In the last couple of days I have been wrapping up a Shakespeare experience of Romeo & Juliet with my ninth grade students. In an effort to keep things light and entertaining when introducing students to Shakespeare, I use a host of video clips from both stage and cinematic productions that present the play in a variety of styles, as well as reading and enacting bits and pieces. Adding this video clip was an easy fit.
Since we had just finished the story, I thought an interesting and fun summative task would be to ask the students about the shape of the play. Plus, I wondered what they might think of Vonnegut’s idea about the shape of stories.
I wasn’t sure if a bunch of fifteen year-olds would like Vonnegut’s presentation or not, but figured I would try it out on one of my best sections. Almost no one in the room had ever even heard of Kurt Vonnegut, so I gave them a one minute introduction. Then somewhat surprisingly they seemed to enjoy it. Vonnegut’s initial “man in a hole” shape triggered some idle chuckling. “Boy Meets Girl” almost slipped past them without much reaction, but by the end they were all whispering “Cinderella, Cinderella” and laughed, along with the audience, in the video as he mapped out that story’s shape.
Afterwards, I asked them how we might find the shape of Romeo & Juliet. Immediately, hands rose and before you knew it we had list of over twenty key turning points in the play.
From our list, I asked them to coach me as I graphed the story across the Vonnegut’s Good/Ill Fortune and Beginning/Ending axes. It was actually great fun, as they cried out why say the balcony scene couldn’t rise higher than their wedding night together or how banishment had to dive far deeper even than Tybalt’s death. It was a low stakes way to see just how well they understood the play and some of its nuance. We even had a brief but very interesting discussion about just how high the final moment should be on the Fortune axis.
Yet the best aspect of the exercise of all were the handful of observations made after we mapped out the story’s shape. One student shrewdly said it looked like a heart monitor, another emphasized just how extreme the highs and the lows were. All of that discussion proved a great way to discuss why that was the case and how the play worked on a dramatic level. Even a colleague who teaches history walked into the room, saw the graph, and asked about it. It promoted a short chat about the benefits of info graphics as a learning tool and representation of understanding.
While a slightly different application of the assignment, it was pretty effective and successful.