Thursday, December 13, 2012

Teaching Shakespeare in Public Schools

This morning, at 8:05 am, I was in New Dorp High School in Staten Island. I was there to teach Shakespeare.

To be honest, I was mostly watching.  This was the first workshop I’d ever done in a school for The Shakespeare Forum. I am resident artist, and with me were the Forum’s Associate Director of Education Programs and the Executive Director. They outrank me. So I sat, watched, and handed out scripts, while they did most of the real teaching.

You ever want to see a tough crowd? Try a captive audience of seventeen-year-olds at 8am. Never before have I seen a group of people so scared of theater warm-ups.

But Sybille and Claire are pros, so I got to just watch them work, and they did some brilliant stuff. First of all, they chatted with the students before class began, in order to learn more about them, make them feel comfortable, and to make a mental note of who had good, audible speaking voices to read parts later.

Then they broke up “To be or not to be, that is the question” into syllables, lined ten kids up, and had them each read one to break down Iambic pentameter. It was just the perfect task to hand them, enough to get them on their feet and participating, but short and diffuse enough that the chance (and fear) of embarrassing themselves in front of the class was minimal (though one kid pulled it off by not listening and assuming we were counting instead of reading, which turned the first reading into: “To” “be” “or” “not” “to” “six”).

I think my favorite moment though came from when we were doing a speech of Lysander’s, where he talking over Hermia while she sleeps:

She sees not Hermia. Hermia, sleep thou there,
And never mayst thou come Lysander near!
For as surfeit of the sweetet things
The deepest loathing to the stomach brings…

We asked the kids what they noticed about how it sounded. The third student we asked pointed out that it had a lot of “sss” sounds in it.

“So,” Sybille said, “Hermia’s there, asleep in the forest. There’s al this “sss”ing going on. What does that make you think of?”

“Snakes.” Offered a kid on the side.

“Very good! Guess what, the next line after Lysander leaves, the very next thing that happens is that Hermia wakes up and says she had a horrible dream about snakes.”

Immediately came a quiet voice in the back,


Priceless. It’s great when you can pick out that one thing that really hits people and makes them realize just how good this writer really was.

But there’s another part to this story that goes outside of the classroom, or even anything Sybille, Claire, or I were doing as part of the Shakespeare Forum. I was talking to the teacher (a Forum regular herself) after the class, and she told me something about the student we playing Hermia: she’d lost her home to flooding from Hurricane Sandy.

Much of Staten Island is still very much a recovery zone. FEMA is operating tents and trailers just outside the school parking lot. Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan was visiting the school the same day we were, assessing what recovering community schools need most right now. Occupy Sandy is still operating, A couple subway stations and lines are still closed, and some people are still without power, heat, or in some extreme cases, homes.

It’s harder to remember when it’s not in front of you, but these people still need our help. The hurricane feels like it was long time ago, but recovery is still happening today, and without media coverage (unlikely-- there's little "news" to what's happening) a lot of people are going to forget about it. Even though I live in the same city, I hear more about the debates in Washington DC over funding recovery than I do about the my neighbors who need the help. That doesn't make sense to me, but I'm not sure how to change it.

One of the other students asked us about why Shakespeare seems to intertwine comedy and tragedy in his plays, one right after the other. I don't know if I was satisfied with our answer exactly, but I learn by example, and I guess if this blog post is any indication I'm still using it today. Life's like that. Not everything has a neat ending.