Teaching Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet does not have to be a headache. There are a few things I have learned make teaching this timeless classic easier for both teachers and students.
How to start
I used to panic at the idea of teaching Shakespeare. In college, we focused heavily on close reading and using critical lenses, which felt like a totally different language to me. So when I was told to teach Macbeth my first year teaching, I combed the internet trying to figure it out.
Newsflash, that didn’t happen.
What did happen was I ended up sorta spoon feeding my students the conclusions I wanted them to get to. We slogged through the whole play, and only really watched the play once we finished as a “reward.”
To no one’s surprise except past baby-teacher me, that wasn’t the most conducive way to teach Shakespeare.
1. Build Context
Like in all things teaching, beginning one of these big plays needs to start with frontloading context. Who was Shakespeare? Why did he speak funny? Why do we still study him today?
I like to do this by accessing some of the free resources on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s website, and have my students click around the Globe Theatre. We also watch some videos on YouTube and talk about who he was as a person.
Then, I frontload context about the play itself. For Romeo and Juliet, I have students make medieval posters where they research what the middle ages was all about, and then share with the class.
I close out context by having students complete an anticipation guide which asks for student’s stances on a few of the play’s main ideas.
2. Watch the Play
Yep. You read that right. We read the play first before we read it. And no, it doesn’t spoil it because the play itself spoils the ending in the Prologue.
Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be watched, and students can learn so much about the characters from watching skilled experts perform the lines. It’s like reading the script of Star Wars versus seeing it being performed.
In watching the plays, students can also listen in to how the audience is reacting. You can rewind and ask them why they believe the audience is reacting to one of Mercutio’s funny quips or Romeo’s silly attempts to approach Juliet. Things that may get lost in a student read can be grasped in a performance way more easily.
There’s absolutely too much to cover with Romeo and Juliet. Teachers can do a read where they focus on violence, or figurative language, or dramatic aspects, it’s one of those plays that have so much to uncover.
Rather than overwhelm my students with all of this, I like to chunk the big items I think are important in workbooks. If I want students to take apart a few lines and play with them in a mentor sentence, they can. If I want them to focus in on Friar Lawrence as a father figure but also as a foil to Nurse? Yep, they can.
The idea is to present these concepts to students in small, digestible chunks. In doing this, I think it allows students to cover the standards and understand the play to a sufficient degree that they can then deeply and thoroughly discuss it and practice those critical thinking skills we so want them to learn.
4. Dialectical Journals
Dialectical Journals are a fancy way of saying double entry journals. For my double entry journals, I like to have students pop in a GIF reacting to the scene, just to add a level of engagement.
Students get super into trying to select the perfect GIF. And then, content-wise, teachers can look at the portion of the text they have selected and see how they are connecting to it.
You can grab my dialectical journals here.
In a perfect world, we would just be able to talk about Shakespeare and be done with it. But, sometimes we need to keep our students accountable for their reading and the powers that be happy with grading.
I like to make my life as easy as possible and use these self-grading quizzes which ask about figurative language, relation, and author’s craft.
You heard me right, Rap Battles.
Students groan about it, but in the end they come up with some amazing rhymes and it is usually the activity they will remember the most from their year with you. I still have former students who come back to me talking about their raps!
All in all, Romeo and Juliet has become one of my favorite plays to teach students, and I look forward to seeing how students react to the play. How do you teach Romeo and Juliet?