Standards for Teachers of English Language and Literacy in Australia
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2.1 Teachers plan for effective learning

1.3 Teachers know how students learn to be powerfully literate

How deep, complex and connected is the intellectual content encountered by students?

How is accountability demonstrated for the planned learning and language development of all students?

  An academic endeavour
Year 9
Rita van Haren

Working with a class of 20 Year 8 boys is an interesting challenge for any teacher. Most of the students in my all boys Year 8 class were either very uninterested in being at school, or were so used to failure that they were unmotivated to try. Finding activities that would engage them, as well as develop their literacy skills, was always a challenge.

After a year of mixed successes and failures in Year 8 plus the fact that no one else in the faculty was keen to take them on as a Year 9 class, I felt I had done the groundwork and perhaps another year might be a turning point.

During the Christmas holidays Baz Luhrman's film production of Romeo and Juliet was released and I organised a night out with my two sisters and my teenage daughter and niece. Of course we all enjoyed the film and especially the discussion afterwards over frothy coffee. (Note it was an all female night out!) I began to think that perhaps studying Romeo and Juliet could be interesting with my class of boys. So for the next few weeks I considered different approaches and by the start of the term I was very keen to start implementing my unit of work.

It was important to begin with this unit for many reasons. Firstly, I was very enthusiastic and I knew that my enthusiasm could be catching for them. Also I wanted to set a more academic tone from the start of the year and send the message that I had high expectations of what they would achieve. It was a vote of my confidence in them that I felt they could cope with academic endeavours such as the study of Shakespeare.

Finally, a sweetener for my students was that we would venture out on an excursion and see the film at a movie theatre. We only had a short time before the film would close at the movies and I wasn't sure when it would be available for video hire, perhaps not until the following year.

Many of the introductory activities were scaffolded so the students felt successful. For example students were given a list of key words which were relevant to the story. (e.g. Verona, Montague, Capulet, a balcony, a masked ball, a funeral, a message not delivered, banishment, a fight, an arranged marriage, falling in love, a double suicide, a sleeping potion and an ancient feud). Firstly, as a prediction exercise the students had to organise the words into an order which might represent what happened in the story.

I then told them the story and each student had to check their order of words and rearrange them as I was speaking. I used all my storytelling skills to interest them in the story and noted that at first the words gave them a focus for their listening and they were interested in "getting it right". By the end of the story some students were so involved in listening that they had given up on rearranging the words. "Hey Miss," said Martin, "I was listening to the story so much, I forgot to rearrange my words!"

We followed this up with a short journal in which they reflected on what they liked/didn't like in the story and also some metacognition, i.e. comments about their prediction and their listening skills. Nathan noted:

I find it hard to concentrate when I have to listen, but looking at the words and rearranging them helped me to listen better. Even though it was a mushy love story, I liked the fighting bits, especially when Mercutio made a joke about being a 'grave man' when he was dying.

Most students said that they enjoyed listening activities so I used similar strategies to introduce them to some background about Shakespeare's life, his plays, Elizabethan theatre and audiences. For example, I provided them with information and they would record ten dot points as I spoke. Anecdotes about using animal's hearts and kidneys to give the impression of bloody realism in fight scenes and about the Elizabethan's belief in witchcraft helped to keep them engaged.

At this stage we could have viewed the film, but as I wanted to stress the academic focus of this unit, we went to the printed text. Acknowledging that Shakespeare is meant to be viewed rather than read, and that eventually we would view the whole play, I convinced them it was still valuable to look at excerpts of the printed text.

We started with a small numeracy exercise so that students could understand the use of Roman numerals in references to acts, scenes and lines; this would be important later when using quotes in essays. Though it was competitive we enjoyed racing each other to find scenes. Of course once the quickest ones had found the scene they would have to read it quickly and then tell the rest of us what it was all about.

To their own surprise the students found they could understand the basic ideas and so were not too intimidated by the language. I then directed them to key scenes which they had to find and explain in writing - a wonderful comprehension activity as well as a further boost to their confidence.

Of course questions emerged such as "What does this 'biting your thumb' at people mean?" This proved another engaging aspect of our study as we discussed modern day equivalents of gestures used to insult others. They had plenty of examples and we had quite a few laughs.

To reward their interest I showed excerpts from Zeffirelli's film version, focusing on the "biting the thumb" and ensuing street brawl scene and the fight between Mercutio and Tybalt, and then Tybalt and Romeo.

To prepare ourselves further for our excursion to the movies, we looked at some of Baz Luhrman's screenplay scripts and compared and contrasted them to Shakespeare's stage play. As well as adding to the students' familiarity with the plot, they were further developing their ears for the language and I felt they would have few problems in following the film.

Having finalised the return of permission notes home (it was an M rated film and naturally I had to ring some parents for permission for those last few who never seem to return notes), we set off on the school bus to the local movie theatre. Their high spirits were evident in their gently heckling of my gear changes and driving in general.

Some of my colleagues thought I was crazy taking that lot out but except for having to reprimand a few for delaying us while they played the pinball machines, it was an enjoyable experience.

"I liked it, except the love scenes were rather corny," said Thi. "Yeah, having them wear modern clothes and setting it in places like the petrol station were mad." added Joel. All Steve wanted to know was "When's our next excursion?"

Our next lessons focused on lots of discussion and a few journal responses about what makes the Lurhman version successful for modern audiences. Again to reinforce their knowledge of the plot, we watched excerpts from the Zeffirelli version which definitely was not as popular with them but still served to help us reflect on the successful aspects of Luhrman's version.

We summarised our discussion by drawing up a table and recording aspects we identified such as action, modern themes including violence, drugs, homophobia, religion and hypocrisy, and graffiti, the choice of actors, modernisation of costumes and setting, the use of language, music, images and symbols and the media. Students were then set the task of finding supporting evidence for each aspect and adding it to the table. They learned supporting evidence could be in their own words, or as a quote, and thus they went back to the printed text as well as remembering scenes from the film.

Our next challenge was to use the information in the table in an essay/expository text on why the film was so successful with modern audiences. Explicit teaching of how to write an essay, including its structure and language, and examination of a model of an essay enabled some independent students to start writing their essays.

Others opted for an essay with 'handlebars' and 'training wheels', which provided them with an introduction and a topic sentence for each paragraph. They then had to expand on the topic sentence, using the supporting evidence they had supplied in the table, and then write their own conclusion. Editing and proofreading were emphasised and all students had the opportunity to work with me on an individual basis.

While not all met the deadline, all students did submit an essay, a record for our class. Reflections at the end of the unit included comments such as:

I thought Shakespeare was for all the brainy dudes, not us. (Dale)

I hope we can do another Shakespeare in Year 10. (Sanchir)

My mum's in shock 'cause I actually finished an assignment on time. And I got an A. (Michael)

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Australian Association for the Teaching of English A L E A ~ Australian Literacy Educators' Assoication
Department of Education & Training (Victoria) Education Department of Western Australia