Upper School

Upper School

Dominating Shakespeare to Build Confidence

Blog Type:  Upper School Date Posted:  Wednesday, June 14, 2017


Students performing Shakespeare
The strength of our students' performances comes from the confidence they develop by interpreting Shakespeare in their own way.

Seventh grader Delali is not your typical theater kid. In class and with friends, she is soft-spoken and shy. At the recent Shakespeare Smackdown, however, she commanded the audience, delivering her lines in a clear, emphatic voice and making the crowd laugh as she threw herself across the stage with two classmates.

This citywide competition with the Classic Stage Company underscores the transformation Harlem Academy students undergo.

“I get stage fright sometimes,” Delali says, “but I like pushing myself out of my comfort zone.”

Like all Harlem Academy middle schoolers, she has been studying a different Shakespeare play each year since sixth grade. Intimidated at first by the language, she watched older students embracing it – not just in the classroom, but in performances and at the annual competition that Harlem Academy students keep winning.

“Shakespeare is by far the most difficult text that they face at Harlem Academy,” explains Middle School English Teacher Whitney Wood, “and probably the most difficult literature they will face in high school and college. We read each line aloud as though it were a performance. The students act out key scenes – making choices for their characters, understanding their motivations. The close reading improves their comprehension, which strengthens their confidence in working with such difficult text.”

Delali agrees. “I think that Shakespeare has helped me find a deeper understanding of literature,” she says. “It’s difficult to read the language at first, but it all comes together when you act it out. You understand the characters and the story. It’s just fun.”

Students with awards
Seventh grader Delali (right) and her teammates won second place at the ShakeSmack competition, placing higher than 19 other teams, most from high schools.

For the fifth consecutive year, Harlem Academy students received top honors at the competition, taking first and second place – higher than 19 other teams, most from high schools. 

“The Harlem Academy student scenes were some of the strongest I have seen in my years overseeing the competition,” said Marcel Spears of the Classic Stage Company.

Shakespeare and the ShakeSmack competition have become so popular at Harlem Academy that it is now offered as an elective, giving students a chance to add an additional Shakespeare play to their curriculum. They learn their scenes for the competition, and then leverage these to produce a full play at the end of the school year.

“I coach them on basics of acting,” explains Ms. Wood, “but they are the ones who figure out their characters, their relationships, their blocking, and their physical reactions to one another. All of the creativity comes from them. The most joyful moment for me is hearing the audience genuinely responding to this. The students embody Harlem Academy’s creed, ‘I am bold and creative.’”

Tags:  middle school Shakespeare

Defending Ideas, Learning from Criticism

Blog Type:  Upper School Date Posted:  Sunday, April 9, 2017
Eighth grader Herby references his diagram in response to the critique.

Eighth grader Herby pinned his blueprints to the wall of the conference room at Rafael Viñoly Architects and picked up his model. His classmates sat watching him as he presented the details of his design. 

A jury of professional architects from the firm listened, and then peppered him with questions.  “What community need is it filling? How will the design complement the existing buildings in the neighborhood? What flexibility does it have to adapt in the future?”

Student designs included a bookstore, a yoga studio,
restaurants, a laser tag facility, and a black box theater.

Herby responded to each question, unflustered by the rigorous critique. His answers demonstrated the depth of thinking that had gone into the project. 

One by one, each student in the class traded places with him and took their turn with the jury.  Designs were presented, models were passed around, ideas were challenged and defended.

Each student had designed a building for a vacant lot near the Harlem Academy campus to benefit the community. As part of the school’s applied sciences program, eighth-grade students participate in a four-week unit led by the world-renowned firm. “It’s very intense,” says science teacher Meredith Philbin. “It’s a college-level course.”

The students developed ideas, drew blueprints, and built scale models. This year’s designs included a bookstore, a yoga studio, restaurants, a laser tag facility, and a black box theater.

The unit culminates with the visit to RVA, where students present their designs to a panel of professionals. “They get critiqued like they’re real architects, presenting real design proposals,” says Ms. Philbin. “Some of the feedback was negative, but the students weren’t intimidated. It was constructive criticism, and they could see how it improved their ideas.”

Jay Bargmann, Vice President of Rafael Viñoly Architects and Harlem Academy trustee, leads the critique of student projects.

“The student work was truly amazing,” says Jay Bargmann, managing partner of the firm. “I have seen first-year architecture students whose work was not as good as this. They should be congratulated for their ability to conceptualize and to communicate.”

“The students have a great work ethic,” says Elizabeth Geldres, project manager at RVA who led the workshops at the school. “They work on their individual designs, but they also work as a team. Students who were particularly good at the model-making also made time to help their peers. They all provided constructive feedback to each other to help make their projects better.”

Bargmann added, “I hope this experience has sparked an interest for some of them. The world could use a few more good architects.”

Tags:  middle school architecture
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