Archives For Romeo and Juliet

Every school year, students in hundreds of freshman English classes nationwide read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

They are learning about meter and experiencing the rhythmic patterns of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter:

  • Ten syllables in each line
  • Five pairs of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables
  • The rhythm in each line sounds like:
    ba-BUM / ba-BUM / ba-BUM / ba-BUM / ba-BUM

In the play, the pattern of  iambic pentameter sounds like:

Juliet: o NOW be GONE, more LIGHT and LIGHT it GROWS
Romeo: More LIGHT and LIGHT, more DARK and DARK our WOES

Studying the meter of Shakespeare’s poetry in English class is akin to practicing the Common Core Mathematical Practice (MP7) which asks students to “look closely to discern a pattern or structure.”

Students can find language patterns everywhere.

Now, some freshmen English classes might be reading Romeo and Juliet during the week of Valentine’s. They might already be familiar with some of the iconic images of the holiday: roses, Cupids, or those candy conversation hearts.

But did they notice that the conversation hearts associated with Valentine’s Day have a specific pattern?

According to Necco, the maker of the candies, the pattern to the conversation heart: five letters on the top line, and four on the shorter line:

 

cartoon-heart

Necco, or the New England Confectionery Company, has produced candy conversation hearts since 1901, and the flavors traditionally include: Lemon, Apple, Blue Raspberry, Strawberry, Grape and Orange.

While the language on the conversation hearts are no substitute for Shakespeare’s genius, they can be helpful when “sometimes you don’t have the words to express your feelings.” Every year from February to January, Necco produces almost 100,000 pounds or 8 billion pieces of sugary sentiment. There are hundreds of suggestions submitted each year to the company with new sayings. Many of these are sayings that reflect cultural shifts: From “Call me”, “Email me”, or “Fax me”, to “Tweet Me.”

Asking students in classes that are studying Romeo and Juliet to create new conversation hearts to accompany the play could be a fun assessment, especially on Valentine’s Day!

The standard pattern of these conversation hearts could be used as a way for students to summarize several of Shakespeare’s speeches.

For the line:

  • But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun. (2.2.1-3)
  • Conversation heart summary: Romeo to Juliet: You’re a Sun

For the line:

  • ‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy; (2.2. 38)
  • Conversation heart summary: Juliet to Romeo: Enemy Mine

Students could also use the conversation hearts as a way for students label characters:

  • Tybalt: Angry Ally
  • Mercutio: Amigo Poet

Students could also try other patterns on the conversation hearts such as:

  • six letters on top line, three letters on the bottom line;
  • four letters on the top line, five letters on the bottom line;
  • Punctuation could be used as well.

Students could string the phrases from a few conversation hearts together to create a new line of sweet poetry. In that case, they might choose to include the most popular conversation heart, “Marry Me”…which is more positive for celebrating the Valentine’s holiday than than the more tragic “Kiss-I Die!”

Shakepeare winkingPlanning on teaching literature in high school? I suggest a brush up on literary pitfalls….and work on developing a sense of humor because sooner or later, a student, (usually a boy) will come upon one of the following words in some great work of literature:

Screw.
Bang
Bosom.
Laid.
Nuts.

In context, these words have been carefully chosen by an author to express some lofty ideal.  Yet, to that student who is looking for any way to make the class more entertaining, these words can mean something else entirely.

No author has been more successful in creating linguistic traps than Shakespeare. There are the overt references, such as Lady Macbeth’s startling announcement to “Unsex me here..!” (I.5) in preparation to assassinate the visiting King Duncan.  There are the more subtle problems with the “hoary-headed frosts” in Midsummer Night’s Dream, but Romeo and Juliet offers the most opportunity for student sniggering.

From the opening scuffle where, “My naked weapon is out”, a teacher must negotiate students through Lord Capulet’s Give me my long sword, ho“,  Mercutio’s  teasing  “Prick love for pricking,” or the Nurse’s explanation that Juliet “shall bear the burden soon at night.

“Is Shakespeare always this dirty?” I see the quizzical looks on their faces.
“Your parents are okay with this,” I reassure them, “Besides, this is required reading.”

The Bard does not have a monopoly on creating awkward moments with language in class. Students are capable of creating discomfort, intentionally or not.

Years ago, I taught an Animal Farm unit and delivered a lesson on George Orwell’s characters and their historical counterparts. I explained that Napoleon was Stalin, the dogs were his secret police, and Snowball was Trotsky. I mentioned in passing that Trotsky was considered an insurrectionist, and I paused to let the information sink in. Instead I heard the distinct sound of giggling from several of the boys in the back of the room.

“What is so funny?”I demanded.
“Nothing,” they stammered.
I should have stopped there, but I moved in to clarify.
“What do you think I said? Do you know what an insurrectionist is?”

There was a pause…
“When… it… goes down?” blurted out one of the offenders.

“No,” I was indignant…not to be stopped. “No, I said’ insurrection’…what did you think I …..”
Then it hit me.
Erection.
I doubled back.
“It’s someone who is trying to start an uprising…..”
That explanation was drowned out with guffaws.
Did I mention that a very good sense of humor is needed in with sophomores?

This past fall, I had posted charts around the rooms with questions associated with Oliver Twist.
As the students moved around the room I noticed students giggling when they got to one of the charts.
“Why would someone lie?” was the heading on the chart.
“To get laid,” was scribbled in small print.
I recognized that print.
That print belonged to Mitch. Mitch who stood all of 4’2″ and was 90 lbs, soaking wet.

Everyone had seen it, so I needed to address the problem quickly.
“Mitch,” I demanded, “is that an appropriate thing to write?”

“Sure, Ms. B,” he replied casually,”I could lie and say I’m dying…Like in the movie 50/50.
I had to admit he was using logic…to say nothing of his confidence.
He still erased the comment.

Next week, I plan to use an Advanced Placement Literature multiple choice prompt from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey as practice for the upcoming AP exam.  I was rereading the passage to check its length and the matching questions when I came upon the line, “She began to curl her hair and long for balls.”

Oh, Jane. That’s going to definitely cause a stir!

The headline in The New York Times (6/13/2013) was a little misleading, Study Gauges Value of Technology in Schools. The topic of gauging the value of technology is particularly significant given the investment by school districts everywhere in laptops, tablets, computer labs, Smartboards, whiteboards and projectors; but the article only referred to the use of technology in math or science.

The article by Motoko Rich referred to the “student survey data conducted in conjunction with the federal exams known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress,” This data was reviewed by the nonprofit Center for American Progress, which determined that middle school math students were using computers for math drills and other low level exercises. One of the more interesting points in the article noted that “no state was collecting data to evaluate whether technology investments were actually improving student achievement.” One of the problems noted in the report was the “lack of discrete learning goals” set by educators that results in the “use of devices in ways that fail to adequately serve students, schools, or taxpayers.”

When states do begin to collect data on the use of technology in the classroom, their studies should be broadened to include how technology is being used in other disciplines, specifically the language arts/English classrooms to facilitate writing.  In contrast to reports of math and science technology use, language arts teachers are using a multitude of digital platforms to facilitate communication between students; technology offers opportunities for students to engage in formal and informal writing at every grade level.

Multiple digital platforms such as blogs or wikis allow students to post responses to questions posed by teachers. Students can share essays in order to peer edit or collaborate on projects, or students can follow links and create data in surveys and respond to the data created.

Screen Shot 2013-06-23 at 9.38.55 PMFor example, an assignment for 9th grade students as part of a Romeo and Juliet unit to respond to a writing prompt can use multiple digital platforms to generate sophisticated responses. The assignment was posted on EDMODO and contained data from a student/parent survey on arranged marriages that students and their parents had completed on a Google Doc form. The survey results were posted on PBWorks for students to access for homework. Students needed to review the scene where Lord Capulet arranges Juliet’s marriage to the Count Paris before writing a response. Each response that was posted was available for the class to review and to discuss.

The assignment’s directions read:

The worldwide wide divorce rate for arranged marriages is 4%; this could be due to cultural taboos regarding divorce.
Look at the data on the page that you and your parents created.
What differences do you notice in your attitudes towards arranged marriages?
Now, Consider how the Capulet’s choice of Paris for Juliet may have been the better choice.
Was Romeo and Juliet’s choice to follow their passion the right decision?
Should they have followed their parent’s wishes?

Respond in a well developed paragraph that includes:

  • Introductory sentence that gives your opinion;
  • evidence from the survey;
  • evidence from R&J;
  • Why this decision is important for future couples.

This assignment required a sophisticated analysis of data that the students had created, and an general analysis of characters from Shakespeare’s play.

Here are three responses generated by the prompt:

If Romeo and Juliet had listened to their parents almost all of this never would have happened. Even though just letting their parents choose would have solved everything, it was their decision. Romeo and Juliet had every right to choose their lives. Even the data from the survey shows that most children and parents don’t approve and less than 40% of people thought parents should choose. The Capulets didn’t know anything about their daughter and is trying to match her with someone who is completely wrong for her. This is why Eharmony uses Math equations because that is a lot more reliable than your parents.

In my opinion, Romeo and Juliet’s choice to follow their passion was the right choice. In the survey, some parents said that they could pick their child’s spouse. “I think I know my daughter well enough to know what kind of spouse she is looking for.” This parent has the same idea that Juliet’s did when they arranged for her and Paris to be married. Obviously in Juliet’s case, an arranged marriage did not work. She rebelled and went for Romeo. “Where is my Romeo?” was one of the first things Juliet said when she awoke from her sleep. Romeo and Juliet were love drunk and when they died they were both insanely happy. This is an important for future couples because if they’re in an arranged marriage it may end in death because one or both people are miserable.

I think that maybe Romeo and Juliet should have followed what their parents want. In our survey, 1/3 of the parents said they would be ok choosing their kid’s spouse, and 1/4 of us said that they would be ok with that. Romeo would still be in love with Rosaline, and he and Juliet would still be alive, their families would still be fighting but still they might have  been happy. If Juliet haven’t meet Romeo she might have fallen in love with Paris, and who knows that if Romeo and Juliet were married they wouldn’t have divorced?

While there may be some question as to the effectiveness of technology in the classroom, the language arts/English classroom must be included in future studies by NAEP and in each state. There are multiple ways that digital platforms are being used to facilitate discussion and the sharing of ideas in language arts/English is far more sophisticated than the use of technology to “simply drill math problems.”

Spoiler alertEnter the spoiler alert. Because the number of ways people hear about stories is increasing, spoiler alerts for books and films are offered as a “heads-up”, a means to prevent plot details from becoming public.  Knowing the end of a story might mean that the strategy of “predicting” a story has been compromised, however, there are genres of stories that absolutely count on predictability, for example, Nancy Drew will always solve a mystery with her best friend, Bess and George, while on TV, predictability has a time limit; the shipwrecked crew will never leave Gilligan’s Island (30 mins) and House will solve a medical mystery (60 mins).

Predictability means to state, tell about, or make known in advance, especially on the basis of special knowledge, and students are taught at an early age that making predictions can help them to determine what will happen in a story.

I noticed how predictions are important even if the end has already been decided when my six-year-old niece was watching the Disney film Running Brave. This was her favorite film, and she watched the VHS tape every afternoon. On one such afternoon, I noticed she was drifting asleep, so I made a move to turn off the video.

“Wait,” she cried out, “I think….I think he’s going to win again.”

From her perspective, the outcome of the race was still in doubt. The cinematic elements, the tight editing of shots , and a triumphant soundtrack created suspense where the viewer might doubt the inevitable. Krista had seen the movie hundreds of times, but she still was “testing” her prediction.

I admit that I have felt the same way watching Miracle, holding my breath for the final seconds wondering if the US ice hockey team would still win the Olympic medal. Krista’s experience is also mirrored in the classes where students often choose books based on a movie that they have seen.

In the independent reading allowed in our curriculum, the 9th graders can choose contemporary fiction or non-fiction, and many of the titles have movies in circulation, for example:

Some students purposefully choose these books because they know the endings, and in knowing how the book ends allows the reader to pay more attention to the craft of the author in bringing all the plot points together in a conclusion. Take for example, the Harry Potter series. Most readers predicted with certainty that Harry Potter would finally face his nemesis, Voldemort. The how and when, however, were still very much in the air, and J.K.Rowling’s crafting of the series’s magical settings and character development kept readers in a willing suspension of disbelief for the length of seven volumes. The final conclusion was satisfying to her fans who knew all along that Harry would prevail, after all, Good’s triumph over Evil is a predictable plot. Readers and filmgoers were not disappointed in following the story of a boy with the scar on his forehead because in each volume and subsequent film release, they correctly predicted that “I think…I think he will win again.”

So when I teach a whole class novel, I know there are some students who already know the ending. They may have reached the conclusion before others, or been informed by older students who notoriously share their opinions and critical information with younger students. In this case, my role is to impress on students that knowing the outcome will not destroy a well-told story, and to focus their attention on the other elements. This was the case with John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

“I heard this is a sad book,” one student said when I assigned the first chapter, “One guy kills another guy.”
Other students looked up for my confirmation.
“Yes, this is a sad book, but the reason for the sadness is really about caring. We will grow to care for these characters.”
“I already don’t care if I already know what happens,” was his reply.
Four weeks later, this student refused to watch the final scene in the film version.
“I know what happens, and I cannot watch,” he said sadly as he walked out into the hall.

The same sentiments are expressed at the beginning of our study of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
“Guess what? They die,” said a student as I passed out the books.
“Yes, they die,” I kept passing out the copies.
“So why are reading this?” another asked.
“Because this is a great story,” I responded, “and the story’s ending will mean more after we finish because we will have read how Shakespeare writes about these ‘star-cross’d lovers’.”
“But we already know how it ends!” they whined.

Now that we are in Act III, no one cares that they know the end, instead, they are recognizing how Shakespeare creates the tragedy. They notice the “hints”: Juliet seeing Romeo “As one dead in the bottom of a tomb”, Friar Lawrence’s herbs of “Violent delights”, and “Love devouring death”.

This discovery of an author’s details makes students more appreciative of the craft in writing as they still try to predict. They notice Shakespeare’s allusions: “Such a wagoner/As Phaeton would whip you to the west/And bring in cloudy night immediately” (3.2.2-4), because we had studied the Phaeton myth earlier in the year.

“Uh-oh. That’s not good,” I heard one say, “Romeo’s gonna crash and burn like Phaeton.”

That kind of analysis is exactly what the English Language Arts Common Core would like to see in a close reading of a text. How interesting that students who already know “what happens” may be better at picking up on an author’s craft that a close reading generates.

Spoiler alerts do warn those readers or viewers who want to be surprised, but knowing the ending does not necessarily ruin the reading or viewing experience. Want to experiment? Here are 50 plot spoilers for 50 novels. I predict that each novel will not disappoint, even if you already know the ending.

Yes, I make my student memorize Shakespeare’s prologue to Romeo and Juliet.

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend. (I.i.1-14)

To prepare them for the poem, I opened with the 2009 video Darrin Landroché:

We discussed the images and the music choices to communicate a message. Most of the student know that Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy; this was not a “plot spoiler.”

Right now, however, they are baffled by some of the vocabulary contained in the lines of the opening sonnet. (“Mrs. B, What are ‘loins’?”)  On the other hand, there are certain phrases they have already committed to memory. I hear them repeat “where civil blood makes civil hands unclean” and “star-cross’d lovers” under their breath when I ask what they remember.

This morning, I gave them a CLOZE exercise, leaving out words for them to fill in: “_____households both alike in dignity”. They could research the missing words by looking at the small copy of the poem I had them glue into their notebooks.

The best idea, however, has come from my fellow teacher (Ms. S-V) who designed an “annotated prologue” project. We are a BYOT (Bring Your Own Technology) high school, so digital platforms are used regularly, especially the Google Apps.  For this assignment, students illustrate the poem with pictures and links and embed those with the lines of the poem onto a Google Doc.

We did not require a works cited; I would require one if we do this again in the future.

So far, the project is going well. The Google images features are familiarizing students with Verona, Italy. They are also having to  find ways to illustrate “piteous overthrows”. Most all of their responses are literal connections.  Some of the first efforts are heavy with links to songs or movies. All of the annotated prologues have visual elements; some are exclusively visual. Here one example from a student that looks much better that the formatting on this blog. While I love the “two hours traffic”, it’s the “patient ears” that makes me smile. Good work, Molly!

Screen Shot 2013-04-30 at 9.32.33 PM

Two households, both alike in dignity

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,\

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,

From ancient grudge break to new mutin

.
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes

A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;

A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;

Whose misadventured piteous overthrows

Whose misadventured piteous overthrows

Do with their death bury their parents' strife.

Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.

The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,

The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,

And the continuance of their parents' rage,

And the continuance of their parents’ rage,

Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,

Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,

Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;

Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;

The which with patient ear you shall attend

The which if you with patient ears attend

What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

While my freshmen students knew Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, the details on the relationship of the “star-crossed lovers” were a little fuzzy.  Romeo and Juliet is often a student’s first introduction to Shakespeare for not so surprising reasons. The characters Romeo and Juliet  are young-she is 13 years old. They are in love. Their families stand in the way of their love. They must meet in secret. They defy the authority of their parents. Many of these elements appealed to my 9th grade students. But there were surprises everyday when we performed scenes from the play in class.

The biggest surprise for me was the willingness of my students to take on the difficult meter and vocabulary of Shakespeare in order to play one of the parts in the play. Hands would go up, “I want to be Mercutio!” or “Can I be the Messenger?” and “Can’t a guy play the Nurse?”

Of course, they were almost always terrible. Shakespeare’s verse is difficult to read “cold”.

Billy stumbled but persisted in his reading Benvolio’s  lines while we patiently waited:

The fiery Tybalt, with his sword prepared,
Which, as he breathed defiance to my ears,
He swung about his head and cut the winds,
Who nothing hurt withal hiss’d him in scorn.

Each of the students stumbled over the strange vocabulary: prolixity, holp, God gi’ god-den, tetchy, sirrah, obsequy. Matthew wondered aloud why Capulet is always saying, “What? ho!” Michael regularly referred to the language of the play as Old English; he would not be convinced otherwise.

When we turned the page to Act Two, scene 3,  I saw Logan take big breath, visibly steeling himself to read Friar Lawrence’s lengthy speech. In Act Three Scene 5,  completely unaware of pace and more interested in finishing the scene before the bell rang, Malia raced through the Nurse’s teasing of Juliet. Not one of them (thankfully) really understood the allusions in Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” speech in Act One scene 5. Yet, everyday they entered the classroom asking, “Are we acting out the play today?”

We played the balcony scene three times in the large hallway on the stairs to the auditorium’s upper level seating. Students paired up to read a reduced script, so several Juliets had the chance to meet their Romeos that class period. Back in the classroom, I played the soundtrack to the Zefferelli film (“A Time for Us”) during Act Three scene 5 as Alexa asked her Romeo:

Wilt thou be gone? it is not yet near day:
It was the nightingale, and not the lark,

They memorized the Prologue; they wrote haikus to summarize each act to review the action of the play:

Act I:
Annoying Prologue
Romeo met Juliet,
Romeo loves her

Act II:
Balcony kisses,
They are married secretly,
The nurse keeps it quiet

Act III:
Tybalt is now dead,
Romeo must run away,
Juliet is scared

Act IV:
Juliet fakes death
Capulets are deeply hurt
Marriage is off

Act Five began last week, and the students were following the complicated plans of  Friar Lawrence and making predictions as to the plan’s success. There was a brief discussion about what an apothecary was in Shakespeare’s time, and the actual distance from Verona to Mantua, Italy. It was obvious, they all wanted the plan to work.

Then, Nick as Romeo entered Juliet’s “tomb” and  several lines later, he stepped over Chase who lay on the floor, slain as Paris.  Nick began his soliloquy with great seriousness. Holding the  dry erase marker, our stage prop for the vial, high in one hand, he read the verse aloud, “Here’s to my love! O true apothecary!/Thy drugs are quick.” He dramatically uncorked the marker, and then “drank”.  He gasped, ” Thus, with a kiss,” he leaned down to the sleeping Juliet, and quietly said,” I die.” Staggering, he fell to the ground.

Several students following along in the text, started and then sat in a palpable stunned realization.“He dies?”

“But Juliet’s still alive!”started as a murmur.

The chorus of voices grew louder. “He’s dead!” “She doesn’t know!”

There was a collective pause, followed by an audible, “This sucks.”

I was surprised. I thought they knew.

The final speech of the play begins, “A glooming peace this morning with it brings”; that speech captured the mood of my students. Of course they understood at some literal level that the play was a tragedy; this fact was clearly stated on the back cover of their text: This is the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. However, until that moment of Romeo’s willful self-destruction, followed by Juliet’s suicide, my students did not appreciate the  play’s heartbreaking conclusion.

I was surprised by the level of their reaction. Ours was not a polished performance, the staging was clumsy and the actors read the lines without understanding much of what was being said. However, they did feel for the characters, always willing to summarize what had just happened or wanting to give advice. Despite our failures to interpret the language, the result was that the play made them grow up a little.

No one should ever be surprised at the ability of this Shakespeare play-however rudimentary in performance- to engage an audience.