Thursday, May 9, 2013

Shakespeare is Alive and Well


Teaching Shakespeare is tricky.  It's trickier when you have a classroom full of 14 year olds who have (in most cases) never cracked the spine of a Shakespeare play, and aren't overly excited to do so.  It's even more tricky when you have 14 year olds with a wide range of learning styles and abilities.  Shakespeare and middle school, at first glance, just don't seem to mesh.

Each year I've begun to teach my 8th grade Romeo and Juliet unit, I've struggled with how best to help all of my students access this play.  Of all of the activities I've tried in my classroom, I've found that the best way to spark interest in Shakespeare amongst 8th graders is to render his work new as often as possible.  This may seem obvious, (how else can you get modern day teenagers to care about work created in the 1500's?) but there are some concrete, and sometimes hilarious, ways that I've tried to do this.

Become A Sonneteer
To get students used to the idea of iambic pentameter, I start by teaching my students about sonnets.  To avoid what would inevitably be incredibly dry direct instruction, I use a flipped classroom model.  The students watch a video about sonnet form at home, where they can learn about it at their own pace. Then, they use class time (where I am readily available to assist) to write their own sonnets about anything they want to.  Here's my personal favorite...


At the end of reading Act 1, as a way to assess understanding, I ask students to create an Act 1 playlist.  This fits in perfectly with their world. To get to this final product, I have them write a short summary of each scene, and explore the emotional conditions and motivations of each character in the scene.  Then, they peruse You Tube and their itunes libraries for the perfect songs that capture each scene. I ask them to write a blog post connecting the lyrics in each song to the events, emotions, and character motivations in each scene.  They are asked to back up their ideas by citing evidence from both the play and the song.  They LOVE listening to and talking about their music, and it allows me to sneakily help them make connections between their world and Shakespeare's and to show them just how timeless the story of Romeo and Juliet truly is.  

Love Advice
After exploring how each character asserts their feelings about love and marriage in the play, I ask students to take on the persona of a modern day version of one character, and write a letter/advice coloumn giving tips on love and relationships to 8th graders.  Once they've posted their letters, they get to read and comment on their classmates' work.  


After reading Act 1, scene 1, I had my students rewrite the scene as though it were taking place today.  I ask them to summarize what's happening, and to imagine a conversation about the same topic taking place between young people today.  They loved being silly and creative, and they LOVED sharing their performances with the rest of the class.  Take a Listen!

DVD Covers
At the end of the unit, I ask my students to take the "bones" of the story of Romeo and Juliet, and transplant them into another setting.  They are asked to create a DVD cover for their "movie," including the stars of their movie, and a well crafted blurb articulating just how riveting their film will be.



Perhaps the simplest thing I've done to generate enthusiasm is to make my classroom a place where Shakespeare is alive.  I've created several pictures (like the one at the top of this post), and placed them in different spots around the room.

Shakespeare and I enjoying a game at Fenway!

I have also covered my classroom door with purple paper that poses the question, "Why should we read Shakespeare?" along with a memorable, relatable, quotation that I change periodically.  Finally, I've re-written Carly Rae Jepson's hit, "Call Me Maybe" to tell the entire story of Romeo and Juliet.  

Though the world has entirely changed since Shakespeare lived and breathed, his teachings are timeless, and can still be meaningful (or at least memorable!) even to the most reluctant of 8th grade learners.

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