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Standing on the Bookshelves of Giants


In this lesson, students will use the Internet to research and create webquests about the texts and authors that Shakespeare studied in grammar school. They will also discuss the role of technology in storytelling and use modern media technologies to create dramatic performances of the works that inspired Shakespeare.


Students will:
  • Read primary and secondary sources on the Internet to learn about the texts and authors that Shakespeare studied in grammar school.

  • Design a webquest about the texts and authors that inspired Shakespeare.

  • Create a dramatic performance of a text that Shakespeare studied in grammar school.

  • Analyze Shakespeare's work for examples of language, character, setting, plot or theme that demonstrate the influence that Shakespeare's grammar school readings may have had on his writing.


  • A copy of "In Search of Shakespeare" (To order, visit Shop PBS)

  • A television, and a VCR or DVD player

  • Computers with Internet access

Estimated Time of Completion

Five or six 45-minute class periods or three 90-minute class periods.


Before teaching the lesson, devise a method for dividing students into jigsaw groups. An easy way to do this is to assign each student a number between 1 and 5 (you can vary this number depending upon the size of groups that you would like to work with). Then, assign each student within each number group a letter between A and E (again, you can vary this depending upon the size of groups), such that each student has a unique number-letter combination. This will make each student a member of two distinct groups, which can be easily distinguished in subsequent classroom activities by referring to "number groups" or "letter groups."

Have students view segments from Episode One of "In Search of Shakespeare" pertaining to Shakespeare's grammar school experiences, especially the segments on the routines of Elizabethan grammar school, the central role of dramatic performance in the Elizabethan curriculum, the mystery plays, and young William's love of Ovid. Ask students the names of particular authors, books and plays that were mentioned in the segment.

Assign students to their number groups and have them read "William starts school, 1571" on the "In Search of Shakespeare" Web site. Focus their attention on the partial list of "young William's reading matter" at the bottom of the page. Ask students which items on the list they recognize, and tell students that each group will be responsible for teaching the class about one of the items from this list as well as for creating a performance of a selection from their chosen work. Either assign items from the list to particular groups or have groups select for themselves. If you include the Bible as an option, remind students that the focus of their investigation is on learning about the Bible as it existed in Shakespeare's childhood, that is, before the King James Version was written.

Have each group search the web for information about their author or text as well as for the actual texts themselves. Each group member should keep a log of each site he or she visits, including the name of the website, the exact URL and a description of the materials or information available at the site. This log may be kept separate from notes that the students take about their topics, or the two may be included in a single notebook (see Assessment Suggestions for ideas). (For electronic versions of many of the actual texts that make up "young William's reading matter," as well as additional information about many of these authors and their work, see Online Resources below) Students should be encouraged to save portions of the actual texts onto a floppy disk or a dedicated hard drive or server space for student work, for more in-depth study and editing later in the lesson, especially if printing is impossible or unfeasible.

After number groups have completed their online research, they are to collaborate on creating a fact sheet about their topic. What are the 10-20 most common pieces of information about the author or text that group members found in their Internet searching? The fact sheet could take the form of either an "about the author" (or "about the book") narrative or a bulleted list of key points. Most important is that all group members should have their own copy of the group's creation as well as sufficient familiarity with the information to be able to teach it to other students.

Have students meet in their letter groups and share the fact sheets that their original groups created. After all students present their fact sheets, have each group discuss which authors or texts they think had the strongest influence on whichever Shakespeare play the class is currently studying (or may have studied in the past). One member of the letter group should serve as a scribe to keep track of the ideas the group generates as well as any specific examples of connections between Shakespeare's grammar school readings and his plays.

Have students return to their number groups and decide upon a portion of the text that they studied in their Internet search from which to create a five-minute dramatic performance. Encourage students to preserve as much of the original language as possible and to keep to a minimum any modern-language additions beyond a short introduction of the performance. Remind students that dramatic performance was used in Shakespeare's time to teach reading comprehension (among other things), and that students should brainstorm physical actions to help convey the meaning of the language. Groups should make sure that everyone has a speaking role in the performance. Costumes, props and memorization are completely optional, but clear speaking and blocking of any physical actions should not be!

Extension Activities

1. Looking for connections between "young William's reading matter" and Shakespeare's plays could be extended from group speculation into a group or individual contest in which students compete to find the most connections. Alternatively, this group activity could provide a prewriting opportunity for a formal essay in which students analyze the influence of Shakespeare's source materials on a given play. This could be done with a common play read by all students or could be assigned for students to complete with a play of their choice. Students could also apply this intertextual analysis strategy to works by other authors in the curriculum or to texts of their own choosing.

2. The free-writing activity that opens the lesson could be extended into a more formal literary autobiography assignment at the conclusion of the lesson. Students could reflect on the influence of their personal and academic literacy experiences in forming their personality and worldview. If students have had prior experience with creative writing, formally analyzing their own writing for the influences that other authors or texts may wield on their own literary output could enhance students' understanding of the authorial process and the development of their writing voices. Student can be encouraged to share the texts that they identify as most influential in shaping their worldviews with the rest of the class to create a literacy community within the classroom.


  • Web logs and notebooks from the number group's initial Internet research provide two sources for assessing individual participation in this phase of the lesson. Participation/completion grades may be assigned, or a simple + / ? / - system could be used to distinguish between average and below or above average work.

  • The fact sheets created by the number groups can serve as the basis for a group grade for the research phase of the lesson. These fact sheets can be evaluated on the basis of accuracy, relevance and thoroughness of the information provided, as well as on the mechanics of the writing and/or the overall style of presentation. A simple + / ? / - system could be used to distinguish between average and below or above average work on each of these indicators of quality.

  • Notes taken by the scribe during the letter group meetings, as well as any observations you might record via "clipboard cruising" during this portion of the lesson could be used to assess student participation either individually or by groups. Alternatively, students could write a brief reflective piece on their experience in this portion of the lesson, commenting on specific things that they learned from each other as well as ideas that the group generated on the connections between Shakespeare's grammar school readings and his later plays. Assigning participation/completion grades would be an appropriate evaluation strategy for this activity.

  • A scoring guide for the performance should assess the extent to which the group clearly conveys the content of its selected text, preserves the original language of the text, incorporates appropriate physical actions to carry the narrative of the performance, and provides opportunities for all group members to participate physically and orally. Some individual input should also be incorporated into assessing this element of the lesson, either a formal scoring system by which individuals assess each group member's relative contribution to the group's work or an informal reflective writing on the experience.

Online Resources

Luminarium Book Store:



Standard 1: Students read a wide range of print and non-print 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 (e.g., 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 7: Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.

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



Language Arts

Standard 1. Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process

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

Standard 7 : Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts

About the Author

Sean Cavazos-Kottke taught Humanities and Analysis of Visual Media at Tomball High School in Tomball, TX and has served as a Master Teacher at the Folger Shakespeare Library's Teaching Shakespeare Institute. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in literacy in the Learning, Technology and Culture Program at Michigan State University, where his research interests center on issues of choice and reader preference in the secondary language arts curriculum.
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