Designing the Module
A challenge when teaching Shakespeare is convincing the students that, while they do not need to love Shakespeare, they can develop an appreciation for the writing and apply the themes in his works to their own lives. Many of my students come into Romeo and Juliet quite resistant and skeptical to my announcement that by the end of the play, they will be able to read a Shakespearean text and that they will be able to appreciate the themes in the work.
Just as most teachers do, each year before I teach Romeo and Juliet I review last year’s experience, think about these students, and design a module that fits this group. Serendipitously, this year I had a group of students that needed more support than past groups and I met Dan Hickey and his Designing For Participation (DFP) principles. These principles put into succinct words much of what I had been doing in my class. We worked together to gather Open Educational Resources (OERs) and traditional classroom tools to design a Romeo and Juliet unit that taught specific skills outlined in the Common Core Standards, 21st Century tools, engaged students in active participation and practice of conceptual tools in different contexts, and assessed students through reflections that demonstrated critical and consequential engagement.
In choosing the Common Core Standard (CCS), I took into consideration the skills the students had practiced thus far and – since this was occurring at the end of the year – the skills they needed to review and master before moving on to the next grade. It became apparent that working on analysis and supporting claims with evidence would provide the students with the best opportunities to practice all that they had learned, so CCS Writing Standard 9 (for grades 9 and 10) was chosen:
“Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
We also decided that a secondary focus would be on procedural writing tools including ideas, organization, style, and grammar.
We broke the CCS down into its components (analysis, reflection, research) and began to search for contexts in which these concepts would be practiced. As the contexts emerged, we made a chart that crossed the concepts by the contexts, and determined which concepts were being practiced and to what degree in each context. The goal was to hit all of the concepts at varying levels in the contexts. Not only was this useful in designing the module, but it really helped me see where I was strongly covering the skill set and where I might be falling short. I was able to make adjustments to the module before implementation, rather than finding out after the fact that I had not quite planned to cover a particular concept sufficiently.
Whole class and small group discussion was the first activity chosen, and is featured throughout the module. I feel strongly that discussing a text, asking questions, positing responses, and listening to these exchanges helps a student (and the teacher) obtain a better grasp on the text, and that the more disciplined discussion is fostered, the more likely it is that students will be able to achieve. Therefore, these discussions run throughout the module.
We also decided to use a literary mock trial as a way to begin to explore what it means to deeply analyze a character’s actions and motivations. We drew on a ReadWriteThink resource for this activity. This required students not only to read critically, but to form arguments, use evidence to support those arguments, and refute arguments made by opponents. Additionally, the “Jury” had to analyze that evidence in order to make a verdict.
The next activity and level of engagement with character analysis occurred in a digital poster, and in critiques and reflections posted to an online discussion forum using Edmodo. Here students analyzed the wisdom and ignorance of characters not only from Romeo and Juliet, but from four other literary texts read throughout the year as well. The point was to show students that these tools – character analysis, research, and reflection – applied beyond the play being read, and to every story we covered, and that they will read in the future.
Finally, students composed a formal essay analyzing secondary and tertiary characters in Romeo and Juliet, demonstrating both their understanding of the work itself, and their ability to research and analyze a character without having exhaustive discussions about that character. In this essay, students made claims about a character and their motivations, and needed to support those claims with evidence. However, students were not graded on their essay. After completing a Networked Peer Review, students reflected critically and consequentially about their own writing and what they observed in others. Their grade was based on their reflections of their performance and how they might improve the essay. Had time allowed, students would have rewritten the paper with these insights in mind.
Each activity included an opening and closing reflection that helped them begin to think critically and on a deeper level about the tools being used to discuss and read Shakespeare’s work.