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Last summer, I ran across the book “How To Teach Your Children Shakespeare” by Ken Ludwig. It took a few minutes for the author’s name to sink in. Turns out, I’ve been a Ken Ludwig fan since childhood – he wrote my very favorite musical in the whole wide world, the one that made me fall in love with Gershwin and musicals in the first place, “Crazy For You.”

(Not gonna lie, I suffered a fan girl moment just typing that sentence.)

So, OF COURSE, I was going to need to purchase his book about Shakespeare immediately because I would love it.

And I did.

I also listened to this podcast to help me wrap my arms around the concepts in his book.

His point is that Shakespeare and good literature should just be part of the fabric of our lives. Our children should hear beautiful words and memorize the rhythms of meter and song straight from the pen of Really Good Writers. Namely, Shakespeare. It’s worth the effort of memorizing passages because the phrases stick with them forever and build a foundation for good writing to spring forth from their own pens.

This made sense to me and jives perfectly with the Brave Writer philosophy that I teach daily. I immediately began to implement. We started at the beginning of the book and began memorizing, just a little every day. Ludwig’s suggestions for making Shakespeare accessible and easy to memorize are spot on. ALL of my children, down to Finn, can quote entire sections from Midsummer Night’s Dream now. They know the story, the main characters, even some of the subtler literary nuance of the play.

We’ve marched in place, jumped up and down, and acted out the bits and pieces to keep it fresh. I am amazed at my kids’ ability to retain these words. They are FAR better at it than I am and are constantly correcting me. Follow Ludwig’s instructions for memorization and you will all be well on your way to full retention.

In addition to memorizing via Ken Ludwig, I began dragging out the Shakespeare resources I’d already collected. (Click on pictures for affiliate links.)

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On the recommendation of a friend, I bought the Brick Shakespeare books and didn’t see my kids for two days while they read through it.

I remembered my mom’s house growing up. As a professor and theater buff, her walls were filled with posters of Shakespeare and his plays. And then one day, my mom sent me this:

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I remember staring at this picture as a girl over breakfast. (If you cross your eyes it looks like he’s following you.) Mom often told me the plot summaries of whatever play or book she was reading. Sometimes it was Shakespeare, sometimes it was To Kill A Mockingbird. Mom can flat tell a story and she made it all so fascinating, even to a five year old.

And so it is that, with a little help from my favorite living and dead playwrights, I’m doing the same with my own kids. We laugh together over the word play and the stories. Obviously, my impish kids fell in love with Puck and fight over who gets to play Puck when we act out our scenes.  I dole out parts and play director while they make gagging noises any time the word “love” gets mentioned. Hilarity inevitably ensues.

A few tips I’ve picked up:

  • Take advantage of the tools on the website How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare.
  • If you feel like your kids aren’t retaining the lines you’ve taught them, don’t get discouraged. Put it away and come back the next day. Something about sleeping on it makes it “solidify” in their brains. They usually spout the lines with precision at our next lesson.
  • We recite together at first and then once we’ve put a few lines in our heads, I have each child practice saying it aloud. I make them stand and they also practice using their speaking voice. This has been excellent for my shy kids, but also lots of fun to see just how much the Littles are retaining. At our last lesson, Mira put us all to shame with her memory of Twelfth Night.
  • Include everybody – Finn knows this stuff. Even when he looks like he’s not listening, he always insists on being given his “turn” to quote. Then he will step right up and give a lot of it back to me without any help.
  • Always help them if they forget, never berate. This is supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be relationship building. Never get so wrapped up in the process that you forget the point. Sometimes the gang gets wild and I have to settle them down so they can concentrate, but I try not to give them grief for their mistakes with memorization. They will catch on easily if you keep it light.
  • Once you’ve got a handle on a scene, assign parts and act it out. Switch the parts up often for fun, chaos, and to check memorization.
  • The goal is not to move quickly through the book and passages. We will be lucky to make it through two plays this year. The goal is to savor them and know them deep in your bones.  I intend to use the book over many years. My kids are begging me to skip to a tragedy, but I’m following Ludwig’s advice and using the book in order. The passages get progressively harder and more complex and I want to build a good foundation before we skip to Hamlet.
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My recent birthday kiddos each got their own Shakespeare quote in their honor. (That’s the top of Mira’s head up there on the right.)

And finally, my favorite tip: Shakespeare is not nearly as prim and proper as we grown-ups want to make him. When we came to Nick Bottom’s speech in Midsummer Night’s Dream, the puns and play on words with the “bottom”, “donkey,” and “ass” are just too funny not to explain to my kids. I gave them permission to relish saying the speech with the understanding that it was not polite to use those words in another context. So they grin big and wink at me every time they get to Bottom’s speech in their recitation.

I smile and wink back.

And Will does, too…

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