How to Teach Shakespeare with... Newspapers?

We love pairing unexpected topics in our classes. And this lesson fits perfectly in that category. I know. it seems crazy, but just read along and you'll see how this can really work!

History

Dozens (if not hundreds) of English and theatre teachers I know begin their units on Shakespeare with history. In order to frame Shakespeare's work, we need to know what life was like during the Elizabethan era. I think it's very important for students to know the tools old Willy had (and didn't have) as he was creating his works. When they realize how rudimentary even just basic English was at the time, it becomes truly amazing to see what great leaps Shakespeare made with words, stories and language. 

For years, I've given students the assignment to create an essay on Shakespearian-era England. This was always effective and did help my students, but like I said above, I'm looking to innovate my lesson plans. So here's what I came up with: 

Newspapers

I assigned my students to make a newspaper as if they were a journalist right in the middle of England while Shakespeare was alive. For this assignment, I told them to write two strictly news stories and one human interest story. Not only are they expected to write news stories, but they also must make a mock-up of a newspaper with a name, layout and at least one advertisement in their paper. 

Layout and Design

I tell my students to use Publisher in the Microsoft Suite or (if they're brave) they can use Piktochart. There are pros and cons to both. Publisher is very easy to use as you just plug in your stories and a layout is done for you. Piktochart has a bigger learning curve, but can create really awesome results. Play around with Piktochart and you can decide what program to assign your students. 

News Stories

These are stories that refer directly to events, facts, past political issues, anything affecting the people of the country or specifically the county the paper is published in. upcoming changes for the monarchy, etc. Students will have to do research into what developments were important to people during this time. To keep students from just copying and pasting a history article off the internet, I tell them they must create their own stories, but to use only the inspiration from their research. Here's an example:

Your student Michael has looked into the unfair business between landowners and those who crop shared during this time period. It seems that many laws were created to protect those with money and power from being responsible for poor peoples' problems. So Michael will write a piece announcing the latest government developments around these farmer-tenant relationships and create quotes from both government officials and peasants working the fields. This is supposed to be a ficticious piece inspired by research, not a copy-and-pasting of a story Michael found online.

Human Interest Story

These types of stories typically stray from strictly facts and allow someone's personal experience and point of view shine through. This will allow for even more creativity from your students. They could do research on the despicable relationship between classes or the lack of food among the poorest of people. This part of the project really opens up the research opportunities. So here's another example for clarification. 

Let's say your student Sarah finds great research on the gray area of acting and theatre in this era. During this era, theatre was thought of as a lowly form of entertainment and reserved for people of "questionable character." She finds research of actors being beaten by local authorities, chased out of town, forced into the slums to perform, etc. Her story cannot include these exact facts. She will need to get creative on names, details, quotes and facts. She has learned a lot about the backlash actors got during this era so she writes a piece on a fake actor named James Goodwin. James is the son of a minor member of the aristocracy and has caused quite a stir among the elite for becoming an actor. He has angered his family but has gained a passionate following from his fellow actors who desperately want someone of noble blood to represent them positively. So Sarah will create a story from James' point of view on his background, acting future and his stance on the negative connotation theatre has on it at this point in time. 

Advertisement

This is a fun, easy part of this project. I tell students to research what people used back then. It could be personal hygiene products, books, food, services and more. Let them get creative with their ad and how they might sell their product. This is a chance to see what kind of creative kiddos you have in your classroom! 

The Final Assessment

I like to grade this project on a few different factors:

Research - 40%

Writing - 40%

Creativity and Design - 20%

I like to put equal weight on research and writing as they play an equal role in the success of the project. Creativity and design are their own smaller category because all students aren't on the same playing field when it comes to creativity. I like to lighten the load on this portion because a student can be an amazing writer but lack design skills. It helps even out the grading process. 

Here's an example lay out and design of this project I made to inspire my students. 

Obviously, I use Lorem Ipsum for the text, but you get the idea. There's the two news stories, a human interest story and an ad for a product appropriate to the time period. 

When students finalize their papers, you can start a class discussion on what they learned, how these stories might have impacted Shakespeare and the arts and what they found the most interesting. I find this gives them a fun creative outlet as opposed to a simple essay. 

Let us know how you use this project in your classroom!