All the World's a Stage

Enhance your teaching of plays with strategies for pre-teaching, engagement, and culminating projects.

By Elijah Ammen


As teachers, we love the famous Shakespeare quote: 

"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances"

We love the quote so much that we often forget that four lines later, Shakespeare describes:

"the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school." (As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII)

Tragically, plays can often confuse or frustrate the "whining school-boy" (or girl) and make engagement an issue for teachers. On the other hand, if appropriately scaffolded and executed, plays can be incredibly rewarding. The key is flipping the script and having students dominate the conversation throughout each stage of the unit.


  • Visualization:

Interpretation changes everything. Plays are meant to be performed, and the change in emphasis, body language, or movement can create new meaning within the exact same words. Teachers often put the visual material at the end of a unit (like the far-too-common "if you read this book, we'll watch the movie while I grade" day). With plays, it helps to front-load the visuals so that your class can see how an actor interprets the work. A great way to do this without spoiling too much text is through trailers for film adaptations. For instance, you can show the trailers for three different Romeo and Juliet trailers: 196819962013. This keeps the focus of your class on discussion rather than passively watching a movie, and it primes them for what to expect. You can teach a lesson on comparing interpretations of famous plays. 

  • Pre-Story:

With novels, I like to throw my readers in with less pre-teaching in order to let the novel do the work and grab their attention. With plays, it's worth the investment to devote time to pre-teaching. As a teacher in an inner city Title 1 school, my classes often do not have the cultural exposure to understand the historical time frame in a play. It's important to contextualize the time period and explain the characters, particularly because there will be less exposition in a play than in a novel. Plays often drop the reader in the middle of the action. In Antigone, there are two previous plays that are critical to the plot. In Julius Caesar, there are key details about Roman history and the conflict caused by its triumvirate. In The CrucibleArthur Miller's scathing commentary requires prior knowledge of the Red Scare, as well as the Salem Witch Trials.

The most common hang-up is when a reader stops and asks "Who is this, again?" Prevent that by diagramming connections between characters in a family-tree style. This allows readers to reference the chart whenever they are confused. Remember that you don't have the visual support of seeing an actor to remember a character. You need to have the appropriate pre-teaching so that the characters are all familiar to the readers.

  • Common Devices and Unique Characteristics:

Pre-teach your concepts so you don't interrupt the flow of reading the play. If you are teaching Greek tragedy, you should pre-teach tragic heroes. Better yet, use one of these excellent TED Talk Education animated short videos to teach the types of heroes and the journey of the hero:

Make sure that your young learners understand the mechanics of older plays. For Shakespeare, introduce them to the Globe theater and for Greek plays, introduce them to the rich culture of masks, choruses, and limited number of actors. 

Checks for Understanding 

It's always a good idea to read plays out loud with volunteers reading the individual parts. As far as texts go, try to opt for scaffolding rather than modified texts. While there is a time and a place for contemporary paraphrases, it is more rewarding to tackle a rigorous text, while using checks for understanding to make sure the class is comprehending.

  • Guided Notes:

We usually consider this to be a teacher-intensive activity, but it doesn't need to be. Even a simple t-chart drawn on notebook paper is useful. As the play is read, track major plot events on one side and analysis on the other. This gives something for the non-readers to do rather than mentally checking out. For exceptional education students, you can take the time to modify the guided notes to add more prompting—a great differentiation technique.

  • Add Your Own Stage Instructions:

This expands on your pre-teaching about how interpretation changes everything. Have groups work with excerpts from the play and have each group add detailed notes about the tone and movements of each character for each line. Depending on the comfortability of your groups, have them perform the scenes for the rest of the class. 

  • Exit Tickets:
As always, your focus should be to reinforce specific literature and poetry standards. When you chunk the text for each class period, be clear with your daily objective. Have an essential question for every day (e.g. "How is Antigone's internal conflict manifested in her external conflict with Creon?") This places the concepts for the day (internal and external conflict) in the forefront of everyone's mind. Carve out time to have an exit ticket for the concept every day—usually a written response to the essential question. This keeps you from wandering away from your standards, which is easy to do in the labyrinth of a play.

Culminating Projects

  • Performances:

This can be as involved or minimalistic as you want it to be. If you have access to props, bring them. If not, let the performers be creative. I still have fond memories of Mercutio's death scene as performed with broom handles for swords. The performance can be a scaffolded event that begins in pre-teaching with a discussion of staging and interpreting, continues with annotating a scene with stage directions, and culminates in a mini-production. If you want to focus more on the planning and writing aspect, there are some great lessons on collaboratively writing plays or the aspects of planning a play.

  • Visualizations:

I love a good storyboard. It's a great way for people to unleash their creativity and artistic expression, while still providing rigorous researching and proof of comprehension. Scaffold your storyboards by choosing a number of scenes appropriate to your age group and ability level. For research and writing, make the artists pull and cite quotes directly from the text. For a creative twist, have them set the play in a different time period or culture. Or, have them pitch the play as a video game concept, with different scenes representing the different levels of the game. 

No matter what your concept for a final project is, make it fun and rewarding. We often choose the easy reward (movie day!) rather than something active that shows mastery of a text. Make it fun, but always connect back to the text.