Romeo: If I profane with my unworthiest hand/This holy shrine… (1.5.92ff)
For years I have shied away from inviting students into a deep engagement with the language of the lovers at their first meeting in Shakespeare’s famous love story. This week I shook off my fear, screwed my courage to the sticking place, and learned from my freshmen.
In the past I have prematurely hurried on into Act 2, afraid to impose my own reading of this scene on the students, because it closes off further thinking about the language in this scene and discourages multiple viewpoints. Ironically, I was doing exactly that anyway by avoiding a close reading of the scene. Today, students organically explored the meeting between Romeo and Juliet. In doing so, they not only classified the diction in the lovers’ sonnet, but began to adopt a critical stance toward that language choice.
A student-created poster hangs in the room: “Learn to recognize paradox in a scene, so we can apply it to the rest of the play”, the unit goal reads. After students met in expert groups to work towards their goal by categorizing potentially paradoxical terms from the scene, I gathered new groups comprised of one member of each expert group at which students shared their findings and reflected on categories of words Shakespeare uses and their effects.
What they taught me was that even at grade nine they make a distinction between author’s intention and reader’s interpretation. Asked to consider aloud the effect of Shakespeare’s language, a student countered with the question, “Do you mean the effect the author intended, or the effect it actually had on us?” Bingo.
I gestured wordlessly to the student — “We are all listening to you,” — and backed slightly from the round table at which we sat. Elated, excited, I was a bundle of nervous energy. Authorial intent? Where does meaning reside? These are concepts I listen for and encourage, yet seldom find emerging even in AP classes without teacher- driven, goal-oriented prompting.
A resistant reader is born.
A vigorous conversation ensues without me speaking.
Fast forward several weeks into the future. See these students generating ideas about culture as they read Fahrenheit 451; hear them wrestling, unprompted by a teacher, with whether books can be meaningful or dangerous; watch them divide into three large reading groups as their solution to a reading problem. By making their own decisions, managing their own talk, and setting their own goals, students gain ownership and authorship of their learning purposes. They will teach me to leap out of the way so they can do the hardest and most enjoyable work.