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Teaching Shakespeare

Hamlet on Wheels: Teaching Shakespeare in a Special Education Classroom, Part 2

(Image: Kathy Leonard)

(Image: Kathy Leonard)

As promised, I’m back with the follow-up post on Hamlet on Wheels. This time, I’m sharing some practical suggestions that are essential for my special education classroom—and often beneficial for all learners.


I primarily use Shakespeare Set Free as my Hamlet go-to resource. I adjust the lessons to be certain I can move my students through the play, without any compromise in substance. Here are some tips that have worked for me for teaching Shakespeare in the special education classroom:


  • I cut the text, and you should too.  Not every single word of every single play needs to be taught. Pull out major scenes that will work for your students and go. I even incorporated a lesson in which my students cut the play themselves.


  • It is fine to let students watch scenes from a movie version of the play. In fact, having students critique various representations of the same scene is a literacy dream! This works especially well for students with reading difficulties, while meeting the needs of visual and auditory learners. (Mel Gibson and Kenneth Branagh were our class favorites.)


  • Have students do a close reading of your favorite soliloquies. For this assignment, I chose To Be or Not To Be and printed the text from the Folger digital text. I assigned student pairs 4-6 lines each. They gained an understanding of the language (in small increments) while collaborating with their peers. We analyzed character traits and dove deep into the emotions of the character. By now, their familiarity with the characters was personal. They referred to Claudius as “Duncle” (Dad + Uncle = Duncle)


  • What other activities did we do on wheels? Swordfighting!! During the Folger Summer Academy, we were treated to the multi-talented Shakespearean actor, professor, director, scholar, and seriously amusing person Michael Tolaydo. Michael gave us sword fighting lessons on the lawn of the Folger Library. (Best. day. ever.) So, I took the best day ever and shared it with my students. You can too!

    (Image: Kathy Leonard)

    (Image: Kathy Leonard)


While sword fighting in the hallway, the 3rd graders rolled by on their way to class, SQUEALING!! Our class decided to give them lessons during a recent phys-ed class. They were amazing! We now have 10-year-old Shakespearean thespians.


My must-use resources for teaching Shakespeare in ANY classroom:

  1. Shakespeare Set Free. There are 3 versions of this resource, each with a variety of lessons. In the special education classroom you can choose which ones would work for your students and tweak them to fit their needs. I could not teach a Shakespeare play without it.
  2. Luna, the Folger’s digital image collection. Here you can find images from the Folger Shakespeare Library including books, (I used this resource to share Q2 with my students) art, memorabilia, and more.
  3. The Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary. This book is amazing, period.  Plus, it comes right from the Globe Theater in England to your front door.


I hope your take-away is this; Shakespeare is for ALL students.


Before my time at the Folger Library, I often cringed before teaching a Shakespeare play. How could I do justice to these magnificent works with students who read below (sometimes, WAY below) grade level. I KNEW his works were meant to be acted, not read, and I never felt I did his work justice with the traditional pedagogy I was using. But, I trudged on.


Focusing on the language has made all the difference for me, and for my students. My students may cut text, swordfight in chairs, and do close readings four to six lines at a time, but they have learned to love the language. The magic is in the language.

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