~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.”
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.