberta, taught eighth grade, she used insults to pique her students’ interest in Shakespeare and grammar.

After displaying an artful insult on the board (such as “thou reeky, elf-skinned lout!”), she helped the class dissect the grammar. Once they determined that the insult included a pronoun, two adjectives, and a noun, they used the Insult Kit from Folger Shakespeare Library to generate their own slights. The classroom echoed with cries of “Thou puking, onion-eyed maggot pie!” and “Thou frothy, milk-livered scut!” Says Shirtliffe, “I wanted students to see that Shakespeare could be fun, that it was not stuffy English, but guttural, of-the-people language.”

She extended the grammar lesson by teaching students about words that Shakespeare created by changing one part of speech to another. For example, he turned the verb scuffle into a noun and the noun assassin into the verb assassinate. Shirtliffe drove home the idea that English is still evolving. She told students that when “adults complain that teens are changing the language, they should say, ‘Just like Shakespeare did!’” Kids can apply their grammar knowledge to coin their own words and write short, modern scenes. For example, a student might change a noun into a verb and write a scene that includes lines such as “Stop adulting me, Mom! I’ll finish my homework after dinner.”

Imitating the Master

Standards Met: CCSS-ELA.Literacy.CCRA.R.1; R.4

What You Need: A Shakespearean sonnet, monologue, or short scene

What To Do: We teach students not to copy others’ work. But in some cases, copying can be a good thing! Copying Shakespeare, for example, leads to close reading and thoughtful writing.

Hand out a Shakespearean sonnet, monologue, or short scene. Guide students to read the text several times and unpack its meaning. Next, explain iambic pentameter, asking students to tap a “heartbeat” on their desks (da-DUM, da-DUM), and then tap the same rhythm while you read the lines aloud.

Once students understand the text’s meaning and rhythm, ask them to rewrite it in a different context. While the meaning may change, the structure of the text and the rhythm must stay the same. (Maintaining a rhyme scheme is much more difficult; this could be a challenge assignment.) For example, after reading Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, in which he compares his beloved to a summer’s day, a student rewrites the text to compare an enemy to a rabid dog. The first lines of the sonnet—“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate”—might become, “Shall I compare thee to a rabid dog? Thou art more deadly and less likeable.” To do this well, students must read and reread the text, paying attention to the smallest details, such as the number of syllables in a word and which syllable receives the emphasis.

Battling Bards

Standards Met: CCSS-ELA.Literacy.CCRA.R.1; R.3; SL.2

What You Need: Copies of monologues from Shakespearean plays

What To Do: Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be performed. Reading a scene closely takes on new meaning when preparing for a performance, and a monologue contest adds excitement.

Select a set of monologues from Shakespearean plays that students are currently reading or have already read. This ensures they will understand enough about the larger context to analyze one of the characters. For example, both Romeo and Juliet have famous monologues in Act 2, Scene 2, of that play: Romeo’s “But soft, what light from yonder window breaks?” monologue in lines 3–27; and Juliet’s “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” monologue in lines 33–49. Using footnotes and the dictionary, have students define every new vocabulary word in the monologue and paraphrase every line, which will require analyzing figurative language as well. Then, ask them to draw inferences about the character’s motivations, facial expressions, tone of voice, and gestures. By this point, students’ scripts should be covered in notes.

With all of these pieces in place, students will then rehearse their monologues independently and in pairs, getting feedback from peers and adults. Memorizing the monologues is ideal because it allows students to focus more on their interpretations and performances. Finally, students should perform for one another over the course of a few days. The audience will evaluate every performance in different categories, including voice, character, and understanding of the text. Students could even win awards, such as Most True to the Text and Most Creative Interpretation.

Historically Speaking

Standards Met: CCSS-ELA.Literacy.CCRA.R.7; R.9

What You Need: The Tempest, a world map, “Sea Venture” audio clip from Folger Shakespeare Library’s Shakespeare in American Life

What To Do: It can be easy to overlook the fact that Shakespeare was writing his masterpieces in England at the same time as Europeans were beginning to settle North America. The ship Sea Venture left England for the Jamestown settlement in the Colony of Virginia in 1609 but crash-landed on Bermuda in a storm. Many scholars believe that this event influenced Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a play published in 1611 that begins with a shipwreck on a magical island.

Beth Dewhurst highlighted this connection in her sixth-grade social studies classroom. First, Dewhurst, now a reading specialist at Stuart-Hobson Middle School in Washington, D.C., asked students to read excerpts from The Tempest, particularly the end of Act 2, when the shipwreck survivors meet an island inhabitant, Caliban. Then, students learned the true story of the Sea Venture. They used coordinates to locate the wreck and estimated how far it was from Jamestown; the audio clip from Shakespeare in American Life provided historical context.

As they worked, Dewhurst asked students to make connections between historical facts and the play. (A simple T-chart with a historical facts heading on one column and a connections to the tempest heading on the other will help students organize their thinking.) They noted similarities, such as the shipwreck and the survivors’ use of natural resources to survive. There are even lines in the play that reference historical sources.

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Illustration: Paola Canzonetta