Technorati Tags: Carnival of Education
I love teaching Romeo and Juliet. I have taught this play for seven of the ten years I have been teaching, and the only reason I didn’t do it for those three is that I was teaching pre-K and middle school, and it wasn’t part of either curriculum. Romeo and Juliet might be my favorite piece of literature to teach for two reasons: 1) It has massive appeal for students and makes a great introduction to Shakespeare for 9th graders; 2) I love the language — I have huge chunks of it memorized — and teaching this play affords me the opportunity to teach an author I am enthusiastic about to students who are enthusiastic, too.
Great ideas for teaching this play are not exactly in short supply. I used to swear by Shakespeare Set Free, although in the last few years I have found myself being more selective about which activities that I use from that book. I do, for instance, enjoy having students look at different characters’ thoughts on love and Shakespeare’s “language tricks,” but I do not have them create masks and learn how to do the Pilgrims and Saints dance. I have actually found much more challenging activities at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s website.
The play begins as two servants of the Capulet household, Sampson and Gregory, encounter Abraham (Abra or Abram) in the street. The punny banter between Sampson and Gregory is very much period humor, and I have to say it isn’t the most inviting way to begin (though who am I to question the Bard?). Many staged versions (including the two popular movie versions) cut this scene down significantly. The important part is the fight. I do explain the puns through some notes students take down. Also, and I think this is important, I make sure my kids understand what they’re reading. Yes, even the bawdy parts.
I challenge students to memorize Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech for extra credit. We break the speech down and try to figure out what sort of person Mercutio is. One note about Mercutio: students have trouble with the fact that he is friends with Romeo and still invited to the Capulets’ feast. I explain to them that he is not a Montague — he is kin to the Prince and to Count Paris, and therefore, most likely an important person. Of course Capulet would invite him to the feast.
The first significant writing assignment I do is a compare/contrast essay (can be a full essay or a one-paragraph essay). We read the famous Balcony Scene (Act II, Scene 2) together. Then students make a compare/contrast graphic organizer. In order to do this activity, you must have two versions of Romeo and Juliet on DVD or VHS. Personally, I think it is great to show the BBC’s version starring Patrick Ryecart and Rebecca Saire (1978). Frankly, the Balcony Scene in this version is passionless and boring. It makes for a great contrast against Franco Zeffirelli’s excellent version starring Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting (1968). The BBC version is not as widely available, however, as Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 version starring Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio. A comparison between Zeffirelli and Luhrmann’s versions works very well; Zeffirelli’s is true to the spirit of the play’s setting, while Luhrmann’s is actually more faithful to the text. Some students notice this, but most will need your guidance to pick up on that. I need to take a moment to say I absolutely detest the fact that Luhrmann’s Balcony Scene takes place mostly in a swimming pool.
Using their graphic organizer, students list everything they notice while watching Zeffirelli’s film — set, costumes, lines spoken, actor’s choices (emphasis, blocking, etc.) — in the first column. In the second, they do the same for the Luhrmann film. The lower half of the graphic organizer is for noting similarities and differences between the two. Students then have a good plan for creating a compare/contrast essay. The organizer helps them focus, I think.
This idea was adapted from Shakespeare Set Free: Teaching A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth.
My department is engaged in textbook selection right now. I’m fairly certain that we have decided which textbook company we would like to work with; however, I think we still need to pin down which peripherals we will order to supplement and exactly which books in the series we will use. I won’t tell you which ones we decided on here, but I will tell you two things that troubled me about this process.
First of all, my department head contacted Holt so that we could examine their series Elements of Literature. I have used this series in the past and really liked it. Unfortunately, they are not very interested in obtaining business from our school. They did not reply to my department head’s queries to visit our school and share their series with us. They did send samples of their ninth grade text. I was not very impressed with it, if I may be honest. We are a small school, and it is probably true that their energies might be better directed toward serving large districts; however, we did feel slighted. My department head and I discussed Holt’s lack of interest in selling books to us and determined that we would not be buying books from them.
Second (and I won’t tell you who), one textbook company admitted that its latest version of the textbook series was “dumbed down” for NCLB. My department head and I compared this version with the previous version, and it is indeed true. The questions are not as challenging. If NCLB is the reason why the texts were “dumbed down,” then one has to wonder what this law is accomplishing. If textbook companies are “dumbing down” selections and questions in order to help schools meet the requirements of NCLB, are the kids really benefitting? Isn’t the idea of NCLB to raise standards, not lower them? Keep in mind that the textbook salesman told my department head himself why the books were less challenging. We examined them for ourselves and determined this was, indeed, true.
What do you look for in a textbook? As much as we repeat the old saw that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, I have to admit I find books that have appealing covers and pictures inside, as well as a pleasing layout, grab my attention. I think the students like them better, too. Let’s face it, the eye candy is part of the package. We are teaching the post-MTV generation, and material has to be eye-catching. Is this a concern for you when you select books? I am, of course, not saying that we don’t examine the material to make sure the selections are appropriate, varied, and correlate with standards.
I feel good about the selection we made. I have worked with these books before, and I think the students will like them better than our current texts (which, by the way, are currently out of print and increasingly harder to find). Once details are final, and our principal approves our choice, perhaps I will fill you in.
What do we need to do to get Warriner’s back in print? Will begging work?
I apologize if you have tried to comment and have not been able to do so. I just discovered that my recent upgrade to WordPress 2.1 caused my comment subscription plugin to break, displaying a confusing error message for those who tried to comment. I have upgraded the plugin, and you may now fire away.
One of the persons who commented on the article I submitted to English Journal was interested in learning more about my experiences as a non-Jewish teacher working at a Jewish high school. I decided not to go there because it would have detracted from the article’s purpose. I think I mentioned the fact that I am not Jewish in the first place because I wanted to credit my colleagues with helping me make connections between the literature we studied in my classes and the students’ Jewish culture and teachings. I never really meant to make a “thing” out of being a non-Jewish teacher because my students don’t make a “thing” out of it.
This morning our school dedicated a new sefer Torah, a Torah scroll. You can learn more about the making of a sefer Torah at Rabbi Miller’s website. He is a sofer, or scribe. A sefer Torah must be made of all-natural materials. The sofer must handwrite all of the Torah on a prepared scroll, a process which can take more than a year. In addition, any errors will render the Torah invalid. According to our Rabbi Gottfried, if the sofer makes an error, he or she must wait for the ink to dry, then carefully scrape the letter from the parchment. For this reason, sefrei Torah (Torah scrolls) are very valuable and expensive; however, they are not made to be showcased behind class — students handle the Torah during prayers, although to preserve the Torah as much as possible, the students avoid touching it with their hands and use a pointer to read. If the Torah needs repair, it must be done with natural materials — tape won’t fix a rip in a Torah scroll.
A Torah Dedication is a big deal. Students I had never seen in ties were dressed up. Students who don’t normally wear the kippah (yarmulke) were wearing one. Members of the community were invited to participate. Our headmaster played his accordian, and lots of people danced (I just got out of the way), including my principal, who is Catholic. Watching this dedication reminded me of something I do love about teaching at a Jewish school — watching the cultural traditions. Shabbat, or the Sabbath, is closed with a ceremony called Havdalah, and each time I have been present for this ceremony, it is followed by music and dancing that I can’t describe unless you’ve seen it. I suppose the best description might be this: last year when my husband and I took our children to a Shabbat trip, or Shabbaton, my husband was fed up with our kids and wanted to duck out early. I didn’t want to miss the music and dancing, but I agreed to go. Then it started, and I nudged my husband. “I thought you wanted to go!” I said. He replied, “Actually, now I want to stay and watch this.”
My own religious tradition has no such ceremony. I come from sturdy Protestant stock, I suppose. My immigrant ancestors included Huguenots, Quakers, and Pennsylvania Dutch of unknown religious origin. I have distant ancestors who may have been Crypto-Jews, but it is most likely something I can never prove based on the information I currently have. I find much beauty in the ceremony involved in Judaism. I am not sure I could ever live with some of the restrictions, such as kashrut (eating kosher), keeping Shabbat, and the like, but I do enjoy being on the periphery.
I was talking with one of our math teachers today. He happens to be Jewish, and he has taught me a great deal about some aspects of Jewish culture. For instance, he told me how to find symbols indicating whether or not food is kosher on packages. He regularly teaches Israeli dancing, but I haven’t learned yet. He is approachable and very kind. We were discussing the differences in our religions today, and I mentioned that for many Christians, there is no gray. You either believe all of the Bible or you are saying you believe none of it. Students at our school are taught to question or challenge everything, including religious teaching, in order to find their own path in Judaism. We have students who claim to be atheists as well as strictly observant students. The math teacher indicated that our school is unique in that regard because it is a diverse Jewish school; students from the three major Jewish denominations — Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox — all learn together at our school. Believe it or not, this is a somewhat radical concept, and our school is one of the first “transdenominational” Jewish high schools.
I told the math teacher that I have been undergoing what I consider a crisis of faith for about two years now. I am not exactly sure what I believe. I am interested in Judaism, but my Christian faith is too deeply entrenched. I don’t, for instance, question Jesus’ divinity as part of the Trinity. What do I question? Certainly other messages I have been taught — that anyone who is not Christian will not go to Heaven, for instance. My headmaster is the kindest, warmest person I have known in my life. I cannot for an instant belief that he is, as I have been taught, destined for condemnation because he is Jewish and not Christian. I heard one of my former colleagues telling a story about a friend of his who was, I think, a female pastor (though I am uncertain of her denomination). She was very interested in Judaism; she even said that she would consider converting except for one thing: she couldn’t give up Jesus.
Sometimes I think my religion is dominated by people who follow Jesus not because they want to — because they appreciate his teachings — but because they are afraid not to. I don’t really even think a lot of people of my faith even believe half of what Jesus said or believed; at any rate, many of them certainly don’t act like it. This conundrum is at the center of my dilemma. The age-old struggle with hypocrisy. I told the math teacher that I had actually considered making an appointment with Rabbi Gottfried to discuss my “crisis.” I laughed, noting that I found it interesting I was considering going to a rabbi before a pastor of my own faith to find answers. The fact is, I’m not really sure what Protestant denomination would be right for me, or even if there is one.
Last year, one of my former students declared I was an honorary Jew. She said it in a joking manner, but I knew that behind the joking was acceptance. Because I have tried to understand and to question and to bring elements of Jewish culture, history, and religion into my classroom, I am accepted. But the fact is, I would be accepted anyway; that is the way of the culture in my high school. I think the students appreciate the efforts I have made, and on one or two funny occasions, I found myself in the unique position of educating students about some element of Judaism that they didn’t know!
Because I was on the faculty as a new Torah was dedicated, Rabbi Gottfried dedicated a letter, “dalet” (“D,” for my first name) in our new Torah in honor of me. Furthermore, Rabbi Gottfried looked up the Torah Portion for the week in which I was born to find this letter. The Torah Portion the week I was born happens to have been Deuteronomy 26:15, rendered thusly according to the NKJV (which I have to admit is becoming a favorite for readability combined with poetry):
Look down from Your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel and the land which You have given us, just as You swore to our fathers, “a land flowing with milk and honey.”’
I haven’t figured out why yet, but I found it appropriate.
I suppose this was a very personal post for this particular blog, and I admit I am kind of nervous about putting it out there, but participating in the Never Forget Project has been making me think about my own role in our project and at my school. Feel free to ask me questions about this post, especially if you want me to explain any aspect further.