Archive for June, 2013


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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We’ve told you plenty about our new favorite books: How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare and A Horse with Wings, both of which were featured presentations by the authors during our Conference on Teaching Shakespeare in the Elementary Classroom this week. Now that you’re in “summer-mode,” though, maybe you’d prefer a little something more to explore your favorite Shakespearean characters or history? Something just for YOU. I’ve got you covered.

Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion shocked me with its insight and emotional impact. Post-Zombie Apocalypse, the world is pretty much divided between the struggling surviving humans and the remaining zombies. One zombie, R, (he can’t remember his whole name), experiences moments from the life of one of his victims after eating his brain, and finds himself changing in ways no one expected. He protects a human teenager, Julie, and together they find a way to adapt to the new world in which they live. The danger from both sides is still very weighty, but these future star-cross’d partners have hope on their side. The bonus to this book is that there has already been a good-looking movie adaptation to compare!


Very rarely do I see novel adaptations of Shakespeare’s comedies. Lisa Klein’s Love Disguised isn’t necessarily an adaptation of one comedy, rather it is an imagined set of circumstances in Shakespeare’s young life which exposes him to all of the elements and characters he can use and re-use later when writing the comedies. Spunky female heroines, cross-dressing, twins, wrecks, inn-yards, mechanicals, bad luck, and even the legal system play a part in inspiring the future bard. The author knows her stuff, and has such fun with this premise that reading the book flies!

ImageSpeaking of potential inspiration in Shakespeare’s lifetime, Kathryn Johnson’s The Gentleman Poet uses the historical account of the shipwrecked Sea Venture, which had been en route to America in 1607 and went down in the Bermudas. Miraculously, most of the passengers and crew survived and were able to rebuild well enough to hobble to Jamestown about a year later. The news captivated Shakespeare’s England, and may have inspired The Tempest. While this is a fictional account, the details of island life are unbelievably true.

ImageFor a stretch, I also recommend the insightful, and maybe disturbing, account of a family falling apart from the perspective of the family dog in Matt Haig’s The Labrador Pact. With shades of Shakespeare’s Henriad, Prince the dog tries to resist temptation and remain the true, devoted family member he believes he was destined to be by birth and training.

I also highly recommend a couple of audiobooks (also available in print) which provided me with hours of entertainment and wonderful education:

Macbeth by A.J. Hartley, David Hewson narrated by Alan Cumming – the subject matter is very dark, but if you’re experiencing a heat wave, this chilling account of the Scot’s events will cool you right off. (By the way, has anyone gotten to see Cumming’s turn on Broadway in the almost-one-man conceptual staging of Macbeth? How was it?!)

Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell narrated by Charles Keating – Henry V’s great war is the subject of this novel, and the author does not shy from the horrors of war in the 15th century. However, like The Gentleman Poet, this book builds on the history of the era to create an inspirational human experience worthy of Shakespeare’s pen.

Enjoy your summer, and let us know what you’re reading!

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~by Susan Lucille Davis

Some decades ago, the little girl I used to be sat on her bed and listened intently, enthralled by the words that came from her sister’s mouth as she read her homework aloud.  “Double, double, toil and trouble…” Listening to the magic of those words ultimately led me to become a writer, a reader, and a teacher. So, when I encounter adults who think Shakespeare is too hard for kids, I am mystified. Wouldn’t the magical words of Shakespeare’s plays and poems capture the imagination of any child if presented in the right way?

This year, I tested my theory with my 6th-graders as we read A Midsummer Night’s Dream together. Just as I do when I teach older students, I started out with a bit of “Shakespeare Therapy,” where we hash out our fears and concerns about taking on such a daunting project. I shared my own difficulties with learning foreign languages as a pre-curser to asking my students to wrestle with Shakespeare’s peculiar brand of English. And this time I offered a challenge that would turn out to make all the difference in my students’ motivation to learn: We would create a puppet show for the entire school based on scenes from the play.

As we began to read the play in class, using the Folger’s Shakespeare Set Free as a guide, I overheard students muttering comments like “That’s my puppet!” as each character was introduced. Their interest in each character’s development was sparked from the beginning – and my gender-blind assignments even drew in boys who were given Titania or the young female lovers’ characters, for instance. Students “previewed” the play at night (reading for as much understanding as they could muster, but not worrying about getting it all), and we worked out the staging as we read each scene during the day.  My students were hooked!

Meanwhile, their puppets were coming along in Art class, as they added leaves to Puck and learned how to fashion a hairdo for Hippolyta. One student asked, “Do I need to make a donkey mask for Bottom?” I asked her to go back to the play and find where Bottom’s “translation” occurs. When I assigned scenes for our performance, would this apply to her puppet?  Then we dove into the play within the play in Act V, and another student wailed, “You mean my character is a lion! Oh no!” And he went back to square one to redesign his puppet for Snug the Joiner as he performs the role of Lion in “The Most Lamentable Comedy and Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe.”

Susan's students perform a scene from MIDSUMMER for the elementary student body.

Susan’s students perform a scene from MIDSUMMER for the elementary student body.

With only a week for rehearsals and some of the puppets not quite finished, we readied ourselves for our performances. I pared the play down to its most puppet-friendly scenes, and then I assigned readers for each part. Like many directors, I’m sure, I doubted it could all come together in time, but the students performed beautifully in front of our K-4 students. The goal of performing live drove them to understand the scenes in ways they might never have done otherwise. Hermia did almost lose her head when her puppeteer rather overzealously jiggled her up and down during her insult contest with Helena, but otherwise we had no other mishaps and the children in the audience laughed and shrieked at all the right times.

My students couldn’t have been prouder of their hard work. Their end-of-year reflections often mentioned the puppet show and learning how to read Shakespeare as major accomplishments. One student wrote, “The puppet show helped me understand Shakespeare a lot more than I did before. When we were being puppets we really had to understand our role. We had to know when our person exited and entered and when they were asleep or awake. I think that really helped me understand because I had to know what was going on the whole time. That really helped me and I think it made me read with a different perspective.” More than anything, my students experienced Shakespeare as something fun and challenging, and I hope something magical they will come back to again and again as they grow up.

Susan Lucille Davis teaches 5th and 6th-grade Language Arts at St. Mark’s Episcopal School in Houston, Texas. She has been introducing readers of all ages to the magic of Shakespeare for three decades.  She has a Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from George Mason University and a BA in English from the University of South Carolina. When not teaching Language Arts, she also blogs at The Flying Trapeze and as a featured “Smart Teacher” at Getting Smart.

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I’ve seen this activity done with many different audiences of students (and teachers), and it always makes me smile. The energy and creativity each participating group brings changes the activity slightly each time, adapting it to their interests and thoughts!

As seen in the opening moments of this video about our elementary outreach program, Shakespeare Steps Out, creating a physical language for a particular passage gives students the chance to make Shakespeare’s language their own:

Taking a vibrant passage like “O, grim-look’d night!” from the play-within-a-play of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ask students to create a physical movement for each word and punctuation mark. For example, The students in the video above choose to crouch for the “O”s and clap above their heads for the exclamation marks.

SSO - Physical Action

Coming to words they’re not familiar with or unsure of, ask them what it sounds like, and about the context of the sentence it’s in to determine how to physicalize it.

This is a really fun introduction activity, and is very flexible for different classes and plays. Have you ever tried something like this in your class? How did it go?

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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.


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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Dear Colleagues,

I want to take this opportunity to tell you that I shall be retiring from the Folger effective June 30th. It has been a privilege to serve as the first Director of Education since it became its own division at the Library in 2007. In the almost six years that Education has been its own division at the Folger, we have made significant gains in our national outreach, sharing our resources on teaching Shakespeare, in one way or another, with as many as 1.8 million teachers, and pushing further into the digital sphere to bring new resources for teaching Shakespeare to classrooms across the country and around the world.

Your efforts to help unlock the magic of Shakespeare’s language for your students have not gone unnoticed or unappreciated. These are challenging times for teachers and students in classrooms across the country. The work you do in classrooms every day is so important. I salute you!

Peggy O’Brien, appointed to be the next Director of Education, has a long history with Folger Education, and I know that under her leadership Folger Education will continue to provide teachers with the best resources and programs for bringing Shakespeare to life for students everywhere.

Best wishes for a wonderful summer.


Bob Young has been a fantastic leader in Folger Education’s transition as its own independent division at the Folger Shakespeare Library. He’s tirelessly attended conferences, workshops, meetups, webinars and programs across the country and the world on behalf of Folger Education. Please leave your kind words here to share with him as he begins his next transition as our trusted friend and strong advocate for performance-based teaching (and Titus Andronicus!)

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~by Louis Butelli

Today, I’ll just talk a little bit about what it’s like playing so many Fools.

The first thing to say is that it’s a great honor to be included in the roster of Shakespeare’s Fools. One of the most fascinating things about Shakespeare’s writing is that he worked with an active theater company – he wrote things for specific actors to perform on stage, often very soon after he finished writing. Anybody lucky enough to play Shakespeare’s Fools owes a huge debt of gratitude to two men in particular: Will Kempe, and Robert Armin.

Kempe was an actor and comedian and a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the company for which Shakespeare wrote. He was a “rustic” comic, his jokes were bawdy and improvisational, and he specialized in “jigs,” comedic song and dance routines. Many people suspect that he was the original Falstaff from the Henry plays. He is likely to have played Peter, the comic servant in Romeo & Juliet – there is a Quarto edition of the play with the, apparently mistaken, stage direction “Enter Kempe,” rather than the expected “Enter Peter.” For reasons unknown, Kempe left the company in 1599, replaced as company clown by Robert Armin.

Armin was a comic writer in his own right. He wrote plays (“The History of the Two Maids of More-Clacke”), essays (“Foole Upon Foole”) and poems (“The Italian Tailor and his Boy”). He is generally accepted to have created the roles of Feste, Lear’s Fool, Touchstone, the drunken Porter, among others. Seeing as Shakespeare has given songs to many of these characters, one suspects that Armin was also a skilled musician. More interesting, perhaps, is the impact Armin’s presence in the company had on Shakespeare’s writing. These later Fools are darker, sadder, more melancholy – they are more philosopher Fools than rustic clowns.

Certainly, the writing in the plays speaks for itself. However, we are afforded a little glimpse of Shakespeare’s own opinion about the difference between the two men, and how Fools function for him.

This is from Hamlet’s “advice to the players:”

“Let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them, for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the mean time some necessary question of the play be then to be considered. That’s villainous and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it.”

Food for thought, indeed!

Thanks so much for reading, and come and see Twelfth Night before it closes on Sunday!

Catch more insights from Louis on the Folger Theatre blog!

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