A School Makes Much Ado About Shakespeare

The rap on William Shakespeare has long resembled the rap on, say, broccoli: It's supposed to be good for you, but not necessarily pleasant.

But at Far Brook School in this New York City suburb, actor-turned-teacher Jim Glossman tries to impress upon his students that Shakespeare is "just words in a funny order, they're not funny words."

"Instead of saying 'go out the door,' he says, 'out the door you go'," says Mr. Glossman, the school's drama director. "As the students start to get used to that, they start to understand it more."

In a nation whose classrooms often glance past Shakespearean prose, this independent elementary and junior high school is an oddity. For the past 50 years, Far Brook - founded by a Shakespeare aficionado named Winifred Moore - has woven the Bard's words through every classroom and subject.

Starting with small doses in nursery school, students' careers at Far Brook build to the final act: Their eighth-grade performance of "The Tempest" or "Midsummer Night's Dream," which alternate years and are performed as part of graduation. This year "The Tempest" will be performed June 11 and 12.

That, says headmistress Mary Wearn Wiener, breeds a level of confidence in students who have spent eight to 10 years strutting and fretting many hours upon the stage in front of parents and peers.

"You have to have a lot of poise to pull that off," says Mrs. Wiener, who has led the school for 18 years and taught here since 1966. "So, they leave here feeling independent and empowered."

As if to prove the point, eighth-grader Brad Cox exuded the confidence of a future lawyer or politician during a recent after-class interview.

"Each year, Shakespeare gets easier. It's not work anymore, it's fun," Brad says. "Now, I go home and explain it to my parents."

Students begin acting out Shakespeare's works at ages 5 and 6. Unlike most people's experience with Shakespeare, these kids see it as in-your-face theater before they see it as "literature."

Sonnets with snacktime

"It's like trying to read the word 'red' if you've never seen anything that was red before," says Glossman, stubble-faced and rumpled during a recent rehearsal for this year's play, "The Tempest." "They start hearing Shakespeare when they're little kids. So, they've already laughed and cried at it before they knew it was a book - before they knew it was good for them."

There has been much debate in recent years about whether academia has turned its back on Shakespeare. Georgetown University in Washington was vilified last year for allowing English majors to graduate without studying Shakespeare. The outcry prompted a study released in December that found that two-thirds of the nation's top 70 colleges don't require their English majors to study Shakespeare.

At the pre-high school level, there is less debate because Shakespeare never got a strong toe-hold.

But an increasingly noisy chorus is insisting that an early diet of Shakespeare's poems and plays infuses students with a lifelong appreciation for art, literature, drama, and even themselves.

"We like to say you can graduate from University X never having read a word of Shakespeare, but you can't graduate from Far Brook," says Ed Solecki, director of Far Brook's junior high.

Far Brook may be riding a wave in which Shakespeare is "spilling downward into the younger grades," says Janet Field-Pickering, head of education at Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. Earlier this month, students as young as 6 performed Shakespearean drama in the 17th annual Shakespeare Festival for both public and private elementary schools. More than 200 students a day performed "Hamlet," "Macbeth" ("they just love the death scenes," Ms. Field-Pickering notes), and the like.

"We believe the only way you're going to get kids to understand Shakespeare is to get them up on their feet with Shakespeare's words in their mouth," she says. "The problem is that, by high school, they start to think of Shakespeare as 'hard' - a cultural boogie-man. But if you start earlier with children, they don't have that fear."

In her 1993 book, "The Friendly Shakespeare: A Thoroughly Painless Guide to the Best of the Bard," University of California lecturer Norrie Epstein argues a similar point: If young people can learn rap lyrics, they can learn iambic pentameter.

During a rehearsal in Far Brook's small performance auditorium, eighth-grader Liz Pagos - cast in the role of Miranda, Prospero's daughter, in "The Tempest" - climbs a wooden ladder to a catwalk above the room to read her lines.

She and her fellow performers are interrupted every few lines by Glossman's booming voice: "What does this mean?" and "What does that mean?" "What's trumpery?" "What's a varlet?"

Despite some stumbling, the kids come up with the answers: "fancy clothing"; "a ruffian."

The rehearsal is fast-paced and intense, but Glossman makes sure the students know the meaning behind every word.

Many hours upon the stage

For Liz, it's a familiar annual ritual. She says she has had her head filled with iambic pentameter since nursery school - a decade of hard-core Shakespeare, including "Pericles" and "Twelfth Night."

"I've been in so many Shakespeare plays over the past 10 years. And every time it gets easier to understand," says Liz, who credits teacher Glossman's advice: think dumb.

"It means we're thinking too hard and we should just look at the words and figure out what they mean," she says. "He's always asking us questions, like: 'What does this mean?' Every sentence, we just break it down, word by word. Once you get the words and the language, it's easier to understand the big picture. It's pretty cool stuff."

Shakespeare Wrote That?

Students often have no idea of the origins of many a commonly used saying. Some of the Bard's contributions to familiar phrases:

But, for my own part, it was Greek to me.

'Julius Caesar'

He hath eaten me out of house and home.

'Henry IV, Part 2'

The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.

'Henry VI, Part 2'

What's in a name? that which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet.

'Romeo and Juliet'

Harp not on that string, madam; that is past.

'Richard III'

Jerry Maguire, an English teacher at Center Grove High School in Indianapolis, wanted students to know that Shakespeare could dish out creative insults. As part of a school project, he posted some on the Internet. (www.shakespeare. com is one related site. A search will yield many others.)

bootless, flap-mouthed foot-lickers

thou spongy, boil-brained jolthead

beslubbering folly-fallen varlet

gorbellied fly-bitten horn-beast

mangled motley-minded bugbear

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