Saturday, March 17, 2012

Why Julius Caesar for Middle School?

Ok, so why is William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar perfect for middle school students? Well, first of all I think we (literature teachers) do it all wrong, and I’m speaking of the order of Shakespeare plays delivered to students which is basically determined, not so surprisingly, by text books.
Remember those big hulking lit text books that get checked out to you on the first day of school… the one you lugged to class and the teacher called excrement!...the ones that the teacher said, “I don’t like any of the stories in here, so we’re not going to use it,”… the one that sat in your locker the entire year collecting dust… you know, the class collection that cost the school maybe 15 to 20 thousand dollars to buy and collect dust (just imagine what that textbook money could have been used for) … remember that text book…yeah, that’s the problem!
You see, let’s face it, most Literature teachers don’t like Shakespeare, and so they put about as much thought into teaching it as they do keeping it on the syllabus…they realize there’s an obligation to paying some kind of tribute to The Bard… but they care little for actually diving into it.
So they are more than happy to just let the textbook determine which play is appropriate for their class…and here’s where textbooks get it wrong. (I’m looking at Pearsons and Longman, and these huge grindhouses here) They give Romeo and Juliet (one of Shakespeare’s most complex and brilliant plays, with some of his most rich characters) to 9th graders. They do Othello for 10th grade (amazing play, but psychologically could be reached earlier by students) Macbeth for juniors (ok, fine… but that’s like slapping an NC-17 rating on it because of the bloodshed alone) and then…you guessed it…Hamlet for seniors (why? Because ‘To Be or Not To Be’ must be considered by academics as some kind of Holy Grail for advanced learners… I don’t know)
Here’s a better route, I believe…based on years of loving this subject: Hamlet is a great play to introduce 9th graders to the wiles and ways of Willy the Shake! Hamlet is locked inside his own head, he is stubborn and thoughtful and thrust into the adult world of ruthless manipulation and emotion…he is perfect for incoming freshman stepping into a building where older kids have jobs and driver’s licenses and talk of getting apartments and going away to school. Hamlet for 9th graders, teachers! Not as they exit the school, but as they begin.
For 10th and 11th grade, I love the comedies: The bickering of Much Ado or the filthy jokes of Shrew, but don’t sell short a play like Merchant, which has these secret subplots, moral questions, absorbing social issues, and fun riddles and suspense.
Then of course, Shakespeare’s most complete play, Romeo and Juliet, for seniors…you see, they are finally able to understand it. The beauty of R + J is that in your life, you will play all those parts. Everyone is the lover, the friend, the parent, the judge, the jealous one, the confidante…all of these characters exist and are so relatable. The imagery is incredibly deep and rich…and then there’s the sex…the dangers of those emotions…Romeo and Juliet is a cautionary tale, and it takes kids until they’re about 17 to have their heart broken, their friends betray them, their parents to kick them out, and have some basic life experiences to understand fully it’s grasp.
Which leads me to Julius Caesar. Seriously, what are your recollections of Middle School? Don’t answer because I know it already: Backstabbing pettiness, ruthless jealousy, fickle popularity contests based on nothing, depression, isolation, bitchy power struggles, horrible rumors, constant paranoia… and that’s all before homeroom… wasn’t it? Believe me, Julius Caesar has these in spades! The conspiracy surrounding perhaps the second most famous murder in history (behind that of Christ) dominates this play… which is perfect for 7th and 8th graders, because that’s their perfect mindset at this age.
I read Julius Caesar as a 10th grader and I hated it. Sitting in a circle in my wooden desk/chair inside a musty moldy classroom…page after page after page of sitting and reading speeches. We didn’t draw. We didn’t stand up. We didn’t act it out. We didn’t have props. We didn’t act silly. We tried to discuss it, but most people were asleep. I hated the play.
But the deeper I get into learning and teaching Shakespeare as a physical act…. I mean, I want to teach Shakespeare in the same way Billy Banks wants you to lose weight… I realize the beauty of the drama's appeal to a younger more sensitive audience… and I’ve tried to convey that to my students this year. Let’s see if it works?

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