Teaching Shakespeare in the Elementary School through Dramatic Activity, Play Production, and Technology: A Case Study

Teaching Shakespeare in the Elementary School through Dramatic Activity, Play Production, and Technology: A Case Study

William L. Heller
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-932-8.ch007
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In order to learn whether Shakespeare can be taught successfully in the elementary school, the author devised and implemented a unit designed to teach Macbeth to one fifth-grade class using dramatic activities, theatrical production, and technology integration. The work challenges the use of standardized testing as the final measure of student achievement. It demonstrates how Vygotsky’s (1978) zone of proximal development exposes the limitations of measuring only what students can demonstrate under testing conditions, and how Gardner’s (1993) Theory of Multiple Intelligences offers a variety of avenues for learning more effectively. This approach is identified with that of a reflective practitioner, and is designed to assist professionals who are looking for practical models for using Shakespeare’s plays in their classrooms. The underlying motive is to help bring them to a wider audience.
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Developmental Theory

Performing Shakespeare in high school, or even junior high, can be challenging. In this respect, McCaslin (2000) points out that:

This is a challenge to the teacher as well as to the class, but it can be done intelligently and effectively if approached in the right way. First, the play will be far too long as it stands. If the teacher familiarizes the class with the story, has them improvise scenes from the play, and then cuts the play to a manageable length, the project will be realistic.” (315)

This approach can be adapted to the elementary school by having a longer and more active familiarization process and by making even more cuts to the original text. Naturally, however, this raises the question of the ability of fifth-graders to perform in the first place, or even to understand the plays. The fact that seventh-graders can approach Shakespeare’s texts in a meaningful way does not necessarily imply that they will be within the competency of a fifth-grade class.

In fact, Courtney (1989) goes so far as to describe a progression of “Dramatic Age Stages” and makes a clear distinction between the developmental level of ten- and twelve-year-old children (the typical ages of fifth- and seventh-graders respectively), and what cognitive abilities would generally be possible at each age. He defines “The Role Stage” as lasting from ages twelve to eighteen:

Their improvisation tests hypotheses practically, by trial-and-error, and reveals self doubt: “If I play my role as A, then my actions become Y; but if I play it as B, then they become Z. So who is the real me?” This hypothesis implies causality (“If I play my role as C, does it cause this effect?). It isolates and tests various actors (“If we do it this way, then ...” or, “If you play a policeman as a villain, then ...”), which requires the ability to think abstractly. They use logic for a conclusion, “then the play will be like this ....” They imagine an ideal, use it in dramatic play, and alternate being “as if” with the actual, while combining and contrasting social masks. Facets of symbols are tested against reality. Emotional judgments can err. They explore social possibilities and moral decisions. (97-98)

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