#175: Arts and Crafts


We’re studying Romeo and Juliet
and even though kids are, for the most part,
up on their feet with scripts instead
of sitting at their desks reading out loud,
it’s a herculean struggle for them to
read with any accuracy, enthusiasm,
or understanding, and the kid who insists
on playing Benvolio every single time
also insists that his character is some
kind of 16th century robot man.
The class is restless and uncomfortable,
many of them paying as close attention
as they can and wracking their brains
for some kind of comprehension, others
refuse to follow along, are often distracted,
not listening, not reading, making no effort
and I am in almost constant corral mode.

But as we approach the masquerade ball
in scene five of act one, we take forty-five
minutes of class time to make masks.
Out come the templates, the cardboard,
piles of fabric scraps, elmer’s glue,
color crayons, felt tip markers, scotch tape,
ribbons, yarn, and feathers, and the kids
absolutely go to town. Every single student
completely invested, completely engaged,
totally engrossed in mask-making.
On the one hand, as their teacher,
I am so pleased to see the scene, so
rare it seems any more, of 100%
participation, with only a tiny number
asking the dreaded and inevitable question,
are we getting credit for this?
On the other hand I long for a
teaching experience where
every single student in the room
cares about the real material,
the beauty, the ideas, the craft 
on the page. Sometimes, in moments,
something like this does occur
and it is a feeling unlike anything
else, transcendent, goose-bump
raising, affirming once and for all,
albeit fleetingly, why we do what we do.
But here, in scene five of act one of
Romeo and Juliet, we are practicing
arts and crafts, what my colleagues
and I sometimes disparagingly refer
to as “crayola curriculum.”
But I know I am wrong to dismiss
the need young people have
to play, to work with their hands,
to create something beautiful,
to feel successful at something
in the midst of the difficulty of
Shakespeare.  And so we are
making masks, loving every minute,
basking in the joyful vibe, while I’m
psyching myself up to get kids through
the first act of the play, hoping for
competent readers, searching for
the perfect way to get fourteen year olds
interested in watching Romeo and Juliet
fall hopelessly and immediately in love.

Published by michaeljarmer

I'm a public high school English teacher, fiction writer, poet, and musician in Portland, Oregon

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