We are reading Romeo and Juliet in my seventh grade classes. I think R&J is more of a freshman book, but the frosh English teachers don’t teach it and the 8th grade teacher reads Macbeth with his class, so I gotta figure we can do something with this 400+ year old play that features a 13-year-old protagonist.
I am not assigning this as homework. Homework right now is draft two of a short story project (that should be the subject of a follow-up post) and work on grammar and sentence construction. So we are reading most of the play aloud in class. My students are asking really good questions, and they are applying themselves to the problems of the play’s language with a good deal of effort and good will. Shakespeare is the master of the inverted sentence (“Mrs. Tabor? Did they really talk like this?”) and the Yoda-esque, Conan the Barbarian, verb-subject-object structure has given them some pause. (“Saw you him? Really? Saw you him?”)
How old is she? How long have thy known each other?
Yes, you can predict the problems that a room full of 12 and 13-year-old might have with two young people who fall in love (one, a girl who just doesn’t get out much and the other, a guy who has, up until the moment that he sees The Girl, been making himself sick mooning over another girl) so fast. And they were all surprised at how her father goes from wanting to let her have some say in whether she will marry Paris – the guy Dad has picked out – to telling her she can hang, starve, and die in the streets for all he will care if she doesn’t marry the “man of wax.” Really Lord Capulet? The young man in each section who got to read Lord Capulet Act 4, Scene 1 had a lot of fun calling Juliet every name in the Renaissance Parental Handbook for Wayward Daughters.
So why not?
Every Shakespeare resource since the Folger Library published Shakespeare Set Free has suggested that you get kids “into” Shakespeare by having them insult each other using the a prix fixe menu approach to insult crafting – one word from Column A, one from Column B , and one from Column C. I tried this the first year I taught the book as an opening exercise, and it just didn’t work; the kids were uncomfortable with the language, they felt weird about saying the words in front of their classmates, and the activity had no context. But after Lord Capulet excoriates his daughter for not wanting to marry Paris, it seemed like time.
With a twist
We have been working on parts of speech over the first semester, and so I printed out the words I was going to use in a fancy free font that I downloaded and on two colors of paper. Nouns were white paper; adjectives were green. Each student had to choose two adjectives and one noun. They could decide what order the adjectives were in, with the noun last. Green, green, white. Then they faced off in a random draw of opponents, with the winner going on to round two. In round two you could trade in one adjective or your noun. I would award points for style and sincerity.
I teach three classes in a row on Friday afternoon up to the final dismissal for the day. It is not easy to get kids to stay interested in the work at hand with the end of the week so close they can taste it. I try to craft work for the day that is engaging physically and mentally. It is also a crazy day of meetings and other responsibilities, so my one unassigned moment of the day comes at 9:50 until 10:30. So I have a hard time with the end of the week as well. This past Friday was not a problem. They embraced this with great enthusiasm. By the end of the day, the buzz on the floor was great. One student told me as he walked in the door that he was told all he needed for class was his book and his courage. Okay, that works. Students who rarely speak up threw themselves into the task. One young man tossed each word to the ground as he bit it out. They made me laugh so hard! The crowd cheered on the insulters and offered ice for those burns. We drew a crowd from the atrium. What was going on in Tabor’s English class???
Now, it works. They have read Shakespeare to each other aloud for two weeks, they had context for the insults, and the words (almost) made sense.
What’s a …?
Poltroon? (a wretched coward) Gudgeon? (a little fish with a big head) Canker-blossom? (Think cold sore) Codpiece? (athletic supporter perhaps?) Big laughs, big fun, and they wanted one more round, even though it was after dismissal. Shakespeare, not for poltroons.
Photo by markhillary