English teachers strive to inspire and instill in their students the motivation to devour books and write with the energy of modern Shakespeares. Adapting a classic play can provide a unique and empowering reading and writing lesson for students looking for an extra challenge.
As an 11th and 12th grade English teacher at Bethel Regional High School (1998-2001) I discovered an assignment that I believe allowed me to teach a classic text while my students created a modern version of the story. The key ingredient of the adaptation required utilizing the Yup'ik stories and culture as reflected in the Kuskokwim River Delta. This strategy allowed the students to explore their creativity, learn the classic play, and make the material relevant to their lives and culture.
- Students must gain a basic understanding of the original text. (Mastery of the text will be gained as they adapt the story.)
- Students need to rediscover and hunt for stories from their culture or the local area and contemplate how those stories contain characters and themes that they can be adapted to translate the classic into its new setting. Shakespeare's plays translate into just about any culture because of the universality of their themes.
Find a scene from a classic play, or take a selection of literature established by the school's curriculum for the students to adapt.
2. Discuss the idea of adaptation with the students, from both a literary level and a cultural level. You might consider discussing the idea of how humans are experts at adaptation, and how we adapt to survive different living situations, climates, and environments. Like a complicated puzzle, the students must decide what the story being adapted means, decide what is adaptable and what isn't, and consider how the story would be told in his or her culture. The students should take into consideration both the simple and complex changes that will need to be made within the story, from the set and costume design to the language and dialog used. (A discussion of the differences between adaptation and plagiarism might also be beneficial.)
3. Have the students study the dramatic elements of the classic play.
- Plot: The narrative is key to engaging a student's interest and plays a vital role in making the adaptation.
- The characters: Engagement in the voice and language the characters use.
- The setting: Consideration of the set and costume, and how it relates to images of time and culture.
- The emerging themes in the play: One important goal is for students to understand the differences that may emerge once the cultural context of the original play is adapted, but also take notice of how many themes are universal across all cultures. An additional benefit comes from the cultural pride gained when viewing classic themes through the lens of local culture.
4. Students should research local culture by having guests or elders visit the class to share stories, through outside research in the community and library, and from members of their families.
5. Share an example of an adaptation, so the students have an idea of what you are expecting from them.
6. Assign students the scene (or scenes) you would like them to adapt. (This assignment also allows for flexibility in whether the teacher wants the students to collaborate or work alone on the writing.)
7. Decide how to share the final product. Will the students act them out? Read them aloud? Create a class publication?
While teaching creative writing can often be the most rewarding aspect of instruction, the grading of creative writing (or any art, for that matter) can be difficult. The elements of drama are key to an understanding of the play (and its adaptation). They provide an objective framework for various grading rubrics.
WHY I CHOSE ROMEO AND JULIET
Years before I came up with this assignment, a troupe of Yup'ik actors travelled the world performing a Yup'ik adaptation of Shakespeare's Antigone. I knew my students were capable of writing a similar adaptation of a Shakespeare play, and it occurred to me that the story of Romeo and Juliet wasn't too far removed from the Yup'ik stories based upon the ancient wars on the tundra. Most explanations of how the wars started speak of two boys, from different villages, who were playing with darts. When one the boys accidentally hit the other in the eye, the father of the stricken son took a dart and poked out both of the other boy's eyes. This act starts a war that engulfs the tundra for many years.
While this tundra tale appears far removed from Romeo and Juliet in fair Verona, the central themes of two warring families (in this case villages), of love, and of humor and tragedy can easily bridge the cultural divide. After some outside research, a study of the classic text, and storytelling elders, my students were inspired to write in modern English The Tragic Story of Kenke & Atsaq: a Yup'ik Adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet.