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Romeo and Juliet for the 21st c.: How One Teacher Created a Drama Club and Made Shakespeare Hip

Betty Ray

Senior Editor at Large
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Editor's Note: Our guest blogger today is Erika Saunders who teaches 6th-8th grade special ed-learning support and mentally gifted kids at Joseph C. Ferguson Elementary School in North Philidelphia.

"If you build it, they will come." Not only does this apply to baseball fields and ghosts of players past, but also to theater and students. At least it does at Ferguson.

Joseph C. Ferguson Elementary School is nestled in a North Philadelphia neighborhood high in poverty and all that that entails: crime, violence, and drugs; test scores, although continually rising, not where they should be; reading levels lag behind their suburban peers.

Theater was nowhere to be found, despite having a beautiful auditorium that seats more than 400. It suffered from neglect, but I could see its grandeur. All it needed was a little TLC - OK, a lot of TLC - and a reason to shine. Of course, figuring out a way to do this was a little tricky.

Idle Minds

I began as a 6th through 8th grade learning support teacher who took students out of class and into the resource room, often to the delight of the classroom teacher. I was, after all, taking the more troublesome students. Next came my own classroom: now the more troublesome students didn't even have to be in the other classroom. Finally, came inclusion; the troublesome students would not only stay in the classroom but I come with them.

Our version of inclusion did not get off to a great start; my expertise in accessing curriculum and differentiation was not being utilized well. We didn't receive much training on how we would implement inclusion and co-teaching. A video and brief conversation was about it. Needless to say, I didn't feel as though my talents were being used. And so my idle mind starting trying to figure out what I could do.

The Inspiration

The opening first came through a winter assembly. Each class was to contribute "something." It hit me: why doesn't our community do a holiday play? I would even write it! To be honest, I'm not sure if my fellow teachers thought it was a good idea at first or if they were just really happy NOT to have to make up something but either way I got the go ahead. And the seed for the Drama Club was planted.

As you can imagine, there was no money in the school's budget for a play. There was EC (extra curricular) money to run an after school club, but not to actually fund a production. Call me crazy, but that didn't stop me. I would use my own money - the kids deserved it. All I had to do was figure out how to pay myself back.

Raising Money

Pure Profit. That's what I call it: fund-raisers that reap the largest benefits with the least amount of effort. Patron ads in the play program became our biggest fund-raising event. $1.00 for a line, $10.00 for a half-page, $20.00 for a full page. This year, I added "Dollars for Dresses" - give us $20, we can get one dress for a cast member. (We have a lot of girls.) We also charge admission, $2.00 per ticket - small enough for just about everyone to pay, large enough to make a significant dent in paying myself back. Throw in a concession stand and we pretty much break-even.

Wherefore Art...What?

What should we do this year? "Ms. Saunders, we should do Romeo and Juliet." Hmm. Romeo and Juliet. That's kind of interesting. We could make it more relevant, more hip. And add music. I could write it; that way I wouldn't have to worry about getting, and paying for, a script.

So, I sat down with the Drama Club and presented this year's play: Romeo & Juliet: The Ferguson Way! And I wanted their help. How can we bring Shakespeare's romantic tragedy into the 21st Century? Who would the feud be between? Juliet was 13 in Shakespeare's version. In today's world, would a 13-year-old girl fake her own death? Would they get married? How can we have this sense of drama, yet make it realistic? Should they die? From these early meetings came the framework for our script.


And I continued collaborating with students throughout the process. When it was time to do the poster, I had a vision in mind and was prepared to create it - something I had always done. Then I saw a student drawing, one who happened to have a host of behavior problems. "Wow, you're good. How'd you like to make the poster for our play?" It took some pushing but he finally agreed. It was fabulous. And the play? An absolute triumph!

My students may never know what iambic pentameter is - do any of us? - but they will always remember their time in the Drama Club. They will never forget the pride they felt performing on stage. And I will always cherish my time with them. Isn't this education? Isn't this just as important as test scores?

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Romeo and Juliet, the "Ferguson" Way by Erika Saunders is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.
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Erika Saunders is a National Board Certified Teacher, teaching 6th through 8th grade Special Education-Learning Support and Mentally Gifted at J.C. Ferguson Elementary School in Philadelphia. She has taught for seven years and was named one of Philadelphia Federation of Teachers "Top 100". In addition to the classroom, Erika developed the Drama Club, began the Student Council, ran a 2008 Mock Election, and grew the Mentally Gifted/Enrichment program from one student to over 40 students and three teachers school-wide.

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Comments (5) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Edcamper, Former @Edutopia, Founder of Social Media Marketing Consultancy aimed at helping educational orgs.

First of all, very cool Erika! I love how you were able to transform Shakespeare into something modern and engaging for your students. Kudos!

I also came across a post from another educator that transforms Romeo & Juliet into something very collaborative and web 2.0. Check it out -->

rosemarie zerega's picture

I always believed that theatre no matter what size grabs students attention. I teach third grade and we do readers theatre, the students love it, and surprisingly I found my most shy students, who never speak in class, want to participate and even volunteer for major roles. I use readers theatre as often as I can, I incorporate it into my reading centers. The students really get into and want to perform for the rest of the class. I now have easy scripts in different reading levels to accommodate all my student levels. Keep up the good work.

Kenneth Zelasko's picture
Kenneth Zelasko
Online English teacher (9-12)

When I taught elementary school back in Chicago, I used Albert Cullum's book _Shake Hands With Shakespeare_. My sixth grade students just loved the idea of performing Shakespeare. They did "Julius Caesar." I remember talking to the kindergartners after our first performance. They loved the play, but one little boy said: "We shouldn't play with knives."

Kim Barsamian's picture

Theatre is a great way to engage students with all kinds of literature--but especially Shakespeare! My 11th grade students rewrote The first scene of "A Mid Summer Night's Dream" as if Shakespeare were living and writing it today. I had three groups and each was hilarious. Each group had to show they understood the play through their scene and the audience did a critique at the end. One group did a "Jerry Springer" type show another did "A High School Musical" rendition. The last group did a "Valley Girl" scene. It was fun, engaging and helped them to realize that just because the language is different it does not mean they can't "get it".

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