Nina MK, Ph.D.
It is April, spring is in the air, Shakespeare’s birthday is upon us, and our thoughts naturally turn to the ever-interesting topic of young love. “Romeo and Juliet” is a wonderful opportunity to discuss a theme that really interests teenagers, and to stimulate their imagination. If we are lucky, they will even produce some decent writing afterwards. Pupils often groan when such a task is mentioned simply because they have to do it at every lesson, and as homework. To create a positive atmosphere and to make my students smile, I start with a simple quotation which immediately strikes a chord:
“Love goes toward love, as schoolboys from their books;
But love from love, toward school with heavy looks.”
These are the activities I have used to motivate writing, and to develop critical thinking.
• Telling the students about the upcoming topics well in advance may be a contributing factor to their success. Spring school break is the last week of March. To be sure that teenagers do not come back to class without a thought in their heads, I tell them beforehand that we are going to discuss the play, and then to write essays about it. By now, they all know how long an essay of 200 words is, and they are not afraid of the volume required. This early warning plays a double role. On the one hand, since the deadline still seems somewhat removed, they are not worried. On the other hand, a vestige of the information remains in their heads, and they are unconsciously prepared for the task when they are back.
• When we are faced with the typical teen reaction to the mere word “writing”, it pays to be ready with some replies to the most popular question, WHY. Sometimes we can simply tell them an essay is exam requirement, and a good skill to develop for their future. With a fascinating topic of young love, we can assure them that the theme is exciting, and good for their souls.
• Discussion at a lesson is very useful. I offer a shortlist of questions, and ask students to add or eliminate some more points. This task needs a lot of tact due to the sensitivity of the subject. If any student is uncomfortable, or thinks that the information is personal, we should not press them into revealing anything, but rather suggest that they choose another aspect, or simply take part in working out the solutions to the problems enumerated.
• You can make a presentation about Verona, and tell them how the young loves’ touching tale is preserved today.
• A sample of the questions:
1) What do teenagers do when they are forbidden by adults to do something they want, or to meet someone they wish to see, or to communicate with a friend?
2) “Romeo and Juliet” is a play about two very young people who are not allowed to be together, to love each other, because their families had been enemies forever. Can love be controlled? Can the feeling be banned?
3) In the play, adults act in a certain way because of the hostility between two families. Do you think there may be situations when adults are right in trying to keep their child away from a situation or person?
4) Why is it that people read the play and watch various theatre and screen versions of it several centuries later?
5) Which part of the play you like best, and why?
6) Why does Shakespeare say, “schoolboys”, not “school children”, or “boys and girls?”
NB: you may have to tell them that at the time, only boys went to school. Which fact of course may turn out to be an essay topic in itself!
Contrary to popular beliefs, teenagers are not interested in sex only. Love is a topic which makes their eyes sparkle and helps their ideas flow. They may become quite emotional and very articulate when discussing the subject. The time distance helps them feel safe, as if they are talking about the people who lived a very long time ago and not about what concerns them today. The closeness in age makes the whole discussion alive. Quite often, if my class would become animated and speak English freely, arguing this or that point of view, I would stay silent, listening and taking mental notes. Yes, notes on the subject and the ever-present grammar. It is very important not to interrupt them, and you can certainly work at mistakes corrections later.
Once the discussion in class is done, you may discover that it spills over into a break and after-school activities. Adolescents will continue to talk about love animatedly, sometimes hiding their own emotions by putting forth Shakespeare’s characters. An essay may be written either at a lesson, or at home, depending on the amount of time you can allot to it. If you have a strong class, you may suggest that they write about any aspect of the story, and offer their own titles. I have received multiple examples of teen thinking processes through the years. For instance, a young man wrote that all adults were wrong, and that Romeo should have confronted his parents about his true feelings. A young feminist wrote about the subordinate role of women in history, and convincingly argued that Juliet’s death was the result of the inherent inequality of the sexes. Many students expressed their admiration for the play, and their amazement at how well it was written. Some even mentioned “the superb understanding of teen psychology by the author”. Purely linguistic research into the meanings of words and phrases, as well as into the multiple quotes which became part and parcel of everyday English, annually attracts a few teens that may choose philology as their future profession. Time and again, someone would report enthusiastically, “What’s in a name” is not just a sentence, it originally came from Shakespeare!” Let them make their little discoveries, and encourage them all.