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Teaching Shakespeare

Hamlet on Wheels: Teaching Shakespeare in a Special Education Classroom, Part 1

Wheels? Yes, wheels.

All of my students are physically disabled, and many are diagnosed with intellectual disabilities as well.  Able-bodied students can get up on their feet to perform. My students can’t get on their feet, but that doesn’t stop them from performing!  Ergo – Hamlet on Wheels.

This past summer, I had the amazing experience of cradling the Second Quarto of Hamlet (Q2) in my hands. This opportunity came through being selected to attend the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Summer Academy, an intensive week-long study of Hamlet.

As I held this treasure, I was struck with a thought: the first 20 lines of the play were pretty easy to read.

Yes, the S’s looked like F’s, the U’s like V’s, and there were some missing E’s, but despite the quirks of this 400-year-old version of English, I could read it with ease.

Could my intellectually disabled students read these words?

I thought, YES, they could.

In that moment, I had my first-day-of-school activity planned;

My students would read the first page of The Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, in its original form, from a book printed in 1604 (or 5.)

And they did. (Insert chills here.)


(Image: Kathy Leonard)

The lesson went like this:


  1. I showed my students some of my pictures from the Summer Academy, highlighting the rare materials from the Folger collection. (Yes, I made a slideshow of my nerd vacation, as did other fellow academy participants.)
  2. Then I displayed Hamlet 1.1—from the Second Quarto—on the board. I asked the students to take turns reading, line by line, and asked them what they noticed about the text.
  3. Within minutes they figured out the S/F U/V dilemma, and read beautifully.
  4. I announced that they had just read from a text printed in 1604 (or 5.)
  5. “No way!” “Really?’  “I had no idea I could READ Shakespeare.” “Can we read more tomorrow?” “Ms. Leonard, could we act this out, on the stage?” (Be still, my teacher heart.)
  6. The lesson continued with the class reading the remainder of the scene in Three-Dimensional Style (Three-Dimensional Shakespeare is a technique created by Michael Tolaydo. You can find it in Shakespeare Set Free, the Romeo and Juliet version. I’ve found this to be the best way to dive right into a play with my students.)


As a special education teacher, I look at literature differently; how can I make this work for my students? How can I adjust it to meet their needs, while helping them meet my uncompromisingly high academic expectations? A common strategy in special education is to modify. We modify lessons, texts, assignments, and assessments.

But there is no modifying Shakespeare’s language. Ever.

The language is the thing.

The magic is in the words, in the language.  The same language I had fallen in love with when I first met Romeo and Juliet in high school, was the very gift that I wanted to share with my own students. And, yes, I had to modify my teaching methods to show them how to analyze the language, how to delve into the characters, and how to roll away with a newfound love of literature.

Please check back soon for the second part of Hamlet on Wheels, in which I’ll share more concrete, practical strategies for connecting special education students with Shakespeare’s language.


Kathy, what an inspirational story…thanks for sharing it with us!

Kara Marziali — January 29, 2016


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