In love with Shakespeare
Ever-younger students brave unfamiliar language and can't stop turning the pages
(Page 2 of 3)
The result has been a group of seventh-graders totally devoted to the Bard. Not only do they now read Shakespeare with a fluency many adults could envy, but their class discussions brim with energy, dissecting Shakespeare's characters with an enthusiasm more often reserved for a popular TV series.Skip to next paragraph
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Othello is fascinating, Morris's students eagerly note, because he's black and yet has real status in an all-white European world. Desdemona is equally intriguing, several add, because she defies convention in choosing Othello.
"All the way through 'Othello,' you were always wondering what was going to happen," says Yasmene Randolph. "But 'Hamlet' was even better," insists classmate Arcie Stokes. "He was so smart and he really kept you wondering."
"If only Shakespeare was still alive," says Gage Daye with sigh. "We have so many questions we could ask him."
The mere mention of the fact that they must leave Shakespeare and return to the text of contemporary readings next week makes the kids groan. Their consolation, they are quick to tell a visitor, is the knowledge that next year they'll be reading "Macbeth" and "King Lear."
Robert Young and Josh Cabat aren't surprised in the slightest by Morris's experience. While teaching in a school for at-risk students on the verge of dropping out, Mr. Young worked with Shakespeare's violent and rarely taught "Titus Andronicus," and quickly found his students hooked.
"They loved interpreting the characters, having a chance to explore their own feelings," he says. "They marveled at the beautiful language used to describe some of the most brutal scenes."
While teaching public high school in Brooklyn in 1992, Mr. Cabat assigned "Coriolanus" one of Shakespeare's lesser-loved political tragedies, and a choice that many found baffling in a tough school with a poor academic reputation.
But Cabat related the play to the Clinton-Bush presidential race that year and the kids bought in. He has since taught "Coriolanus" several times, along with several of Shakespeare's history plays, to struggling students as well as those bound for top colleges.
What teachers need to tackle, he says, is the notion that Shakespeare is difficult to access.
The truth, he says, is that Shakespeare holds up a mirror to human nature, and all readers find something they recognize a truth reaffirmed by the popularity of recent films based on Shakespeare's plays.
"If you've ever wanted to exact revenge on someone, then you get 'Hamlet,' " he says. "If you've ever felt jealous, you get 'Othello.' "
Cabat scorns the idea that Shakespeare's language is off-putting for young or weak students. It's like riding a bike, he says: Expect a few spills at first, but you'll love it after some practice.
"You have to aim high, high, high," he says. "But you're amazed by the results."
He is still touched to remember the "tough football-player type" in one Brooklyn class not typically a strong student who one day in class recited several passages of "Henry V." Cabat suddenly realized that the boy wasn't looking at his book, but had memorized them, simply for his own pleasure.
Another increasingly popular trend in Shakespeare instruction is to invite touring companies into the classroom for live productions of the plays. Linda Lowy is the founder of Shakespeare Now Theatre Company based in Westwood, Mass., a two-year-old company that Ms. Lowy says is one of several such companies in an increasingly crowded market.