The place: A middle school in one of the northern-most neighborhoods of Manhattan, largely Latino, failing. (Funny how many so-called “failing” schools in NYC are in poor and or largely minority neighborhoods.) My student: student teaching in a grade 8 inclusion classroom. A large, sunny room, crowded with kids, aides, books, all kinds of stuff.
The situation: My very determined student has determined that she will “do” Shakespeare with the class, because Shakespeare is wonderful, there is no reason these kids shouldn’t experience him. She believes the academic expectations held for these students are pathetically low; she is quietly disgusted.
What she does: Has the kids each bring in money for a book. (Remember, in NYC, there are no shared texts–at least, not in the failing middle schools I have spent time in.) The book? Othello.
If there is anyone who can pull this off, it’s this woman. She had already started a lunchtime reading club, not only because she thinks the kids should read, but primarily because she just thought it would be fun. She announced it; no one came. She kept announcing it. Then she pulled something from the top of the teacher’s secret tool kit: extra large, with extra cheese. Some kids came. The word spread. Slowly more kids trickled in. And she was right, she told me. It was a blast.
So the books come in, iambic pentameter on the left page, regular English on the right. The kids are all wriggly and excited. And my student starts teaching them…how to act. Real acting, not playacting to disguise how hard the reading might be. They try out for parts, including understudies. Everyone becomes an acting coach & she talks about how to give feedback.
They start a read-through in their seats, working on developing their characters’ voices. Not knowing what words mean gets in the way of character development; suddenly the section of the blackboard they use as a word wall is crammed with words. All the usual teachy stuff that usually comes with Shakespeare doesn’t feel so teachy when you’re in an actor’s studio. Then she asks if they feel ready to get out of their seats and get their characters moving.
I won’t pretend. Their reading was halting at best. They were self-conscious and awkward. They giggled when they talked about some of the relationships between the characters. But they were so intense– this mattered to them.
What about that other language, they ask her, on the page opposite the one they’re reading. She tells them about it, reads a little aloud. They think it’s hysterical. But they’re curious and want to hear a little more. Half an act and days later, they want to try reading that Shakespeare language themselves. Then, by the end of Act 4, they’ve asked if they can read the entire final act in Shakespeare.
It’s hard to remember the exact wording of the assignment this student teacher gave for the final project. The kids were supposed to create something that expressed something important to them about the play. They would perform or share these in the auditorium, everyone would have to participate, and all the parents would be invited. These were high stakes indeed.
The afternoon of the performance, I slipped into the auditorium. It’s hard to get parents to come to school– they’re working two or three jobs, taking care of younger kids. But that day, there were parents and siblings in the auditorium. They watched soliloquys, dramatic scenes, they heard kids’ poems, saw paintings and heard what the kids were thinking as they painted, wrote, acted. It was hard to tell how much the audience understood; English was not the first language in most of the families. I have to tell you, looking at their faces I could tell it did not matter one bit. The adults beamed, the children were transfixed by whatever was happening onstage.
I wish all “English” could be like this: a whole, authentic experience, important to the kids. I wish all kids could have teachers like this young woman, someone who loves reading, writing, acting. Most important, someone who loves his or hTheatrical symbolser students– at least enough to create experiences that will matter to them.