Middle School students at St. Jeanne de Lestonnac learn the Bard by acting out his plays
By Mary Burnham
Middle School Language Arts Teacher, St. Jeanne de Lestonnac School
TEMECULA—The first question the visiting actor asked my students was whether Shakespeare was meant to be read silently or read aloud.
“Read aloud,” offered a few kids, boldly.
“Silently,” said a few others, less boldly.
“You’re both wrong,” he said. “It’s a trick question. Shakespeare’s plays are meant to be seen, heard, and experienced. Shakespeare is meant to be acted!”
My biggest piece of advice for someone daunted by the idea of teaching Shakespeare is this: Get your hands dirty, get your students on their feet, and just see what happens. In my experience, when my students see my passion for something—anything—there is value in my teaching. Often the values that come out of such lessons are unforeseen. That certainly has been the case with Shakespeare and me.
My initial goal in introducing Shakespeare to my class was to have my students walk away with an appreciation—even a sense of humility and awe—for Shakespeare’s genius. But they ended up receiving much more than that.
I have found that the key to teaching Shakespeare as an English teacher is collaboration. As a teacher, my job is often that of a facilitator or guide. I make connections, bring great things together, introduce them to my students, and see what they discover. As Catholics, we are fortunate to have so many talented people within our community. We need to search these people out, learn from them, and make our classrooms places where these connections can result in dynamic learning.
With this in mind, in approaching Shakespeare for the first time, I felt intuitively that my students would learn these 400-year-old plays better (and appreciate them infinitely more) if they acted out his marvelous words rather than simply read them.
Luckily for me, a local theater company called Shakespeare in the Vines came to my attention because Rob Crisell, a parent of one of my middle school students, happened to be an actor with the group. I asked Mr. Crisell two summers ago to help me introduce my students to Shakespeare and he leapt at the opportunity.
I knew that I had to figure out how to take his ideas and skills and turn them into viable lesson plans with stated objectives, that would meet the new Common Core State Standards, differentiate my instruction, and yield measurable and identifiable results.
By all accounts, last year’s results were outstanding. The class was consistently singled out for praise by students, parents and administrators. Most importantly, even students who had been completely ignorant or even antagonistic toward Shakespeare now proudly called themselves “Shakespearean actors.”
Now in our second year of teaching Shakespeare, we have built on the work we did last year. This year, we did a “close reading” of several scenes from “The Winter’s Tale.” Mr. Crisell selected ten scenes from the play that served as a snapshot of the plot summary and character development.
Our building blocks for unlocking Shakespeare remained the same as the last year. Once again, we instructed students to follow the “Two C’s” – Comprehension (if a student understands a Shakespearean scene they are acting, their fellow students will, too), and Characterization (now that we understand you, make us believe you).
Like last year, students were also required to summarize what happened before and after their scenes, leading to increased comprehension and further characterization of the part. We also weaved in historical background of the play, including the position of the Catholic Church within this timeline. Many scholars have identified numerous Catholic elements in The Winter’s Tale, including themes of purity, sin, contrition, penance, love, and forgiveness. Experiencing The Winter’s Tale through a Catholic lens—understanding the brutal repression of Catholics in Elizabethan England—uncovered further depths and nuances of the play for students.
The students’ formal assessment was the final performance of their scenes in a Shakespeare competition at our school. Through this, they learned by acting and by observing the acting of others.
As a culmination to our unit on Shakespeare this year, the students will see The Winter’s Tale at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego, directed by the Globe’s new Artistic Director Barry Edelstein. After a pre-show workshop, the students will have the opportunity to see their scenes performed on stage by professional actors and to compare their own interpretations with those of the Old Globe players.
The ultimate lesson for me is that--when it comes to teaching Shakespeare--you don’t need to go it alone. When you want to try something new and you’re not sure how to go about it, seek out others outside your field for help and inspiration.
And above all, get your hands dirty, get your kids on their feet, and see what happens.