For the fourth year in a row, Harlem Academy’s Shakespeare troupe was recognized for their outstanding work, this year earning both first and second place honors at the Classic Stage Company’s annual Shakespeare competition. Dubbed the “Shakespeare Smackdown,” the competition featured twenty-five middle and high school teams from across New York City, each performing short scenes from Othello.
Their success is no accident – Harlem Academy students are avid Shakespeare scholars. Every student reads three Shakespeare plays in middle school, using a performance-driven curriculum developed by lead English teacher Whitney Wood. This approach animates and inspires students, while challenging them to read closely, decode the meaning of unfamiliar words, and grasp the underlying relationships between characters.
“Nothing makes me happier than walking into Whitney’s classroom and seeing the way Shakespeare comes to life. Her ability to genuinely connect her students with this material is a real gift,” remarked Vinny Dotoli, head of school.
In addition to our formal program, students can participate in our Shakespeare elective as a chance to study and perform an additional play. As a testament to Whitney’s program, more than one quarter of our students choose to pursue this optional elective each year.
One of the students on the winning team, eighth grader Taneyah, shared how acting helped her expand her understanding of Shakespeare. “When I first read the play, I didn’t fully capture what was going on because it was new to me. Then, Ms. Wood had us analyze my character, and that helped me understand the words I was saying and the objective of my character,” she noted.
Harlem Academy students develop a lifelong appreciation for Shakespeare’s plays, strong critical reading skills, and – most importantly – the confidence needed to tackle the canonical literature they will continue to see at top secondary schools and universities.
Reflecting on her students, Whitney says, “They are endlessly creative, exploring not only exactly what their lines mean, but also different ways to make them their own. The students get inside the characters' heads in a way that results in hilarious, powerful, and poignant choices as actors. The characters feel real and understandable despite the 400-year-old language.”
The winning teams from this year’s Shakespeare Smackdown included Taneyah (eighth grade), Kennedy (eighth grade), Misa (seventh grade), and Antwuan “AJ” (sixth grade).