A School Makes Much Ado about Shakespeare

Article excerpt

The rap on William Shakespeare has long resembled the rap on, say, broccoli: It's supposed to be good for you, but not necessarily pleasant.

But at Far Brook School in this New York City suburb, actor-turned-teacher Jim Glossman tries to impress upon his students that Shakespeare is "just words in a funny order, they're not funny words."

"Instead of saying 'go out the door,' he says, 'out the door you go'," says Mr. Glossman, the school's drama director. "As the students start to get used to that, they start to understand it more." In a nation whose classrooms often glance past Shakespearean prose, this independent elementary and junior high school is an oddity. For the past 50 years, Far Brook - founded by a Shakespeare aficionado named Winifred Moore - has woven the Bard's words through every classroom and subject. Starting with small doses in nursery school, students' careers at Far Brook build to the final act: Their eighth-grade performance of "The Tempest" or "Midsummer Night's Dream," which alternate years and are performed as part of graduation. This year "The Tempest" will be performed June 11 and 12. That, says headmistress Mary Wearn Wiener, breeds a level of confidence in students who have spent eight to 10 years strutting and fretting many hours upon the stage in front of parents and peers. "You have to have a lot of poise to pull that off," says Mrs. Wiener, who has led the school for 18 years and taught here since 1966. "So, they leave here feeling independent and empowered." As if to prove the point, eighth-grader Brad Cox exuded the confidence of a future lawyer or politician during a recent after-class interview. "Each year, Shakespeare gets easier. It's not work anymore, it's fun," Brad says. "Now, I go home and explain it to my parents." Students begin acting out Shakespeare's works at ages 5 and 6. Unlike most people's experience with Shakespeare, these kids see it as in-your-face theater before they see it as "literature." Sonnets with snacktime "It's like trying to read the word 'red' if you've never seen anything that was red before," says Glossman, stubble-faced and rumpled during a recent rehearsal for this year's play, "The Tempest." "They start hearing Shakespeare when they're little kids. So, they've already laughed and cried at it before they knew it was a book - before they knew it was good for them." There has been much debate in recent years about whether academia has turned its back on Shakespeare. Georgetown University in Washington was vilified last year for allowing English majors to graduate without studying Shakespeare. The outcry prompted a study released in December that found that two-thirds of the nation's top 70 colleges don't require their English majors to study Shakespeare. At the pre-high school level, there is less debate because Shakespeare never got a strong toe-hold. But an increasingly noisy chorus is insisting that an early diet of Shakespeare's poems and plays infuses students with a lifelong appreciation for art, literature, drama, and even themselves. "We like to say you can graduate from University X never having read a word of Shakespeare, but you can't graduate from Far Brook," says Ed Solecki, director of Far Brook's junior high. Far Brook may be riding a wave in which Shakespeare is "spilling downward into the younger grades," says Janet Field-Pickering, head of education at Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. …