~by Holly Rodgers
In 2010, I endeavored to have my students take on the challenge of performing the works of William Shakespeare. While this might not be much of a feat if I were a high school English or theater arts teacher, my students have the added encumbrance of being non-native English speakers and all under the age of 12.
After attending the first-ever Folger Elementary Educators Conference in the summer of 2009, I was regaled by the intriguing experiences shared with me by my fellow participants whose students had all performed in the Folger Children’s Shakespeare Festival. They all spoke so positively about their personal experiences and those of their students that I immediately began brainstorming potential plays that my students could perform to apply for the festival the following spring.
Although they may be limited in their English proficiency skills, as an advocate for my ELL (English Language Learner) students, it is my job to ensure these children are not limited to the rich, educational experiences that may be more readily available to their native English-speaking peers. Many of my students are socio-economically disadvantaged and come from homes where one or both parents may be illiterate in their native language. Suffice it to say, the works of William Shakespeare are not something likely to be found in their home libraries, if they even have one. Taking all of this into consideration, I felt that spending an entire school year immersing my students in Shakespeare’s world would provide immeasurable growth for them and challenge my teaching skills in the classroom.
Spending that summer editing a script, compiled of scenes from Richard III and Much Ado About Nothing, my students began the school year with Shakespeare boot-camp, which consisted of rigorous performance-based daily lessons intended to gradually build their background knowledge and comfort level with The Bard, as well as make digesting and regurgitating 20 minutes of iambic-pentameter as palatable as possible.
By the time the festival rolled around in May, my students and I were prepared in every way possible, but what we were not prepared for were the side effects from prolonged Shakespeare exposure that would continue to affect all of us well into the future.
My students, who I am fortunate enough to retain in my program for multiple school-years, were permanently altered by their festival preparation and performance experience. As I’ve watched them grow over the last three years, I am stricken most with the self-confidence that every single one of those students now possesses. They walk taller, they continue to seek out performance opportunities, and some of them even used Shakespeare to assist them in overcoming physical and mental challenges. In the aftermath of our performance, I also found myself permanently changed as an educator. Knowing that my young ELL students were capable of decoding, comprehending, and performing Shakespeare broke down any cultural or socio-linguistic barriers that existed for them in my mind and allowed me to realize that despite being limited English-proficient, my students have NO limitations.
Holly Rodgers is an elementary school ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teacher in Fairfax County, Virginia. She has been a presenter at the Folger Elementary Educators Conference and has created ELL (English Language Learner) and elementary focused lesson plans for the Folger Education Website. She has spent her varied educational career as both a language and music teacher. She earned her M Ed in Multilingual/Multicultural Education from George Mason University and her BME in Instrumental Music from Louisiana State University.
Keep the conversation going with Holly on Twitter @hmrodgers