Adapting Shakespeare for Everyone
Students across the state are, in their own words, “forced” to study Shakespeare in their high school English classroom. While they may not appreciate these canonical pieces of literature, through experience and adaptations, students can find relevant connections to their everyday lives. In a moderately sized high school in southeastern Pennsylvania, where forty percent of the student body is Hispanic and thirty-nine percent of the students partake in the Free and Reduced Meal plan, every senior student studies Othello. In order to encourage a love for the Bard, especially for students who are not college-bound, teachers here encourage the use of adaptations in the classroom in order to help students establish meaningful connections.
The unit begins with a brief introduction to Shakespeare and the play. Students are encouraged to recall what they know of their own experiences reading Shakespeare before being introduced to the essential background information of the text. Then, students begin to read utilizing the Othello Parallel Text Edition published by Perfection Learning. They are assigned nightly reading homework; however, the reading itself is structured slightly differently. They are assigned to read the more Modern English side of the text on their own and answer guided reading questions. Then, the next day, they are given a small reading quiz, utilizing the same questions. After completing the quiz, students stand and act out the scene that they read the night before, reading Shakespeare’s original words. By doing this, not only have they set a foundation for understanding on their own, but also they are hearing the words the Bard wrote and using their analytical deduction skills to decipher meaning.
Each day involves discussion and connections, but the most important point comes at the end of each Act. As Shakespeare intended his words to be seen, and not read, students view two adaptations of the play: “Othello” (1995) directed by Oliver Parker and “O” (2001) directed by Tim Blake Nelson. The students only watch one act of each adaptation at a time, but in addition to setting their own contextual understanding of the work they are enhancing their understanding by viewing the adaptations.
Upon completion of reading the text and viewing the adaptations, students are then assigned a research paper to answer the prompt “Which adaptation is faithful (or not), why or why not?” by responding in a five-paragraph essay offering outside academic research to support their thesis.
While many schools are moving away from the canonical texts in favor of more non-canonical works to help encourage a love for reading, the importance of classics cannot be understated. Regardless of whether or not these students will attend a prestigious four-year university after graduation, they should all have the opportunity to read with and connect to literature that helps them through their own tumultuous transitions of relationships and life altering events. Adapting these works to establish a sense of relevancy and meaning is important for every student at every level.
Erin McDonnell-Jones is a teacher, reader, and avid travel enthusiast living in Chester County, PA. Follow her adventures @emcdonnelljones