By Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze
Teenagers are torn between two different worlds, that of the real and that of fantasy, life in school and life out of school. Erica Berry’s poem, Romeo and Juliet, like Shakespeare’s original play, is a popular story of tragic love shared between two young people. At this age, feelings are so intense they can enter and affect every aspect of a young person’s life. This lesson plan looks at how to translate these feelings into evocative language.
- Make sure each student has a copy of Erica Berry’s winning poem, Romeo and Juliet, from the FYP 2007 winners’ anthology, The Wouldbegoods.
- Give the students enough time to read through the poem at least twice.
- Ask for a volunteer to read the poem, or read the poem out loud yourself to the group.
After this introduction to the poem spend some time discussing what the differences are in appreciation between private and public reading.
- Can you hear the voice of ‘ms. connings’ speaking, and is it as you heard it privately?
- Can you hear any rhythms in the poem?
- Is it possible to hear rhythms without rhyme?
- Does the poem remind you of any love songs? Give lines from your favourite love song.
Find out how much the students know about the original Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare, and fill in the gaps.
Encourage students to retell their own love stories, from their own experience. If the students are too shy to do so, ask them to retell love stories they know about from class or that they’ve read in their own time, e.g. Beauty and the Beast, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, 10 Things I Hate About You (based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew), or other films, Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester, or you can even work from news stories about celebrities.
Have a further discussion about the poem. Why do you think Erica called the poem ‘Romeo and Juliet’? Compare the original play to Erica’s poem. Are there universal themes of love?
Moving on, start to look in more detail at the differences in setting between the original and this poem. Discuss each verse separately. Look for lines about location and landscape, e.g. ‘smoldering cornfields’, ‘ivy covered balustrades’. Compare this to how the poet describes the passion between the young lovers, e.g.in the first verse: ‘the sparks between them’, ‘middle america blazing’.
Discuss the poetic methods that the poet employs, for example, the metaphors and alliteration, ‘the clash of consonants and clarinets, vowels and violins, syllables and saxophones’.
Ask students to write a line about love using any of these methods, such as a landscape being changed by love, or ‘a delivery of roses and regrets’. You could give each member of the class a letter of the alphabet to create an alliterative love line with.
Discuss how the poet brings the poem back to the everyday and the familiar. Is this a good way to end the poem?
- How do you feel when the bell rings for class at the end of a break?
- Think of your own private world being disturbed – do you ever daydream at school? And what about?
- What does the poet mean by ‘hopeless high school saga’?
Ask the students to have a go at writing their own poem describing a teenage saga, either from experience or writing imaginatively.
They can adopt the ‘daydream’ format that Erica has used, or they are welcome to simply write a narrative poem.
- Think about who the narrator is, about the viewpoint. Will you incorporate slang? Erica Berry has deliberately included a common error that students make – ‘would of’ instead of ‘would have’. Why does she do this?
- Think about whether the second person is someone the narrator loves, or specifically a ‘lover’.
- Include as many images as you can that commonly represent love, but try to use them in unusual ways. For example, red is a colour associated with passion, but also with warnings or stop signs, e.g. ‘racing red against the changing light’.
- Will the poem end happily or tragically? Or will the ending remain ambivalent?
From The Wouldbegoods:
Erica Berry – ‘Romeo and Juliet’
Arabella Currie – ‘My Hands’
Emily Mercer – ‘Canute’s Wife (after Carol Ann Duffy)’
Richard O’Brien – ‘The Revelation’
Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze