This year, I joined the Folger-DCPS professional learning cohort, a group of DC Public Schools teachers working in 9th grade ELA and Special Education classrooms—all implementing the new unit on Romeo and Juliet developed by the Folger Shakespeare Library for our district. This experience meant new curricular materials, new approaches to teaching and learning, new challenges and opportunities, and new collaborations with my teaching colleagues in DCPS and at the Folger. Here’s a small glimpse into what happened in my classroom as a result of all this:
In short, I stopped trying to “do justice” to Shakespeare and let the students just do it! The rest of that cool literary analysis stuff came, but not because I was hitting them over the head with it this time. I teach English to a very small self-contained Special Education class, and finding material that meets my students at their instructional level is very difficult. This year was different though—I decided to co-teach with a general education teacher and bring our kids together. I thought it might work, but not this well!
Starting the unit was the easiest. I laid the framework that Shakespeare’s language and words are unclear to most of us, so have fun! That was totally weird, but the students hung on. Then we started cutting out his words—the horror! And lastly, they got to work together to make their own Shakespeare scene. We started small with words, jokes, insults. Then we moved to phrases, lines, and parts. We read in circles parts of cut scenes and then grew to acting out the parts. Students worked in groups called “Acting Companies” through most of their work and final projects. Students learned from each other more than they learned from me; I was just the one telling them what to do, but they were the ones thinking and doing. The process led to deep, complex learning but was actually simple, and to my administrator it did not make sense at first. Instead of using teacher direction and explanation to get students to 100% comprehension by the end of a class period, my goal was to get students to understand as much as they could completely on their own, without my help. I wanted them to see that they could make meaning on their own, and they did.
The growth was slow, but it came out in spades in their final projects. My students grew tremendously because nearly all the work in class was in cooperative learning groups, most of the lessons focused on determining meaning on their own, and I tried to hold back on jumping in to support them too much. The supports were given to the class in small steps that made each task easier (understanding from exposure, time, and discussion). The Shakespeare was not watered down for any of the students; instead they were given the tools they needed to figure it out. Shakespeare is for all students, regardless of Lexile level, native language, or any exceptionality or disability.