The following post was written by an extra-special guest blogger and thirty-four-year veteran teacher: my mom, Marcia Brown.
Co-teaching Shakespeare to second-graders stands out as the highlight of my thirty-four-year career as a public school reading specialist. For the five years before I retired in 2005, I supported teachers and students in our study of the Bard, a journey that led us to intriguing discoveries daily. So when a former colleague (let’s call her Olivia) asked if I would help her develop a second-grade Shakespeare curriculum in her new school, I responded with an emphatic “Yes!”
Olivia is the teacher we all want for our children. A gifted artist, she is gentle, kind, funny, and passionately concerned about each of her students. Some veteran teachers tend to resist innovation, but she continues to enthusiastically expand her knowledge and practices in the interest of her pupils.
Olivia and I had collaborated eight years ago when she invited me into her classroom, and together we guided the children through an interactive, age-appropriate study of Shakespeare, culminating in the students rewriting and performing their version of Twelfth Night, a smashing success! Every single child was joyfully engaged in learning, while meeting the requisite grade level language arts standards and benchmarks. These students would not be daunted by Shakespeare in high school, since they considered him a friend.
Olivia and I were thrilled to be teaching partners again, introducing her second-graders to Shakespeare. Her grant proposal approved and with the principal’s permission, she purchased sets of books from the Shakespeare Can Be Fun series by Lois Burdett (Firefly Books) for the three classes. Internationally praised, Burdett has written Shakespeare’s biography and many of his plays in rhyming couplets for readers as young as seven years.
School policy demands that every class at the same grade level follow the identical curriculum. It might have been wiser for Olivia’s class to pilot the program. Instead, we gave each of the other two 2nd grade teachers a detailed unit design with daily lesson plans. Without having taught Shakespeare before and without collaborative time or an experienced co-teacher, they would have to embrace the challenge in order to succeed.
For me, being welcomed into Olivia’s vibrant, dynamic classroom was a gift. Hooked immediately, the children responded to Lois Burdett’s A Child’s Portrait of Shakespeare by putting themselves into a character’s “skin” and either writing in their Shakespeare notebooks or role-playing short skits. We developed a rubric to assess the content and language/style of their writing. We also modeled how figurative language, especially similes and metaphors, would enrich their descriptions. Their first entries lacked cohesion and detail, but I knew from experience we would witness dramatic improvement over the course of the 9-week unit.
Shakespeare works like magic every time! The students ate up the story of his life, as well as many aspects of Elizabethan times—dame and grammar schools, the recurrent Bubonic plague, Queen Elizabeth I, London Bridge, history of plays from traveling players to the Globe Theater… Parents quickly got involved too, because their children were coming home bubbling over with enthusiasm for Shakespeare and begging to go to the library. Each time I came into the classroom, children wanted to share the stories their parents read to them—I assume they were child-friendly versions, such as Bruce Coville’s beautiful picture books of Romeo and Juliet, Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Macbeth. One delightful child proudly showed off the Shakespeare book she wrote and illustrated at home—complete with questions for her readers. She keeps adding chapters to her book as she learns more. And this all happened in the first three weeks of our unit!
One parent wrote to Olivia:
Sam is going to miss school again tomorrow, since he still has a high fever. He is very talkative when he has a fever and he has been talking nonstop about Shakespeare and English history. He absolutely loves learning aboutthis subject matter. He had to get extra books about Shakespeare from the library because he is so interested in learning about him. His main worry is that his classmates are going to know more about Shakespeare than he is because he is missing school.
Then, as Hamlet might have said, came “the rub.” In the middle of planning our gala 448th birthday celebration for Shakespeare on April 23rd , the principal made an executive decision to cut short the Shakespeare study by four weeks and replace it with an animal unit. She was underwhelmed by the students’ first writing samples and opted to pull the plug. There would be no grand culminating performance for these children.
In an email to me, Olivia wrote:
Everyone is sad for me (they don’t understand how sad it is for the kids).
In an age when teacher accountability for student learning is the centerpiece for discussions about education, where is the accountability for a system that values a passive, teacher-directed curriculum over authentic, performance-based learning where students have opportunities that they remember forever?
Attempting to make her principal understand how valuable the Shakespeare unit is to her students, Olivia forwarded Sam’s mom’s email. The principal responded with one word:
And that is how to extinguish the excitement and joy of learning… in one easy lesson.