In honor of U.S. National Poetry Month, I wanted to share with you an activity I did with my Level 6 IEP Speaking & Listening students last semester that drew its inspiration from the words of the most exalted poet in the English language, William Shakespeare.
As explained in my last blog post, my students and I had worked extensively with the movie The King’s Speech. In a pivotal scene in that film, Lionel, the iconoclastic speech therapist, asks Bertie, Great Britain’s soon-to-be king, to read Hamlet’s “To be, not to be” soliloquy aloud. Distracted by the sound of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony ringing in the earphones that Lionel insisted that he wear, Bertie reads the immortal words without his usual, paralyzing stammer.
Remarkably, virtually all of my students—coming from every corner of the globe—had heard of Hamlet and were aware that his soliloquy contained some of the most famous words in our language. Several of my students had studied the soliloquy in their own language. They were consequently thrilled (more so than I would have expected) when I explained that we were going to practice reciting it.
To help in this endeavor, I turned to several versions of “To be, or not to be” that are available on YouTube. In class, we listened to Kenneth Branagh’s version. We took it word-by-word, phrase-by-phrase, then line-by-line, listening and then pausing the video so that students could practice repeating what they heard. We paid close attention to both word stress and sentence stress.
For homework, I asked my students to listen to a YouTube composite video that includes footage of five different Shakespearean actors performing Hamlet’s soliloquy. Their task was to choose their favorite version and then listen to it as many times as they needed to be able to comfortably give a dramatic reading of the soliloquy, using a handout of the text I had given them and repeating what they heard.
Back in class, students took turns working in pairs to practice reading the soliloquy, and then I called for volunteers to recite for the class as a whole. The results were quite astounding. My Saudi and Syrian students, with a long tradition of memorizing and reciting poetry and religious verses, excelled in this activity, reading with heartfelt passion and remarkably accurate pronunciation. So did my Russian students, several of whom knew Hamlet’s words by heart in their own language.
We then moved on to a paraphrasing activity. I asked them to work in small groups and try to “translate” Shakespeare’s words into plain English. It was a struggle, but students gamely took up the challenge. Here’s what one team came up with:
|Shakespeare’s words||My students’ words|
|To be, or not to be||To live or not to live|
|That is the question||That is the doubt|
|Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind||Whether this looks [sic] a good idea|
|To suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune||Have the pain of giv[ing] up|
|Or to take arms against a sea of troubles||Or take the bull by the horns|
|And by opposing, end them.||And maybe end the problem.|
In retrospect, the paraphrasing activity may have been too difficult for them. The vocabulary in Hamlet is challenging for fluent English speakers, let alone ESL students. And the underlying ideas are subtle. But by choosing just a few lines from the soliloquy with words that are relatively easy to understand, our class was able to come to grips with Shakespeare’s thoughts and negotiate the meaning of those thoughts with their classmates. ‘T[was] a consummation devoutly to be wished . . .