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It's Elementary!: Stomping and Romping with Shakespeare

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Arthur Rackham. Puck -- "Lord what fools these mortals be". Drawing, ca.1908.

February 2000
Janet Field-Pickering, Folger Shakespeare Library, Head of Education 1996-2000.

Plays/Scenes Covered
This lesson is based on two Shakespeare songs: "A Winter's Song" from Love's Labour's Lost (5.2) and "A Witches' Spell" from Macbeth (1.3).
What's On for Today and Why

In introducing Shakespeare to elementary students, the best place to start is with the rhythm of the language in Shakespeare's songs. Children respond to the sound and beat of Shakespeare as much as they respond to his wonderful stories and characters. Shakespeare's songs are also short, self-contained (in terms of what's going on in the rest of the play), and often include vivid images and word pictures.


Shakespeare's predominant meter was iambic. A unit of iambic meter, called an iambic foot, consists of a soft stress followed by a sharp one: da-DUM. (A good example of an everyday word that acts as an iambic foot is toDAY.)


Shakespeare wrote most of his poetry in iambic pentameter, five units of iambic beat to a line:


"But SOFT, what LIGHT through YONder WINdow BREAKS."


But a lot of the songs from his plays are written in iambic tetrameter, four units of iambic beat to a line:




This meter is common in songs and in children's poetry. Dr. Seuss is a great example:


i DO not LIKE green EGGS and HAM
i DO not LIKE them, SAM i AM


The first part of this lesson will engage children in a number of activities that explore rhythm and meter. In the second part of the lesson, students will create a series of "living pictures" to illustrate the song.


This lesson is divided into parts, but the whole lesson will probably take one to three block periods.

A Witches' Spell
The Winter's Song
What To Do

Part One: Rhythm and Meter


1. Ask the children to place their hands over their hearts and feel the daDum, daDum, daDum of their own heartbeats. Tell the students that Shakespeare used the rhythm of the heartbeat in his poems and plays. Have them practice beating out this rhythm on their desks, and tell them that this rhythm is called iambic.


2. Next have the students stand up and gather in a big circle. Tell them to face right and start marching around the room to an iambic beat. Starting with a softly placed left foot followed by a sharply stomped right, have the students circle the room twice, marching to the beat.


3. Now add words. Get out your Dr. Suess and read aloud sections of Green Eggs and Ham as the students continue marching around the room. The teacher calls out a line, and the students repeat it. Continue this back and forth until you feel you have fully established the rhythm.


4. Continue marching to the same beat while substituting the words to Shakespeare's "A Winter's Song" from Love's Labour's Lost. Again the teacher calls out each line and the children repeat it: When IciCLES hang BY the WALL,
And DICK the SHEPherd BLOWS his NAIL,
And TOM bears LOGS inTO the HALL,
And MILK comes FROzen HOME in PAIL,
When BLOOD is NIPP'D, and WAYS be FOUL,
While GREASy JOAN doth KEEL the POT.
When ALL aLOUD the WIND doth BLOW,
And COUGHing DROWNS the PARson's SAW,
And BIRDS sit BROODing IN the SNOW
And MARian's NOSE looks RED and RAW,
When ROASTed CRABS hiss IN the BOWL,
While GREASy JOAN doth KEEL the POT.


At the end of this activity, your students should have a good sense of Shakespeare's meter and should be well on the way to memorizing one of his songs.


Part Two: Meaning, Movement, and Living Pictures


1. Give each student a copy of "A Witches' Spell" from Macbeth. (See handout section below.) Point out that Shakespeare often plays with the meter of fairy songs or witches' chants. Ask the students to beat out the rhythm of this poem on their desks. They may have a little trouble at first, but they may come up with something like this:


POSters OF the SEA and LAND,


Then have the students get up and gather into small circles of three, pretend to be witches, and move to this new meter. Encourage them to join hands, or to dance, or to change directions—whatever the passage moves them to try. Then discuss reasons why Shakespeare might have used a different meter for supernatural characters. Is the rhythm more chant-like? More spooky?


2. Distribute the handout for "A Winter's Song." (See handout section below.) Discuss unfamiliar words and anything that the students may have missed in marching around. Try to see if the students can guess the meanings of the words through context or sound. A few words or phrases that might cause problems for them are:


"blows his nail"—blows on his hands to warm them
"keel the pot"—cool the contents of the pot by stirring or pouring in something cold

Don't be a stickler for the exact meaning. Give your students the chance to use their imaginations.


3. Divide your class into six small groups. Assign one line from the first stanza of the song to each group; the refrain will be acted out by the whole class. Do the same for the second stanza.


4. Give the small groups 3-5 minutes to think about how to act out or pantomime their lines in front of the class. Tell the students that they are going to make a living, moving picture out of the poem as you read the poem aloud.


5. While the small groups plan and practice what to do, circulate around the room and encourage students to use their physical imaginations, space, sounds, and movement to stage their lines.


6. When all the groups are ready, discuss with the whole class what they want to do to act out the refrain. Practice once or twice.


7. Perform the "living picture" at the front of the room.

How Did It Go?

Did your students have fun stomping out Shakespeare's meter? Did they get a sense of how different rhythms can reinforce or affect the sound and meaning of different poems? Did they work together to use their imaginations and create a living picture to illustrate a poem? After working on all these activities on "A Winter's Song," do they almost have it memorized?


If any of these things happened, your students learned a lot and had fun with Shakespeare at the same time.


If you used this lesson, we would like to hear how it went and about any adaptations you made to suit the needs of YOUR students.

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102 CommentsOldest | Newest

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  Common Core State Standards

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