While I intend to focus primarily on contemporary YA lit and how to use it in the classroom, it’s been “much upon my mind that I ought to tell…the whole truth,” (things I remember from my own high school experience: Dickens’ Great Expectations) and the truth is that in class, I’ve been teaching Romeo and Juliet. Couldn’t get more classic, less contemporary, could we?
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.”
The first in its series, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor is a riveting story that draws you in from the moment it begins. Much of the first novel is mysterious as Karou attempts to figure out who she really is and how she fits into the world. Constantly lonely, Karou struggles to relate to other people and to find her place. It isn’t until she meets Akiva, an angel who should be her mortal enemy, that she begins to discover traces of her true self. However, as she makes that discovery, her only true family is torn away from her and she finds that she is more alone than ever before.
Throughout both of the novels already released in the series, Karou struggles to reconcile what is in her heart with the harsh reality of her world. These novels grapple with the impact of war. Brimstone, Karou’s surrogate father, says to Akiva: “Have you ever asked yourself, do monsters make war, or does war make monsters? I've seen things… There are guerrilla armies that make little boys kill their own families. Such acts rip out the soul and make space for beasts to grow inside. Armies need beasts, don't they? Pet beasts, to do their terrible work! And the worst part is, it's almost impossible to retrieve a soul that has been ripped away.” Brimstone explores the way that war impacts communities. Although it is a fantasy novel with angels and demons, Taylor dives into the all-too-human essence of war and revenge and the way that those forces can decimate the soul.
Days of Blood and Starlight is even more riveting than Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and Laini Taylor never lets the action lapse as Karou rediscovers her past and finds new and courageous ways to help her people. I can’t wait for the next novel!
Translation for teen readers and the classroom: This is an excellent series for teens who love fantasy and who aren’t intimidated by longer books. The kids are tearing through them in my classes, and so far both novels are receiving rave reviews. As far as classroom application, what I love most about this series is the way that it gets into the heart of war. It forces the reader to reconcile the fact that there are good people (and bad people) on both sides who are simply doing what they have been trained to do, and that their preconceived notions of the “other” are shaped at birth and enable them to justify the violence. The novels do a stellar job of showing the devastation that war causes for everyone involved, both on a personal level and on an epic scale.
“Dead souls dream only of death. Small dreams for small men. It is life that expands to fill worlds. Life is your master, or death is.” ~Laini Taylor, Days of Blood and Starlight
K. Ashley Dickson-Ellison is a former high school English teacher (who is now an instructional technology teacher) interested in exploring the integration of trending young adult literature into the English classroom experience. Ashley is also a member of the podcast Unabridged; check out the podcast site below.
Please note: All ideas and opinions are my own and do not represent my current or past employers.
© K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All thoughts and ideas are the author's and do not represent any employer.