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Workshop with the Royal Shakespeare Company

This year I had the pleasure of introducing performance based Shakespeare to all of my students. My seniors and I participated in a three month residency with a teaching artist (TA) from the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). My sophomores and juniors, however, had a much more limited program with two teaching artists from the Classic Stage Company (CSC). To prepare my students for their final shares at either BAM or at our school, my students read and performed many edited scenes from either Othello or from the Henriad (Henry IV Part One, Henry IV Part Two, and Henry V). During the last month of the residency, we had seven members of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) conduct two – one hour workshops with my kids. The RSC, the teaching artist, and I worked on voice projection, tableau, scene interpretation, analysis, gesture, countenance, and movement. BAM’s program began with a pre survey to determine the potential impact of the program. The BAM teaching artist came in once a week for a total of fourteen times and the two artists from the CSC worked in tandem five times. Because the artists from CSC had limited time, they worked on tableaux and scene interpretation. Each artist’s program included warm up activities to acclimate the students to the artistic demands. The artists worked on the artistry while I helped with reading, analysis, encouragement, interpretation, memorization, and speaking. I reinforced the skills that the TA taught. With the help of the TAs, we achieved success. To prepare myself for the intellectual and pedagogical rigor, I participated in a conference with representatives from the RSC, the Folger Shakespeare Library, Ohio State University, and BAM. Moreover, I enrolled in a BAM sponsored professional development program with the Folger Shakespeare Library.

To prepare my students for success with our end of year Shakespeare culmination, I started teaching at the beginning of the year social-emotional skills (teamwork, collaboration, and tenacity) as well as the academic skills needed for success. I started requiring the students to write and perform poetry, and to perform edited scenes from Romeo and Juliet. I held them each accountable to the members in their group. They had to assist and encourage each other, and to memorize dialogue, a skill to which most of them were unaccustomed. Not everyone was willing to speak in front of a group for fear of ridicule. I encouraged them throughout the year. Furthermore, I had a number of students apply for after school performing arts programs. These programs helped develop my students’ public speaking ability and helped allay their fears. They also formed friendships with like-minded individuals. Moreover, I developed relationships with all of my students, even the cantankerous ones! By having a relationship with them and through encouragement, the students were able to succeed. From the first day of class, the expectations were set. Never once did I lower the expectation. The students had several opportunities to perform throughout the school year. With each performance, their comfort and skill level increased. Some students with IEPs outperformed some of the general education students. Two of my English language learners excelled throughout the year. The ESL teacher assisted in helping the ELLs with the text and with memorization.

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Fight scene with Hotspur and Prince Hal and their men

As the students achieved success at various junctures, I increased the level of expectation. Students often complained about the level of work.  Many students felt that the work was too difficult and that they were not capable of  meeting my expectations. I, however, told my students that they were more than capable of rising to the level of my expectation. I began to chart the progress of my students. Seventy-three percent of my students met or exceeded my expectations. The others fell short because of a lack of effort, poor attendance, or social emotional issues.

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Emilia confronts Iago and Othello w/ Gratiano

Last week was the culmination of our art’s program. We performed selected scenes from the Henriad as well as from Othello either at BAM or at our school. My children as well as the audience loved the experience and each was thoroughly engaged throughout.  Thirty-five students out of forty-seven students performed at BAM.  Seventy percent of my juniors and seniors performed at the school. During this time, I saw students, many of whom were normally reluctant to engage in conventional lessons, shine brightly.  These students took to Shakespeare like it was bread and butter. They enjoyed performing their scenes using gestures and interpretive voice During this last year, I have never seen my students more engaged.  As a result of the program, my students learned the following skills: textual and thematic analysis, textual interpretation, collaboration, teamwork, strategies for success, goal setting, and synergy.  In addition, this year, they were exposed to up to five Shakespearean plays in which they read many scenes from each play.

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Katherine, Henry V, baby, and chorus

Lastly, we ended BAM’s program with a reflection on the entire program. Next year, I will work on voice projection because a number of students still struggle with it. I will also have them interpret poetry more often to better prepare them. During the reflection, the students completed post surveys to determine the impact of the program on their academic and social-emotional development. In addition to reading and analyzing challenging Shakespearean texts, my students learned skills that will help them succeed in other endeavors. The students thoroughly enjoyed the entire experience. They stated that this experience is something that they will always remember. The volume of work and the personal sacrifice was worth it for me and for my students. What we all gained is immeasurable. Seeing the level of engagement and their commitment brought me immense joy. One student said that I was like his favorite song and that he throughly enjoyed his experience this year. I echo that. Teaching these students was a melody to my ears.

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Permission to photograph was given and is used for educational purposes only.

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