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Folger Educatin Intern Samantha Smith writes about her experience at our Elementary Educators’ Conference

On the last day of the 2013 Shakespeare in Elementary Education Conference at the Folger Shakespeare Library, students from Capitol Hill Montessori took to the stage in the Folger Theatre to perform a short play entitled “Much Ado About Shakespeare.”  The play’s title summed up the three-day conference in which I was able to watch educators, authors, and graduate students talk, shout, and jump their way through nine presentations highlighting different ways to introduce children to Shakespeare’s text.  To me, the smiles and articulate answers of the Capitol Hill Montessori students as they replied to questions posed by educators in the audience illustrated the theme of the conference, which centered on how engagement with Shakespeare’s plays positively influences elementary students’ academic, artistic, and personal growth.

As a college senior eager to blend my academic interest in Shakespeare with my desire to work with young students, it was heartening to talk with professionals of different backgrounds who demonstrated diverse ways to encourage their students to study and enjoy Shakespeare’s plays.  All of the participants in the conference shared a love of Shakespeare’s words but each drew on his or her own education, training, and personal interests in ways that reinforced for me that there is no solitary path leading to a career based on engagement with Shakespeare’s plays.   Ken Ludwig, best known for his Tony-award winning plays and musicals, explained how he combined his writing talents with the enjoyment he felt teaching his own children to memorize passages from Shakespeare in his book, How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare.  Author and musician Daeshin Kim shared how his daughter’s positive response to nursery rhymes as a language-learning tool sparked his interest in composing short children’s songs sung from the point of view of Shakespeare’s characters.  As I read Mr. Kim’s book, A Horse With Wings, and listened to a song sung by Cordelia entitled “I don’t know what to say,” I was as delighted to learn about such an innovative way of sharing Shakespeare with children as I would have been listening to Mr. Kim’s songs as a pre-school student.  I learned that my lack of crafting talent was unchanged from my pre-school years while participating in a craft-based lesson by Holly Rodgers (a teacher from Fairfax County public schools) for The Merchant of Venice, which demonstrated a visual and tactile way to connect ESL students with Shakespeare.  The effectiveness of performance-based teaching was reinforced for me as I participated in Renee Vomocil of The Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s examples of warm-up games, Virginia Palmer-Fuechsel’s combination of spoken word and movement activities, and the movement-based exploration of Romeo and Juliet led by OSU/RSC Stand Up for Shakespeare educators Lorraine Gaughenbaugh and Anna Meyer.  These exercises made me excited to act portions of the plays I so enjoy reading.  The effectiveness of these lessons on younger students was clear when I watched Jennifer Ventimiglia’s class in the Czech Republic dramatize sonnets and heard from Dr. Barbara Cobb about how her Shakespeare in the Schools Partnership Initiative was successful in getting children excited about Shakespeare.

A line from recent Georgetown University graduate Angela Ramnanan’s presentation on her master’s thesis best summarized the conclusion I took away from the conference: ‘results obtained from the research project provide compelling evidence of Shakespeare’s relevance in our current curriculum based on his cultural and linguistic influence.”  There is indeed much to do to further incorporate Shakespeare education in elementary school curriculum, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to learn about so many ways that educators are already inspiring their students to love Shakespeare.

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~by Ken Ludwig

Today is the publication date of my new book, How To Teach Your Children Shakespeare (Random House Publishing), and I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to share this book with you as parents and educators, arts advocates and fellow Shakespeare fanatics.

Kids Shakespeare Drawing - Ludwig

I’ve spent my career in the arts, and I have staked my life as a writer on the proposition that the arts make a difference in how we see the world and how we conduct our lives – how we view charity to our neighbors and justice in our communities.

For me, Shakespeare, towering as he does above all other writers, has always been central to this vision.  And because I’m such a lover of Shakespeare, I’ve been teaching my children how to read and memorize passages from Shakespeare since they were six years old.  The purpose of How To Teach Your Children Shakespeare is to pass on the torch and create a whole new generation of Shakespeare lovers.

I’ve based the book on four very simple premises:  (1) in order to be an educated, literate  member of our society, you have to know some Shakespeare;  (2)  reading Shakespeare’s plays is daunting for everyone, adults and children alike, because his language is so complex;  (3) it isn’t hard to crack the code of Shakespeare if you treat it like a foreign language and learn a few simple rules; and (4) the best time to learn Shakespeare is when you’re young because then you aren’t afraid of him.  Children are sponges.

This fourth premise is key to my book.  I’ve had several recent opportunities to teach Shakespeare workshops to youngsters using the methods described in the book and I’ve realized more clearly than ever how eager children are to learn about Shakespeare, especially when they’re young enough to be unafraid of him.  Children naturally have open minds, and their brains really are like sponges.  Duke Orsino in Twelfth Night says that his love is “as hungry as the sea and can digest as much.”  A child’s curiosity is the same:  it is hungry, limitless, and can digest anything and everything we have to offer.

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While teaching one of these workshops, I had a very personal realization (perhaps epiphany is not too strong a word in this case):  For me, memorizing a passage from Shakespeare is like giving myself a present.  Every time I say the passage aloud, it’s like taking in a breath of fresh air.  It’s like creating a moment of pure joy whenever I need it.

The quotation that comes to mind as I write this is from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II, Scene 1:  the moment when Oberon calls to Puck and orders him to fetch the magic flower.  Reciting it from memory is like putting a little Mozart on my iPod.  It refreshes my spirit in the same way.  But it does so more profoundly, with even more joy and with deeper meaning.

My gentle Puck, come hither. Thou rememb’rest
Since once I sat upon a promontory
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath
That the rude sea grew civil at her song
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres
To hear the sea-maid’s music.

Even as I type these words, they make me happy.  Is there a better present we can give our children than teaching them how to recite Shakespeare from memory?  If there is, I’ve never heard of it.

Ken Ludwig is an author, theatre educator, and award-winning playwright of Lend Me a Tenor and Crazy for You. Ken will give the keynote address at our Conference for Teaching Shakespeare in the Elementary Classroom on June 24 (registration is still open!) and a demonstration from  How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare. Copies will be available for signing after the session. Find out more about his work and new book at www.kenludwig.com.

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by Ken Ludwig

Since my early teens, I’ve felt strongly about Shakespeare—about the value of studying and memorizing significant passages by the greatest writer who ever lived—but it wasn’t until I became a father that I figured out how to share my passion with the people I loved.

One day, when my daughter Olivia was six years old, she came home from first grade spouting a line of Shakespeare:  “I know a bank where the wild thyme grows.”  Her first grade teacher was an English woman who took a particular interest in the hero of her youth, and she had decided to pass the torch on to the younger generation.  When I heard my daughter happily quoting this line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a light went off in my head.

From that day on, I set up a routine.  My daughter and I would spend one hour on Saturday and one hour on Sunday memorizing my favorite speeches from Shakespeare’s plays.  We started with short accessible passages from the comedies and, gradually over time, increased the length and complexity of the passages.  To my delight, my daughter took to it immediately, and it turned out that these hours spent together learning everything from As You Like It to King Lear were some of the best family times of our lives.   For two hours each week, we sat next to each other totally engaged in something we both loved, and we had enormous fun doing it.

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Sir Derek Jacobi in Twelfth Night – who, along with Richard Clifford and Frances Barber, made special recordings of passages from the book. Photo by Geraint Lewis.

About two years ago, it occurred to me that other parents and teachers might enjoy hearing about our family’s adventures with Shakespeare, and I sat down and started writing this book.

What I have tried to do in How To Teach Your Children Shakespeare – which will be published in early June by Random House – is offer to parents and educators the techniques and strategies I developed over the years for my own children.  I realized early on in this process that Shakespeare is a lot like a foreign language.  Some of his words are unknown to us, even as adults; Shakespeare’s sentence structure can sounds odd to our modern ears; and Shakespeare is constantly speaking in complex metaphors that can sometimes be difficult to understand.

So what I did for my kids – as I do in the book – was teach them how to understand every word in the Shakespeare passage being studied, then memorize the passage so that their knowledge of Shakespeare became fluent, the way a foreign language can become fluent.

ImageIn total, the book presents the first 25 passages that I taught my kids, ordered into a specific sequence to make learning them as easy as possible.   And as each passage is discussed, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to The Tempest (with a lot more plays in between), I talk about the stories, the characters and the meanings of the works so that, ultimately, the kids get the kind of knowledge of Shakespeare they’ll need to become great students, great thinkers, and great teachers.

Recently, I had the opportunity of trying this method out on a large group.  I was invited by Random House, as part of Take Your Children to Work Day, to spend a couple of hours with the 9-11 year olds, about 35 of them.  I thought it would be fun to see if they could memorize a few facts about Shakespeare, along with one of my favorite passages from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Captain of our fairy band,
Helena is here at hand,
And the youth mistook by me,
Pleading for a lovers fee.
Shall we their fond pageant see?
Lord, what fools these mortals be!

The kids had a fantastic time. At the end, when their parents came in, they proudly recited what they’d learned from memory.  Shakespeare triumphed again!

There is no doubt in my mind that knowing Shakespeare will make our children better citizens of the world.  It will better prepare them for the joys, as well as the whips and scorns of time (as Hamlet says).  It will introduce them to the rich world of literature, and, from there, to the universe of cultural references embedded in that literature.  It will give them confidence.  And it will, ultimately, by giving them Shakespeare’s perspective on the world, make them more moral human beings.  To quote Hamlet again, it’s a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Ken Ludwig is an author, theatre educator, and award-winning playwright of Lend Me a Tenor and Crazy for You. Ken will give the keynote address at our Conference for Teaching Shakespeare in the Elementary Classroom on June 24 (early bird registration discount ends June 3!). and a demonstration from  How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare to be released June 11, 2013. Copies will be available for signing after the session. Find out more about his work and new book at www.kenludwig.com.

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There may be snow on the ground, but Spring is in the air at the Folger.  As the Cherry Blossoms in Washington prepare to bloom, so do our local budding Bards as they prepare for the student festivals right around the corner. While the high school students will stomp the boards in just a couple of weeks at our annual Secondary School Festival, their younger comrades in the elementary grades will give them a run for their money in mid-May during our 34th Annual Children’s Festival. The work of all of these youngsters in their grappling of the text, their connections to the intricate characters and relationships in Shakespeare’s plays is sometimes inconceivable and without a doubt exciting.

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On the heels of our Children’s Festival is the equally exciting Conference on Teaching Shakespeare in the Elementary Classroom. So for all of those who would like to know what this work looks like, now is your chance to join the movement. We are excited to host both local and national educators as we experience the incredible work being done with primary level students and Shakespeare.

As we share our stories, we’ll also experience and hear the stories behind two newly published books that should be welcomed additions to your Shakespeare for kids library.

Internationally acclaimed playwright Ken Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor, Crazy for You) joins us as our keynote speaker. Adding author to his long list of accomplishments, Ken will talk and give a demonstration from his newly published book How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare (available June 11). We’ll also be joined by Daeshin Kim, writer and composer of the picture book and CD, A Horse with Wings: Songs for Children Sung by Characters from Shakespeare. Hear about Daeshin’s journey to re-creating the stories of Shakespeare’s characters through music and the voice of a child.

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To see a full list of our conference presenters and to register, check out http://www.folger.edu/eec.

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