Swear Not by the Moon

Romeo and Juliet sure make a lot of promises to each other.

Romeo, for example, promises his heart to Juliet the moment he meets her, promises to marry her later that night, makes wedding vows to her shortly after that, and even after things take a turn for the worse, he promises to lie with her for all eternity.  Whether these promises were kept or broken... well, that's another thing.

But the idea of making promises to our students is an interesting one to consider before we embark upon a road laden with Shakespeare.  Reality check: many students, especially struggling readers and second language learners, do not honestly believe they will ever be able to understand Shakespeare. They view Shakespeare as their mortal enemy.  As teachers, it is our job to spring love from hate.  

I'm starting my Shakespeare unit with my 7th and 8th grade students tomorrow.  And aside from building background knowledge, activating inquiry-based learning techniques, developing a sense of community, and diving into the elements of drama, I always begin my Shakespeare units by making promises to my students.  

There are 5 in total, and I have yet to break any of them.  That's right; eat your heart out, Romeo.

Promise #1: I will not ask you to do anything you're not capable of. 

Cards on the table - this is an outright lie.  I know, I know... terrible.  This is nothing more than a motivational teacher trick I play on my students.  My plan is entirely to toss my students into the deep end at the beginning of my Shakespeare unit.  But believe me - I am watching carefully and I have a life ring ready to toss in at any second.  I prefer to set the bar higher than reasonable, and then adjust based on student progress.  No matter where the bar ends up settling, I know my students will have achieved levels of rigor that are appropriate for each of them.

Promise #2: I will support you ... as long as you do your part.

I like to warn my students again and again that the Shakespeare unit may very well be the hardest they have ever worked in a reading class.  I refer not to the amount of work, but to its complexity. Despite this very honest warning, I still get a couple of students each year who honestly believe they can kick back and let me do all the thinking for them.  Nope, nope, nope.  I am constantly looking for those few students to put in the tiniest bit of effort, and then I zoom right in and shower them with support.  I celebrate their tiny victories and ask them how it feels to finally "figure it out."  Spoiler alert: they always tell me it feels great.

Promise #3: You will get frustrated and you will overcome it.

This one always sounds great on paper, but when push comes to shove, my students look at me like they've got a mouthful of cod liver oil.  It probably doesn't help that I say, "Remember how I told you you'd get frustrated?  Well, this is it." I target these moments and add in a healthy dose of motivation by asking my students things like, "This is one of those tough moments.  How will you handle it?  Are you going to push through or quit?" Because of the strong relationships I build with my students, they trust me to get them through these tough moments. And hey, that's some life lesson-level stuff right there.

Promise #4: I will make sure you have fun and enjoy yourself.

When my Shakespeare unit comes to a close, I feel like I need to sleep for the next month.  It is exhausting.  The reason it's so demanding is because I work hard to incorporate playtime into my lessons.  Honestly, if I'm asking students to work harder than they've ever worked before, I had better do what I can do make it feel like fun as often as possible.  We play our way to understanding Shakespeare whenever possible. Improv games, partner activities, pantomime, and films all play a role in my Shakespeare unit.  I have to keep things feeling fresh and engaging as much as possible.  And when my students run into my room asking, "Can we play Exeunt! today?!" I feel like I've nailed it!

Promise #5: There are rewards for taking risks.  

We are so fortunate to have The Chicago Shakespeare Theater located right in the heart of our fair city.  And as much as I like to shy away from rewards and praise in the classroom, I feel okay about rewarding kids with--you guessed it--more Shakespeare.  Because I teach 7th and 8th graders, many of them have never seen anything performed live on a stage before.  Therefore, the first thing I do in the fall is call up the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and book a field trip to see whatever play they're preparing for student matinees.  Then I put my students in direct competition with one another.  They can earn points for taking acting risks, showing leadership, demonstrating deep analysis, etc.  We keep track on a sticker chart, and the top 30 at the end of the unit get an all-expenses paid trip to see a play performed just for them.

Well, there's a peek at my kick-off lesson for tomorrow morning!  Wish me luck.
And by the way, if you have fabulous ideas about how to motivate/prepare your students for challenging units, please share them with me!

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