Last Thursday I skipped class with three of my English teachers.
We did not sleep in, have cocktails with lunch, or squeeze in a mani-pedi. Sorry to disappoint. What we did was far nerdier. They are part of my work tribe, after all, and there are not many opportunities in a school year to geek out together for a whole day without feeling guilt.
This was one of them.
As a department we’ve been talking about and working toward increasing our students’ reading volume for more than a few years now. We’ve brought independent reading into our classrooms through individual projects, classroom library expansions, book clubs, time spent reading silently in class, and most recently, working on conferring with readers while they’re doing that silent reading. We’ve certainly got more work to do in these areas to improve.
But we’ve also been talking about finding ways to shift our practices from teaching books to teaching readers and writers, and that means teaching skills AND texts, or teaching skills THROUGH texts, instead of focusing on teaching texts.
The difference is quite noticeable. And it leads to further changes.
Enter our teacher skip day.
In a recent department meeting, I introduced teachers to the work of Kate Roberts in her most recent book, A Novel Approach (Heinemann 2018); we took time to re-envision our approach to one text or lesson using her model. Teachers brought one of the texts they teach to work on approaching it through the mini-lesson lens. This means teachers identify a skill readers / writers need to work on and design a lesson to include instruction and application of said skill elsewhere. We talked about how after a mini-lesson with a whole class text, we could give students authentic opportunities to practice specific reading and writing strategies with books they had chosen either independently or in book clubs. Some strategies included identifying possible themes from looking at topics, modeling character analysis, and identifying author’s craft moves to try.
The hope would be that students would raise their skill level by infusing their personal reading with the same types of thinking we ask them to do with whole class texts. We also hope that we might bring increased significance to independent reading. (Not that we aren’t fans of reading just for the sake of reading! But, we do sometimes struggle with reluctant readers who see independent reading as free time, and find ourselves looking for ways to create accountability that is encouraging and authentic, without seeming punitive.)
At the end of the meeting, one of my teachers wondered whether this type of approach might work for something like Romeo & Juliet, one of only two core texts for our 9th graders that all teachers bring into their classrooms. I asked her if she’d be interested in getting together to work on such an approach, and if we might invite other teachers interested to join us. The idea for our “skip” day was born.
We spent a day in an empty classroom talking about how to teach students the reading, content, thinking and writing skills we valued through Romeo & Juliet in a balanced literacy approach, using read aloud and focusing on specific skills to guide the mapping of our unit. In addition to Roberts’ work, we found Penny Kittle & Kelly Gallagher’s 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents (Heinemann 2018) to be helpful in that Romeo & Juliet is one of the core texts discussed and mapped.
We started our day by identifying, as many pedagogues are rightfully recommending, the “whys” of teaching Romeo & Juliet. It was important to me that this text not be kept in our 9th-grade curriculum simply because it’s always been there, or because somebody – me, I suppose, as chair – said so. We’ve made lots of curricular changes over my tenure as chair, and I was just as open to bringing in something else as keeping it. As it turned out, my teachers were eager to keep it and to discuss why in detail. The list we developed turned out to be relatively short, but incredibly thought-provoking:
Why Romeo & Juliet:
• We want our readers to learn to navigate a difficult text (with guidance) and have a good experience with it so they could build confidence to navigate others on their own;
• We want our readers to see how one text can illuminate / generate another:
• How the page can inform the stage – i.e., how theater and film envision Shakespeare’s drama;
• How human nature can inform the creation of art – i.e., how artists – Shakespeare, directors, songwriters, etc. are inspired by human behaviors and key desires
• That we want to believe that love can conquer all,
• That we want to believe in love at first sight,
• That our choices shape our destiny;
• We want our teen readers to explore the complex relationships between love, social constructs, perception, actions, and consequences;
• We want our readers to balance their self-chosen contemporary texts with a “classic” that illuminates and creates cultural knowledge
The “whys” led to some hows and essential questions; here are our thoughts on those.
How (for this “how” we talked about what we would use / do to support the reading and navigation of this difficult text):
• Read alouds in class of most of the play
• Visuals – film, art, theater (Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet (1968), David Leveaux’s Romeo & Juliet (Broadway, 2013), varied painting representations of key scenes)
• Sound – music (Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) soundtrack and lyrics to illuminate plot and tone, Hozier’s “Take Me To Church” to explore the metaphor of how worshipping a person can be elevated to a religion / religious experience)
• Support for independent homework reading of less-significant scenes
• pre-reading overview for these sections
• audio of play for support
• Book Clubs based on thematic and topical connections in contemporary YA literature (and other genres).
• What does it mean to survive in / with love? What is romantic vs. realistic and how do the two converge? Do we laud Romeo and Juliet as people, or critique them, or is it possible to do both, recognizing the situation they’ve been put in by societal constructs that need to change?
• When is the right time to admit a plan is flawed?
• How do our choices shape our destiny? And how can we own the choices we make?
• Admit wrongdoing / poor choices
• Live with what happens after a choice, be it considered a consequence / fallout or simply just what comes next.
• How does the structure of a text impact a reader’s relationship with it? Reflect human nature?
• What is a sonnet?
At this point, we decided it would be a good idea to make a list of the most important skills we wanted to teach our readers. We’d use the play, of course, as the whole-class text to illuminate, discuss, and explore skills / concepts, but then weave some of these skills into the book club work we asked our readers to do when they were meeting. Because of the length and breadth of the scenes, we knew we wouldn’t be working in a precise “mini-lesson” model; however, we were committed to creating opportunities for students to apply these skills and concepts to either independently-read scenes, or to their book clubs.
Skills / Concepts:
• Author’s purpose with dramatic irony – what is the function of this device, why did Shakespeare choose it, and how does that impact our reading?
• Exposition & Function of the Prologue – what is the effect of knowing in advance how things will go? (Shakespeare in Love for prologue and death scene)
• How does dramatic irony create suspense?
• Expository / narrative writing in response to themes
• Apocalyptic vs. epiphonic texts
• Sonnet structure – shared / dialogue. The sonnet in dialogue elevates Petrarch’s form from THE genre for unrequited, obsessive love to one conveying true shared love – a radical departure manifested in the “dialogued” sonnet
• Understanding metaphor and the purpose of it
• Shared psychosis – “folie a deux” – psychiatric syndrome where symptoms of a delusional belief / hallucinations are transmitted from one person to another
• Structure of text – author’s craft
• Identify and track motifs
• Character development / analysis & family dynamics study
• Beautiful language – collecting, sharing, and appreciating quotes in reader’s notebooks from both texts
• Social issues research to support identification of themes (what is the author saying about X topic?)
• Mirror / windows / sliding glass doors – personal reflection writing
• Quotes from R&J applied / explored in book club title (discussion recorded for sharing across classes)
• Suicide as convention of literature and tragedy vs. cause for admiration or vilification (Considering the focus, discussion, and attention to mental wellness all educators are determined to impart to our students, we felt it was of utmost importance to debunk the oft-romanticized double suicide as a realistic or laudable demonstration of the extremes deemed appropriate in the name of love.)
After a much-needed break of fresh air, lunch outside the building, and non-work-related conversation and laughs, we were ready to work on mapping our unit. This is where the nerves set it, since one of our issues with a text like Romeo & Juliet is that it can go on F O R E V E R. And we don’t believe in staying in one text for longer than is absolutely necessary, for lots of reasons, not the least of which include:
• Students get tired of the text, bored, and worn out;
• We get tired of the text and dread the feeling of “getting them through it;”
• There are LOTS of other things we want to do!
All of us find Shakespeare easily occupies six weeks, and could go on longer. And even though the last time I taught Romeo & Juliet was longer ago than these teachers have been teaching (*blogger takes a break to weep*), I do teach either Othello or Hamlet each year with my AP Lit & Comp classes, and have a similar struggle. We had the added challenge of wanting to incorporate book club reading, study, and meetings in this unit that we were committed to executing in under six weeks. In fact, we started out with a chart that alloted just four weeks.
Here’s a chart with our unit plan outline, which though it wound up to be 5 weeks long, we’re psyched it includes book clubs, which none of us have incorporated before in conjunction with a Shakespearean play, and which we feel more than compensates for the 5th week:
A few key points:
• This will not be executed until next year (wish us luck!);
• We anticipate changes and modifications, and plan to meet to discuss them during the unit;
• Our class periods are 41 minutes long;
• One teacher will likely keep a theatrical reenactment project she’s had great success with; we decided to leave it off the communal plan for now though may work it in upon execution.
We closed our day with a discussion of assessments. Each teacher noted that they used quizzes for each act, but we decided that it didn’t make for best practice to waste a teaching and learning opportunity on a recall-based assessment when we were focusing on close reading and discussions of read alouds, as well as application of skills in their book clubs which would be tracked in their reader’s notebooks.
We decided then that these quizzes for Acts I, II, III, and V* could be done with a partner, and would take the following form so as to foster both increased comprehension of the text and individual engagement with it:
• 2 quotes teacher-selected
• 2 quotes student-selected
• “Questions” – do one for each quote; students choose which for which:
• Context: What’s happening in the play when this is being spoken?
• Connect to development of literary element (character, motif, theme, symbol, foreshadowing, dramatic irony, etc.)
• Personal response
*Act IV could not be assessed in this way, since students will not be “reading” the printed text.
Recently I started a hashtag to start to document and discuss one of the realities of teaching, and the teachers who are serious about the relevancy of their work: #TeachersWhoEvolve. As I reflect on the incredible day I spent with three* enthusiastic, energetic, “early adopter” teachers, I realize that one of the most beautiful aspects of this teaching work is that we all grow together. We grow older, sharing life and family and career struggles and triumphs, and we also grow in our work, as educators who constantly learn and change and … wait for it … evolve. I am so proud of the efforts of these three, and everyone else who is devoted to evolving. It means we’re never done. How much more exciting than “arriving” and being sentenced to sameness. You are my tribe. Together we will thrive. #TeachersWhoEvolve.
*Kudos, thanks, and many accolades to these three teachers, all members of NYSEC: Michaela Caruso, Liz Barbulean, and Kaitlin Blumberg. You inspire me and your students daily!
Michelle G. Bulla is a 20+ year English teacher at Monroe-Woodbury High School at the foot of the Catskills in New York, where she also serves as 9-12 Department Chair. She is a Past President of NYSEC, and continues to serve on the Executive Board as editor of the “Voices of NYSEC” blog and the website liaison. She’d love to hear from you to talk teaching, writing, reading, and figuring out how to do it all and still sleep, too. firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @china93doll #TeachersWhoEvolve