~by Holly Rodgers
Exposing students to great literature is one of the greatest gifts a teacher can give to a student. Alice Owens, my beloved teacher, who also exposed me to great writers of feminist prose, presented me with a gift that would greatly influence my life and lifetime reading habits. I was 13 and reading Romeo and Juliet for the first time in my 8th grade honors English class and it was love at first word.
What was this astounding new language that infected my adolescent soul with vim and vigor at each new verbal infusion? I was completely smitten with Shakespeare, not to mention Leonard Whiting as Romeo in Zefferelli’s adaptation. Many plays and many years later, I continued to reserve Shakespeare for my personal enjoyment, until I decided to share him with my elementary English language learners (ELLs). While many of my colleagues thought I was insane to attempt Shakespeare with youngsters who didn’t speak English fluently, I experienced only positive results. My students were intrigued and enthusiastic for this enchanting new world of stories, words, and characters. By sharing my love of Shakespeare, instilled in me by my teacher, I was sharing his literary legacy with a whole new generation and population.
A truly great gift is one that continues to benefit both the benefactor and the recipient long after it has been presented. My classroom decided to pay Shakespeare forward by performing his work for others in our school and community and ultimately the Folger stage. In preparing for the Folger Children’s Shakespeare Festival, my students and I were permanently altered. As a teacher, I found myself never satiated unless I was teaching more Shakespeare. The high of watching their discovery and interpretation of his words was addictive. My students began making connections to learning and the world around them in a way they had never done before. Their vocabulary, reading comprehension, and English proficiency improved by leaps and bounds, but the benefits were not limited to the academic sphere. My cast of players, from grades 3-6 spanning five continents, learned valuable teamwork skills and found a renewed sense of self-esteem. My ELL students frequently feel inferior to their peers academically, socially, and in socioeconomic status. By distinguishing themselves as young Shakespearians, they felt more confident as people and as active participants in their school and community. Exposing your students to Shakespeare may cost you instructional or rehearsal time in class, but the value is absolutely priceless.
How can you share the gift of Shakespeare in your school or community?
Holly Rodgers is an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teacher at White Oaks Elementary School in Fairfax County, Virginia. See more of Holly during our upcoming Elementary Education Webinar course featured in this month’s BardNotes e-newsletter (www.folger.edu/enews).