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Introducing Shakespeare

Yvonne Divans Hutchinson, King Drew High School
Los Angeles, CA

Preparation for Active Reading Literature Circles Performing Shakespeare





Looking in a Four Hundred Year-Old Mirror

studentsMy name is Yvonne Divans Hutchinson, and I teach high school English at King Drew Medical Magnet School in Los Angeles, California. My ninth graders are in the adolescent stage, becoming aware of who they are and how they differ from others. They have begun to feel the first pressures of adult responsibilities. As they mature, they brim over with ideas, questions, fears, hopes, and dreams. They crave action, admire real life and celebrity heroes. They daydream about how they will react in ideal and difficult situations. They fall in and out of love (or at least imagine that they do).

In the midst of this youthful tangle of thoughts, I discern a pattern of universal themes-the concern about how humans relate to one another, the response to crisis and tests of endurance, the need for a code of living, the love of adventure and laughter, the search for ideals and success. In short, the struggle to answer the question, "Who am I?"

Recognizing this need to make meaning of their lives, I have designed a unit that invites my students to explore those causes and effects which shape them as human beings. Presenting them with a mirror through the reading of literature, I want them to see the circumstances under which humanity flourishes, as well as those which pose danger. Romeo and Juliet is one of the core texts that we read to explore the theme of Influences on the Human Spirit. Through a series of reading, writing, and speaking activities, my students will come to understand:

  • The human spirit can triumph over the most difficult circumstances.
  • Human growth involves pain.
  • Everyone needs someone with whom to share life's experiences.
  • Ordinary people can be heroes.
  • People need a sense of purpose and direction in their lives

This website includes selected moments from my Romeo and Juliet unit, including videos of classroom events, reflections on my teaching practice, still photographs of my students and my classroom, examples of student work, and my teaching materials.

Unit Introduction : Shakespearean Insults

"Why didn't Shakespeare just write in plain English? Why did he have to make it so complicated? Oh, no, Miss, I don't want to read Shakespeare. It's boring!"

Every year when I announce that we are going to study Shakespeare and read Romeo and Juliet, invariably, these types of comments ring out in my classroom. The fear and trepidation, the downright reluctance to confront the bard is widespread, and even though I've taught Romeo and Juliet for many years and enjoyed varying degrees of success, I am constantly seeking ways to make Shakespeare not just more accessible, but more enjoyable.

Thanks largely to a splendid teaching guide, Shakespeare Set Free, which I used to supplement my own strategies. I devised a curriculum for my current ninth graders, a lively, heterogenous crew whose varying levels of motivation and ability presented quite a challenge. My approach, then, was
enlivened by the idea of inspiring students to experience Shakespeare's work in the spirit in which he created, as performance rather than this arcane text to be endlessly dissected. Consequently, we entered into our unit this year with a sense of playfulness and fun that eclipsed anything I had tried before.

Because I wanted to beguile them into loving the language without being fearful about the "big words" and strange, "out-of-style" talking, I exploited the playful nature of the class in general. They were always ready to act silly, to be goofy, but quite loveable in that they were always willing to try whatever tasks I set them. Certainly, it is evident in this video that they enjoyed themselves immensely. Along the way, however unwittingly, they reveled in the language and physicality of performing, found ways to make meaning of complexity, engaged in academic and social discourse,increased their vocabularies, and flat out--had a joyous time! As one of my boys pointed out, they discovered "the passion" in Shakespeare's language.

Also see: Ann Lieberman's observation notes, Reading Shakespeare Aloud, and Shakespearean Insults.