At Harlem Academy, being smart is cool. Our students don’t shy away from challenging academics; they opt for more. Take Shakespeare, one of the most difficult texts students will face at any grade level, let alone in sixth grade. Harlem Academy middle schoolers develop such love and appreciation for the Bard that studying his plays in class isn’t enough for many of them. One quarter of them choose Shakespeare as an elective, too. “The students are drawn to the challenge the language presents and look forward to delving into it outside the classroom,” said Kia Turner, lead middle school English teacher and elective advisor.
One of those students is seventh-grader Justice Dandridge. “Taking the elective gives me an extra chance to explore Shakespeare beyond the page,” she said. “Acting out the literature rather than just reading it is interesting and helps me understand what’s going on. That’s what we do in class, and it’s fun to do more of it when we’re not in class.”
Our middle schoolers first begin studying Shakespeare in sixth grade, approaching the work as actors. “At Harlem Academy, Shakespeare plays are taught via a performance-based approach,” explained Ms.Turner. “Our students always read Shakespeare's words out loud and in character, which helps develop close reading skills and improves comprehension.”
The elective, which meets three times a week, allows students to become fully immersed in the work. They study and rehearse specific scenes to perform at the Classic Stage Company’s “Shakespeare Smackdown,” a citywide competition. This year, two of our troupes won honorable mentions. Students just completed a full performance of Julius Caesar, showcasing all of their hard work.
More importantly, Harlem Academy’s approach to teaching Shakespeare—both in class and as an elective—prepares our middle schoolers for their next chapter. Part of what makes this work so strong is the chance to delve into Shakespeare year after year. “Our students develop the skills and confidence they’ll need to fully comprehend the difficult texts that await them at top secondary schools and in college,” said Ms. Turner.
See more photos of the Julius Caesar performance here!
Congratulations to Madisyn Cunningham, Justice Dandridge, Essence Johnson, Delali Lyons, Manny Mencia, Malik Middleton, Tolu Onanuga, and Yealie Ulaba-Samura for their recognition at this year’s Shakespeare Smackdown!