Folks like me who launched their teaching careers in the dark ages before Amazon and Wikipedia will remember what is was like to inaugurate a new reading selection. We spent days collecting materials at the college libraries we had access to. We cobbled together handouts and worksheets from colleagues’ file cabinets. If we were lucky, we tracked down a film or video related to the work we were tackling from a video consortium formed by nearby schools, or we found a copy at a local book or video store. Then we began to put our lessons together.
Great Books at Our Fingertips
This morning, as I began planning in earnest my teaching of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar to my sixth-graders, I ordered CDs and a book of activities from Amazon ( (old-school, I know). I googled “Julius Caesar” and “6th grade” only to discover three complete workups of lesson plans (here and here and here) on the play, designed specifically for the age I teach. I checked out the resources for the play from my “go to” website for Shakespeare, the Folger Shakespeare Library, which provides its own program for teaching the play. Likewise, I discovered other teaching guides from the Royal Shakespeare Company and the BBC.
From the resources listed on the National Great Books Curriculum, I wandered over to Penguin’s teacher’s guide on Julius Caesar. The blog Shakespearemedia turned up a post on JC that included Youtube clips for all the key scenes, plus examples for student projects (animations, students as newscasters of the day). I bookmarked the No Fear Shakespeare version of the play that places the original text and modernized text side-by side. Next, I located a group of JC-related cartoons via the Cartoonists Group and a Youtube cartoon by SparkNotes that summarizes the play. Finally I used a gift card from iTunes to download a Julius Caesar app ($1.99) that scrolls the playscript along with an audio rendition on my phone.
At the risk of sound a bit like the parody of our parents who walked ten miles to school barefoot in the snow, I’d say things are a bit different now.
As a follow-up to my earlier post on “Overcoming the English Teacher Tech Blues,” I am writing not only to celebrate the ways our teaching lives have been transformed by resources we never dreamed we’d have access to, but to challenge the English teachers out there who use technology to prepare their lessons to also think about how to use more interactive tools to deliver them.
If Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar provides a case in point for the numerous resources available to us as teachers via the Internet, let me take another moment to brainstorm a few ways students could use online interactive tools to make their own meaning from the play. (I have chosen the learning activities below because they can be universally applied to almost any work of literature in an English teacher’s repertoire.)
1. Word Choice
Create word clouds via Wordle from any of the play’s key speeches, or from the dialogue for any of the play’s characters. Which words stand out? What does this tell us?
Compare the Wikipedia articles about The Tragedy of Julius Caesar the play and Julius Caesar the person. How does Shakespeare use historical facts to make his own interpretation?
Translate a “reader’s theater” version of the play into an audio podcast. (Weekly Reader provides an overview to reader’s theater and several scripts, including Julius Caesar. Students learn the nuances of scripting and oral delivery without all the fuss and difficulty of video. Or use puppet apps on an iPad (I like Sock Puppets and Puppet Workshop) to create updated scenes from the play for even younger audiences.
As an alternative to taking notes, have students live blog the events of the play as other students read, adopting the perspective of the Roman citizens or particular characters via a backchannel tool like Today’s Meet.
5. Research, Application, and Opinion
Have students scour news sources for current events that shed light upon the play and vice-versa. What can we learn from studying leadership styles, mob rule, civil war, corporate loyalties and betrayals? Students can write a modern-day “letter to the editor,” a form of writing that is mostly alien to them, about a contemporary topic that draws its argument from Shakespeare’s play.
A Plea (Not a Play)
Fellow lovers of all the world’s greatest literature, let us not bury our students in traditional lectures and teacher-dictated discussions of the books we love. Rather, let us encourage and praise our students’ efforts to make sense of the great books within the context of their own digital lives.