Teaching Shakespeare

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My students with their masks, ready for Act 1, scene 5 — the masquerade party when Romeo and Juliet first meet.

Every year, my eighth graders dive into Romeo and Juliet.  Or perhaps a better metaphor is that I throw them into Lake Shakespeare, kicking and screaming.  They are reluctant.  They complain that they can’t understand it.

But we go slowly.  It usually takes me about five or six weeks to get through the play.  I’ve learned to assign each student to a character for the duration.  That helps the kids to keep all the names straight.  They don’t have to work so hard to remember the difference between Benvolio and Mercutio when they know that Kevin played Benvolio (who was always trying to make peace) and Mark played Mercutio (who talked a lot of nonsense and then died dramatically.)  Students fill out reading guides as we go through.  I start out giving them answers, but by Act 5, I’m encouraging them to figure out the answers on their own.  We discuss dramatic irony and why Shakespeare tells us the end of the play in the prologue.  We watch the crazy character shift in Lord Capulet and talk about what is that dude’s deal anyway.  We ponder why Shakespeare made the romance between the star-crossed lovers go so insanely fast – they’re engaged just hours after they meet – and whether the story would have worked if the two had known each other better.  We talk about responsibility.  Who is the most responsible for all the deaths that occur, and why?  Are we responsible only for ourselves, or are we responsible for others as well?  And we talk about Lake Shakespeare.  Should we continue to read the bard in school?  After reading articles on brain research, some are convinced that it’s worth it.  Others disagree.

My assistant principal didn’t really understand why I teach Shakespeare.  He hated it when he had to read it.  While he’d never tell me what to teach, I knew he disagreed with this particular content.  I argued brain research.  I gave examples of how ubiquitous in pop culture are references to the play.  He understood my reasons, but still, I think, wasn’t completely convinced until he observed my class as we read through Act 3, scene 1.  The students, armed with rulers, fought to the death, discussing the play and laughing the whole time, and showing that they were really, truly getting this stuff, with just a little help from me.  My AP later said he got more out of the play in that 45 minutes in my classroom than he ever did in high school.

Eighth grade is pretty early to read Romeo and Juliet.  Most kids don’t do it until at least their freshman year.  But I think my method works, and I think it’s worth it to have them push through really hard things at a young age.

How old were you when you first read Shakespeare?  Did you get it?  Did you like it?

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2 thoughts on “Teaching Shakespeare

  1. I was a freshman in high school & my teacher kept calling Romeo & Juliet a “good little story.” Ha! I did understand it, somewhat, but I don’t think I got the nuances until I was older. I think that might have been the fault of the “good little story” teacher, though.

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