Own that Shakespeare, guys! (Part 1)

Let me start by filling you in on some facts about me, my students, and my work.

Fact: I have tattoos – three of them – and I don’t hide them at work. Well, to be fair, I don’t hide one at work; the other two are hidden unless I’m wearing a low backed outfit or a bikini – neither of which fit the professional look I’m going for.

Fact: Students are curious about tattoos. They often ask if mine has meaning, and I’m happy to teach them about its symbolism. They think they’re having a casual chat about tattoos, but they’re actually learning. Whoops!

Fact: In BC, Romeo and Juliet is typically taught in Grade 10, even though Shakespeare is not actually listed as a required reading by the Ministry of Education, and it’s certainly not on their Provincial Exam. That’s okay with me, but my students aren’t normally so keen on it.

Fact: I like teaching engaging lessons in which students take a role in their own learning. The day is more fun for everyone that way.

What do all these facts lead to? One kickass way to teach Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Not a teacher? Stick around and curse Shakespeare as you knew it while wishing that you could pass for fifteen and sneak into my class. Teacher? Feel free to leave a comment asking for any details or clarification. I’d love to chat!

Before even breaking out the texts

So, let’s get started. Say you’ve given your background information on Willy S. and your students have a general idea of Elizabethan social history, time to start reading, right? Stop!

Before even lugging 30 some-odd copies of the play to your classroom, assign each student a character. I do this by having them each choose a short character description (similar to what you would find on Sparksnotes) from an envelope. I feel that it was important that they choose their own character so I can’t be accused of giving them the “hard” characters for what’s to come.

What’s to come? Awesomeness, that’s what.

At this point, I would have already gone through my tattoo symbolism PowerPoint, wherein I show actual pictures of my friends’ and families’ tattoos and run the students through a variety of scaffolded activities. These activities start by asking the students to match symbolic tattoos to their meanings and vice-versa, before giving them only the meanings and asking them to brainstorm how they would show that meaning in an image. They invariably have different ideas than the actual tattoos, but that’s the point; the idea is that they’re learning that they can get creative with the interpretations as long as they can defend their choices.

So, they’ve now learned about symbolism in tattoos, and they’ve been assigned a character from Romeo and Juliet. Next, they put the two together. They’re given the task of designing (and drawing) a tattoo for their character, in addition to writing a paragraph explaining why this image symbolizes their character. For full marks, the students need to show thoughtful consideration of the following elements:

1. The image(s) itself. Why do those pictures represent this character?

2. The colours. What do the colours represent, and how is that related to their character?

3. Size and placement on the body. What could the tattoos prominence say about their character?


(Recognize Mercutio’s sexuality, love of fun, and way with words?)

Starting to use the symbolic images

Here’s where things become slightly more work for you than the old school Shakespeare instruction method of popcorn reading between groans and giggles. You get to build Verona on the wall. Well, technically you just get to slap up a sign that says “Verona” with subheadings for Montague and Capulet, then a sign that says “Mantua.

You’ll want to arrange the Montague characters under their sign, and the Capulets under theirs. The physical separation of characters on the wall can help students to keep them straight. You could even go so far as organizing them hierarchically, doing a character “meet and greet” and getting input from the class even. Regardless, I tack a separate nametag onto each image because I always, always have some students who don’t hand in their tattoos, but they still get to go up too – they just stay in Mantua until they submit their images.

Verona Wall(Here’s an example – it gets less boring looking than this as you go on.)

Now, now, don’t get up in arms. I’m not exiling them as a completely punitive move – they just still have a role to play. Those characters that the students chose at the outset? That student gets to examine the play from the point of view of their character and speak to their character’s possible motivation throughout the play. If a student has chosen not to complete the assignment, they don’t forfeit their responsibilities; instead, they’re asked to be villagers, looking at the events from the perspective unrelated to the two families.

It’s now time to go get those texts. Each time the class meets a new character, we pause to have the student tell the class about their character. Yes, this can involve some spoilers (Romeo dies, guys!), but spoilers aren’t bad in Shakespeare. If anything, they give the students a frame of reference – or prior knowledge – to go back to and build off of as we go along.

At this point, the students tend to be pretty engaged. They’ve taken ownership of a character, and they’ve been put in the role of “expert” by teaching their peers about their role. But how do you keep them engaged through all five acts – especially once/if they have minor characters or get killed off?

Stay tuned.