Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Walking the Walk: How DC Public School Teachers Get Inside the Language of Romeo and Juliet


“Can’t we cut the first two lines? We still know what’s going on if we start with Lady Capulet’s ‘Evermore weeping…’”

(Folger Shakespeare Library)
(Folger Shakespeare Library)

 “Cut out that whole speech. It’s interesting but it’s not essential.”

 “So you’re saying that Juliet says the word ‘dead’ like it’s damage recovery? Then she should say it quickly, like she’s catching herself.”

“Yes! Do that! And smile. You believe Juliet. You’re gullible.”

“Can we use the window as part of our set? We have an idea.”

“We’re setting our scene in a tea room.”

On December 5th, we had the honor of working with our 9th grade teaching colleagues in DC Public Schools (DCPS) on how to teach the new DCPS-Folger curriculum for Romeo and Juliet. And, man, did we have a blast. In this blog post we’re giving THEM a shout-out and we’re letting YOU in on how they—and their students—are getting inside Shakespeare’s language.

First, a little background: over the summer, as part of our growing partnership with our local school district, we collaborated with Monica Green, a DCPS middle school teacher and Folger National Teacher Corps member, to write a DCPS-specific unit plan for Romeo and Juliet. It has standards-based daily lessons, interactive close reading strategies, summative assessments, formative checks, an argumentative writing pathway, informational texts, guidance for special populations, primary sources, images and multimedia, and lots more. Way too much to model and practice in one morning session. (Yes: Monica Green is amazing.)

So, in working with teachers last week, Monica and I focused on just one piece of the unit: the 6-day Cornerstone on Romeo and Juliet. For our colleagues all over the country: Cornerstones are a new, totally cool way to promote rigor and equity across the city, and we’re thrilled to have worked with DCPS to develop the Shakespeare Cornerstone lessons.

The big idea behind this particular Cornerstone is to get students, in groups, using a sequence of strategies to really own a specific scene from the play.

Working together, students will

  1. read a scene aloud (this can be chosen by the group or assigned by the teacher),
  2. cut the scene as directors and editors do,
  3. create a promptbook for their newly cut script, and
  4. finally create—and present—a performance of that scene. In addition, each group will write a report that defends, with reasoning and textual evidence, their major decisions as editors, interpreters, and performers.
(Folger Shakespeare Library)
(Folger Shakespeare Library)

Here’s where those opening quotations come in. Last week, the teachers of these 9th grade students took the plunge and completed these four steps themselves. They were assigned a group. They were handed a 60-line scene from Romeo and Juliet and asked to read it aloud, cut it down to 30 lines, make a promptbook, perform their scenes for everyone, and explain with evidence why they chose to, say, have Juliet look away when she said Romeo’s name, or play Lady Capulet as a cold and calculating martinet. They walked the walk. And we managed to capture some of what they said as they took that walk.

We should mention, too, that even though all 7 groups had worked on the same scene—from Romeo and Juliet 3.5—each performance was clever and surprising and fabulous in its own way. In the end, though, we all agreed that what mattered most was not the final product, but the process of getting inside Shakespeare’s language.

Thanks, DCPS teaching colleagues, for digging into this play, this curriculum, this work with us. We’re inspired by your courage and curiosity and commitment, and we can’t wait to see what you and your students do with this material. You’re the ones, as Peggy O’Brien says, who make it sing.