My fifth grade students would barely take their seats on that first day of school each August, when I would invariably hear the question, “Are we going to put on a production of Romeo and Juliet like your students did last year?” The word had obviously gotten around. I taught elementary school for many years, yet I don’t remember anything else that created the motivation and enthusiasm that this play generated. The idea had originally sprung out of the curiosity of one reading group when a reference to Shakespeare was made. I found an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet that was pared down, but still used the old style English. The students read it in class and then begged to perform it for an audience. They conned me, and then I conned another teacher, Jan, into joining me! I remember first telling my husband that I was considering having these ten and eleven year old fifth graders perform Shakespeare. He said, “Ten year old kids doing Shakespeare! Are you nuts?” Call me crazy. Any teacher with the desire and some extra time before or after school can make this a successful and memorable venture. Keep in mind, we did this before the No Child Left Behind days. We had more time then to explore creative ventures that aided in all aspects of child development. Perhaps you can do this with an after-school club. The benefits will permeate so many aspects of the students’ education.
The Moral of the Story
The feud between the Capulets and the Montagues is well known to most adults. It will be something new, however, to most young people. Many discussions will ensue about the power of love and hate. The students will come to realize that boys and girls their age often endure the prejudices of their parents. They will easily relate Shakespeare’s story to their own day and age.
If you decide to take on this production, the key is to involve every student in some capacity. We held after-school auditions for the acting parts. The students’ only concern was whether or not Romeo and Juliet would need to kiss. The sentiment was, “Yuck!” (Sure, check back with them in a few years.) Many students loved art and preferred to help create the scenery and the masks. There was a ballerina at the onset of the evening’s performance who danced to the theme from Romeo and Juliet as it was being played on the piano by another talented student. We had stage directors and stage hands. Certain boys and girls were assigned the task of creating sound effects and manning the lights. Those who were good on the computer created programs. Some were ushers. It did make each one of them feel important. And they were! Never underestimate the intelligence of fifth graders. We were fortunate to have music and art teachers who took on the project right along with us. Parents were more than willing to help as well.
This was one time when I didn’t have to prod the students to do research. They were anxious to see what the garb of the day looked like in order to design their outfits. Some worked with their parents to make their own attire. Others went to thrift stores or dug into their relatives’ closets to emulate the looks of the era.
As I look back at the recordings of our plays, I marvel at the amount of dialogue that these young students were able to learn. Our version was far from simple. Lines such as, “Here I am, Mother. What is your will?” soon became second nature even though they were completely out of the realm of a fifth grader’s vocabulary. This, of course, required prior terminology development and story understanding. There are some good resources for vocabulary enhancement available online at The Children’s Theatre Company. The old English dialect promptly infiltrated our classroom. We’d all get a chuckle when a student would make a statement in class and I replied, “Speakest thou from thy heart?” The language seemed to be contagious.
One boy, who was to play Mercutio, asked to talk to me privately. He had a learning disability and said that he’d decided to hand the role over to one of the accelerated students. He thought the other boy would do a much better job. This young man didn’t realize his own potential. I wouldn’t let him quit. Sure, it took him a little longer to memorize his part, but he ended up being the best one on that stage. His confidence was boosted and, according to his parents, it spilled over into other aspects of his life.
The best part about the entire experience was when Jan and I were able to sit in the audience and simply watch. The students were in control of that stage. At the play’s closing, our principal spoke to the audience. He admitted that when we had first told him of our idea, he was skeptical at best, but that we had just responded, “Oh, ye of little faith!” Both he and my husband had changed their minds by the end of the fifth graders’ impressive performance that first year. Our students were so invested in this project that they sobbed when the final curtain went down, shocking Jan and me. Maybe you’d like to lay your scene in fair Verona. I guarantee that you will have students and parents contacting you for years afterward saying that it was indeed the best experience of their elementary school days.
Resource: The Children’s Theatre Company, 2008/2009