Because of its canonical aspects and the language barrier, I approached the unit with trepidation. While I’ve taught many of Shakespeare’s plays, I have rarely taught freshmen and had not yet come across this particular task.
I have no use for beating difficult texts over students’ heads (metaphorically, of course—I feel obligated to highlight that I do not promote abuse). I certainly have done my share of suffering when teaching texts that students did not enjoy (A failed attempt at The Crucible comes to mind, as do the early parts of years when I taught American lit as a chronological survey course). While I love teaching Hamlet to seniors, I found the thought of Romeo and Juliet with freshmen intimidating. I believe in instilling the love of literature and of learning in the hearts and minds of kids, and I believe that some texts invite that possibility more than others.
So I did what I do when I am anxious—I researched (which, as a random aside, is a terrible plan when it comes to things like medical concerns, but which works quite well for conquering fears over teaching certain texts). I came across lots of mediocre ideas and some stellar ones as well. I used one of John Green's amazing Crash Course videos (see youtube link here) to get the students interested and give them some helpful background information. For other engaging activities during the unit, I relied especially heavily on Dana Huff’s posts (on www.huffenglish.com). I was most excited by her ideas about pairing scenes from the Zeffirelli version of the film (1968) with the Luhrmann version of the film (1996). Many of the students are visual learners, and all of them are better equipped to interpret and analyze film, so those activities have been amazingly successful. They made great notes, had good discussions, and wrote strong essays. The films bring out so much of the power within the writing and the story. I watched Luhrmann’s version of Act V scene iii five times. This is the testament to the power of interpretation: I felt a shiver of chills every time Romeo took the poison and felt Juliet’s hand. I’m not easily moved, but I cringed (as did every student watching) as Romeo discovered the horrifying truth.
The unit has been much more successful than I expected. They have become much better at paraphrasing, have made tremendous progress with reading, and have managed to push through the difficult language and into the complex issues that the story itself presents. With the recent epidemic of star-crossed lovers in awesome YA lit novels, the story feels remarkably relevant and even exciting. (If any teachers want to contact me for additional ideas or resources for Romeo and Juliet, please feel free to do so on the contact page or through twitter.)
And so I look toward next year’s Fate and Choice unit with excitement instead of dread. I keep thinking of all the things I can change and add. I used a small excerpt from John Green’s The Fault in our Stars (a phenomenal novel! A review of this will come at some point, I’m sure, but at this moment suffice it to say that I highly recommend it) this year to help students understand the term star-crossed, but I’m excited about the notion of introducing more pairings next year. I just read Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion (which is exquisitely written and includes a delightful balance between the crude nature of zombies and the irrepressible force of love), and I’m fantasizing about fun pairings between balcony scenes and other aspects of the two texts. Whether it’s gnomes (I have full intentions of using some aspect of the movie Gnomeo and Juliet), zombies, or terminally-ill teens, the power of this trope resonates throughout our world.
As R. says in Warm Bodies: “In my mind I am eloquent; I can climb intricate scaffolds of words to reach the highest cathedral ceilings and paint my thoughts. But when I open my mouth, everything collapses.”