Sunday, March 11, 2012

Teaching Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: Common Core-Style

For the first eight years of my teaching career, my Shakespare daily lesson plans went something like this:

"Good morning! Turn to Act II Scene 1 on page 234. I'm going to push play on the CD, let's listen to a few lines..." 

(Actors performing while students follow along for about 30 seconds. Pause CD.) 

Me: "Ok, what just happened there?" (The same 2-3 students telling me the plot.) "Great! Let's continue on..."

Once in awhile, I would have the students act out a scene or two... but that usually led to monotone recitations and awkward moments helping students pronounce words.

I think many people would relate to these methods. In essence, I was a human Cliff's Notes, regurgitating the plot to the point that we only studied the surface of the story. I usually had the same 2-3 students respond, and when I called on other students I usually got a response that went something like, "I have NO idea what they are talking about!"

We were studying the play a mile wide and an inch deep. That is how my teachers in high school taught me Shakespeare, so that must be the best way. Right?

This year, my English II colleague Blake Revelle and I decided to try something completely different when we taught Julius Caesar. With the onset of the Common Core State Standards, we asked ourselves: "What is more important: That our students know all of the plot details of Julius Caesar, or they know how to read, write and talk about a complex text, no matter what text it is?"

An inch-wide, and a mile-deep
We felt like the answer was clear: In 10 years, it will be far more important for our students to know how to annotate, analyze and explain a complex text they have to read for work or college, rather than be able to answer plot questions or create a poster with all of the characters.

Our mantra became, "We will teach an inch-wide and a mile-deep." 

We decided to go deeper into fewer scenes. Students weren't going to get as much of the plot, but that was not our goal. The text just served as a vehicle to teach concepts in reading, writing and speaking that would prepare them for college and their career.

Going into the unit, we decided to only focus on four of the speeches from the play. We spent about a week studying each piece, and we had our students read & annotate the speeches, write about them, then discuss them through a Socratic Seminar.

We kept it simple: Read it. Write about it. Talk about it.

This unit hit on virtually every one of the Common Core State Standards for reading, writing and speaking. 

Each week followed a consistent schedule:

  • Explain what happened in the plot since the last speech we studied. Video SparkNotes was a great resource for this.
  • View a video performance of the speech we were going to study
  • Read/annotate the speech. Students circled key terms and underlined claims.
  • Chart the text: In the left margin, write what the author is SAYING (summarize). In the right margin, write what the author is DOING (analyze). 
Wednesday/Thursday (90-minute block)
  • Timed writing assignment - using templates.
  • Socratic Seminar
Here are the materials we used:

1. Cassius' speech to Brutus (I.ii)
Text for annotation
Writing template

2. Brutus' soliloquy (II.i)
Text for annotation
Writing template

3. Brutus' funeral speech
Text for annotation

4. Antony's funeral speech
Text for annotation

5. Synthesis paper
Graphic organizer to answer the question: "Who delivered the more effective speech: Mark Antony or Marcus Brutus?"
  • Students developed this into a 2-3 page argument, citing the text and backing up their claim.
This unit was extremely effective for teaching students the skills they will need to critically read and write about complex texts, as the Common Core asks us to.
  • In past years, students would say things like, "I don't understand Shakespeare. It is written in another language." The close reading strategies taught them to closely analyze what they DID know about the text, and make their own inferences. 
  • All students were engaged. They could not just sit back and let other people answer the questions. They had to dig into the text, summarizing, making inferences, asking questions. This definitely ups the rigor in studying Shakespeare.
  • Students did not rely on me to tell them the plot. It became completely self-driven, with the students asking and answering their own questions.
  • In the course of a six weeks, we wrote two short papers and one longer paper. The quality of these papers were the best I had ever seen. The templates served as a guide to help their thinking, and it went far beyond plot and surface-level thinking.
  • Students gained confidence in analyzing complex texts. I equate it to lifting weights: In order to get stronger, you have to lift heavier weight. Now that they can read and analyze Shakespeare, other readings will seem easy.
How have you begun to modify your units to fit the Common Core State Standards?


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  3. There are a variety of ways to teach Shakespeare. The most effective ways, as I have learned through my own research as well as taking a teaching Shakespeare class, are through active participation. Shakespeare wrote plays. Why is it that many teachers expect students to be able to sit and completely understand the language if the language is meant to be seen? Monotonous readings come from not enough practice or knowledge on what a performance entails.

    Let me ask you: do you teach subtext while reading Shakespeare? How about inflection? Have you ever had your students imitate the way YOU read Shakespeare aloud? Do you begin your class with a kinesthetic warm up that builds a sense of community in your classroom?

    Sure, I bet that your students are thinking about the language of the speeches that you assigned, but what if they were to encounter another one of Shakespeare's texts, would they be able to understand the language then?

    Check out the Foldger's library. Even something like the Cambridge edition of a Shakespearean play can prove very helpful: .

  4. Thanks for sharing your journey. I'm an academic coach at a 10-12 high school in Arkansas, and yesterday, I met with our English 10 teachers to plan our third quarter unit. We read your blog post, using it to launch a conversation about how we've traditionally approached Shakespeare and what changes we need to make to address the the kinds of close reading and evidence-based writing Common Core demands. I'm wondering if you might have any student papers you'd be willing to share. It would help us (and our students) to see some models.

  5. I was wondering about the graphic organizer for your synthesis paper. What do the abbreviations mean (CD & CM) and how do you define rhetorical strategy?

    I have used some of your close reading strategies in my classroom. I haven't graduated to reading only certain speeches from the play, however (we still used a parralel text to read in my class). Instead of asking plot summary questions, I had students ask questions on a password protected discussion board. We talked about different types of questions and how to formulate them, and the students led their own virtual discussion about the text. Thank you so much for generously publishing your ideas.

  6. Joy March 5, 2013 at 2:07 PM

    Have you seen Gleeditions Shakespeare -- The online texts promote close reading like nothing else I've ever seen, annotating for vocabulary, plot, characters, setting, POV, style, and themes, showing how rich a single passage is. There's also a library of acclaimed video clips ( on the site (for all the plays!), a really useful feature when it's time to "view a video performance" of a passage we're going to study.

  7. Could you explain "charting a text" in a bit more detail, please?

  8. Martha: Great question. Charting is actually a buzzword for writing in the margins. You just define what will be written in the left and right margins. Thank you for the question!

  9. For another great resource which assists students with the initial difficulties in grasping language, plots and character development check ( from Mindconnex which offers fully animated plays, unabridged play text as well as other elements such as full study notes for every section, analyses, plot summaries, cast biographies and relationships. Really useful.

  10. I think there are some really valid points being made in the lesson and in the comments regarding how we can show and encourage our students to dig into the text and interact with it critically. Critically reading, writing and thinking is vital, but we have to remember that there is value in the story as a whole, in the story as art, and we cannot forget to examine the art and craft in literature because that is part of the critical process as well. Skills are vital, but so is the beauty of constructed language.

  11. This is awesome. Do you have the writing templates for Brutus' second speech and Antony's funeral speech?

  12. do you have completed examples of the annotated speeches etc?

  13. This is a great approach to teaching Julius Caesar! What do CD and CM mean?

  14. Also, thanks for sharing the templates! :)

  15. Could you share the discussion questions you used each Friday?

  16. Just finished teaching this unit with 10th graders... LOVED the outcomes! Thanks for sharing!

  17. I will be trying this in a few weeks. May I have the writing templates?

  18. I've done this with twice now with my 10th Honors classes. We've even designed templates for other works based on the analysis worksheets you provided. I just wanted to say "thank you" and let you know that this way of teaching Julius Caesar is spot on for the outcomes I want.

  19. Hello! Great Unit! However I would like clarity on what CM and CD mean and also if you could provide a student sample of the completed exercise that would be great!

  20. It wasn't until we used Jane Schaffer this year that I figured out that CD means concrete detail and CM means commentary. :) Thanks so much for this unit. I've used it and passed it on to many friends.

  21. I am looking forward to using your approach to my Caesar unit.

    To further teach rhetorical devices I posted popular video clips from movies that have lots of rhetorical devices and the related movie transcripts. I also created custom rhetorical assessment guides, a power point on rhetorical devices, etc.

    Anyone who would like to access these should go to the lower right hand corner of my Caesar Unit Page. see link below

  22. Can we get student samples of completed work from this unit?

    Also I made some basic comprehension questions on the Caesar excerpts you selected. If anyone wants to use those they will be posted in the center of my Caesar web page. In addition to the chunking and annotations, I thought it would ensure kids have a basic understanding of the content before moving to the written assessments and rhetorical analysis.

  23. My other question is : what rhetorical devices do you focus on? Do you just focus on pathos, logos, and ethos or do you also include others?

    Responses from anyone who has done this unit are welcome.

  24. Here is a Power Point I found online created by Hollie Gustke based on Jane Schaffer's explanation of concrete details (CD) and commentary (CM) which are referenced on some of the graphic organizers in this unit. It is really helpful.

  25. What kind of rubrics did you use for the papers... rather, on what did you what focus for your various papers?

  26. When you say students were interested in figuring out the plot themselves... did you read any of the play or just read the summaries. I find myself combining close reading practice with a traditional approach that you describe for reading it. We also them watch the play. We do an exam that has questions similar to your essay prompt. I was just curious what they do for the reading or if they don't read any of it but the funeral speeches. Thanks for your help! :)