I’ll be the first person to admit that I never had appreciation for Shakespeare and his works. When your experience consists of analyzing literature without enjoying it first, then being graded for it, I suppose you’ll naturally feel an aversion towards it. You can’t help but feel like it’s something that you won’t ever be able to understand, much less enjoy.
However, learning that Shakespeare is part of our homeschool curriculum in these early years was a game changer. Charlotte Mason encouraged people to never underestimate the power of children’s minds. She has me convinced that studying Shakespeare will benefit my children at ages 10 and 7. It’s time for me to overcome my fear of Shakespeare and learn alongside my children.
At first, I followed the lesson plans as written in the Ambleside Online curriculum. My daughter and I read “Tales from Shakespeare” (available at our book shop here). It’s the recommended book to start off children on Shakespeare, to give them an idea of the plots and characters of some of the plays. While it is a retelling, it was published in the 1800s and considered one of the best adaptations for children.
When my son started Year I and had his own Shakespeare assignments, I decided to include Shakespeare in our common time together and read Tales to both of them at the same time.
Having two children with wide gaps in age, abilities, and interests requires planning. I looked for ways to make our reading of Shakespeare deeper for my older child, and interesting and more interactive to appeal to my younger one at the same time. And that’s when I discovered the book “How To Teach Your Children Shakespeare” by Ken Ludwig (available at our book shop here).
“How To Teach Your Children Shakespeare”
The author, award-winning playwright Ken Ludwig, is a self-confessed “Shakespeare fanatic.” He introduced Shakespeare to his first child when she was six years old, wanting to share something special with her. This has given him precious alone time with his children, time that they would have otherwise spent doing something else.
Ludwig’s method was to help his children memorize lines, then passages from Shakespeare’s works every week. However, as he says in Chapter 2, Shakespeare can be difficult to read and especially memorize. The unfamiliar words, strange-sounding sentence structures, and numerous metaphors make Shakespeare’s works seem like a foreign language.
With those considerations, the book features selected plays that the author feels children will easily understand. He includes not only carefully selected passages that children can easily memorize, he also explains phrases, characters, and context of each one. Tips on effective ways to memorize also abound and are truly effective.
The passages to be memorized are available as free downloads in easy-to-memorize format on Ludwig’s website. However, just printing and memorizing those will not be as effective without the book as your guide. It provides substance and teaches the reader all about Shakespeare and his world. I marvel at the revelations I read in the book which I share avidly with my children as we go about our memory work.
How we use the book
I decided to follow the book and started incorporating memory work of passages from the original works. Surprisingly, all children – including the toddler – took to it!
We started with the first play, “Midsummer Night’s Dream”, and truly had a memorable time. We recited, memorized, drew, and watched a movie when we were done. It was music to my ears when my kids said they wanted a family movie night featuring the play—again!
We’re reading one play per term to be able to really be into it. I am hoping, though, to increase it to two per term as we all get comfortable reading the retelling and memorizing related long passages at the same time.
Here’s how I use “Tales from Shakespeare” and “How To Teach Your Children Shakespeare” together:
- I divide the story in “Tales from Shakespeare” according to the number of weeks I plan to read it, which for me, is around eight to 10 sessions. We would have two to four sessions out of the 12 in the term to review and just recite what we’ve learned. I put little flags on where I plan to stop for each session.
- I look at the passages on “How To Teach” for the play we’re doing and match them to the sections from Tales from Shakespeare.
- It’s very important for me to read beforehand the explanation at “How To Teach.” This arms me with tidbits that I can seamlessly incorporate in our discussions.
- I include the passages in our Morning Basket so that we would be reciting and memorizing passages at least four times a week.
The book enumerates several benefits of starting children early on Shakespeare. For one, Shakespeare was an inventor of words, and he contributed many, many words and phrases to the English language. It’s fun to learn that before him, people didn’t have gloomy, or excellent, or tongue-tied.
Shakespeare’s stories, for another, display a dazzling array of human virtues and foibles. Readers are given much needed food-for-thought to understand one’s self, others, and the world – an important benefit for young people.
A surprising discovery for me was that Shakespeare is funny and entertaining. Children love the character mix-ups and the bedlam that ensues. So I guess, a major benefit of starting early on Shakespeare is developing appreciation of something as potentially “scary” as Shakespeare.
Lastly, Shakespeare has given our family a special language, another opportunity to bond. We randomly recite passages when there’s a trigger word, such as “I know”, as in “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows….” from “Midsummer Night’s Dream”, and answer “What would you?” when somebody says “Why?” from “Twelfth Night.” That, I think, trumps it all.