Closer Readings Commentary

Teaching Science and Shakespeare

Do you struggle to incorporate STEM into your humanities subject? For you—or for a STEM colleague—the challenge of getting students up to the task of college and career readiness includes addressing their ability to apply reading, writing, and listening skills across disciplines, as well as recognize the content-based connections to which those skills apply. The Common Core English Language Arts/Literacy Standards recognizes this challenge. College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening point directly to the complex mix of skills and abilities when they say: “students must have ample opportunities [for] rich, structured conversations … and [they must be able to] analyze and synthesize a multitude of ideas in various domains;” while ELA anchor standards overview for Reading notes that students “must read widely and deeply from a broad range of high-quality, increasingly challenging literary and informational texts.”

So, on April 23, to commemorate the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, it is worth asking where can humanities—and STEM educators—access an impeccable (and free) source filled with first-rate classroom materials that both broadens and deepens students’ understanding of how STEM and the humanities speak to one another.

A Path to STEM and humanities teaching

One answer is EDSITEment’s new guide, Science, Shakespeare, and the STEM Humanities: How Teachers Can Make the Most of the National Library of Medicine’s Exhibition Program Resources, which leads you on an exploration of the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s Exhibition Program’s online Education Portal.

You’ll discover more than 60 K–12 lesson plans for educators and students and more than 90 online activities and other resources that Exhibition staff has developed with classroom teachers in history, literature, science, social studies, health education, and technology—and that, furthermore, have been specifically constructed around primary source exhibit artifacts. You’ll also be very pleased to note that the newest resources are designed to not only hone cross-curricular literacy and address specific NCTE standards: they also align with CCSS learning outcomes and the higher-order thinking skills outlined in the ELA Common Core Standards.

Teaching Shakespeare and biology

It might not occur to students that a knowledge of medicine before c. 1800 could deepen both their understanding of Shakespeare’s use of language and their understanding of the history of biology. However, for thousands of years, medical thinking alleged that four bodily humors—black bile, phlegm, blood, and yellow bile—were the cause of health and illness and shaped an individual’s character. Students can arrive at a deeper understanding of Shakespeare’s characters (and their motives) by being aware of this once universal belief about human nature.

Two resources on NLM’s Exhibition Education Portal address the humors in science and literature. A high-school lesson, The Melancholy Dane, and a middle-school lesson, The Four Humors from Hippocrates to Shakespeare, were inspired by and shaped around a recent exhibition that looks at the medical understanding of Elizabethan England: “And there’s the humor of it”: Shakespeare and the Four Humors. As in all other Exhibition Program's K–12 resources, both lessons were created in conjunction with classroom teachers. Both also include a complete suite of materials: class procedures; learning outcomes; background information; vocabulary; classroom materials; evaluations; as well as extension activities. Here, the lessons are aligned with NCTE standards, but their attention to complex reading and analysis of primary sources also fits in readily with Common Core for Grades 9–10 (as we see below).

For example, in the first of two classes on The Melancholy Dane, students use an excerpt from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor to consider varying definitions of “humor” in the author’s time. They examine primary sources featured in the exhibition to learn about the four humors and humoral theory, as well as review dramatic structure.

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.4
    Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone).
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.1.d
    Respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives, summarize points of agreement and disagreement, and, when warranted, qualify or justify their own views and understanding and make new connections in light of the evidence and reasoning presented.

In the second class, students’ new knowledge about melancholy is applied to a character analysis of Hamlet, the “melancholy prince.” They identify text references to Hamlet’s melancholy traits and assess the significance of his characterization for the play as a whole. In the end, students will be able to identify the four humors and apply this knowledge in a structured analysis of Hamlet’s melancholy. They also will have experienced working with primary sources, both textual and visual.

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.1
    Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.2
    Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source.

As with all the classroom resources at the National Library of Medicine, those for Shakespeare and the Four Humors are about the way people understood the medicine and science of their time. Understanding how STEM plays a vital role in Shakespeare’s use of language can help students more clearly see their present and prepare for the future, wherever their interests and talents take them.