“Do we have to study Shakespeare?”
As an English teacher, you are bound to hear this question at least once during your career. If you only hear it once in your entire career, you should consider yourself lucky! In this instance, however, I was not surprised. I was completing my final practicum for my Bachelor of Education studies. We were about to study Romeo and Juliet, and the comment came from a group of four boys who sat together during my fifth period Grade 9 English class. These boys were definitely not weak students, but they were very selective about which materials they found engaging. Our just-completed study of S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders was a success, because they found the main characters easy to relate to; Romeo and Juliet, on the other hand, was not. The boys were not romantics at heart; they were simply not interested.
I challenged myself to find a way to make our study of Shakespeare interesting for all students. As I only had less than two weeks to cover the play, my time and resources were limited. I decided to make connections between the play and popular music, selecting a song with lyrics corresponding to the central themes in Romeo and Juliet. Students would not only be comparing and contrasting two texts, a play and a poem, but it was also an opportunity for me to assess comprehension and critical thinking. We began each class by playing a song and projecting the lyrics on the SMART Board, allowing students to sing along if they liked. Both of my Grade 9 classes were a lively bunch, so they enjoyed the karaoke aspect. On the second day, a female student suggested we play Taylor Swift’s Love Story. I asked her why she felt the song connected to the play, beyond the obvious mention of the characters Romeo and Juliet in the song lyrics, and she suggested that the song differs from the play because it removes the death element and allows a happy ending, whereas the play ends tragically. Encouraged by her insight, I played the song and challenged both classes to find songs that relate to the play.
Upon making this suggestion, I noticed the four boys’ eyes light up. At the end of that class, they stormed to my desk with a list of suggestions, one of which was Don’t Fear the Reaper by Blue Oyster Cult. Knowing that the song, much like Love Story, directly references Romeo and Juliet, I challenged them to justify its inclusion. They discussed with each other, and one of the boys suggested that both texts take a hauntingly positive outlook on death, that it was something not to be feared but to be embraced. Impressed by this suggestion, I promised to play it the next class.
From that moment onward, those four boys were completely engaged with our study of Romeo and Juliet. During classroom discussions, they were connecting occurrences in the play to songs, television shows, video games and movies that they enjoyed. I encouraged these connections, because in each instance, they were able to articulate how the two texts compared or contrasted. One of the boys even finished with the highest mark on our final project, and all four were sorry to see the unit end.
From this experience, I learned that the key to fostering student engagement is building meaningful connections between classroom study and students’ personal contexts, by making learning relevant and applicable to their own experiences. When I returned to that same school the next year as a substitute teacher, I met those four boys again, and they were eager to share their interpretations of popular songs with me, noting that they had never really thought about the meanings behind lyrics prior to our Shakespeare unit.
Perhaps the best lesson to be derived from this experience is summed up in the title of that fateful song. Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb; in essence, Don’t Fear the Reaper…
Collage: Dave Donald
First published in Education Canada, November 2014