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At the end of last week’s Teacher Tuesday, I shared a link to a video, Interpreting Shakespeare, with our Master Teacher Sue Biondo-Hench. In one section of the video, around 3:10, Sue breaks her students into groups to interpret and perform a single passage from Henry IV, part 1. They each interpret how performing one character’s speech as a group lends them insight into the text. They don’t have to make natural performance choices as if it is their single moment onstage delivering a soliloquy – rather, they’re approaching the text chorally to show different ways of interpreting complex text with their voices, movements, and group dynamics. This doesn’t necessarily mean they read it all together in unison – they can assign individuals lines or words to make them stand out, whisper or shout, create tableaux (stage pictures) to set the scene or its tone, or anything else they deem necessary to their point.

Choral Reading

Students perform at the 2013 Secondary Festival

A choral approach like this can be especially useful for group discussions. It gets small groups discussing their interpretation, which they then share with the whole class. No group will make all of the same choices, after all, because there are so many different ways to say and do any passage or scene – why not try a bunch and see what works? Discussing everyone’s choices (and knowing that none are “wrong”) gives the students more control and less fear of interpreting the text.

We have a few examples of teaching modules which use a chroal approach:

Complexity of Character in The Merchant of Venice: In this play, especially, no one is wholly “good” or “bad.” In this lesson, high school student groups take on a character apiece and perform one or two passages of text for that character to determine what their character is like, and in what ways they are complicated.

Shakespeare Sound Out: Building Atmosphere: For elementary and ESL/ELL students, getting over the language together is especially easy when approached chorally. With text from Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, students use the rhythm and word choices in the text to determine the tone of the scene, and incorporate their choices into a performance.

Sonnet Performance: Shakespeare’s Sonnets as Scripts: The choral approach can even apply to poetry! As Louisa Newlin and Gigi Bradford say, “Breaking a sonnet down into parts for different speakers and presenting it dramatically can help students to listen carefully to the language and hear different “voices” in the poem.” Students shed some light on these sometimes ambiguous poems to create their own meanings.

How else would you use the choral approach with your class? Other plays, poems, or even books may be ripe fodder for a group to tackle. Have you used a chorus before? How did it go?

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Earlier this week we were approached by a performing group who was going to use Romeo and Juliet for the first time with their young audience. They were concerned with how to tell the end of the story without being too disturbing or too blase – getting the lesson across without traumatizing their audience.

We’ve been giving the tragedies to elementary-aged kids for a good long while, but it was still an interesting question to ponder. Lucretia Anderson put in her two cents: “They were desperate teens who did something awful to themselves resulting in a huge tragic loss for both families. This should teach students that coming together and eradicating hate is the way to go. We usually say that they “took their own lives” instead of saying they “committed suicide” or “killed themselves.” Romeo takes poison, Juliet stabs herself with a dagger. The elementary kids can handle it.

Ultimately, each teacher or presenter is familiar enough with their own audience of students that they know what they’ll be able to handle. But is there a line to toe, and where is it?

The research bug got me again, so I looked at a few examples of books for kids that depicted the lovers’ final acts. Read on for these examples, below, but how do you talk about fictional tragedy in your classroom?

Graham Hamilton, Nicole Lowrance, Romeo and Juliet, Folger Theatre, 2005.

Graham Hamilton, Nicole Lowrance, Romeo and Juliet, Folger Theatre, 2005.

~Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb

Here Romeo took his last leave of his lady’s lips, kissing them; and here he shook the burden of his cross stars [sic] from his weary body, swallowing the poison which the apothecary had sold him, whose operation was fatal and real, not like the dissembling potion Juliet had swallowed, the effect of which was now nearly expiring, and she about to awake, to complain that Romeo had not kept his time, or that he had come too soon.

…but when Juliet saw the cup closed in her true love’s hands, she guessed that poison had been the cause of his end, and she would have swallowed the dregs if any had been left, and she kissed his still warm lips to try if any poison yet did hang upon them: they [sic] hearing a nearer noise of people coming, she quickly unsheathed a dagger which she wore, and stabbing herself, died by her true Romeo’s side.

~Shakespeare Stories by Leon Garfield
He knelt beside her and made his sad farewell.

“Eyes, look your last. Arms, take your last embrace! And lips, O you the doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss a dateless bargain to engrossing Death.” Then, with a sudden joyfulness he cried, “Here’s to my love!” and drank the apothecary’s poison; and so, in an instant, ended for ever the parting from his love.

Longingly she kissed Romeo’s lips in the hope that some poison still remained on them. There was none; so she took his dagger and pressed it lovingly into her heart.

~Romeo and Juliet for Kids by Lois Burnett
He held her close in a final embrace.
Romeo found the poison and held it high,
“Here’s to my love. Thus with a kiss I die!”

The Friar left her in the tomb below,
And she knelt one last time by her Romeo.
What’s here? A cup, closed in my true love’s hand?
Poison, my lord! This is not what we planned!”
She drank from the bottle, but it was dry,
“One friendly drop to me you deny?

Juliet stabbed herself, and life defied,
Then fell to the ground by Romeo’s side.

~The Random House Book of Shakespeare Stories, [liberally] retold by Andrew Matthews

With a cry, Romeo rushed to her side and covered her face with kisses and tears. “I cannot live without you,” he whispered. “I want your beauty to be the last thing my eyes see. We could not be together in life, my sweet love, but in death nothing shall part us!”

Romeo drew the cork from the poison bottle and raised it to his lips. He felt the vile liquid sting his throat. Then darkness swallowed him.

For a time, there was no sound except the spluttering of the torch. Then Juliet began to breathe. She opened her eyes and saw Romeo dead at her side with the empty poison bottle in his hand. At first, she thought she was dreaming. But when she reached out to touch Romeo’s face and smelled the bitter scent of the poison, she knew the nightmare was real. Friar Laurence’s plan had gone terribly wrong. She cradled Romeo in her arms and rocked him, weeping into his hair. “If you had only waited a little longer!” she whispered. She kissed Romeo again and again, desperately hoping that there was enough poison on his lips to kill her too.

Then she saw the torchlight gleam on the dagger at Romeo’s belt. She drew the weapon and pressed the point to her heart. “Now, dagger, take me to my love!” she said, and pushed with all her strength.

~The Best-Loved Plays of Shakespeare, from Star Bright Books

The death of Romeo
Romeo opens Juliet’s tomb. He gazes lovingly at his bride.

“…Ah, dear Juliet, Why art thou yet so fair? Shall I believe that unsubstantial death is amorous and that the lean abhorred monster keeps thee here in dark to be his paramour?”

Romeo then prepares himself to die.

“Eyes, look your last! Arms, take your last embrace! And lips, O you the doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss…”

He drinks the poison and dies.

Juliet Awakes
Just as Juliet wakes up, the Friar arrives. He sees the bodies of Paris and Romeo. He tells Juliet they must fly away at once. When Juliet sees that Romeo is dead, she refuses to leave. She sees that he has taken poison. ‘O, churl! Drink all and left no friendly drop to help me after?’ she says. She kisses his lips. Then she takes up Romeo’s dagger to stab herself.

~Tales from Shakespeare, by Tina Packer

Romeo held the lantern over Juliet’s face. “O my love! My wife! Death hath had no power yet upon thy beauty.” He kissed her cold lips, then lay beside her. “Here will I remain with worms that are thy chambermaids.” Romeo uncorked his poison. “Here’s to my love!” He closed his eyes and drained the bottle. The poison was quick. Romeo kissed Juliet again. “Thus, with a kiss, I die.”

Juliet knelt down. She found Romeo’s bottle and lifted it to her lips. “O, churl,” she said fondly. “Drunk all, and left no friendly drop to help me after? I will kiss thy lips. Perhaps some poison yet doth hang on them.”

The voices outside grew louder.

Juliet drew Romeo’s knife and aimed it at her heart. “Oh happy dagger! This is thy sheath. There rust and let me die.” With a swift motion, she stabbed herself and collapsed beside her husband.

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~by Emily DenBleyker

I am not a teacher. I dropped my education major my first semester of college, and I have never looked back. And yet, somehow, in the funny way that life seems to happen to us, I ended up scheduled to teach a writing class for 8-10 year-olds at the day camp where I worked as an assistant.

“Ok,” I thought. “This won’t be too bad. I know how to write. I’ve been with these kids all summer. I’ll just pull out what I know and it’ll be great.”

What I know is Shakespeare.

So day three of the class was dubbed “Literary Flourish Day: Metaphor, Imagery, and Meter.” The day before, I had been trying to explain “showing versus telling” to the students, and these elements are good examples of how to do that. And what better writer to use an example than the master of showing?

We started with metaphor, using Romeo’s “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright./It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night/As a rich jewel in and Ethiop’s ear.” We worked through all the language and figured out what it meant, and we discussed how we knew how beautiful Juliet was to Romeo, without him ever using the word “beautiful.” Then the students drew a picture of Juliet – how they saw Juliet through Romeo’s description of her. Most of them picked up on the image of an earring and had Juliet wearing large hoops; some of them even picked a time period and made “’80s Juliet,” in neon and teased hair.

For imagery, we used The Seven Ages of Man, from As You Like It. I wrote each age on a giant notepad, and again, we worked through it and visualized each stage, picking out the characteristics of the age, both physical and emotional. Then each student (luckily, there were 7 that day) picked an age and acted it out. Their favorite image, undeniably, was the infant, “mewling and puking.” They all pretended to mewl and puke for about 10 minutes.

Lastly, we tackled rhythm. We talked about rhythm in music, and then we turned to Macbeth, using some of the “Double, double, toil and trouble” rap to show it in literature. Then the students made metrical lists of their favorite things and presented them to the class.

I am not a teacher. But being able to show these children how beautiful life can be, on the page and the stage, made me so thankful for the teachers we do have: those with a passion to take the beautiful things we’ve been given and introduce them to the next generation, passing wisdom and the value of aesthetics down through the ages.

People hundreds of years ago recognized the value of Shakespeare’s words, the relevancy they carry even to 8-10 year olds, so let’s continue that tradition. Share the lessons you’ve learned from Macbeth and the Henrys, from Cordelia and Miranda. Show them the richness of words, the images they can conjure, and the meaning they can give to life. We can all be teachers. Some people just get paid for it.

And for the record, when I asked the students at the end of the week what their favorite activity had been, a good majority of them said, “Learning about that Shakespeare William guy.”

Emily DenBleyker was the spring 2013 Folger Education intern. She is now a senior at Gordon College, completing degrees in music and communications. Her roommates tolerate her rants on the beauty of words, if only because she edits their papers.

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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 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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~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.

HTTeachKidsShakespeare-1

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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This past weekend I had the privilege of assisting on our 3rd installment of Shakespeare in Action –  a family workshop in which parents and their young children (ages 6-12) approach a scene from Shakespeare’s canon in a physical way. In the past we’ve looked at the opening scene from Romeo and Juliet and the climactic finale of Macbeth. This time we focused on parts of Julius Caesar Act 5, Scene 1. The focus is to approach the text seeking what we call “action clues.” What is the text telling us to do when we perform it? How can we best tell the story?

SK in Action 5.25.13 1We started by warming everyone up with a couple of theater games to shake our bodies out and get comfortable with the group (we had about 30 guests!), then we settled down together to read the scene aloud. If there was a word someone didn’t understand or a phrase that seemed confusing, anyone could raise their hand and say “BING!” and we would talk it out together to see if we could use the context clues to figure out what it meant.

Once that was done, we split the group into two teams, and alternated rehearsing the scene and learning safe stage combat from our swordsman, Paul Hope. I appreciated especially when Paul asked our group if they’d ever done “Fake-Fighting” on the playground. Many hands were raised. “What’s the difference between Fake-Fighting and Stage Combat? Does anyone know?” The difference is that with Stage Combat we’re using choreography, a pre-determined series of actions that are well-rehearsed and completely safe in order to tell a story. People can get hurt when they Fake-Fight, but in Stage Combat everyone is safe.

With a full 40-minute rehearsal and the Stage Combat choreography under our belts, our two teams performed the scene for each other. Everyone seemed to have had a great time! One of our younger students filled out his comment card with “Funnest time in my life     love it      so so so MUCH”  while one of the parents emphasized that we “kept it fun and entertaining the entire time!”

Getting students on their feet to experience Shakespeare’s language is entirely do-able! All you need is one engaging, active scene and a little time.

If you’re planning to visit DC this summer with your family, please keep in mind that we offer free hour-long family workshops every First Saturday of the month! Join us to experience Shakespeare’s words in action (sans wooden swords). Or simply visit us any day of the week with your family to see this summer’s three mini-exhibits while we renovate our Great Hall. We’re open every day and there’s always something to see!

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