NOTE: This is the first in a series of four posts on easing your students into Elizabethan English without terrifying them.
I didn’t take any fun pictures of this next lesson, because I was too busy clapping (more on that in a minute), but as I prepare my sophomores for our Hamlet unit, I have to share my favorite trick for introducing kids to Shakespeare:
Let Dr. Seuss do it for you.
Scansion — the process of scanning a line of poetry to figure out the rhythm — isn’t difficult, but it can be daunting for kids who have never done it before.
Fortunately, Dr. Seuss has provided a marvelous introduction to iambic meter with his classic Green Eggs and Ham.
I start my scansion lesson by defining the terms meter, scansion, iamb, trochee, dactyl, anapest, iambic pentameter, and blank verse. I ask the kids to clap each metric foot so they can hear and feel the patterns. (This is great for tactile learners. And when you get to anapestic meter, Queen’s “We Will Rock You” lets your kinesthetic kids involve their whole bodies in the lesson.)
Once we’ve covered the vocabulary, I ask somebody to read Green Eggs and Ham aloud, pausing to let the class recite each line back, clapping the rhythm together. I write the first few lines on the board and have the kids mark the accented and unaccented syllables, then group the syllables into feet.
The first time we did this, I noticed something:
Sam-I-Am is actually Sam Iamb.
(Squeeeee! Dr. Seuss included an Easter egg for us lit geeks! *Kermit-flails*)
Most of the book is written in iambic tetrameter, but Seuss sprinkles in a few variations: The protagonist is a conformist, adhering to a meter as safe and predictable as his culinary choices — until he gets mad, whereupon he shifts to a staccato pattern of alternating trochees and iambs.
The nonconformist Sam, meanwhile, has his own rhythm: one accented syllable, followed by three iambs. Good ol’ Sam-I-Am(b) doesn’t mind breaking the rules.
By the time you finish, your kids will probably think you’ve lost your mind. But they’ll also master scansion; understand what iambs and trochees are; and be aware of how meter helps with characterization — which sets them up nicely for a unit on Shakespeare, whose good guys rapped in blank verse while his villains and fools rambled awkwardly, with no regard for meter.