Linda Checkley, 4th grade
teacher and Winedale
“Students need concrete experiences in order to develop concepts and
to learn. They need excit-ing, authentic work to do so that school has meaning
for them. You may not think that Shakespeare could have meaning for 4th
graders in East Austin, but perform-ing a challeng-ing play like we did this
year was very meaningful.”
We know how exhausting your job can be, especially in an era of increased focus on standardized testing. You give your all every moment of the day to an energetic, demanding group of children, and that is simply hard work, physically, emotionally, and mentally. Then, the pressure on you and your students to do well on the various TAKS tests in grades 3-6 seems to grow more intense each year.
Given all that, it can be hard to find the energy and enthusiasm to try to squeeze something new into the weekly lesson plans, especially when it’s not part of the official district curriculum.
But our experience working with K-6 teachers in diverse communities around Texas has convinced us that bringing Shakespeare into the elementary classroom is worth the extra effort – both for the educational boost it gives your students and for the professional development opportunity it affords you, the teacher, the person without whom nothing important and life-changing can really happen in that room.
This page is designed to share with you some of the good things we’ve seen happen with kids and teachers as they have taken on this type of project. We will focus here mostly on grades 4 through 6, the ages at which students are able to memorize and perform larger sections of text. Elsewhere, at the “Most rare vision” page, you can read what some of these educators and students have written about their experiences.
This section, like some of the others, is packed with stuff. Allow 5-10 minutes to read it; you can also print a copy for more leisurely perusing.
When work and play become one
During two decades of introducing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and other plays to young people, our Outreach teachers have discovered a surprising fact: Elementary school is the perfect time to start Shakespeare.
Ten-year-olds memorizing and performing Elizabethan verse with the passion and understanding of college students? Fourth graders from a “low-performing campus” tackling a 30-minute version of “The Tempest”? Sixth graders embracing the rich language and emotions of “Romeo and Juliet”?
We have seen and heard many such special moments as this in our work with young people around the state. And we have heard of many other master teachers around the country, including Rafe Esquith, author of There Are No Shortcuts, who have made Shakespeare an integral part of their classroom experience. There is something special about this author, and kids seem to sense it, without ever being told how great he is.
When children are introduced to Shakespeare in a playful, imaginative way – either through watching a lively performance, reading a story version of a play, or putting on their own version of one – they respond with real enthusiasm and affection. They laugh at the funny parts. They get goosebumps at the spooky parts. They are tickled by the strange new words and the predicaments of the colorful characters.
Children seem to recognize in Shakespeare a kindred spirit: a grown-up who hasn’t forgotten how to play. Remember what it was like to really play hard and come home all dirty and sweaty and yet energized? Shakespeare does. He plays with sounds, images, words, actions, plot twists, emotions, historical figures, mythic archetypes – even with the idea of playing, as in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” when a group of craftsmen put on a play within the play. He invents and improvises, then invites us to join in. When given a chance to actively participate, kids will work hard at this kind of play, in the same way they work hard at other types of play – a game of tag or soccer, a musical performance, a fantasy “Star Wars” adventure in the back yard.
The big new words don’t faze them in the slightest. It’s part of the mystery: a new code to be broken. Soon they are experts. It’s a good feeling to be an expert in something usually reserved for grown-ups!
When children are engaged in this way, the learning just flows. Work and play become one. Kids are blissfully unaware that they are exercising all sorts of essential knowledge and skills, learning about verse, imagery, deduction skills, reading for meaning, dramatic interpretation, summarization, context clues, team-building, problem-solving, responsibility and self-discipline, public speaking, critical listening…
They think they’re just having fun.
But isn’t Shakespeare supposed to start in 9th grade?
Shakespeare occasionally appears in the curriculum at the middle school level in public schools (private schools are generally much more adventurous in their Shakespeare exploration). Kealing Middle School here in Austin, for example, has a wide variety of Shakespeare-through-performance approaches for its language arts students. The kids have a great time and learn an amazing amount about a wide range of plays.
But for many, if not most, public school students, “Romeo and Juliet” in the 9th grade is the first big exposure to Shakespeare’s work and art.
Now, let’s be honest here: How many of you loved Shakespeare in high school?
(If you did, please write us a note and tell us how that came to happen! Let’s just say it wasn’t that way for many of us.)
Many high school Language Arts teachers today successfully incorporate the performance approach to the plays, inspired by the Folger Shakespeare Library Shakespeare Set Free series or their own experiences with live theater. Others find their own unique ways of inspiring students to see connections between themselves and the characters and situations. And adolescence brings its own learning opportunities; more mature students can appreciate the emotional complexities of the tragedies in a new way as they approach adulthood.
But for many students – especially at-risk youth who lose interest in school as they hit grades 8 through 12 – there is resistance to the kind of imaginative role-playing that unlocks the heart of the Shakespearean experience.
Self-consciousness has replaced spontaneity. Appearances are so much more important than they were in fifth grade, so no one wants to take the mortal risk of getting up on a stage and looking foolish. Classes are larger and more impersonal; the ensemble spirit of an elementary school class, nurtured through long days over an entire year, is light years away.
Also, Shakespeare’s status as an official part of the high school curriculum takes away the “outsider” advantage he had in elementary school. He’s no longer a surprise visitor; he’s in the big heavy Literature anthology, or in a numbered paperback from the class bookshelf. There are quizzes and test to take, papers to write, reports to give. The true spirit of a live Shakespeare play – an open-air tapestry of voices, a magical new world created on a bare stage, an imaginative collaboration between an ensemble of actors and their attentive audience – becomes much harder to recapture.
High school, we would argue, is actually too late for starting Shakespeare.
A window of opportunity, a jumpstart on high school
So, in essence, this is what we have discovered in our years of working with teachers and young students:
The elementary grades, especially grades 4 through 6, seem to be a window of opportunity for introducing Shakespeare in a fun, creative, even life-changing way. A love of language and dramatic storytelling can be sparked at this age in a way that’s difficult to recapture even a few years later.
Shakespeare is not a part of the elementary curriculum, obviously. But as stated above, that’s actually one of our secret advantages. To the elementary kid looking forward to “Shakespeare time” once a week, that one hour is not part of “school.” It’s not part of the TAKS test. It’s not on the benchmark tests. There are no worksheets. Even the task of memorizing lines is not seen by most as homework – it’s simply “working on our play.” When Reader’s Theater projects are successful, it’s for much the same reason.
There is certainly no guarantee that a child who has a special Shakespeare experience in elementary school will retain that positive impression through high school. And we can certainly testify that in every class of 22 or so students, there are usually 2 or 3 who remain indifferent to Shakespeare’s charms. But they’ve seen their classmates have fun. And for all the students, a seed has been planted. From our experiences working with kids and teachers, there’s a good chance that seed will grow and benefit the student when they encounter Shakespeare as a substantial part of the high school curriculum.
Ten reasons to bring "Will" your way
Here is a “top ten list” of reasons we think Shakespeare has real educational value for elementary students. If you are a teacher who has done a Shakespeare project, we’d love to hear some of your discoveries as well (see “Contact” to reach us).
- Shakespeare boosts "TAKS" reading scores!
Well, we don’t have the hard data to prove that dramatic claim. Yet.
But we don’t think such a statement is too far-fetched. Here is what we have seen:
Every class has those born readers, who devour Harry Potter books at an early age and actually read just for fun. We’re not worried about those kids – hand them the text and let ‘em rip, and they’ll do fine. They’ll love it in high school too. More about those kids in a moment.
These struggling readers need all the help they can get. And we believe Shakespeare can do quite a lot for them.
When these kids are given the chance to take a part in a Shakespeare play, they often dive right in, especially if they can be Puck the prankster or have an exciting swordfight. They don’t see this as reading. Instead, it’s “working on the play.” Shakespeare performance must be done on the feet, requires physical and vocal energy, and breaks the routine – all pluses for a restless non-reader. If these students are guided to just the right amount of responsibility in the play, they can experience a very special moment of “language arts” success in performance, a moment that may encourage them to look at literature in a more positive light.
The effect is especially powerful for students learning English. We have seen students who grew up in a household speaking mostly Spanish, Korean, or Cambodian really take off with the fun of learning “their” Shakespeare character. (See the “Most rare vision” section for a beautiful letter on this from a fifth-grader whose first language is Korean.)
Meanwhile, the advanced readers – who often willingly take on much more responsibility in the project – are being immersed in large stretches of some of the greatest language ever written in the English language. They hear it over and over while practicing their lines and helping others. They absorb complex new vocabulary words and internalize new ways of constructing thoughts in rich and interesting language. In the end, they sometimes can recite an entire scene from memory, playing all the roles!
In essence, a class Shakespeare project is an enrichment or “gifted and talented” approach designed for all students. And teachers and principals with students in Shakespeare at Winedale Outreach projects have told us they do believe the projects gave a boost on the TAKS test to many of the low and struggling readers.
- Shakespeare can help improve student writing
This is one on our “top ten list” that teachers told us about.
We all know that writing prompt from the fourth grade TAKS writing test: “Write about a time something interesting or exciting happened to you. Use details and description.” A seemingly easy request – surely every kid has some story to tell...
Not always. What teachers in schools in low-income communities have told us is that for many of their students, that prompt results in a big blank. These kids don’t have the opportunities that more affluent kids often have of going on family trips to interesting places, staying at sleepover camps, and so forth. They also might not be able to play and explore outside much because of their parents’ concerns about the safety of their neighborhood.
For these students, participating in a Shakespeare project and performing in public can provide rich material for personal descriptive writing. (See fourth grade teacher Linda Checkley’s quote on this subject here.) It is a vivid life event. There is a sequence of events to the project that can be recalled in a story. If the children travel to Winedale for the spring Festival of Play (see here for photos), there is much to describe, from the hour-and-a-half bus ride to the nooks and crannies of the Barn stage to the “butterflies in my tummy” (actual quote) before the performance. It’s an experience that they can recall with clarity and pride.
- Shakespeare teaches teamwork and self-discipline
Remember that education-lingo phrase, “collaborative learning”? Well, working on a Shakespeare scene in a group is collaborative learning at its most basic level. You absolutely cannot succeed as a group unless everyone does well, everyone is focused, and everyone knows their lines inside and out.
Often, group projects in school are based on a division of duties – one person is the researcher, another is the secretary, a third gives the report, etc. The great thing about a performance project is that everyone is equal, as they were in Shakespeare’s company. Even the person with one line, who is silent through most of the scene, is vital and must be fully involved, or the scene fails.
And when a project really takes off, the kids begin to raise the bar for each other and demand excellence without waiting for the teacher to do so. The reality of the looming public performance forces everyone to wake up and really come through, or risk the ire of the group. The class clowns are not considered cute and funny any more if they’re messing up the class play. An interesting pressure for self-discipline develops, with guidance from the teacher.
The live performance is what places the demand of accountability on everyone. It is fascinating to watch grade-conscious kids gradually forget about whatever grade might be in store for this work, and focus instead of making “the final product” of a high quality out of a sense of pride and ownership.
- Shakespeare helps kids overcome stage fright
Ask a classroom of students in grades 4 through 6 in the fall how many of them feel comfortable performing on a stage, and you’ll probably see a half-dozen hands at the most.
From the others you will hear:
“I’m shy.” “It makes me nervous, mister.” “I’m not any good at it.”
Now: Ask the same group of students the same question six months later, after they’ve performed a Shakespeare scene or play at Winedale or at school, and all but one or two students will raise their hands.
This time you will hear:
“I got a lot better.
My mom said I was really good in my part.”
“That really felt good when everyone clapped for us.”
“I want to do this again. Can we do it next year?”
As we’ve written above, most kids practicing Shakespeare are so busy trying to make the scene or play good that they don’t have time to be nervous. The fun of the work and the gradual nature of the process (it’s best to work a little bit a week over a long period, even the whole year if possible) allow their comfort level and self-confidence to build. So, their public performance is usually successful, and thus becomes a highlight of the class’s year.
Many students report to us, “I was nervous when I first came out on stage, but then when I started saying my lines, it went away and I felt sure about what I was doing.”
As these young people journey on into middle and high school, they will have a head start on success with class presentations and public speaking assignments. They will understand the importance of vocal projection, clarity, and posture. Most importantly, they will often want to get up there and do it.
- Shakespeare makes kids feel smart
In working with elementary children in Austin each year, we take great delight in telling them they are doing the same work as the University of Texas students down the road. And it’s true – they are. The UT students may take on more lines, and do more outside reading and discussion, but the process is basically the same. It’s simply a matter of scale.
Young students feel a real sense of pride at taking on something “most other kids are not doing.” So this is where the idea that Shakespeare is “hard” can be turned around to your advantage. (We usually wait until the kids have fallen in love with the play to introduce this idea, of course!) The kids have found the work fun, because we have scaled it gradually to their ability level; so for them, if something so challenging seems such a “snap,” as one student put it laconically, then it must be because they are so smart!
It’s also a great moment when a student comes in one day to report, “My sister is studying Shakespeare in 10th grade.” It’s a great thrill to be doing the same challenging work as an older sibling. And often the big sister “isn’t even acting it out!”
All in all, these projects can provide a real boost to a young learner’s self-confidence. And for many of these kids, such boosts are rare – and they can make a real impact at a critical point in their school career.
- Shakespeare gives young people an experience with the arts
The fine arts are on the ropes in public schools, as we all know. Arts teachers are threatened with budget cuts. Students often go to art and music classes with another 10-15 kids from another class. The message to kids about the value of the arts in our culture is not very inspiring.
Working on Shakespeare is primarily a language arts enrichment program. After all, Shakespeare at Winedale program at UT is in the English department, not the Drama department. But the secondary benefit, to the students’ fine art education, is also very important. Shakespeare was a working theater artist, and we must dive into the world of the performing arts in order to understand how his plays work in three-dimensional space.
Working on a Shakespeare performance project is a great way for young students to learn about the theater as, in Dr. Ayres’s words, “a synthesis of related arts.” As a young Shakespearean, you must know about the art of spoken language first. Then you must pick up what you can of the fundamentals of stagecraft. You must make decisions about props, lighting, sound, and costumes. You might even be singing and dancing during the performance!
Drama is not often available to students until middle school, and often not until high school; and even then, students may have to choose between two electives to take drama, or they may have to audition to be part of a fine arts magnet program. Our Shakespeare Outreach projects in the schools are for everyone in the classroom – in the spirit of Shakespeare’s plays, they are inclusive, not exclusive. We are not training future actors, though we might inspire a few; we are instead attempting to help open up for each and every student the natural ability they have inside to be an artist themselves, to think and work like an artist and create art with a group of their peers.
Many of the Shakespeare at Winedale Outreach students report back to us later that they have a new interest in drama thanks to their experience. They are much more open to the idea of being in a play or going to see one. So we feel that this exposure is invaluable in providing children a personal, active connection to the arts at a critical age.
- Shakespeare can bring a class together
If you choose to work on a long-term performance project – something that requires a real commitment of extra time from everyone involved – you will find that it can add something special to your teaching year and your class’s group experience.
A favorite example, from the past:
Winedale Outreach coordinator Clayton Stromberger worked in the early 1990s as an artist-in-residence with 4th/5th grade teacher Dean Drugge near Seattle. Each year, Dean Drugge’s students presented performances of a full Shakespeare play for parents and the community. After Stromberger moved back to Texas, Drugge continued the work on his own, making the Shakespeare play the cornerstone of his teaching year. Students wrote character biographies, painted character portraits, created Shakespeare comic strips and collectible cards, and even helped renovate a campus hillside and turn it into an outdoor performing area for “Shakespeare on the Green.”
Today, many of those students from Drugge’s early Shakespeare years are in college. Others are just now graduating from high school. And he reports to us frequently about hearing from these former students, now young adults, about how big an impact the Shakespeare play had on their elementary years, how much they enjoyed it, how happily it lives on in their memory. (You can read Dean Drugge’s reflections on these experiences here.)
Fifteen years ago, standardized testing was not as major a factor in school curriculum, and teachers had more freedom to fashion their own curriculum as long as it met basic objectives. Unfortunately, as public education has become more regimented, Drugge has found it harder to make time for a full Shakespeare play. Also, a supportive principal left his school, and the new principal was unenthusiastic about the tradition. (A familiar story to many of you, I’m sure, though it can also work in the reverse direction.) New teachers today will not have the freedom Dean Drugge had as a young teacher any time soon.
But even if done on a smaller scale, a class Shakespeare project can challenge a disparate group of kids to work together, especially if it is designed with that goal in mind (ie, more full-class ensemble scenes, instead of sets of small-group scenes). And that performance is likely to be one of the highlights of the year – for you, the kids, and their parents.
- You will learn some useful things, too
Some teachers do one Shakespeare project and then make it an annual event, because they find the work and what comes out of it so rewarding. Others do one project, then move on to another type of language arts enrichment the next year.
In either case, all of these teachers have had a professional development experience that they can call on later in their career. Whether you fall in love with doing Shakespeare or not, the techniques, workshop approaches, games, and skills you will learn through this work can be adapted later to all sorts of teaching situations.
Our goal at Shakespeare at Winedale Outreach is to help you learn alongside the kids as your project unfolds. Whether we are answering your questions via email or on the telephone, sending you materials, or actually visiting your classroom, we understand the vital importance of teaching you how to take on one of these projects on their own.
- Shakespeare brings people together
This can happen in a variety ways. People come together at school for the performance. Students, teachers and parents from a wide variety of schools journey to Winedale each spring for the Outreach “Festival of Play.” Young Outreach students visit the UT campus, and they also journey to Winedale and meet the UT Winedale students and learn from them. Each fall, some of the groups meet members of the Actors from the London Stage (AFTLS), which visits Austin for Shakespeare performances and workshops. Teachers meet other teachers doing Shakespeare. Students attend local Shakespeare productions with friends.
This type of work is something that, once you learn about it, is happily shared with others.
- Knowing Shakespeare connects us all to a larger world
“He was not of an age, but for all time,” wrote William’s pal Ben Jonson after the playwright died in 1623. This is holding true today. He is even more popular now than he could have ever imagined. As today’s students grow up, the plays will continue be an important part of high school and university educations. And the characters Shakespeare created, the lines he wrote, the ideas and images from his stories are all a vital part of our culture. Shakespeare quotes and references pop up in advertisements, headlines, articles, songs, television shows, films… wherever we go, Shakespeare seems to come along with us. Giving a child an early and happy introduction to such a vital part of our culture is a wonderful gift.