Shakespearean Ethnography
Authored by Emily A. Ormond


The following assessment tools are suggested approaches for teaching Shakespeare plays using Julius Caesar as an example. The Wiki is intended for a secondary school audience, and the lesson plans can be modified by you, according to the maturity and level of readiness of your students. The assessments focus on three interlanguage concepts central to the language arts: creative construction, critical thinking and performance. Each concept is successively defined and explained how it is relevant for desired outcomes, how it can be evaluated, and what materials can be used to facilitate student-centered learning. Shakespearean Zzzz is modeled on creative construction and its utility in promoting high-road transfer of knowledge. Friend, Foe, Frenemy builds on critical thinking and its function in promoting learning through cognitive dissonance. Bridging Worlds & Moot Court develops the art of performance and its significance for low-road transfer of knowledge.

Theoretical Framework

Key Ideas:
  1. Interlanguage theory is a model for language acquisition
  2. The objective is to promote conceptual change in understanding
  3. You create opportunities for structural advancement in a student's knowledge by causing cognitive dissonance
  4. Cognitive dissonance can be achieved through:
    • consolidating familiar knowledge
    • then by threatening old beliefs
    • and introducing new knowledge
  5. End purpose: students' understanding grows as they accommodate newly assimilated knowledge
  6. Old knowledge either becomes 'automatic' or is rejected when no longer helpful
  7. Cognitive dissonance is arrived at by
    • Creative construction
    • critical thinking
    • and performance learning

The following WIKI demonstrates how “conceptual change” (Beynon, Geddis, & Onslow, 2001, p. 15) can be achieved in a teenaged audience. Three assessment plans are provided to demonstrate how Julius Caesar can be instructed based on an interlanguage framework. Interlanguage theory functions on the principle that learning is a qualitative process; not unlike Piaget’s stages of cognitive development (Genesee, Paradis, & Crago, 2004). Interlanguage theory argues that a child’s understanding of language and literacy does not solely mature as a function of age; it also evolves as a result of accumulated approximations of a target language (Genesee et al., 2004). In truth, it is likely there is no ceiling for language proficiency given that students’ continuous assimilation of multiliteracies will make for evolving and transient language acquisition models (Lyster, 2004). Thus, lessons modeled after interlanguage theory satisfy criteria for both universal design, and for differentiated instruction, given that it can be molded and shaped according to a student’s level of readiness.

The cognitive processes which are emphasized to stimulate learning are performance, creative construction, and hypothesis testing (Genesee et al., 2004). Essentially, the teacher strives to promote structural changes in thinking by creating opportunities for cognitive dissonance (Lightbown & Spada, 2006. Begin by introducing material that is familiar and comfortable for your students followed by assigning a task which consolidates a skill they mostly or already possess. It is fundamentally important to ensure your students’ mastery of a simpler skill before you introduce a more complex task. Mastery presumably frees up cognitive space because the skill becomes automatic (Genesee, & Riches, 2006). Spontaneous recall of literacy tools permits your students to process new input with increased efficiency. Performance promotes learning through modelling for the desired outcome, then by breaking the outcome down into more accessible parts; and lastly, affords opportunities for both guided and independent practice (Beynon et al., 2001).Badura’s social-cognitive theory of modeling also demonstrates the strong conditioning power of observational and performance learning; as well as its beneficial effects for self-esteem (Bandura, 1977).

Creative construction and critical thinking seek to destabilize students’ firmly held beliefs about literacy and their world. Preconceptions can be uprooted by making these implicit understandings explicit (Beynon et al., 2001). Teachers can introduce a variety of materials to threaten the legitimacy of preconceived beliefs, which then forces their students by this account, to attend to their reasonings' limitations (Skehan, 1998). The process of creating cognitive dissonance in the student permits for representational advancement pushing them ever forward on the interlanguage continuum (Lyster, 2004). Interlanguage theory is a system of language development which has been presented here as a model for literacy acquisition. For a comparative view of learning, see also Vygotsky’s zone for proximal development.

Model for Interlanguage Development

Shakespearean Zzzzzzzz

This assessment was created to tap into the intuitive and creative-constructive process by invoking an emotional and subconscious response to the text. Creative construction argues that all human beings possess an intrinsic capacity to formulate unique connections which were not taught to us via rote learning (Genesee et al, 2004). For example, we can all create spontaneous sentences such as “Hi, my name is Emily, please think kindly on my Wiki.” In order to promote this kind of learning, teachers must call attention to the process by which students acquire their creative connections. Teachers can convert a student’s implicit knowledge into explicit awareness by having them explore familiar information and/or contexts; and by asking them to think about how they acquired that knowledge in the first place (Skehan, 1998). High-road transfer of knowledge can be achieved through use of metacognitive assignments (Bialystok & Ryan, 1985). Shakespearean Zzzzz is about showing the students what they know, how they came to know it, and what else could they learn to do with it?

The Lesson Plan

A teacher will know if a student understands how to uncover tone, imagery, and nuances by their exploration of musicality and dreams. The materials needed for this project are the use of an excerpt from the play and a recording from a song. The teacher may also want to supply an iTunes library for the use of the class.

  1. Students are read and shown Calpurnia’s dream as an excerpt from Julius Caesar. They are then asked to listen to a musical recording. (A song which resonates the tone of the text). The teacher explains her song selection and what she had hoped to achieve with it? The teacher then turns to the students and asks them to select a sound byte and discuss why had they chosen it? All Shakespeare texts can be found at this website. ____ (The excerpt is also provided).

Calpurnia: Caesar, I never stood on ceremonies,
Besides the things that we have heard and seen,
Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch.
A lioness hath whelpèd in the streets,
And graves have yawned and yielded up their dead.
Fierce fiery warriors fought upon the clouds,
In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,
Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol.
The noise of battle hurtled in the air,
Horses do neigh, and dying men did groan,
And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.
O Caesar, these things are beyond all use,
And I do fear them. (2.2.14-26)
  • What does Shakespeare sound like to you?

My personal selections is Imagine by A Perfect Circle. I find it appropriate for the text because of the juxtaposing message of hope with the eerie melancholia of the song's tone.

My other selection is the theme song from Requiem For A Dream by Clint Mansell. I find the song sits well with Caesar's death given its haunting sound, which amplifies incrementally, creating a sense of urgent anxiety in the listener.

  • Questions you might want to ask or consider:
  1. What musical playlist would you put it to?
  2. How does your selection express Calpurnia’s message ? Use quotes from the text to add argument to your claim and/or to compare them to the lyrics in your song.

Students are asked to follow up this assignment with a dream log. For one week, students jot down what their dreams are about. From this collection, a student chooses their most vivid dream. They then have to produce a page summary answering the following questions:

  1. What did the dream connote for you?
  2. Did you dream musically?
  3. What symbols did you recall?
  4. Include an image to help you capture what this dream was about.


  • If you were Caesar, would you take this dream seriously?
  • Return to your dream log and cite convincing instances.
  • Or you may prefer returning to the text and
  • Locate reasons why Caesar ought to or should not heed Calpurnia’s dream.

 The Ides of March, an illustration inspired by Julius Caesar
Asking students to think about everyday occurences such as dreams, or questioning them about what choices they would make, is aimed at getting students to reason about their thinking. Essentially, you want students to begin with familiar subjects such as music, and then engage them with more reflective assignments, with the purpose of promoting metacognitive strategies.

Friend, Foe, Frenemy

The following assessment was created to elicit critical thinking in the student. Students will be asked to critique representations of Brutus posited through various social scripts. Students will be made to understand how perspective is acquired through a director/author’s manipulation of text. Students will be engaged by viewing and exploring differing interpretations of Brutus and how each point of view succeeds at arousing an emotional response in the audience. The purpose of this layered-cake technique is to get at what the student already knows and then threaten that belief by introducing contrary evidence. By encouraging cognitive dissonance, the teacher aspires to expand the student’s openness to new connections (Lightbown & Spada, 2006).

The Lesson Plan

  • The teacher can use the following video and follow-up questions to ease into the topic:

  • What is happening in this scene?
  • Who is the tyrant or foe?
  • What is a tyrant and a foe?
  • Discuss what you think these words mean?
  • Who/what is a friend?

  1. Following student discussion, the teacher could call attention to the words the author and/or the students are voicing. The teacher may go to the following website to illustrate how Shakespeare makes use of the word tyrant/foe, friend.
  2. In pairs, students can continue to explore the website, or the teacher can give it out as homework. The teacher can follow up this activity by examining a passage exemplifying Brutus’ love of Rome.

If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar,This is my answer: not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. (3.2.19-21)

  • You may want to question your students about how their opinion and/or perception of Brutus may have changed?
  • The teacher can take this opportunity to bridge Shakespearean vocabulary with everyday use of language.
  • Ask about terms our society has coined such as frenemy.
  • What kind of a person is a frenemy?

Following discussion, you could show a YouTube clip of Godfather II.

  • Question students about their experiences with a frenemy.
  • End lesson by asking students to create a mini-script describing a situation in which they would encounter a frenemy. You can have students act out the script for the following class.

Moot Court & Bridging Worlds

Bridging Worlds is designed to engage students through the performing arts. By acting out Shakespearean text, students are required to execute rehearsed skills. The skills of which I speak are phonological awareness and Discourse. Moot court emphasizes optimizing known competencies, such as articulation and Discourse, because they are inextricably tied to a student's everyday life (Pahl & Rowsell, 2005). Performance promotes low-road transfer of knowledge by contextualizing Shakespeare in a student's social worlds (Fallon, Lahar, & Susman, 2009). Bridging Worlds outlines how a teacher can incorporate student Discourse into Shakespeare text. Moot Court does just the opposite. It asks students to use modern English during a debate but the point of contention and the costume must be Shakespearean!

Bridging Worlds

Discursive identity is asserted everyday. Discourse communicates orally, materially, physically and culturally “our membership of different identities in practice” (Pahl & Rowsell, 2005, p. 33). We all have a role to play, and consequently, we all model ourselves to a degree according to that social script. Question them: what do social markers reveal about a person? Then, explore with your students, what social markers exemplify their identity?

The Folger Shakespeare Library recommends bridging the gap between the two worlds by having students act out Shakespearean characters in a familiar way. They achieve a harmony between the two realms by applying students’ knowledge of social scripts. For example, a student is asked to recite lines, told by Romeo, albeit in a voice and gestural manner suggestive of a WWF wrestler.

For more on Bridging Worlds, please consult this recording or you may go to their website for a video presentation of Occupation Romeo.

Moot Court

The McGill Law & English departments have collaborated on a project called __McGill Shakespeare Moot court__. They were inspired to combine the two departments to demonstrate to their students the impact literature has had on the drafting of law and how law is in itself a form of literacy (Manderson, 2004). My interpretation for this project would be to ask my students to debate in modern English an issue inherent to Julius Caesar yet they would have to perform it while in legal costume.

Students could argue:
1. Was Brutus justified in killing Caesar?
2. Is the common good a justifiable reason to kill?
3. Was Marc Anthony sincere when he delivered his speech?

I would want to use Moot Court with a group of students struggling with self-concept (Badura, 1977). By exemplifying a high status professional, such a judge or a lawyer, I am asking my students to reflect on the kinds of social markers they would possess. And, what they will they connote? Will my student choose to embody power, learning, respectability and/or righteousness? Performance is not simply a tool for transfer of learning, it can also encourage aspiration through acting. Students should be made to feel competent and good about themselves when performing Shakespeare.

Additional Resources:

  • Theoretical Framework
  1. Center For Research on Language, Mind and Brain site

  • For Shakespearean Zzzz
  1. For more on how music can be applied to the language arts, consult Milner and Milner’s Bridging English. “Students find it easy to find evidentiary support from the text and to speculate about ideas because they find the songs absorbing, familiar, and comfortable;” (2008) a quote on music page 66.
  2. For more on Calpurnia’s dream, see Cynthia Marshall, “Portia’s Wound, Calpurnia’s Dream: Reading Character in Julius Caesar,”Julius Caesar, New Casebooks, ed. Richard Wilson, 170-87.

  • Friend, Foe, Frenemy
  1. Folger Shakespeare Library provides recommended lesson plans and teaching materials.
  2. This link affords an example of a "pre-reading" assignment on the topic of friendship. Pre-reading for Julius Caesar

  • Moot Court
  1. Manderson's article on Shakespeare's Moot Court elaborates on the interrelatedness of law and literacyMoot Court


Baker, L. (1989). Metacognition, comprehension monitoring, and the adult reader. Educational Psychology Review, 1(1), 3–38.

Homepage of Albert Bandura

Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. New York: General Learning Press.

Bialystok, E., & Ryan, E.B. (1985). Toward a definition of metalinguistic skill. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 31, 229-51.

Fallon, Dianne, Lahar, Cindy J., & Susman, David (2009) Taking the High Road to Transfer: Building Bridges between English and Psychology Teaching English in the Two Year College 37 (1), 41-55.

Feito, José Alfonso & Donahue, Patricia (2008). Minding the Gap: Annotation as preparation for discussion. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 7 (3), 295–307

Homepage of Genesee, F.

Genesee, F., Paradis, J., & Crago (Eds.) (2004). Dual Language Development and Disorders: A Handbook on Bilingualism and Second Language Learning. Baltimore, Maryland: Brookes Publishing.

Genesee, F., & Riches, C. (2006). Instructional issues in literacy development. In F. Genesee, K. Lindholm-Leary, W. Saunders, & D. Christian, D. Educating English language learners: A synthesis of research evidence (pp. 109-175). NY: Cambridge University Press.

Lightbown, P. & Spada, N. (2006) How Languages are Learned. (3rd edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Homepage of Lyster, R.

Lyster, R. (2004). Differential effects of prompts and recasts in form-focused instruction. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 26, 399-432.Article

Lyster, R., & Saito, K. (2010). Oral feedback in classroom SLA: A meta-analysis. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 32, 265-302.

Manderson, Desmond (2004). In the Tout Court of Shakespeare: Interdisciplinary Pedagogy in Law. Journal of Legal Education 54 (2), 283-301.

Milner, J.O. & Milner, L.F., (2008). Bridging English. (4th edition). New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Homepage of Rowsell, J.

Pahl, K. & Rowsell, J. (2011). Literacy and Education: Understanding New Literacy Studies in the Classroom. (Second Edition). London: Sage.

Skehan, P. (1998) A Cognitive Approach to Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.