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The Nature of Writing and the Writing of Nature

Introduction

While Shakespeare may not be common on the elementary school curriculum, his poetry is a natural match for students in 4th and 5th grades. The students relish the sound of Shakespeare's language - his wonderfully inventive words and powerful rhythms - as well as his vivid descriptions. While it may not be appropriate to give elementary students an entire play to read, they can dig into a short passage or scene with great attention and enjoyment.

This lesson plan uses Shakespeare's writing as a model for elementary students, encouraging them use their imaginations to explore to the evocative powers of language. It gives them a manageable piece of text which they can master and then use as a springboard for their own writing.

Learning Objectives

Students will:
  • Exercise and refine their skills of observation

  • Both identify and create images of nature

  • Employ creative and descriptive writing skills to communicate their ideas, using Shakespeare's texts as a model

  • Develop an understanding of the local environment as a source of imagery for poetry

Estimated Time of Completion

This lesson will take one to two 50-minute class periods.

Materials


Procedure

Begin by sharing the following short bit of poetry from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" 2.1. 249-256:
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull'd in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamelled skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in.
It's not necessary for students to know the entire play; they will be focusing on the power of the writing in this one passage. Ask the students to close their eyes and imagine the scene as you read the piece to them. What do they see? You may need to give some brief definitions of unfamiliar words - for instance, students probably won't know what "woodbine" (honeysuckle) or "eglantine" (sweet-briar) is - but keep the definitions short and simple. Let the sound of the language and the context create understanding for the students.

Pass out copies of the passage on the Handout and have students illustrate the scene they imagined, using the text as a reference.

Once the pictures are complete, have students read through the passage and circle any words that gave them specific ideas for their pictures. For example, if they drew purple flowers, they should circle "violet." Discuss which words were easier to imagine, and which were harder. Did the students illustrate any words for which they did not know the exact definition? Some of the common names which Shakespeare knew for plants - musk-roses or oxlips - are evocative enough to suggest an image.

Show students an excerpt "In Search of Shakespeare," in which scenes from Shakespeare's native Warwickshire are shown and many of the native plants are named. (Episode 1, 08:20-09:45) Explain to them that Shakespeare's plays drew inspiration from the countryside he knew. He used imagery in his writing - particularly metaphorical names - to communicate a picture to his audience, to create a picture in their minds. Visit the "In Search of Shakespeare" Web site and look under "Locations." There you will find images of the places Shakespeare knew throughout this life.

Assign students the task of gathering their own descriptions. They should, like Shakespeare, use images to describe their natural environment. If you have access to the outdoors, students should go outside to observe plants and trees. If you are confined to the classroom, provide students with magazines that depict a natural environment in their pages. If the students don't know names for everything they want to include, encourage them to use their powers of observation. Remind them that Shakespeare often used or even invented descriptive names: cuckoo-bud (buttercup), love-in-idleness (pansy), flower-de-luce (iris), and so on. Encourage the students to make notes that will help them develop compelling images, using similes and metaphors.

Students should then develop their descriptions into a short (no more than 10 lines) descriptive poem. Encourage them to create a sense of place - like Shakespeare did - with words.

Complete the lesson by having students share their poems with the class as a whole or, if time does not allow, reading them to one another in small groups.

Assessment

  • You might create a scoring guide to evaluate the effectiveness of each poem. Peer evaluation can be incorporate through the sharing of poems.

  • The poems might be displayed along with pictures of the sites they describe. If your students have written about a place near your school, you might consider reading the poems aloud to an audience at the site.

Extension Activities

1. Consider continuing this activity with other texts from Shakespeare's plays - for example, "Hamlet" 4.7.138-155, "King Lear" 3.2.1-9, or "The Tempest" 5.1.33-57. These last two texts are enacted in "In Search of Shakespeare", Episode 4; rather than reading them aloud to students, you can show them the scenes from the video. (King Lear: 22:00-26:00; The Tempest: 35:15-38:20)

2. Have the students act out either Shakespeare's poems, or their own. Can they strike poses that show the nature they are describing?

3. Students can also research the environments - either Shakespeare's or their own - which they are describing. Encourage them to compare the scientific and common names for various plants. Which are more useful for poetic writing? Which are more descriptive?

Online Resources

Folger Shakespeare Library - Shakespeare For Kids:
http://www.folger.edu/template.cfm?cid=588

Standards

NCTE and IRA:

(http://www.ncte.org/about/over/standards/110846.htm)
Standard 1: Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.

Standard 2: Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.

Standard 3: Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).

Standard 5: Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.

Standard 6: Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.

Standard 8: Students use a variety of technological and informational resources (libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.

Standard 11: Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.

Standard 12: Students use spoken, written and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information.

McREL:

(http://www.mcrel.org)
Standard 1: Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process.

Standard 2. Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing

Standard 3: Uses grammatical and mechanical conventions in written compositions

Standard 4: Gathers and uses information for research purposes.

Standard 5: Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process

Standard 6: Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of literary texts

About the Author

Anne Turner worked for many years at the Folger Shakespeare Library, where she developed and implemented the outreach programs to elementary classrooms in the D.C. Public Schools. She continues to be a trainer for the Folger Education and Festivals Project, leading workshops for teachers on methods of teaching Shakespeare. She also serves as the Assistant Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Virginia, where she teaches religion and leads chapel services for students at Grace Episcopal Day School.

Handout

The Nature of Writing and the Writing of Nature
Shakespeare for Elementary Students

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