Romeo & Juliet For The Middle School Set by NEA Master Teacher Devon O’Brien
Devon O’Brien is an NEA Master Teacher at Leonardtown Middle School in Leonardtown, Maryland. Her new Grade 8 Romeo and Juliet unit is now on CC.BetterLesson. She took time to give us some insight on how the unit aligns with the Common Core, as well as a couple of tricks to teaching Shakespeare to middle school students.
(In the fair classroom, where we lay our scene:)
Romeo & Juliet For The Middle School Set
by NEA Master Teacher Devon O’Brien; Grade 8 ELA
With so much press given to the shifts that the Common Core represents, there are many who wonder how classic literary works fit in. After all, it seems like nonfiction and argument are getting all the press, right? Well, I am happy to say that literary classics have not been marginalized. Rather, the CCSS insist that the focus of any reading should be on language, its function and structure, and what it reveals about the author’s purpose. In other words, the question shifts from what to how and why. In the lesson discussed here, for example, the students undertake a close reading of the Prologue in Romeo and Juliet. Yes, they have to make meaning by interpreting the text and supporting their interpretations with evidence (RL 8.1), but then they must go deeper to really analyze figurative and connotative meanings (RL 8.4.). So, the question is not merely “What did Shakespeare say?” it is “How did he say it?”
Three years ago, the booklists in my county were revised, and some of the books that were traditionally taught in high school were moved to the middle school level. For me, that was a really exciting development, because I felt that my Honors-level students were ready for some richer texts. One of those texts that we “got” was Romeo and Juliet.
Since then, I have used it every year, and the students really love it. Yes, that’s right. Thirteen year olds love reading Shakespeare. Well, why wouldn’t they? I mean, there is romance, family drama, violence and murder, not to mention an incredible number of racy innuendos and snappy comebacks. It’s cable television. It’s a hit song on the radio…but the only challenge is, you have to be able to read it.
There are two tricks to reading Shakespeare: surrendering to the language and parsing the words. While those seem like opposing approaches, they work together. Students need to learn to let the words wash over them (like learning a language immersion-style,) and then they need to parse anything that is standing in the way of understanding. But students don’t do this automatically; they have to be trained in steps.
This Prologue lesson is comprised of discussion and a short close reading. It’s simple, and I think that’s why it works. Talking about the word “prologue” is an important step, because it helps me to access prior knowledge of text structure and it helps the students (who might not have seen a prologue before) hook into its function.
The presence of a Chorus is new to the students, and we talk about how it provides commentary on the events and helps to reveal the author’s purpose. Then, having the students break down the text – “What does it mean that the households were ‘alike’ in dignity?” – helps them realize that the story is one that they have heard, somewhere, before. Finally, a discussion of why Shakespeare might give the whole play away in the beginning is a worthy question and it gets to the consideration of structure.
A lot of what happens in my classroom is very informal. I like to float questions to kids about things like the “doubles” mentioned in the Prologue, so that we can poke at them a bit and then come back to them later. This, in effect, acts as a scaffold for the instruction, because I constantly draw kids back to earlier lessons and activate prior knowledge.
Teachers have been teaching Romeo and Juliet forever. These strategies are not new, but I think the Common Core acts as a catalyst for us to continue to analyze HOW we approach the text. Close reading, considering author’s purpose and probing language are hallmarks of the Common Core (and of good instruction, period.)
I love teaching Shakespeare. I believe that it makes students more sensitive to language and it really makes them feel smart. Romeo and Juliet was the first step…Twelfth Night is next. You can see my entire Romeo and Juliet unit here on CC.BetterLesson.