This semester I decided to take on Romeo and Juliet with my Grade 10 class. I’ve described the students before: a mixed group of kids, some of whom read well, some who really don’t read, a newcomer to Canada whose English is limited, several students with autism, regular attenders, non-attenders, at least one LGBTQ student, backgrounds from around the world – you know, a pretty standard group of kids.
Romeo and Juliet is a traditional choice, of course, but not for this class. Still, six weeks into the semester, we did a brainstorming activity about what we wanted to learn next and how we wanted to learn it, and when I stood back to look at their requests – more motion, group work, talking, a challenge, something about teenagers, something fun – well, Romeo and Juliet fit the bill.
The students were not convinced. Most of them have never read Shakespeare, and they were pretty clear that this was “not going to work,” but they agreed to try it for a week. I promised it was *not* a love story, and we started with a quick participatory summary before we plunged in to Act 1, scene 1. The EA and I brought all the old swords we could find in our houses (ok, we had 6 light sabres, a pirate sword, a dagger and a paper towel tube), and by the end of class, all the students were on their feet, brawling in the street at 8:30 in the morning.
They could get behind that.
I use a lot of lessons from the Folger series Shakespeare Set Free. We also watch film clips and bits and pieces of stage plays. We talk a lot and skip some and summarize other bits. Everyone reads. We mispronounce things without fear and ask questions about everything. We play and laugh and generally have a good time. Twice during the unit, I stopped to ask if we needed to move on more quickly: once after the first week (as promised) – “NO!” they chorused – and once three weeks in, when I was afraid things were dragging. Again, no.
I was delighted by my students’ reactions and regularly shared the high points with colleagues in our office. During one conversation, another person came in. After listening, he chuckled and said something about my “rose-coloured glasses.” Then he left.
The comment was made in passing, so quickly that I barely noticed it. My response was automatic – what I always say to the doubters: come visit my class. Only after he left did I get really mad. This is how we police teachers, isn’t it? When someone does well, when a class is engaged, when students are learning deeply – even with traditional material – we pull the teacher down. It’s not that the teacher (me) has taken her years of experience and deep knowledge of her subject to put together a learning experience that responds to the needs of the students in front of her. No, it’s that she is overestimating her students’ engagement. It couldn’t be that the kids we’ve relegated to the lower track are actually able to engage with complex language and thoughts. No, it’s that the teacher is exaggerating what the students are doing.
The accusation comes in other ways. The teacher is “easy” or “too nice” or “overly friendly” with their class. And sure, sometimes teachers are all of those things. But sometimes we’re not.
On Friday, my students – my non-readers, my students with autism, my English language learner, my disengaged, darling, wonderful class – performed scenes from Romeo and Juliet. For two days, they rummaged for costumes, rehearsed their lines, and practiced their staging. They wrote about their characters’ motivation and obstacles. They wrestled with original language and cut lines when necessary. In short, they were excellent. One pair played the Nurse and Juliet so well that we were all laughing and everyone stayed the extra minute past the bell when the scene ran over. Everyone. Even the two least engaged students.
I thought I’d blown off the comment, but I haven’t. I suspect my colleague’s throw-away line shows what he thinks is really happening in my class. And I suspect others also underestimate my students. But I’ll tell you what, if this is rose-coloured glasses, I’ll take it. Because together we rocked Romeo and Juliet.