The Shakespeare Teaching Program at St. Jeanne de Lestonnac School began in 2012 as a collaboration between Rob Crisell (a school parent) and two teachers from the middle school, Mary Burnham and Amanda Von Rosen. Von Rosen and Burnham wanted to teach their students about Shakespeare, but they didn’t know how to begin. They approach Rob hoping that—as an actor with a local theater company called Shakespeare in the Vines—he might have some suggestions.
It turned out that Rob (whose son Soren had just begun seventh grade) had been waiting for just such an invitation. He had some new ideas about how to teach children Shakespeare. Because of his own negative experiences with Shakespeare in high school, Rob felt that the only way to get kids interested in his plays is to get them on their feet to perform his words and become his characters. Rob pointed out that Shakespeare’s plays do not speak for themselves. They’re not like famous paintings that are self-evidently interesting or understandable for most people—let alone for middle school students. Instead, his stories and characters must be brought to life through acting.
In other words, students need to learn Shakespeare by acting Shakespeare.
Since then, the program has been successful beyond anyone’s expectations. Students look forward to the “Introduction Course” in seventh grade (in which they focus on a variety of scenes from more than a dozen different plays) and the “Advanced Course” in eighth grade (in which they focus on a single play). The approach throughout has been to allow children to learn and understand Shakespeare by watching, listening, and acting his works.
Two years ago, seventh grade teacher Christine Angeli (who took over from Von Rosen three years ago) and Rob created “Shakespeare Night” as a natural outgrowth of the introduction course. Children get the opportunity to perform their scenes in the courtyard in front of students, parents, and administrators. Eighth grade teacher Linda Choudamelka will focus on A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The program’s ultimate goal, however, is not to turn students into accomplished actors. The goal is use acting as a tool to help them love, understand, and interpret Shakespeare’s plays and poems. After all, you can’t act Shakespeare if you don’t understand him. His works are also excellent opportunities to explore topics seemingly unrelated to Shakespeare, including poetry, history, social issues (equality, race, religion), public speaking, vocabulary, theater arts, and so on.
Most importantly, acting Shakespeare is an opportunity for joy, which is a critical, if often overlooked, component of the learning experience.
You can find additional information on Rob Crisell by clicking here to visit his website.