How to Teach Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet: Act I

March 03, 2017

Whether you are a teacher tackling William Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet for the first time or you are a veteran looking to change how you’ve taught it in the past, it is always helpful to find out how another teacher plans it all out. Read on to find out what scenes I focus on and why, how my students read and act out those scenes, and what activities I use to extend learning and make connections.
When teaching Shakespeare to high school students, it is all about exposure and enjoyment. I begin building excitement during the week I spend introducing the play. Here's my approach to Act I.

Planning Out The Reading
I don't want to kill the play, so in each act, I generally choose to read the scene with the events most important to developing the plot. In Act I, that is the opening scene (Scene V is also important, but I pair that with the events in Act II).

I usually choose one other scene per act to read that highlights another important aspect of the play. In Act I, that is scene III, which introduces students to Juliet, her relationship with her Nurse and her mother, Lady Capulet, and their attitudes about love and marriage. 

I provide short summaries for any scenes we skip to fill students in on the less important events. I like to spend about a week on each act of the play, so the days we don't spend reading are spent on after reading activities, writing, and a short assessment.

Act I, Scene I
I present this scene to students entirely in Shakespeare’s language, but an edited down version. I cut out lines to focus on the feud between the Montagues and Capulets. The scene ends up about one page front and back, creating a script that can easily be acted out by students. 

Before assigning parts and having my students act, as a class we do one or two read throughs. In the first read through, we number the lines of the scene up to the number of students in the class and then repeat until each line of the scene is numbered. Then students count off and read “their” lines regardless of the character speaking. If I feel like a second read through is necessary, we number the parts rather than individual lines. Each time a different character speaks, so does a new student.

Once students are comfortable with the language, I ask them to play the part of the director and insert stage directions. Where do characters enter and exit? When do they draw their swords? What is their tone? Marking up the script in this way requires close reading and some critical thinking for students.

Finally, I have students get up and act out the scene. I usually let students choose their parts, but if necessary I will assign them. Some students don't mind reading, but don't want to get up out of their seats, so I will sometimes have someone assigned as the reader for a part and someone else as the silent actor or actress for the part. I can get twice the number of students involved that way and draw on students’ strengths. Students who are uncomfortable getting up in front of the class can still participate and students who enjoy acting won't be hindered by having to hold a script.

Act I, Scene III
Since we work through Act I, Scene I as a whole class, reading it out loud several times, I have students read the rest of Act I through Scene IV independently. The focus is on Act I, Scene III so I provide summaries of the remainder of Act I, Scene I; Act I, Scene II; and Act I, Scene IV. 

The text of Act I, Scene III has the original text with the modern translations side by side. Like the first scene, I also edit it down (cut out lines). After reading, students translate words from the original to modern text, and vice versa. They also answer short written response questions and analyze characters and their traits. We review all of this together at the end of class.

After Reading Activities
Shakespeare's language can be a challenge, but I also want students to have fun with it. He used some great words! Students use these lists of of words to create insults and then write a short scene where the Montagues and Capulets continue their brawl from Act I, Scene I. This is also a second opportunity for students to practice writing stage directions. I reserve about 10 minutes at the end of the class period for students to act out their scripts in small groups.

To make connections with history, I give students information about the real life family feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys. Using this information, students create a timeline of important events as well as a graveyard for the victims. The History Channel’s mini-series, The Hatfields and the McCoys, is wonderful and if students are interested, I try to squeeze some of that in.

Writing & Assessment
At the end of the week, I will give students a choice of two constructed response prompts, one connected to each of the scenes on which we focused. This is a chance for them to independently express their understanding of what we read, practice citing text evidence, and continue to build on their writing skills in general. 

I also assign a text based assessment, which covers the Prologue and Act I. The assessment includes all of the prologue and a section of Act I, ten multiple-choice questions, and two choices for a written response. Questions ask students to identify which lines match the parts of the tragedy cycle, to analyze characters words and actions, and to paraphrase important lines.

You can find all of my resources for teaching Romeo and Juliet, including the materials described above that I use to teach Act I, here.

Read on for my approach to teaching Act II of Romeo and Juliet.

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