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by Ken Ludwig

Since my early teens, I’ve felt strongly about Shakespeare—about the value of studying and memorizing significant passages by the greatest writer who ever lived—but it wasn’t until I became a father that I figured out how to share my passion with the people I loved.

One day, when my daughter Olivia was six years old, she came home from first grade spouting a line of Shakespeare:  “I know a bank where the wild thyme grows.”  Her first grade teacher was an English woman who took a particular interest in the hero of her youth, and she had decided to pass the torch on to the younger generation.  When I heard my daughter happily quoting this line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a light went off in my head.

From that day on, I set up a routine.  My daughter and I would spend one hour on Saturday and one hour on Sunday memorizing my favorite speeches from Shakespeare’s plays.  We started with short accessible passages from the comedies and, gradually over time, increased the length and complexity of the passages.  To my delight, my daughter took to it immediately, and it turned out that these hours spent together learning everything from As You Like It to King Lear were some of the best family times of our lives.   For two hours each week, we sat next to each other totally engaged in something we both loved, and we had enormous fun doing it.

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Sir Derek Jacobi in Twelfth Night – who, along with Richard Clifford and Frances Barber, made special recordings of passages from the book. Photo by Geraint Lewis.

About two years ago, it occurred to me that other parents and teachers might enjoy hearing about our family’s adventures with Shakespeare, and I sat down and started writing this book.

What I have tried to do in How To Teach Your Children Shakespeare – which will be published in early June by Random House – is offer to parents and educators the techniques and strategies I developed over the years for my own children.  I realized early on in this process that Shakespeare is a lot like a foreign language.  Some of his words are unknown to us, even as adults; Shakespeare’s sentence structure can sounds odd to our modern ears; and Shakespeare is constantly speaking in complex metaphors that can sometimes be difficult to understand.

So what I did for my kids – as I do in the book – was teach them how to understand every word in the Shakespeare passage being studied, then memorize the passage so that their knowledge of Shakespeare became fluent, the way a foreign language can become fluent.

ImageIn total, the book presents the first 25 passages that I taught my kids, ordered into a specific sequence to make learning them as easy as possible.   And as each passage is discussed, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to The Tempest (with a lot more plays in between), I talk about the stories, the characters and the meanings of the works so that, ultimately, the kids get the kind of knowledge of Shakespeare they’ll need to become great students, great thinkers, and great teachers.

Recently, I had the opportunity of trying this method out on a large group.  I was invited by Random House, as part of Take Your Children to Work Day, to spend a couple of hours with the 9-11 year olds, about 35 of them.  I thought it would be fun to see if they could memorize a few facts about Shakespeare, along with one of my favorite passages from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Captain of our fairy band,
Helena is here at hand,
And the youth mistook by me,
Pleading for a lovers fee.
Shall we their fond pageant see?
Lord, what fools these mortals be!

The kids had a fantastic time. At the end, when their parents came in, they proudly recited what they’d learned from memory.  Shakespeare triumphed again!

There is no doubt in my mind that knowing Shakespeare will make our children better citizens of the world.  It will better prepare them for the joys, as well as the whips and scorns of time (as Hamlet says).  It will introduce them to the rich world of literature, and, from there, to the universe of cultural references embedded in that literature.  It will give them confidence.  And it will, ultimately, by giving them Shakespeare’s perspective on the world, make them more moral human beings.  To quote Hamlet again, it’s a consummation devoutly to be wished.

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 (early bird registration discount ends June 3!). and a demonstration from  How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare to be released June 11, 2013. 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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Once a year, for a wonderful week, we throw open the doors of Folger Theatre and invite elementary children, grades three through six, to share Shakespeare. Our stage has been full of Puck, Oberon, Titania, Nick Bottom, Peter Quince, Romeo, Juliet, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear and his daughters.

These young students are a constant inspiration with their enthusiasm for Shakespeare’s language, their commitment to Shakespeare’s ideas, and their embodiment of Shakespeare’s stories in their performances. They embrace the experience of performing Shakespeare—getting the words in their mouths and making it their own.

Students shared with us, the audience members, the sweetness of Romeo and Juliet falling in love and the pain of their loss when forbidden love was denied. They shared the fun of Helena, Hermia, Demetrius, and Lysander searching for each other through the woods. They shared the tragedy of King Lear as he realizes his older daughters might have professed their love, but they don’t really love him. They shared the confusion of Hamlet as he tries to work through the chaos of his life.

 

Children's Shakespeare Festival 2013

Children’s Shakespeare Festival 2013

During this festival week, we see in action what we know so well: performing Shakespeare gives students the opportunity to use language in ways that are exciting and empowering.

Children and Shakespeare: a winning combination!

 

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AHorseWithWingsPhotoA Horse With Wings is a new children’s book that introduces children to Shakespeare by having characters from his plays sing songs. The journey from  the idea to create the book and its completion is an interesting one.   A few years ago, Daeshin Kim and his wife, Sohyun An,  moved their family from Los Angeles to Paris.  A big adventure, to be sure.  The Kims wanted their children to learn French through immersion in French culture, and they were looking for a change of scene.  What they found in Paris was the challenge their children faced adjusting to their new surroundings. What they also discovered was the power of music to help them get used to their new life in a new country.  The family listened to all kinds of music: English, Korean, and French songs, and they sang along to the sounds and danced to the rhythms present in the music.

Daeshin Kim says that, “the way that music helped our daughter to acclimatise to life in a new country really opened our eyes (and ears!) to the power of music, and our ideas to create children’s songs (with the added bonus of having each song sung from the point of view of a character from Shakespeare) is well documented.”  He even wrote about it on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s myShakespeareblog.  Inspired, the Kims recorded some sample songs, sung by their daughter.

Their journey took them to Kickstarter, a website where people can pitch ideas to raise funds and help to make their project a reality. Daeshin Kim listed his plan for the book, posted a video about it and, according to him, the fundraising effort resulted in the largest amount of money raised for a children’s book on the site, ever.  And somewhere along the way, Folger Education became aware of this work and began to follow its development all the way to the actual production of the book, A Horse With Wings, which was released last December.

A Horse With Wings contains 16 songs, composed and performed by the Kims, including their then five-year-old daughter.  The vibrant illustrations were done by Sohyun An.  Each page has lyrics expressing the point of view of the character from a Shakespeare play on a variety of topics and issues most children will be able to connect with, as well as a line directly from the text of the play. For example, in one of the songs Hamlet sings about Yorick, the court jester, who entertained him in his youth.  In another, Juliet wonders what’s in a name.

There is a free parents’ and teachers’ guide available as a PDF file.  An iPad app is scheduled to be released this spring.  To be sure, these are exciting times for the Kims, and it can be a great opportunity to introduce youngsters to Shakespeare, too.

Full disclosure here: I was asked to write the foreword to the book, which I was happy to do.  The book is getting a lot of positive response.  Daeshin and his daughter were recently interviewed on CBS in Los Angeles, and he’s expected to be part of Folger Education’s conference on teaching Shakespeare in the elementary school in June.  For more information about A Horse With Wings, visit our Shop.  Happy Reading — and listening!

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There may be snow on the ground, but Spring is in the air at the Folger.  As the Cherry Blossoms in Washington prepare to bloom, so do our local budding Bards as they prepare for the student festivals right around the corner. While the high school students will stomp the boards in just a couple of weeks at our annual Secondary School Festival, their younger comrades in the elementary grades will give them a run for their money in mid-May during our 34th Annual Children’s Festival. The work of all of these youngsters in their grappling of the text, their connections to the intricate characters and relationships in Shakespeare’s plays is sometimes inconceivable and without a doubt exciting.

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On the heels of our Children’s Festival is the equally exciting Conference on Teaching Shakespeare in the Elementary Classroom. So for all of those who would like to know what this work looks like, now is your chance to join the movement. We are excited to host both local and national educators as we experience the incredible work being done with primary level students and Shakespeare.

As we share our stories, we’ll also experience and hear the stories behind two newly published books that should be welcomed additions to your Shakespeare for kids library.

Internationally acclaimed playwright Ken Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor, Crazy for You) joins us as our keynote speaker. Adding author to his long list of accomplishments, Ken will talk and give a demonstration from his newly published book How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare (available June 11). We’ll also be joined by Daeshin Kim, writer and composer of the picture book and CD, A Horse with Wings: Songs for Children Sung by Characters from Shakespeare. Hear about Daeshin’s journey to re-creating the stories of Shakespeare’s characters through music and the voice of a child.

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To see a full list of our conference presenters and to register, check out http://www.folger.edu/eec.

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~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.

Holly participates in a movement activity during the 2011 Elementary Educators' Conference

Holly participates in a movement activity during the 2011 Elementary Educators’ Conference

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.

Holly's Students perform a scene from Richard III in the 2010 Emily Jordan Children's Festival at the Folger.

Holly’s Students perform a scene from Richard III in the 2010 Emily Jordan Children’s Festival at the Folger.

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

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During a particularly bad Idaho winter in 1996, my 10 year old niece visited me for the weekend.  She accompanied me to a meeting of my Shakespearean troupe, Stage of Fools.  Only one other brave soul dared to trek through the snow to rehearse that day, so we abandoned our show and read a scene that allowed my niece to play along.  We chose the Lady Macduff murder scene…what 10 year old doesn’t love to die a dramatic death?

Amy's niece and her friends play out a scene from Macbeth.

Amy’s niece joins a scene from Macbeth.

We started our exploration of the text by reading through the scene.  I was amazed at how quickly she picked up the language.  There were only a few words that she needed help defining, and after the second reading, she fully understood the action of the scene.  This is when the fun began…we got the scene up on its feet.  With every reading, she became more and more animated and died with dramatic flourish.  It made me wish that she lived closer so that she could join the Stage of Fools!

I could have performed the scene with her all night, but the weather made me nervous, so we donned our winter wear to make the slow trip home.  Before leaving the theatre, she asked me if she could borrow Macbeth for the week and give it back when I visited her the following weekend.  Of course, I said yes.

The next weekend, I attended her 11th birthday party.  To my surprise, she and her friends took turns enacting the scene for our entertainment during the party.  It turns out that she had read the entire play that week and taken the script to school so that she and her friends could practice during recess.  As you might imagine, I was one proud aunt.

A few years later, I was able to take her to the Folger Shakespeare Library.  It was a very special trip for us.  Today, she is an adult who still has a passion for Shakespeare.  In fact, she has our favorite quote tattooed down the back of her leg, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

"Lord, what fools these mortals be!"

“Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

Over the years, as the owner of the Shakespeare High website, I’ve been asked by parents and educators how soon we can expose our children to Shakespeare.  I always cite this anecdote as evidence that young children are more than capable of reading, understanding, enjoying, and embracing Shakespeare’s language.  While attending the “Shakespeare for All” workshop at the 2012 NCTE conference, Folger educators shared that “cognitive psychology tells us that adolescents have a harder time with language acquisition and dialect differences.  Start with grades 3-6 because they are ready.”  By introducing our younger students to Shakespeare’s language in small chunks, they will soon be ready to tackle a full play, and 9th grade teachers will no longer hear moans and groans when they introduce Romeo and Juliet for the first time.

Although I don’t teach elementary school, I enjoyed learning about the performance-based methods used when teaching Shakespeare to younger children.  If I didn’t live in the “other” Washington, I would attend the Folger Shakespeare Library Conference on Teaching Shakespeare in the Elementary Classroom June 24-26, 2013.  The conference theme is Sharing Our Stories.  I’m thankful that I was able to share my niece’s story with you and hope you will share your stories with me by leaving a comment below.

Amy Ulen is a TSI 1996 Alumni. After 20 years of teaching English and theatre, she moved into technology education.  She created the Shakespeare High website and eventually plans on updating it again. She continues her passion for incorporating technology into the study of Shakespeare both online and in face-to-face workshops.   

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~by Gina Voskov

My first experience with Shakespeare was in 4th grade. I was asked to play the part of Celia in As You Like It for a Shakespeare festival. I can safely say that at the time I had no idea what I was doing or who Shakespeare was or why I had been asked to be in a festival, but 20-something years later, I remember the experience vividly. I wore a red velvet dress with a white lace collar, white tights, and black patent leather shoes. They were the most Shakespearean things I had in my closet in rural Vermont and even though they were technically my Christmas clothes, I put them on in the springtime to perform:  “I pray thee, Rosalind, sweet my coz, be merry.”

I wish I could say that my 4th grade experience with Shakespeare set me on a course to love and study the Bard, but it did not. He quickly fell off my radar and didn’t appear back on it until my 9th grade year when we read Romeo and Juliet, and then again the next year when we read Julius Caesar. I think if it hadn’t been for Julius Caesar, I would have given him a chance, but the experience of reading that stupid play set me on a course to hate and avoid the Bard–we did worksheets and talked about caesuras and sat in our seats and read aloud. I vowed I would never again pick up a Shakespeare play, and was successful in keeping that vow. Until, that is, I needed to finish my English degree and the whole thing hinged on a single Shakespeare course. Do I really need to tell you about my anger when I realized I couldn’t graduate without taking a class about the one writer I hated more than anyone? Maybe it was my professor, or maybe it was the choice of texts she had us read or the way she led us through the conflicts and tensions and beauty of the plays, but that course changed everything. It was while sitting in our classroom on a spring day after reading Titus Andronicus that I realized I needed to be a teacher. Not because it was what all English majors would likely end up doing but because I needed to share Shakespeare. And the best way I could figure how to do that was by becoming a teacher.

After a decade of teaching, I’ve been at four schools each reflecting its own unique set of geographic and demographic variations, and each possessing varying opinions of how Shakespeare should be taught, and to whom. I now teach 6th and 7th grades in a large urban private K-12 school in New York City.

One of the courses I teach is 6th grade Humanities. In October we began our study of India and started reading a novel together that makes frequent reference to Gandhi and to his satyagraha movement: peaceful resistance using truth, or “truth force.” On one particular day, I had come from a frustrating meeting during which I’d heard, once more, that young students were not “ready” for Shakespeare and likely not able to “appreciate” it, especially a full-length play. I found myself biting my tongue, feeling my temperature rise, and resisting the impulse to roll my eyes. This is the standard argument I hear about why not to read Shakespeare with young students: kids aren’t ready for it. But I know that the younger the students are, the less inhibited they are–the more willing to play with the language and toss the words around in their mouths just to hear their sounds. As students get older, the pressure to understand and be “academic” about it increases. So if kids are young and playing with and doing Shakespeare, the better off they’ll be down the road–for all of the teachers who expect them to be academic about it!

So, reeling with frustration from this meeting, I stood in front of my class and told my students, “There are people here who think you’re not ready for Shakespeare and that you can’t do it, and this makes me really mad.” We talked about how they had already been doing Shakespeare–we began our year performing the “Cinna the Poet” scene from Julius Caesar alongside 12th grade IB (International Baccalaureate) English students who were reading the same play. We researched the real Cinna the Poet, discussed why there would be a character named “Cinna” in The Hunger Games, looked at artwork and made tableaux of the death of Julius Caesar, read and performed Mark Antony’s long speech, wrote eulogies for Cinna–a man wrongfully murdered and who would have been forgotten in history if not for Shakespeare writing him into Act 3 scene 3. My 6th graders were more than ready for Shakespeare. No, they wouldn’t be analyzing iambs and trochees, but they would be experiencing the words and sentiment and they would be asking questions about what happened next in the play. (And they would also, as a whole class, memorize the entire scene and shout it from the tops of their lungs one morning before class started, just as an administrator walked into my classroom to speak to me. “What is your name?” they shouted at her, grins achingly wide across their small, bright faces, and laughter bubbling around them as they continued:  “Whither are you going? Where do you dwell? Are you a married man or a bachelor?” Do I really need to tell you about my joy at hearing these 24 voices in impromptu unison?)

I told my students that day after the frustrating meeting that I was mad. And that being mad is sometimes a great way to be political. I said that I love proving people wrong when they don’t believe in me and the kids nodded in agreement, each remembering a particular moment in their own lives where someone said, “You can’t do that.” I told the kids that I wanted to film them performing “Cinna the Poet” and to show them off during my presentation at NCTE in November.  “And in that way,” I said, “We’re going to prove people wrong.” They began to chatter and one boy’s voice rose above the rest. He said, “Ms. Voskov, this is like satyagraha. This is like fighting with the truth.” He was right. The kids doing Shakespeare would be my weapons of truth in the fight for people, at my school and everywhere, to realize that Shakespeare is for everyone, no matter the age.

The truth is, these kids in 6th grade are ready to do Shakespeare. And the truth is that it’s not just these students in my class: It’s every young person who gets the chance to work with and experience and play with the language and get the words into their bodies. In 4th grade, “doing Shakespeare” meant memorizing Celia’s lines and finding the perfect Shakespearean dress to wear on stage. I claimed that play as my own back then, and now, 25 years later, I vividly remember the performance and how much I cared about getting in right–right down to my shoes. Now “doing Shakespeare” is an act of determination. When I hear from people that young children can’t appreciate Shakespeare’s works or that to “really get” Shakespeare they have to be a certain age, I dig in my heels and recommit to the fight. I think of my students united in voice and energy shouting, “Come brands, ho!” calling for a satyagraha of our own.

Gina is a middle school teacher in New York City. She earned a Master of Arts in Teaching Secondary English from Brown University and a Bachelor of Arts degree in English at the University of Rhode Island.

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