When I first proposed teaching Shakespeare's MacBeth in my 10th grade ICT classroom, I was met by my colleagues’ skepticism. No one had tried teaching Shakespeare before because they either felt the students wouldn't be interested or that the language was too difficult. Anticipating these problems, I pushed ahead with my plans and both my students and I have learned a few important lessons from the experience.
First, and possibly most important, we learned a lesson in perseverance. Shakespeare died nearly 400 years ago. He wrote a long time ago. This means in addition to using weird words, most of what he wrote was in a strange poetic form with which my students were unfamiliar. After about page 3, they were ready to toss the book in the garbage. By about page 10, I was ready to toss the book, too.
Oddly, the greatest resistance was from my best students. Students who always struggle were used to the feeling. For others, this was a new challenge. I forged ahead, and dragged my students with me. Gradually, there was a shift as students stopped complaining about reading and started productively struggling. We struggled, but we struggled as a group.
My co-teacher and I stopped at some of the harder passages and modeled how to break down the language. It took longer, but in forcing them to slow down, in asking them to look at the language one more time, they developed an appreciation for each word as well as the stamina and persistence to stick with it. What they saw initially as impossible became the possible. We challenged them, and they rose to the occasion.
I also learned a lot about expectations. In every education class, you're told students will do what you expect of them. If we lower expectations, then we lower student achievement. If you expect your students to act out, then they will act out. This is one of the few times I ever seen this theory in practice.
My co-teacher and I expected the students to struggle, but we also expected them to succeed (or at least go down fighting). As a second year teacher (my co-teacher is a first year), we didn't know what would work and what wouldn't. Most of this unit, and most of this year, was built through trial and error.
One thing was unwavering: every student would try. If a student brought something to the table, then we could work with that. This belief got the class (and ourselves) through MacBeth: you might not understand it, you may need guidance, but you will try.
Don't underestimate the power of belief. When students tell you they can't do something, ask them to try again. When students ask for help, ask them what they're bringing to the table, be it an idea or a question. Expect them to struggle.
So long as we educators believe, there's hope.