Tuesday, November 16, 2010

First Grade Students Embrace Shakespeare

Walk down the hallway of one urban elementary school in Columbus OH, and on one side you see typical first-grade artwork and writing samples about brown bears and red apples. The other side of the hall, however, is adorned with hand-drawn maps of Verona, Italy, and stories carefully hand-written from the viewpoint of various characters in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Inside the classroom are hand-colored portraits of William Shakespeare and wall-size excerpts from the text itself, plus huge paper castles labeled “Montague” and “Capulet.” Are these 6-year-olds at South Mifflin Stem Academy really learning Shakespeare?

Oh, yes. And they absolutely love it. Their teacher, Art Isennagle or “Mr. I” as he’s known, is one of 20 Columbus-area teachers who trained over the summer in a program at the heart of a partnership between The Ohio State University and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Spearheaded by The Arts Initiative at Ohio State, the professional development program is transforming the way children are taught and is based on the RSC’s renowned “Stand Up for Shakespeare” program, which advocates “Doing Shakespeare on Your Feet; Seeing it Live; and Starting it Earlier.”

“After going through the program with the RSC in Stratford, I have to admit I was skeptical. I could see how these techniques could work in the 5th grade, the 7th grade, high school,” he says. “But I wasn’t sure how it would work with 1st graders! These are 6 year olds just learning to read. But I am absolutely amazed with what they are doing. I feel like we’re breaking new ground here.”

Mr. I incorporates Shakespeare in many lessons. For example, students read together from a portion of Act 1 Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet. In addition to improving their reading skills, this has also taught the children to learn new words and to think about what the text means – for example, they had to figure out what “neighbor stained steel” means.

Students act out sections of the text, embracing the emotions of the townspeople and relatives of Romeo and Juliet. They imagine they are citizens of Verona and have written personal narratives about what kind of shopkeeper they are – one girl, for instance, wrote, “I am the apothecary in Verona, Italy. I make medicines out of plants called herbs. I work in the market place. I have had enough of the Capulets and Montagues fighting.”

The children have had discussions about how to deal with people who are not getting along, and they’ve created Venn diagrams showing how the Capulets, Montagues and townspeople are similar and different. Next up, they would love to perform the play!

“I am amazed at how quickly the students have embraced Shakespeare,” Mr. I says. “Pretending and imagination are what let us get into it so quickly.”

One little girl in pigtails agreed. “I love pretending and I love Shakespeare! It’s so much fun!”

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