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Shakespeare Comes Alive

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A performance-based unit draws middle school students into the works of William Shakespeare.

Middle school students display both creepiness and joy as the Three Witches in “Macbeth.” Photo courtesy of the Classic Stage Company.
Middle school students display both creepiness and joy as the Three Witches in “Macbeth.” Photo courtesy of the Classic Stage Company.

“What’s Hermia thinking here?” Whitney Wood, middle school English teacher, asks the the sixth graders seated around her. They pause their line-reading of Shakespeare’s "A Midsummer Night’s Dream."

“Hermia doesn’t want to marry Demetrius,” says one.

Another adds, “The Duke is telling her that she has to do what her father says.”

“She’s only 14,” argues a third. “Why does she have to get married? I would be annoyed.”

“Read the line again,” says Ms. Wood. “Show me that.” The line is re-read with a perturbed attitude. The class laughs. Hermia has emerged from the 16th century language as a Harlem Academy sixth grader.

By the time our middle school students graduate from Harlem Academy, they will have read at least three full Shakespeare plays, performing scenes from each. Grade six explores "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," grade seven "Romeo and Juliet," and grade eight "Macbeth."

A performance based curriculum animates students and inspires them to engage, but in order to perform Shakespeare well they need a strong grasp of the text. Students read each play line-by-line. They prepare and act out scenes, both on their own and led by professional actors. They view performances on stage and on screen.

As students complete the unit, each class breaks into small groups to rehearse and perform scenes from the play to demonstrate their understanding.

What emerges is a striking eagerness to read the plays closely, not only to decode the meaning of unfamiliar words and complex themes, but to grasp the underlying drama and relationships between characters.

Middle school student A’jay notes, “Ms. Wood was very critical of our acting. This was good. We understood all the characters’ emotions and how they changed at certain parts.” His classmate Jenieva adds, “Acting out the scenes made me excited for English class. We did a lot of work preparing. I understand all the love and hate, sadness and happiness in the play.”

The Shakespeare unit also incorporates collaboration and field trips. Harlem Academy partners with the Young Company, a group of actors in the graduate theater program at Columbia University who lead acting workshops. With the actors’ help, students focus on the ins and outs of language and performance, delving into verse, pronunciation, and puns as well as strategies to gesture effectively and speak clearly.

Last year, two groups of Harlem Academy students applied these skills in the Shakespeare Smackdown, a Shakespeare performance competition hosted by the Classic Stage Company. Both Harlem Academy groups were well-received, and one placed second overall, notable as they were the only middle school students competing against 18 high school teams.

“Our one play a year model," says Middle School Director Chris Cunningham, "provides students with the ability to analyze Shakespearean language in a way that prepares them for the level of textual analysis common in English classes at top secondary schools.”