Teaching Romeo and Juliet: Part One

Olivia Hussey and Leonard WhitingI 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.

A bonus for the curious — if you have ever wondered what became of the actors in Zeffirelli’s version, you can learn about it on my personal blog.

[tags]Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare, Franco Zeffirelli, Baz Luhrmann, compare/contrast essay, Balcony Scene, YouTube[/tags]

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29 thoughts on “Teaching Romeo and Juliet: Part One

  1. Oh, this is nice — Thank you. I'll be stealing this for the last nine weeks when I teach the play. And I agree — telling the kids about the Elizabethans' bawdy minds focuses their attention wonderfully!

  2. Thanks, Graycie. Stay tuned; this is only part one. I have other ideas for this play. I explain every dirty joke in R&J when I teach it.

  3. EXPLAIN them? You're a braver woman than I am! I just point out that Elizabethans had dirty minds and let the kids look for themselves.

    I look forward to reading the rest of your ideas and work — Thanks.

  4. That's a good way of dealing with the play but maybe you could ask your students to enact a few scenes (of their choice) in the classroom itself. It just helps in better comprehension by 'living' the characters.

  5. Sauyma, I agree that some kids do get something out of this, but I must be one of the few teachers that doesn't see much return for the amount of time students must spend in doing this sort of activity. I do have students read roles, but as for acting it out, my experience has been that most of them don't spend enough time figuring out how to act out the scene and don't do much more than stand around up in front of the room. It is an activity students seem to enjoy, but my personal feeling is that they get more out watching actors interpret the text.

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  7. im in the 7 grade and weve read romeo and juliet the novel,saw west side story,saw old romeo and juliet version, and current day version.my teacher taught us very welland i thought it was ok

  8. Hi, this is my first year teaching Romeo and Juliet, and I'm completely… well, lost. We did several pre-reading activities, watched Shakesepare in Love, and discussed the idea of love. We're going to read the play this week and I'm stumbling. I noticed you showed films to help your students with a visual representation, but do you watch the videos and read at the same time?

    I could use all the help I can get, so if you have any ideas, I will be VERY VERY grateful…

    BTW-I admire your bravery and frankness when it comes to some of the issues within the play… =)!!!

  9. Lorie, yes, I absolutely intersperse viewing scenes with reading the play. I need to put my unit for Romeo and Juliet up at the UbD Educators wiki, but I haven't had a chance yet. I have some downloadable handouts on the Handouts page (see the side bar under Links). I had to take the videos down as it appears that even though they were for an educational purpose, my posting them was viewed as copyright violation. I am not going to get into it with a movie company, so I recommend getting two versions of the play for comparison/contrast purposes.

  10. I was wondering if you think seeing Romeo & Juliet in a play at our local High school would be suitable for fifth graders?

    Thank-you so much for your input!

  11. I was struck by your appraisal fo the first scene of Romeo and Juliet as being awkward–not by your statement–but by your saying you shouldn't dare questions "the bard." I am a teacher who comes from a creative background and I can assure you that writers are not perfect. A screenwriting teacher of mine actually pointed out the growth of Shakespeare as a writer from Romeo and Juliet to Hamlet. He learned a lot about drama as he progressed, and one of the his important realizations is that you should start with the main conflict from the very beginning. So, this banter is a flaw, and there are other flaws in the play as well (such as the convenenient dissapearance of Friar Lawrence from the tomb in the end). I don't think acknowledging this detracts from appreciation of the parts of the play that work. However, I would like to encourage everyone to see even "great" works as containing strengths and weaknesses like the people who wrote them.

  12. No, I said, "who am I to question the Bard?" I see a difference between saying that and saying one shouldn't question Shakespeare. What I mean by that comment is that I consider him to be a much finer writer than I; in addition, he was writing for an audience he knew well — an audience who liked comedy and jokes. Perhaps it was a much better hook for the audience in times past than it is now?

  13. do you read these? well if you do, could you tell me some of the best dirty jokes of acts 1 and 2? I've just read them, and now my friend is. He is in a lower level class than i am, but i think hed enjoy the story if he thinks they will be talking dirty. :) Id rather not look for them all again. And i bet you have some memorized, yes?

  14. Hi Dana,

    I was wondering if and how you might use into and beyond activities involving other works or media. I'm familiar of course with "West Side Story", and I know some teachers use "Titanic". Are there any others you or other teachers you know have found successful and would recommend?

  15. It's not a bad idea if you have time, but I don't use them for that reason and also because I don't usually have difficulty hooking my particular students with Shakespeare's own play. Depending on your students, a hook with a similar more up-to-date story might be a good idea. Another you might try I actually saw in a textbook series' supplementary materials. It is the story of a couple from the former Yugoslavia, one of whom was Serbian, the other of whom was Muslim, and how they were killed in the violence that surrounded them because others were unable to accept their relationship. A Google search might turn up some results on that one. Also, the Hatfields and McCoys had their own Romeo and Juliet tale in the form of Roseanna McCoy and Johnse Hatfield. I have a Power Point on the Hatfields and McCoys that describes the relationship (I use it when I teach Huck Finn to discuss family feuds lik e that of the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons). Given the theme of Romeo and Juliet is one of the most popular of all time, it's not hard to find modern updates.

    I am going to a Folger Shakespeare Library Mini-Institute next week. I'll see if I learn anything I can share further here.

  16. Thanks for the great tips! Anything else from the Folger Mini-Institute will be greatly appreciated.

  17. this is the worst summary of romeo and juliet i have ever seen in my whole life. you are not an experienced romeo and juliet gamer like myself or even jg anyone?

    • Bill, it's not supposed to be a summary of some game. It's supposed to suggest some ideas for teaching Romeo and Juliet, which is a Shakespeare play. You might want to check things like that before leaving comments.

  18. I am a kid myself and I enjoy learning about Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet. I think that it helps when we talk about it, go over it and do small activities. I prefer this rather than handing us a book, reading it in class, and then giving us a big project or big test at the end especially when its not fun and it makes it harder to understand. I am only a kid but this is my opinion

  19. Hi Dana, I love your insights on R&J. I went to your wiki. Do you have more detail about what you do for R&J or downloads? I wonder which activities at Folger do you find successful? I also love the writing approach you use. I struggle a bit with R&J wondering if it is best just as a film study or if I should intersperse reading with the film. I lean toward a film study with some close readings and student performance at the end. Reading just seems so hard for the kids and I strongly believe Shakespeare's plays were meant to be performed and sometimes wonder if we kill them by reading them to death (you're reading Readacide I see, so I'd be interested in your thoughts). Anyway, I've tried some of Folger Shakespeare Set Free, but I find it often looks better on paper. I've stumbled upon an activity where students create their own character blog, which I plan to use this year. Before I had them create character boxes and it showed how much insight students had gotten into the characters. I think the blog will provide them with a chance to show similar insights, but I'm hoping it will also allow them even more creativity in their approach. Basically, I'm wondering if you have more details, downloads, etc…..and how you find reading and viewing works together. Have you ever just viewed the film (Zeffirelli with contrasting clips of Baz Luhrmann)? Have you ever seen the PBS documentary My Shakespeare? I even have more questions for you, but I'll stop here!! Thanks for reading…

    • I use the volume of Shakespeare Set Free with R&J, Macbeth, and A Midsummer Night's Dream to do a lot of what I do with R&J, and if you don't have that book, I say it's well worth the investment, and is cheap at Amazon. Of the activities I do in that book, I have had the most success with the choral reading of the prologue (p. 120), the insults (p. 123), and views on love and marriage (p.130), but there are many great activities. Mike LoMonico taught me something at a Folger TSI that works great for any play. Make up a list of, say, 10 elements you want students to include in a scene. Examples include 10 seconds of silence, one line spoken in unison, a contemporary prop, etc. Then give them the scene and have them figure out how to put all of that stuff in in there. It's a great close reading exercise because they have to figure out where it all makes sense.

      My students did character diaries, which you can read at http://students.huffenglish.com/. The blogs are a great idea. Other than that, pretty much all the downloads I have prepared are on the site.

      I think some viewing is fine, but ultimately what will help kids understand Shakespeare is getting on their feet and performing it. Joe Scotese has some great close reading activities at http://www.awaytoteach.net/. You do have join and earn a certain number of points before downloading at his site.

      The way I handle viewing is I show clips for comparison/contrast, but I rarely show the whole film because my students always see a performance on stage.

      Did you see this: http://ubdeducators.wikispaces.com/Dana+Romeo+and…? It's my complete unit. Mike LoMonico says it's fine to skip scenes. Our goal is that students leave our classrooms excited about Shakespeare and feeling as if they like reading him rather than defeated, confuses, bored, or turned off Shakespeare for good.

  20. I just realized that I have changed a lot of my teaching Shakespeare practices as a result of going to a Folger TSI, and I probably need to update this blog with my new thoughts.

  21. Thanks so much for your reply. Yes, I have the Folger Set Free book and have done those same activities. Do you have any downloads for your character diaries? I could not find anything. I think they are a great idea. Thanks also for the link you gave me. It looks great. Now I just have to post a lesson so I can get access to some of the materials there.

  22. Hey i am in 7th grade to and we did the exact same thing. do all english teachers think alike?

    • I think it's a fairly common assignment. I adapted the idea from a very popular book written for English teachers, so it could be that your English teacher read the same book.

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