Shakespeare in an Elementary School Setting: A Unique and Inspiring Educational Experience
Wood, Robin H., Phi Delta Kappan
Shakespeare mania runs through the entire school community of Far Brook School in Short Hills, New Jersey. Ms. Wood explains how such an Unusual attitude is fostered, beginning as early as nursery school and continuing all the way through grade 8.
For almost 50 years the eighth-grade graduating class at Far Brook School in Short Hills, New Jersey, has given the same gift to the school: the presentation of a Shakespeare play. Alternating yearly between The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream, the children in this small private elementary school stage a production every June, and the quality of the work is astounding. Perhaps more astounding, however, is the fact that every student in the class participates, and every student loves it. How on earth do they manage to accomplish this feat at such an early age? Moreover, what's the point of undertaking such a monumental project?
According to drama director James Glossman, the younger that children are when they become involved in "doing" Shakespeare, the better. He feels that younger students come to the process with fewer preconceptions about the "shoulds" and "shouldn'ts" of Shakespeare. In fact, during his involvement with the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Cleveland, Glossman led Shakespeare workshops in the public schools with first- and second-graders.
Glossman maintains that, although the language may be a challenge for them, younger students aren't afraid to say that they don't know what the words mean. They aren't afraid to look silly if they don't understand. Usually, even by the time students are in junior high, they have come to feel that Shakespeare is "hard" and that they have to endure it like "bad-tasting medicine that's good for them." Glossman also emphasizes the need for students to "experience" Shakespeare, to actually involve themselves in it rather than have it foisted on them. They need to read it aloud themselves, to hear themselves saying the words.
"There is immense value in teaching Shakespeare to elementary students. There aren't any plays that use the English language better," Glossman says. Studying Shakespeare enables children to "truly participate in and have ownership of their language. Furthermore, the stories are wonderful - rich, good tales that anyone can understand at some level - and understanding increases with exposure."
Seventh- and eighth-grade English and history teacher Edward Solecki concurs with this assessment. He says that the students begin to "see the possibilities of the language, particularly when they do it at an impressionable age. It stays with them." He also feels strongly that there is remarkable value in the students' being able to get out from behind their desks and participate in these plays. Putting these stories on the stage adds a whole new dimension to students' knowledge and understanding of Shakespeare. It makes the learning real. Solecki tells of his own experience acting in Far Brook alumni performances of Love's Labour's Lost and As You Like It and how powerful it was to actually breathe life into the various characters he played.
Solecki's critical role in the production process involves reading the play through with the student actors before they actually take it to the stage. He says the main challenge he faces is to help the students understand vocabulary and syntax. "Once the students are able to untangle the word order, the stories begin to make very good sense." But Solecki's work with the students begins much earlier in the year. He may read another Shakespeare play with the class in the fall, partly to prepare them for this undertaking later in the year. He also assigns poetry to be memorized, so that students have opportunities to practice memorizing a work and then reciting it in front of the class.
Solecki is quick to point out that the performance of a Shakespeare play might be more of a challenge at another elementary school. He stresses the fact that at Far Brook the play is not performed as an isolated class project. …