The above image comes from the American Shakespeare Center's page on their current production of Romeo and Juliet. See their homepage here. If you are new to the Blackfriar in Staunton, VA, check out their informational page that describes what the Blackfriar replica is like and how they made the decisions they did as far as the way that the theatre looks and the way that the productions run.
On this past Thursday, 75 of the English 9 students took a trip down to Staunton, VA, to see the American Shakespeare Center's rendition of Romeo and Juliet. We finished the play in class last week, wrapping up with Act V, scene iii, with almost all of the students together, out of their seats, in the front of the room, participating in that giant scene in some way. I'd been hesitant to teach Romeo and Juliet so early in the year for many reasons, including the difficulty of the text and the potential shyness of new freshmen, who might be reluctant to stand in front of the class and read/act out the play, but because the Blackfriar was putting on Romeo and Juliet this fall as part of their twenty-fifth anniversary series, I took the plunge. It's been awesome and I've had no regrets.
During our unit, we've focused on inferences, characterization, summary, and paraphrasing difficult language. Paraphrasing is a skill that I discovered students needed when I was teaching the poetry components of AP Literature. I think for many of us who are strong readers, paraphrasing seems unnecessary. However, if you cannot break it down and put it into your own words in a way that makes sense to you, you cannot truly understand the text. Now, in the case of the entirety of Romeo and Juliet, we certainly did not need to paraphrase constantly, so the students worked on reading the language (they did many of the smaller scenes aloud in their groups) and talking through the scene until they could summarize the main events. We only paraphrased occasionally. I was still concerned that they didn't get it, but when I put Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 on their skills assessment, they did an awesome job with it. That skill will help them immensely when they get ready to write their poetry research projects. We also balanced our reading with watching scenes from the Franco Zeffirelli version of the play (1968) and the Baz Luhrmann version in 1996. I wrote more about those assignments here. We did film comparisons of several scenes, and the students wrote film comparison essays for the fight scene (Act III, scene 1) that turned out really well. In my evaluation of the essays, I focused on thesis statements, supporting details with commentary explaining what those details show, and MLA format and citations. Those specific skills will prove useful when we get ready to do research projects and other writing assignments. The students made brilliant observations about what they saw, and they had strong opinions about which version was more effective and more powerful. They rarely liked both interpretations--many found the Luhrmann's to be a betrayal of the original play and valued Zeffierelli's attention to the setting and costuming of Shakespeare's time period, whereas others thought that Luhrmann's interpretation was more dramatic and better suited to reaching today's audience.
As far as my personal opinion goes, I do remember seeing the Luhrmann version when it came out and feeling betrayed--I guess I was a purist. However, I now love both versions, and I love examining them side by side because they show the complexity of the text. Although I love both, I must confess that after all of this time of examining both of them, I find the Luhrmann twist on the final scene to be incredibly moving. I've seen that scene many times at this point, and I still get chills every time Juliet's hand grazes Romeo's face and he grabs her arm. Wow. I included that clip below for your viewing pleasure. (My teenage self was appalled by this alteration that sullied the original events in the text. Man, was I missing out.) Anyway, this continual discussion in class about interpretations led the way toward the students being great audience members and critical thinkers when we took our field trip to see it at the Blackfriar.
This discussion about whether to update/modernize the traditional aspects of older texts, particularly Shakespeare's plays, continues to be a hot discussion. The new rendition of Romeo and Juliet on Broadway resulted in this interesting NY Times article debating the merits of modernization. As far as the play we watched in Staunton, the Shakespeare troupe at the Blackfriar did a phenomenal job of blending the traditional with the contemporary. The modern elements seemed natural, not distracting, and much of the traditional elements remained intact. The street fights included switch blades and brass knuckles in addition to swords, and Tybalt fought with a clawed glove (which suited the "King o' Cats," as Mercutio calls him). On the way to the masquerade party at the Capulet mansion, the boys wore Avengers masks and acted like the superheroes. Juliet in her Converses with a formal dress and Romeo in his flannel shirt with a vest showed their youthfulness and their attempts to play adults while still being children.
The cast also did an awesome job of showing the complexity of the characters. The nurse was a cross-dressing male actor, who ranged from being a doting, mother-like figure to an intimidating bouncer. The actor playing Mercutio sucked in the audience during his "Queen Mab" monologue in Act I, encouraging us to laugh along with him and then be struck by his seriousness. Romeo was an impulsive, romantic boy who showed moments of complete devastation and weakness as he lay on the floor, sobbing uncontrollably at the prospect of exile. Lord Capulet showed his only daughter genuine affection and tenderness, and the fight between him and her at the end of Act III felt so much like a real fight had between parents and children who misunderstand each other.
The actors playing Romeo and Juliet showed the giddiness and silliness of first encounters, but they coupled that humor with the tenderness of new love. They also showed the transformation from innocence and playfulness to intimacy and seriousness as they progressed from the balcony scene in Act II to the first (and only) night they spend together in Act IV. They made their initial infatuation believable, and they swept the audience up in the headiness of their sudden, passionate love. We mourned with them and for them. We went from side-aching laughter when the nurse wouldn't tell Juliet the news from Romeo to teary eyes as the nurse mourned the loss of her beloved Juliet. When Romeo killed Paris, he used a crowbar that left Paris hung against the door to the vault--an act that showed the rashness and frantic rage filling Romeo at that moment.
That is the magic of a phenomenal theatre cast--they were able to move us from absolute hilarity to profound sadness and loss. The students were awed and amazed. Despite the length of the play, the students remained focused and seated, sucked into the magic of the events as they unfolded. Several of them talked about taking their families to see it. Lots of them talked about going back to see other plays. The students are also dying to see the new version of Romeo and Juliet that just came out in film, but sadly, it isn't showing in our area. We may have to wait until it comes out on video to watch it.
I can't wait to see how watching the play has enhanced their understanding of the text, and I look forward to hearing their insights in the Socratic discussion we have this week as our final activity for the unit.
It's here again! The celebratory opening event happened yesterday, and we, along with thousands of other Valley residents as well as visitors from other areas, rushed to the location out in the middle of corn and cow pastures to search the entire warehouse before everything new and popular had disappeared.
Yes, all of you from the Valley already probably guessed it--it is yet again time for the Green Valley Book Fair. (Thanks to Richmond Magazine for the photo, which shows just how amazing of an experience this event is.) For those of you who have not been fortunate enough to experience this extravaganza firsthand, let me just say that this event happens six times a year, and it is a gigantic warehouse full of books that have been reduced to 60%-90% of the original price. There are two huge floors with over 500,000 books, and they cover every genre you could possible imagine. It is a book event unlike anything I have experienced prior to moving here. Sound too great to pass up? It's open through October 20th! Can't make it by there this month? Don't worry, there's still one more opening this year from November 29th through December 15th.
This time, we actually made it out there on the first day of the sale, which means that I was able to pick up a new set of the Beautiful Creatures series for myself and a friend as well as a box set of The Lord of the Rings plus the Hobbit. When I first started going, I had virtually no idea what was popular in the young adult literature world, and I was overwhelmed. Each time I go, I learn more about what's popular, as well as the range of Young Adult literature now available to our students. By now, I'm starting to feel like a trained professional going in there ready to peruse the thousands of books with a keen eye, able to discern which purchases would best serve the students and enhance my classroom library.
Among this weekend's finds was The Shining, which I'm glad to provide since the long-awaited sequel by Stephen King, Dr. Sleep, has now come out. Last time I went, they had several of Cassandra Clare's books, including the first of her Infernal Devices series. This time, there were a couple more of the Mortal Instruments series, which I'm glad to add to my collection. I was also thrilled to find A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park, which I heard about on NPR. I was glad to find more by Lisa McMann since I have several students currently completely obsessed with her books. After hearing Phyllis Renolds Naylor at the National Book Fair, I was glad to pick up one of the books in her Alice series. I was also thrilled to find more of Matt de la Peña's work, and I was glad to pick up books by Jenny Han and Kristin Cast, since several students have been talking about both of those authors. I'm still anxious to get a hold of copies of Lauren Oliver's books, which I loved and which have been a raging success with students. I'm also on the look out for Matt Quick's work after seeing him speak in DC at the National Book Fair.
As far as this weekend's finds, I'm already halfway through Love is the Higher Law by David Lavithan, and I'm loving it. Next up (after I finish the other 2 books I'm currently reading), Jhumpa Lahiri's short stories collection Interpreter of Maladies followed by A Long Walk to Water and the next book in the Cassandra Clare series. I also need to read OCD Love Story next week, which we're discussing in our faculty book club soon. So many books--so little time! My list keeps growing.
Here's a full list (in addition to Beautiful Creatures and the Tolkien box set) of what I bought for my classroom library this time:
Atwater-Rhodes, Amelia Persistence of Memory
Atwater-Rhodes, Amelia The Den of Shadows Quartet
Bissinger, H. G. Friday Night Lights
Cast, P.C. and Kristin Cast Chosen
Cast, P.C. and Kristin Cast Betrayed
Cast, P.C. and Kristin Cast Marked
Chbosky, Stephen The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Clare, Cassandra City of Ashes (The Immortal Instruments: Book 2)
Clare, Cassandra City of Lost Souls (The Immortal Instruments: Book 5)
de la Peña, Matt Mexican White Boy
de la Peña, Matt We Were Here
Han, Jenny It's Not Summer Without You
Han, Jenny The Summer I Turned Pretty
King, Stephen The Shining
Lahiri, Jhumpa Interpreter of Maladies
Levithan, David Love is the Higher Law
McMann, Lisa Dead to You
Mitchard, Jacqueline Look Both Ways
Naylor, Phyllis Reynolds Incredibly Alice
Park, Linda Sue A Long Walk to Water
Walls, Jeannette The Glass Castle
Woods, Elizabeth Choker
Almost all of these books were selected because of student recommendations or because I had read and loved other books by the authors. For more information about good young adult literature for the classroom, check out the other YA lit posts. Coming soon, there will be a page on the site with all of the books that I have in my classroom library as well as a list of those that I have read and taught. I can't wait to get these new books onto the shelves and into the hands of students!
Also, as another factor that makes the Book Fair amazing, they are now selling copies of the Broadway High School 2013 literary magazine! We have some copies left over, so they are willing to give selling them a try. If it goes well, we can order more next year with the intent of partnering with them to sell to the wider community! For more information about the literary magazine, see this post. The distribution of the magazine to a wider audience, along with the students' web pages (which can be accessed through the class web page), is really teaching them about writing to a real audience and it's giving them exposure to the publication process.
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.