Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

"My love is thine to teach: teach it but how,

And thou shalt see how apt it is to learn”
~Much Ado About Nothing Act I, Scene i.

Yesterday Carol Ann and I got to lead a School Visit Workshop which I had been looking forward to since winter. I don’t usually get to lead this program, as it’s one the Docents have ably developed and directed for the last 30 years, but this group was special to me and I really wanted to give them my personal touch.

What is so special about a group of 7th graders from Holy Cross in Dover, DE? For one thing, this is my father’s class and he would be attending. For another, HC was where I went to school from 1st-8th grade, and I remember having very little Shakespeare in the curriculum.

Carol Ann and I had mapped out a progression for the morning, and were able to fit even more in than we had anticipated. (Leave it to my dad to be able to motivate a bus to get around DC to Capitol Hill early!)

However, I let myself get a little carried away with my passion for the subject (sorry, Carol Ann). After about an hour of activities (like Elizabethan Dress, Shakespeare’s Theatre, and Tragic Deaths) I asked them what they’d picked up so far. They mentioned school practices, dress codes, and “a bunch of people get stabbed in these plays.” Not wrong – I responded – but besides those 10 plays we’ve talked about already, Shakespeare also wrote comedies and histories. They may not always look funny, but if someone gets married at the end you know it was supposed to be a comedy. In all of the plays, we’re usually looking at Kings and Lords and high-ranking officials – but we see ourselves there, too. These characters are like us – they want something, they want to be king, they want to be in love, they want to be better – and we want that, too. They’re just able to say it for us.

As we officially wrapped up, I reached out one more time: If you take nothing else away with you today, just remember this. It hasn’t happened yet, but sometime in the next few years you are going to be assigned a play by Shakespeare to read in school. If your teacher tells you to read it quietly at your desk, nicely put your hand up and say ‘Excuse me, but this is a play – can we read out loud?’ And if they say no – respect that, make notes about the words you don’t understand while reading, go home and then read it out loud. Read it together out loud. Because these works are not books, they were never meant to be read, they were meant to be heard and spoken. Do that, and you will get a better grasp on them than you would reading quietly at your desk.

I’ve been passionate about Shakespeare since I was younger than they are – so I tried to let that passion show. It may have helped connect them, too, that at the end one of the parents asked Carol Ann and I what our positions were and how we got to the Folger. I revealed that I was the English teacher’s daughter, and that I went to their school (gasps!). Someone from their state, from their school now works at this giant building in the nation’s capital. For them, the possibilities are wide open – as long as they discover their passion and dedicate themselves to it with their whole heart.

I’m so grateful to Carol Ann for being so open to doing this program with me, and for my Dad arranging the visit. I don’t get many opportunities to pass on my passion to students face-to-face, and I felt like I saw a couple of new Shakespeareans emerge from our Theatre.  I hope that their interest lasted longer than the trip back to Delaware. For me, at least, it was a very powerful experience.