Readers, young and old, can learn about themselves by vicariously facing the conflicts, disappointments and triumphs lived out by the fascinating characters they encounter in literature. Shakespeare’s plays offer the richest characterizations of human experience to which we may respond sometimes with strong affection and at other times with dread and loathing. His lively, twisting plots are universal in theme and often reflect our own personal struggles in life. Shakespeare’s genius is said to lie in his uncanny ability to fully represent vital, living personalities in his plays. His characters come alive for us! Harold Bloom in his book,
Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human
(1998), provocatively asserts “personality, in our [modern] sense, is a Shakespearean invention and is not only Shakespeare’s greatest originality but also the authentic cause of his perpetual pervasiveness” (p. 4).
Ever since the so-called ‘Common Core Standards’ were introduced to school curricula in most states the employment of literature (fiction) has really taken a back seat in education to more informational texts (nonfiction). I would like to try to remedy that lapse by introducing my young learners to great literature wherein both the characters and the actual texts possess the vitality and authenticity to stimulate my first-graders to take a real interest in the adventure of learning about themselves through reading.
Why choose Shakespeare over, say, Dickens or Kipling, or some other more modern, professional writer for children? Ken Ludwig, author of
How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare,
answers this question by maintaining that Shakespeare is “one of the two bedrocks of Western civilization in English” (the other being the King James translation of the Bible) and his plays “contain the finest writing of the past 450 years.” On the model of what Falstaff says about himself, Shakespeare is “not only creative in himself—he is the cause of creation in other writers” (p. 7). The truth is that, as educators we need to find a way to introduce our children to the creative writers and artists whom we value most and, surely, that means that we should begin to familiarize young students with the works of Shakespeare.
Shakespeare’s plays remain popular because they so evocatively and powerfully portray our human experience, as we live it today. Many of his characters make mistakes, big and small, but they seem to have the resourcefulness, if they choose, to learn and develop in understanding. There are multiple ways in which characters learn something and change in the course of the play, and it seems to me that exposure to this mysterious, dynamic quality of life that allows us bravely to face conflicts and creatively learn from our mistakes is one of the most important lessons that we need to begin to teach our children. Learning about ourselves in literature, our own deepest urges and aspirations, helps us to adopt a more resourceful, creative attitude toward our own growth and interaction with others.
When first introducing Shakespeare’s plays to very young students my automatic choice is comedies. They are more accessible to children than tragedies because they contain elements that young learners can understand, like mistaken identities, misunderstandings and accidents, people liking and disliking others, and, of course, most important, happy endings. From 1591 to 1601, the first ten years of his writing career, Shakespeare wrote ten comedies, one of which was
The Merchant of Venice
. In this unit I have chosen, upon the recommendation of Professor Leslie Brisman, to introduce my first-graders to the well-known ‘three caskets scenes’ in this play.
In this curriculum unit I utilize carefully chosen children’s books and simplified versions of the following scenes from the play: Act 1, Scene 2 (in narrative story form) and Act 2, Scene 7, Act 2, Scene 9 and Act 3, Scene 2 (in Readers Theatre form). These abridged materials will help me to present core ideas to my young learners because the modified text will more effectively convey the major themes and engage their interest. Visuals will also help the story come alive for my class and so I am using a number of paintings as well as photos taken from movie versions of the play (to be shown on the interactive whiteboard) that portray the main characters and the three caskets scene so vividly.
I am a first-grade teacher at Davis Street Arts & Academics Inter-district Magnet School. The self-contained class of 26 students to which I will be teaching this curriculum unit are a heterogeneous group with varying abilities within the 6-to-7-year-old age range. Although this unit was designed with them in mind, it could easily be adapted for use by teachers in other primary and intermediate grades as well.
This unit is interdisciplinary in scope, incorporating reading, writing, art, and drama. Tapping into a variety of literary sources, it will include familiarization with such genres as plays, fiction stories, biography, and poetry. The students will work in small and large group settings on the unit’s activities. The unit lessons will be taught 5 times a week for a period of 40 minutes over a one-month period.