How I Scaffold a Shakespeare Close Read for Freshmen

My freshmen are currently reading Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and for many, this is their first exposure to his writing style. Reading Shakespeare can be really overwhelming, but when my students had an especially successful lesson this week, I wanted to capture it here in case it’s helpful for anyone else. I’m also linking all my materials for the lesson here. Just click file, make a copy, and adapt it however you need.

For reference, this lesson was taught to one class of 26 and one class of 28 freshmen. We have 80 minute class periods and meet every other day.

Step 1: Select a section of text. This lesson is centered on Brutus’ soliloquy in Act 2 Scene 1. It’s about 25 lines long.

Step 2: Copy the text for students and bold all the words that are defined in their book by the publisher. A simple Do Now activity is to give students some time to annotate the definitions of those words in the margins of the paper with the soliloquy printed on it.

Step 3: Provide any new tier 3 vocabulary specific to this day’s lesson. On this day I defined metaphor, gave one example, and had them write it in their vocabulary tracker which I’ll also link here.

Step 4: Give the purpose/focus for reading. On this day it was: How does Brutus use diction and metaphor to express his concerns about Caesar? So while there are dozens of things I could try and teach in the soliloquy, just focusing on two literary devices makes the process less overwhelming for students and allows them to be more intentional in their note taking, discussion, and analysis.

Step 5: Give a challenge. Before I did any guided practice, I proposed to students a challenge of highlighting the two places in the soliloquy where Brutus expresses an internal conflict.

Step 6: Walk through the first internal conflict and begin the guided practice. Here’s the general sequence of my questioning to my students:

  1. How did you know you were seeing an internal conflict in the text? (Key words like “I” and “but” were what they pulled that indicate a) something personal and b) a hesitation)
  2. How would you put these lines into your own words? We paraphrase together with me writing on the board.
  3. These final lines are often misread, so let’s clarify what Brutus is really saying. We spend about 5-10 minutes clarifying the lines about putting a “sting” in Caesar and making connections to other characters’ concerns about this as well from earlier in the play. This leads into both the first metaphor in the next and our diction analysis…
  4. How did you know you were seeing a metaphor here? What is the comparison?

Step 7: We close read the word “adder” and the connotations of being compared to a venomous snake. I ask questions around why Brutus would choose this dangerous animal as the metaphor over another, like a lion.

From here, students have an exemplar of their own to take with them as their work through their homework. Their homework is to identify the other metaphor, paraphrase it, and analyze the diction.

It’s one of the only homework assignments I’ve given this year that I feel confident in the amount of completion or genuine attempt that’ll be done by students, and the fact that it’s a Shakespearean text makes me feel especially proud and eager to see what they bring to class next.

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