Choosing Shakespeare

Date Posted:  Tuesday, June 12, 2018

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.”

Yealie, Malik, Tolu, Justice, and Essence perform Act 3, Scene 3.

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.

Madisyn, Delali, and Manny with their award.

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!

Tags:  Shakespeare electives English middle 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

Shakespeare Comes Alive

Date Posted:  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.”

Tags:  Shakespeare English

Harlem Academy Shakespeare Troupe Wins Competition

Date Posted:  Saturday, May 21, 2016
Taneyah and Misa perform in the 2016 ShakeSmack
Taneyah and Misa perform at the 2016 ShakeSmack.

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). 

Tags:  Shakespeare English electives middle school

Shakespeare Smackdown Success

Date Posted:  Monday, May 11, 2015

Harlem Academy students at the Shake Smack

Last week, three groups from Harlem Academy performed of scenes from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the 2015 Shakespeare Smackdown (ShakeSmack) hosted by the Classic Stage Company out of Greenwich Village. Most of the teams were from high schools, but Harlem Academy teams of sixth through eighth grade students took both first and second place.

In preparation for ShakeSmack and as part of our electives offerings, our 12 students worked hard over the past 4 weeks rehearsing their 5-minute scenes with coaching from Middle School English Teacher Whitney Wood. In June these students will put on their own full-length production of the play as the culmination of the elective. 

It is not just those who choose this elective that learn the joys of Shakespeare. Harlem Academy’s English program introduces all students to Shakespeare, starting with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in sixth grade, followed by “Othello” and “Romeo and Juliet” in later grades.

Our performance-based study of Shakespeare starts with a workshop from the Young Company, a partnership between Classic Stage Company and the graduate Theatre Arts Program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. After the workshop, students read an entire text in class with Ms. Wood, always keeping in mind the ultimate purpose of acting out the play. At the end of the trimester, all students participate in performing scenes for peers, family, and friends.

Tags:  middle school Shakespeare English
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