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~by Christopher Shamburg, New Jersey City University

Shakespeare can be a powerful tool for the cognitive, emotional, social, and linguistic development of all kids.

I saw this phenomenon when working with the students of A. Harry Moore School in Jersey City, a comprehensive school for students ages 3-21 with severe medical, physical, and cognitive disabilities.   This year a group of 14 students did a variety of production-based activities with Shakespeare, culminating in a performance of The Winter’s Tale in June.

Students take a bow after performing The Winter's Tale.

Students take a bow after performing The Winter’s Tale.

A production-based approach is where kids come to understand Shakespeare through performance and technology—using Shakespeare’s Language.  It’s based in the Folger Teaching Method, and it’s great for all kids for several reasons.

1)      It is a deeply immersive experience.  In this case, students were dancing, sheering sheep, getting pursued by bears, consulting oracles, and coming tolife from marble statues.  They were engaged like they would be in a fun game or an exciting sport.

2)      These are fault tolerant activities.  You do not have to do it perfect or right to make it work well.

3)      There is a wide zone of engagement.  It’s been said that engagement occurs when there’s a balance between skills and challenge.  If a person is over-skilled, then boredom sets in.  If a person is over-challenged, then frustration sets in.  A teacher can easily balance skills and challenges with a production-based approach.

4)      It’s a great tool for building students’ executive function.  Executive function is a relatively new and helpful way of looking at brain activity.  It’s a combination of planning, working memory, multiple perspectives, and impulse control.  The methods of a production-based approach develop executive function.

Here are a few of the activities that worked for us.

Shadows

One of the activities we used was “Shadows,” a method for students to get familiar with the physical space of the theater, experiment with their range of motion, and understand the contrasting emotions of the main character of The Winter’s Tale, and the catalyst for the action of the play, Leontes.  In “Shadows,” one student acts as “Good” Leontes and another student follows as his “Shadow,” enacting contrasting lines from “Good” Leontes.  Leontes wore a white mask or hat, and Leontes’ shadow followed wearing a black mask or hat.

Leontes Leontes’ Shadow
Stay your thanks a whileWell said, Hermione Too hot, too hotI am angling now

(see full activity Shadows).

Seven-Minute Version

To better understand the plot and the language in the play, the students frequently performed “Winta: The Seven-Minute Winter’s Tale”.  Every student enacted at least one line as a teacher read the narration and cued the students.  The lines were designed for both readers and nonreaders, who would say their lines with a prompter.

e.g.

NARRATOR:  Leontes is sorry (12).  But it’s too late.  His wife is dead and his baby is gone.  Antigonus has taken Perdita to Bohemia and leaves her in an abandoned place (13).

Student lines:

12)  I have deserved all tongues to talk their bitterest.

13) There weep and leave it crying; and, for the babe is counted lost forever, Perdita.

(See full activity)

Emotion Chart

AHM Emotion Chart

Chart with different degrees of emotions

A frequent reference during many of these activities, rehearsals, and performance was the emotion chart.  It offered visual cues for nonreaders and some subtle emotional distinctions for the more dramatic players.  It was based on the work of Christine Porter in Mary Ellen Dakin’s Reading Shakespeare with Young Adults.

(See full Emotion Chart )

AHM Shakespeare 2013 -3

Three students smiling after performing The Winter’s Tale

Creating sound effects for the play–using voices, Foley techniques, and audio editing tools–was fun, engaged us in the text, and was a real crowd pleaser during our performance.  We used the Audacity audio editing program to create numerous sound effects (e.g. party, bear, sheep, crying baby, stone breaking apart).

Adaptive Use Musical Instruments

AHM Shakespeare 2013-4

Student using AUMI

One piece of software that was particularly useful was Adaptive Use Musical Instruments (AUMI).  It allowed students with limited mobility to create music for the show.  A user can create music or activated sounds with a variety of gross motor movements.

Embedded Word Files

To use the sound effects and music during the show we embedded they audio in a Word document.  These sounds added production value and also worked as a memory device for the actors.  Embedding mp3 files in a Word document is a standard, though underused, feature in Word that proved valuable during activities, rehearsals, and performance.  We opened the file with the script and played the sounds along with the production.

AHM Embedded Word File

A screenshot of a Word file with audio embedded

Good Script and Prompting

Our director Terry MacSweeney from Actor’s Shakespeare Company did an excellent job of abridging Shakespeare’s language to a 30-minute show.   He devised a system of cue cards, scripts and prompters that aided our actors just enough.

In Conclusion…

This was the Actor’s Shakespeare Company’s fifth production at A. Harry Moore.  This year the work was a part of the NJCU Educational Technology Department’s Partnership and Projects Program.

The production was organized by Marissa Aiello, a speech language pathologist at the school, with assistance by Matt Masiello, a speech language pathology intern.

Christopher Shamburg is a Professor of Educational Technology at New Jersey City University.  He is a workshop leader and consultant for the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Education Division.

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