In love with Shakespeare
Ever-younger students brave unfamiliar language and can't stop turning the pages
Asking the seventh-graders in Rashia Morris's class at Newark's United Academy whether "Hamlet" or "Othello" is best is like making them choose pizza or ice cream. "Both! Both!" they chant, bouncing on the edges of their seats.Skip to next paragraph
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The United Academy is a low-tuition private school. It's wedged into a storefront on a desolate block of some of the meanest streets in the US. But the reaction is similar at suburban New Jersey's Princeton Country Day School, where students like sophomore Rich Dreher have felt the allure of Shakespeare.
"I had terrible grades until I was in 'As You Like It,' he says. "But I totally got Shakespeare. And I started realizing that if I got Shakespeare, I couldn't be stupid."
Rather than occupying a dusty part of the required curriculum, the bard's works are now seen by many teachers, in all kinds of schools, as powerful tools to unlock enthusiasm, sometimes in their least motivated students.
In part, this fresh view of an old standby has been fueled by the strength of contemporary films of his works and the runaway success of the Academy Award-winning "Shakespeare in Love."
But it also has to do with new approaches in teaching. Many educators have been taken with a focus on "performance-based teaching." In this case, that means having kids learn Shakespeare by standing up and feeling his words in their mouths.
"Students learn Shakespeare by doing Shakespeare," says Janet Field-Pickering, head of education at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, which has spearheaded much of the drive toward more performance of Shakespeare in the classroom and less reliance on learning the texts solely through teacher-led discussions. "That gives them ownership."
Equally powerful, however, has been the willingness of a growing number of teachers to take risks to step away from teaching only the most familiar works and break through entrenched notions as to which kids are ready for what plays.
When Morris proposed using "Othello" to teach reading to her Newark seventh-graders, for instance, she was about the only one who thought it was a good idea.
"The parents thought I was an overly zealous new teacher," she says. Typically, in seventh-grade reading class, which they take in addition to English, the students worked with a textbook filled with contemporary reading selections considered more relevant and more accessible.
But Morris had a conviction based on her own experiences. "I actually didn't appreciate Shakespeare at all in high school," she recalls. "I read 'Julius Caesar' and 'Romeo and Juliet,' and I just didn't get them."
In college, however, she was required to read "Othello." Her professor introduced the play in class with a dramatic reading of the first scene.
Morris was hooked. Not only did the sound of the spoken language bowl her over, but, as an African-American, she was fascinated by the notion that Shakespeare tackled questions of race.
"I knew it could be the same for these kids," she says.
Almost all of her seventh-graders were minority students, and she was certain that race was a topic that would grab them. She also knew that, at 12, they were already forming romantic relationships and the theme of jealousy would intrigue them.
So she braved parental disapproval and plunged into a three-week unit on "Othello."
As it happened, their English teacher had assigned the same students "Hamlet" earlier in the year. That class had also involved generous amounts of time in which students stood up at their desks and read scenes aloud.