Published Online: August 13, 2014

Shakespeare and Superheroes: A Creative Approach to Performance Assessment

Ford Madox Brown's 1870 oil painting of Romeo and Juliet.
Ford Madox Brown's 1870 oil painting of Romeo and Juliet.
—Delaware Art Museum

It was the end of the spring semester, a few weeks shy of summer break. My classes had just finished investigating "Romeo and Juliet." A test didn't seem appropriate or relevant, and students had done quite a bit of writing during our study of the play. I wanted a unique way to assess them.

Earlier that spring, I had attended a fantastic workshop that opened my eyes to how Shakespeare can—and should—be taught. In this workshop, I had a hands-on opportunity to experiment with the Shakespeare Set Free curriculum. In essence, if you assign Shakespeare but aren't sure how to teach his plays, you can use the SSF curricula as a solid foundation.

So I decided to have my students reinvent scene excerpts from "Romeo and Juliet"—using their creativity to interpret the play in a new setting with modern speech, costumes, and weapons. They also had to modify the language so that any 21st-century teenager could understand. Students created prompt books—master scripts—and acted out their rewritten scenes.

Acting Out Shakespeare #1

In this presentation, students recreate "Romeo and Juliet" as a battle between Marvel and DC comic-book characters.

As a result, the Capulets and Montagues were rebranded as jocks and nerds, competing characters from the young adult Divergent book series, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, cowboys and Indians, futuristic moon people and humans, vampires and werewolves, and more.

It felt like the right move—both for students’ summer-distracted brains, and to create an authentic application of our genre study with the Bard.

Here’s how my co-teacher and I planned for this project:

1. Students had to select a scene from a list of options (my co-teacher and I chose the most compelling scenes) and propose the classmates with whom they wished to work. This selection process clued students in to the idea that, end of year or not, this project was deliberate and significant enough to merit careful consideration.

Rationale: Students nominated the classmates they wanted to work with, which provided instant buy-in. (I still had veto power.) Again, with summer and hormones on the mind, I figured it was best to make my battle the quality of script rather than parroting, ‘Stop talking to the other group, and work with your own!’ over and over. We also wanted to encourage the development of interpersonal collaboration and time management skills, which are essential for young adults.

2. Students then drafted a concept wherein they considered setting, costuming, and speech. They also had to summarize the original scene. With their concepts in mind, groups then had to brainstorm relevant props and sketch a set design. While we didn’t require physical backdrops given the time constraints of our unit, some groups surprised (and pleased) us by designing PowerPoint slides of backgrounds that they projected behind them as they performed.

Rationale: This project tapped into a different learning style that allowed all students to feel successful. My hammiest and most hyperactive students reveled in the unique opportunity to wear baseball hats in the classroom and shoot one another with Nerf guns, while my shiest students triumphed over their public speaking fears. It was a win-win.

Acting Out Shakespeare #2

This presentation squares jocks against nerds (a classic battle).

3. Next up, students had to translate their scene into modern-day speech that was appropriate for their concepts. Throughout the unit, we had paraphrased quite a bit of Elizabethan English, so this script work was a natural extension of that skill set. During this stage, students were able to use the resources we had provided when originally reading the play: a Common Shakespearean Terms glossary, a Shakespearean Compliments guide, and a key for ‘How to Talk Like Shakespeare’.

Rationale: It’s entertaining to think of ridiculous substitutions for Shakespearean names and translate Elizabethan English into a Southern drawl, slang, or alien-speak. The best student scripts were produced by close reading and re-reading. Students’ interpretations were not random; instead, they were intentional renderings of 400 year-old puns and phraseology. Both comprehension and creativity were crucial to this work.

4. Finally, students had to annotate directing notes on their scripts to demarcate the tone and stress with which they would speak, as well as the actions and movements they would make around the “stage.” We had opened our unit with several oral reading exercises to help students understand how meaning shifts when different words are stressed or different tones are used, so students were well prepared for this step.

Rationale: Not only did this annotation requirement match up with my active reading practices all year, but it ensured higher-quality performances. Furthermore, it was an act of covert close reading. Students had to read their scripts many times before settling on the best tone or most logical gesture.

In the end, this prompt-book project was tremendously rewarding for both myself and my students. When embarking upon this project, I had some reservations. I’m not a terribly performative person, myself, and I know I would have resented this assignment as a middle schooler. I also know that performances are often scoffed at as the low man on the totem pole of rigor.

But this project was no fluff. And it was fun.

I loved seeing groups of students hunched over their copies of "Romeo and Juliet," debating wording interpretations and when and where to insert a pithy "YOLO." The performances were, by and large, a riot!

Most significantly, I remembered that the best assessments are about creativity and application, not regurgitation or formulaic writing. It also doesn't hurt to be reminded now and then that getting out of one's comfort zone can lead to great things—for both students and teachers.

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