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.

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."

Risks pay off

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.

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.

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."

No, we're not surprised

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.

From page to stage

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.

Her group travels to about 60 middle and high schools a year, offering condensed versions of four of Shakespeare's plays. "It's not enough to read the plays," she says. "They have to see them."

The response, she adds, is generally powerful. "You can hear the kids gasping at certain parts."

For almost 20 years, the English-Speaking Union of the United States has sponsored a national competition, inviting about 50 high school students who are finalists to come to New York to perform Shakespearean monologues.

Michael LoMonico, the group's associate director of education, says it's always a pleasure to see the students – most of whom are high achievers in many categories – perform Shakespeare.

But he says he'd also like to see teachers think harder about the potential of Shakespeare to build esteem for less successful students as well. "The myth is that Shakespeare is hard," he says. "So when a good teacher can unlock that experience for kids – all kids – they feel really good about themselves."

Indeed, elementary schools, including ones in low-income areas, are showing signs of increased interest in introducing Shakespeare early.

"Students in Grades 2 through 6 have no fear of Shakespeare," says Ms. Field-Pickering of the Folger Shakespeare Library. "They're actually more open to the poetry."

As Marissa Powell, one of Morris's young Shakespeare enthusiasts in Newark, explains it: "The language is old English. Not everybody knows it. That makes it even more special."

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Shakespeare: an American timeline

1753: "Richard III" becomes the first of Shakespeare's plays to be publicly performed in the United States.

1895: The first English literature curriculum for a New York City high school includes "Julius Caesar." For decades the play remains a popular choice for high schools because it is seen as an excellent tool for teaching rhetoric and speech, and has none of the sexual double-entendres common in many other Shakespeare plays.

1980s: A survey shows that Shakespeare is taught in 91 percent of US high schools. The plays most often read are "Romeo and Juliet" (84 percent of schools), "Macbeth" (81 percent), "Hamlet" (51 percent), and "Julius Caesar" (42 percent). Yet fears surface that a focus on multiculturalism and a move away from the European canon might begin to push Shakespeare out of high school curricula.

1990s: A slew of popular Shakespeare films appears. These include several directed by Kenneth Branagh ("Henry V" in 1989; "Much Ado about Nothing," 1993; and "Hamlet," 1996) and several by other directors. All of them feature considerable star power ("Othello" in 1995 with Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh; "Richard III" in 1995 with Ian McKellen; "Romeo & Juliet" in 1996 with Leonardo DiCaprio; and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in 1999 with Michelle Pfeiffer).

1995: The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington begins to note an increase in elementary schools' requests for information.

1996: The Folger Shakespeare Library initiates "Shakespeare Steps Out," a program designed to increase the presence of Shakespeare in inner-city classrooms.

1998: "Shakespeare in Love" wins seven Academy awards.

Sources: English-Speaking Union, Folger Shakespeare Library

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