Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Fighting With Truth

~by Gina Voskov

My first experience with Shakespeare was in 4th grade. I was asked to play the part of Celia in As You Like It for a Shakespeare festival. I can safely say that at the time I had no idea what I was doing or who Shakespeare was or why I had been asked to be in a festival, but 20-something years later, I remember the experience vividly. I wore a red velvet dress with a white lace collar, white tights, and black patent leather shoes. They were the most Shakespearean things I had in my closet in rural Vermont and even though they were technically my Christmas clothes, I put them on in the springtime to perform:  “I pray thee, Rosalind, sweet my coz, be merry.”

I wish I could say that my 4th grade experience with Shakespeare set me on a course to love and study the Bard, but it did not. He quickly fell off my radar and didn’t appear back on it until my 9th grade year when we read Romeo and Juliet, and then again the next year when we read Julius Caesar. I think if it hadn’t been for Julius Caesar, I would have given him a chance, but the experience of reading that stupid play set me on a course to hate and avoid the Bard–we did worksheets and talked about caesuras and sat in our seats and read aloud. I vowed I would never again pick up a Shakespeare play, and was successful in keeping that vow. Until, that is, I needed to finish my English degree and the whole thing hinged on a single Shakespeare course. Do I really need to tell you about my anger when I realized I couldn’t graduate without taking a class about the one writer I hated more than anyone? Maybe it was my professor, or maybe it was the choice of texts she had us read or the way she led us through the conflicts and tensions and beauty of the plays, but that course changed everything. It was while sitting in our classroom on a spring day after reading Titus Andronicus that I realized I needed to be a teacher. Not because it was what all English majors would likely end up doing but because I needed to share Shakespeare. And the best way I could figure how to do that was by becoming a teacher.

After a decade of teaching, I’ve been at four schools each reflecting its own unique set of geographic and demographic variations, and each possessing varying opinions of how Shakespeare should be taught, and to whom. I now teach 6th and 7th grades in a large urban private K-12 school in New York City.

One of the courses I teach is 6th grade Humanities. In October we began our study of India and started reading a novel together that makes frequent reference to Gandhi and to his satyagraha movement: peaceful resistance using truth, or “truth force.” On one particular day, I had come from a frustrating meeting during which I’d heard, once more, that young students were not “ready” for Shakespeare and likely not able to “appreciate” it, especially a full-length play. I found myself biting my tongue, feeling my temperature rise, and resisting the impulse to roll my eyes. This is the standard argument I hear about why not to read Shakespeare with young students: kids aren’t ready for it. But I know that the younger the students are, the less inhibited they are–the more willing to play with the language and toss the words around in their mouths just to hear their sounds. As students get older, the pressure to understand and be “academic” about it increases. So if kids are young and playing with and doing Shakespeare, the better off they’ll be down the road–for all of the teachers who expect them to be academic about it!

So, reeling with frustration from this meeting, I stood in front of my class and told my students, “There are people here who think you’re not ready for Shakespeare and that you can’t do it, and this makes me really mad.” We talked about how they had already been doing Shakespeare–we began our year performing the “Cinna the Poet” scene from Julius Caesar alongside 12th grade IB (International Baccalaureate) English students who were reading the same play. We researched the real Cinna the Poet, discussed why there would be a character named “Cinna” in The Hunger Games, looked at artwork and made tableaux of the death of Julius Caesar, read and performed Mark Antony’s long speech, wrote eulogies for Cinna–a man wrongfully murdered and who would have been forgotten in history if not for Shakespeare writing him into Act 3 scene 3. My 6th graders were more than ready for Shakespeare. No, they wouldn’t be analyzing iambs and trochees, but they would be experiencing the words and sentiment and they would be asking questions about what happened next in the play. (And they would also, as a whole class, memorize the entire scene and shout it from the tops of their lungs one morning before class started, just as an administrator walked into my classroom to speak to me. “What is your name?” they shouted at her, grins achingly wide across their small, bright faces, and laughter bubbling around them as they continued:  “Whither are you going? Where do you dwell? Are you a married man or a bachelor?” Do I really need to tell you about my joy at hearing these 24 voices in impromptu unison?)

I told my students that day after the frustrating meeting that I was mad. And that being mad is sometimes a great way to be political. I said that I love proving people wrong when they don’t believe in me and the kids nodded in agreement, each remembering a particular moment in their own lives where someone said, “You can’t do that.” I told the kids that I wanted to film them performing “Cinna the Poet” and to show them off during my presentation at NCTE in November.  “And in that way,” I said, “We’re going to prove people wrong.” They began to chatter and one boy’s voice rose above the rest. He said, “Ms. Voskov, this is like satyagraha. This is like fighting with the truth.” He was right. The kids doing Shakespeare would be my weapons of truth in the fight for people, at my school and everywhere, to realize that Shakespeare is for everyone, no matter the age.

The truth is, these kids in 6th grade are ready to do Shakespeare. And the truth is that it’s not just these students in my class: It’s every young person who gets the chance to work with and experience and play with the language and get the words into their bodies. In 4th grade, “doing Shakespeare” meant memorizing Celia’s lines and finding the perfect Shakespearean dress to wear on stage. I claimed that play as my own back then, and now, 25 years later, I vividly remember the performance and how much I cared about getting in right–right down to my shoes. Now “doing Shakespeare” is an act of determination. When I hear from people that young children can’t appreciate Shakespeare’s works or that to “really get” Shakespeare they have to be a certain age, I dig in my heels and recommit to the fight. I think of my students united in voice and energy shouting, “Come brands, ho!” calling for a satyagraha of our own.

Gina is a middle school teacher in New York City. She earned a Master of Arts in Teaching Secondary English from Brown University and a Bachelor of Arts degree in English at the University of Rhode Island.