"West Side Story" Teaching Ideas

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The musical "West Side Story" by playwright Arthur Laurents first premiered on Broadway in 1957. The story is about teenage star-crossed lovers from Manhattan who struggle to maintain their relationship despite their involvement in rival gangs. High school language arts and fine arts lessons should focus on the characters, themes and societal influences of the time. Teachers should also parallel the musical to William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet."

1 Theater Reviews

Show the 1961 movie version of "West Side Story" to your class. The movie is 152 minutes long, so you'll likely need two to three class periods to finish the show. Have your students write theater reviews of the movie, critiquing the story plot, acting, themes and setting. Before starting the assignment, read three or four current theater reviews aloud, such as those found in the "New York Times." You want students to get a feel for the structure, format and vocabulary commonly used in critical reviews before they start writing, suggests the National Educational Technology Standards for Teachers study guide on the Thru the Stage Door website. Encourage your class to use specific examples from the movie to support their reviews.

2 Contrast Papers

Ask students to write a one-page paper contrasting the cultural differences between "West Side Story" and William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." One such contrast is the wealth of the families in Shakespeare's classic versus the relative poverty of Maria' and Tony's families. Instruct your class to discuss dissimilarities between the feuding parties, era-specific prejudices and the differing ways characters abused power, using examples to back their papers. Both stories end in tragedy and have similar themes, but the cultural differences help students understand the eras in which they were written.

3 Movie Posters

Have each student choose a song from "West Side Story" and create a movie poster advertising the musical based on the song lyrics. The official "West Side Story" website contains a list of songs and lyrics for each. For example, a student might choose "One Hand, One Heart" and create a movie poster that shows two young people getting married. Or a student might select "I Feel Pretty" and design her poster around Maria. Instruct your students to include the title "West Side Story" on their posters. Hang the posters in your classroom or in the hallway.

4 Venn Diagrams

Divide your class into groups of four or five students each and have each group create a Venn diagram representing a pair of complementary characters in "West Side Story" and "Romeo and Juliet," the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra suggests. Complementary pairs include Tony/Romeo, Maria/Juliet, Riff/Mercutio, Anita/the Nurse, Bernardo/Tybalt, Chino/Paris and Doc/Friar. Each Venn-diagram circle should contain distinctive characteristics of the person, and the intersecting section should show where they are similar. Assign characters to each group to avoid repetition. Ask each group to choose a representative to share the finished diagram with the class.

As curriculum developer and educator, Kristine Tucker has enjoyed the plethora of English assignments she's read (and graded!) over the years. Her experiences as vice-president of an energy consulting firm have given her the opportunity to explore business writing and HR. Tucker has a BA and holds Ohio teaching credentials.