Teaching Shakespeare is never easy. But teaching Shakespeare to a classroom of mostly English Language Learners? It’s not only difficult, but hilarious.
This morning I began reading Romeo & Juliet to my ninth graders. We had already gone over the history of Shakespeare’s life, the history of Elizabethan England, and what was considered popular entertainment at the time (think bear baiting, public executions and cockfights–and yes, “cockfights” evoked some serious laughter from the 14-year-old boys in the room.) Now it was time to discuss puns.
For those who don’t remember, Romeo & Juliet begins with a series of puns between two Capulet servingmen. They are walking the streets of Verona, with their swords and bucklers, chatting, of course, about their loathed enemy–the Montagues. And, because Shakespeare was catering towards a specific audience (i.e. barbarians), he threw a few sex jokes in to keep their attention.
Now mind you, there are more than 40 nationalities represented at my school. They are all more-or-less fluent in English, but Shakespeare is hard for even the brightest native speaker. So trying to explain wordplay using Elizabethan English is a challenge.
But that’s not what I struggled with. This is my third year teaching Romeo & Juliet, and I’m quite comfortable with the material. It’s explaining the series of sexual puns to a group of teenagers that gets me flustered.
Again, for those who don’t remember, the servingmen are joking about women being weaker vessels, therefore being ever “thrust[ed] to the wall.” They continue to talk about women, and what they would do to the maids of the Montagues (ever so subtly), and finally, the series of puns ends with the line “My naked weapon is out.”
None of the kids get the jokes at first, but during the second read, I begin hearing giggling among my more advanced students. The native speakers’ cheeks flush, and my English Language Learners are blanketed with looks of confusion.
I know where the source of confusion starts, as this same scenario played out when I taught in Colombia–none of my English Language Learners know what the word “thrust” means.
There’s no easy way to go about this. If I have the kids explain to each other, the conversations become wildly inappropriate. If I provide dictionary definitions, the kids don’t quite understand why it’s funny. So what else can I do than take a deep breath, raise my arms over my head, pull them down to my sides, and, well, “thrust” my hips forward?
So I do. And the laughter ensues. And the puns become clear. And I, forever, become the teacher who taught them the meaning of the word thrust.