#thematic #Thursday

There is a passionate Shakespearean scholar on TikTok, and she does a phenomenal job of analyzing Shakespeare.

But damn, she’s a little mean. If she had been my teacher back in 1980 or whenever I had to read Romeo and Juliet, I would never have picked up another one of his works.

Allow me to explain.

This is the first year I feel like a “real” high school English teacher. Yes, a dash of imposter syndrome along with circumstances. This is year 17, and while years 14-16 were at an alternative high school, many of my instructional chops got a little rusty. And I’m not here to debate the merits or disadvantages of my district’s curriculum policies: each ELA grade teaches core texts. And as common practice, from what I understand, Romeo and Juliet is often taught in freshmen year. I’ve done “light” mentor text instruction with excerpts and plot years ago (the use of cause and effect is a wonderful structure to explore with R&J); we middle school ELA teachers were roundly told to back off and not touch. Okay, okay! Onward.

Now, one of the stories I shared this past year, and will share again, is that for me, Shakespeare was hard when I was in high school. That was back in the day when the teacher would assign a text and walk away. Having been the ‘smart kid’ and a voracious reader all my life, getting Elizabethan language tossed in my lap was daunting. I am sure I drove my ’73 Buick LeSabre (a gift from my grandparents) to the nearest bookstore and snatched up a copy of the Cliff Notes. That saved me, but I felt like a fraud and, quite frankly, stupid. But at least I understood the story. It wasn’t until many years later that I watched a version of Hamlet, and the light bulb went off: I got it. These are plays meant to be seen. And heard. And felt.

ALSO: and this is huge — they are meant to be triangulated*. Through watching, listening, reading, discussing, debating, contextualizing, and, dare I say — translating — using all of my skills as an ELA teacher, ELL/MLL, and as simply a human who loves good stories and hearing what folks have to say about them.

And, look, I know I get just as frustrated with other teachers as this creator does about the teacher to whom she replied. I get frustrated when other teachers continue to use racial slurs ‘because it’s in the text.” I get frustrated when other teachers are fascists. *Shrug.* I get frustrated when teachers tell students to put quotation marks inside the ending punctuation. But I never get frustrated when teachers or students are doing their best to contextualize. (Hope that’s some good scotch or whiskey in her glass.)

Here are a few anecdotes from our recent unit on Romeo & Juliet:

  • Students asked why, in the Luhrmann version of the play/film, he used modern settings/clothing and kept the Shakespearean language: and I demonstrated Romeo falling on his knees, crying, “I am fortune’s fool!” versus “Wow, I am a chump.” It allowed us to see the story’s timelessness and not focus on clothing from the late 1500s.
  • Before the scene where Juliet’s father strikes her mother and tells Juliet she can die on the streets for all he cares, I gave a content warning. Many students witness domestic violence, so I must provide context to this scene. So, in the TikTok creator’s argument about how the parents were not disconnected, she makes a good point. But students are also going to judge stories by the context of their own histories and generational structures, and even though Lord Capulet shows his love and care for his daughter by finding her a good match, I hate to say it, lady, but kids these days aren’t going to think he’s a good dad. But that would be a really good question for them to discuss: are the parents disconnected?
  • We also considered (because the ELA department came up with it) this question, “Who’s to blame for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet?” and the students did not fail when discussing it. I offered that because Tybalt is so angry and ready to fight with Romeo at the ball, but Lord Capulet stops him; what would have happened if Tybalt had never sought Romeo out? In our opinion, Tybalt continues the generational trauma/feud. A case could be made for Tybalt being “at fault.” I think this is a distracting question in some regards, but it does help students begin to frame strong argumentative writing/thinking.

By allowing myself to be real, vulnerable, and honest about my relationship with reading Shakespeare, I allowed the 15-16-year-olds in my instructional care to take risks. They trust me. It’s okay to not be the smartest person in the room, and collaboratively make meaning about something. And they always have some new insight to share. I certainly would never say to them they’re being reductive and pointless. I’m going to go back to Louise Roseblatt’s concepts of transactional reading:


Replying to @violaswamphadapoint

♬ original sound – Kelly LoveX

“Through the medium of words, the text brings into the reader’s consciousness certain concepts, certain sensuous experiences, certain images of things, people, actions, scenes. The special meanings and, more particularly, the submerged associations that these words have for the individual reader will largely determine what the work communicates to him. The reader brings to the work personality traits, memories of past events, present needs and preoccupations, a particular mood of the moment, and a particular physical condition. These and many other elements in a never-to-be-duplicated combination determine his response to the peculiar contribution of the text.”
― Louise M. Rosenblatt, Literature as Exploration

So, perhaps that’s my own ELA/NBCT, M. Ed., flex that I’m leaning on Rosenblatt.

And the Cliff Notes. (Now Spark Notes.)

PS They loved the graphic novel version, too, which led to a great discussion about when it does or does not matter about a character’s race.