The class laughed and I added, “No, really. I tell students we’re reading Shakespeare and they act like I was going to perform invasive surgery? What is it?”
I was cheating a little with this question, mainly because I knew the answer and one of my students told me exactly what I was waiting to hear: ”It’s Romeo & Juliet.”
We then talked a little about that particular play, even though that’s not what we’re reading, and I told them that I felt for them because I really can’t stand that play either and that I think that Romeo edges out Holden Caulfield as the whiniest teenage boy in literature. But I didn’t spend too long on it because I hadn’t come to bury Romeo nor praise him; on the contrary, our objective for the day was to go over the background on the play that we’ll be discussing next week, which is Twelfth Night.
I had first taught the play last year and while my class had found it a little difficult to follow, I felt it was a good experience, especially for an advanced class that was going to be moving on to AP English. But I will admit I was a little frustrated by how much they didn’t “get” out of the play because I find it to be an engaging and even funny comedy–and I’m not even a Shakespeare buff (they’ll revoke my teaching license for this, but I’ve never read Hamlet). Still, you can’t always expect even the most advanced of students to completely “get” all of the nuance in The Bard’s writing.
So when it came time to do the introduction day for the unit, I decided to directly address the issues my students had last year with the hopes that I could head them off with this year’s group. I posted different resources on the board about two weeks out–SparkNotes’ “No Fear Shakespeare” and the “Shakespeare Appreciated” version of Twelfth Night offered by Audible.com are two I have found very useful (although I did mention that you have to buy the audiobook). I talked to one of my fellow English teachers, who also runs the theater program and he gave me some resources for getting past the language barrier. And I asked a student from last year’s class–who happens to be in my study hall–to be in class the day I did the introduction lesson for a little Q&A.
I wasn’t sure how that last part would go over so I began with a pretty run-of-the-mill PowerPoint with some basic facts about Shakespeare’s life at the time Twelfth Night was written and performed, the historical context of Elizabethan England, and some of the themes and motifs they should explore as they read and discuss the play. But then I began the intended Q&A, which I started as an “interview” where I simply asked her about how she came to know Shakespeare and why she liked the play and how she approached studying the play as well as how she approached her assignments for the play–one of which was leading the class discussion on Act I.
She has a very vibrant personality and little to no reluctance to speaking in front of students–plus, we’d done some prep in study hall the day before–so the conversation between the two of us flowed pretty easily and the class joined in at points as well. In fact, when I brought up the fact that so many students are reluctant to read Shakespeare, it was one of my students (“the audience”) who mentioned that Romeo & Juliet has the ability to kill any potential love of The Bard … though I did have one student who really liked the play (and in all honesty, it’s not a terrible play. I just don’t like it).
So did it work? I’m not sure–we don’t start discussing the play until Tuesday. Did I think it was worth it? Well, let me put it this way: there is so much talk about getting “experts” into classes to talk about subjects that when you are trying to basically assuage fears about an upcoming assignment, I thought bringing in someone who has already been there to in the very least give a pep talk would be a good idea. I mean, I’m sure that I could have told them why Shakespeare is not intimidating and give them tips for tackling the language as well as not losing track of all the characters and events, but to hear it from another student? Well, I’m hoping that made more of an impact.