When I taught middle school, every three years (part of a three-year curriculum cycle) we taught Shakespeare.  This ended with a Shakespeare festival, in which every student performed some role (big or small) in one of three plays. I discovered that I had no talent or interest in directing a play, but that I adored helping students enjoy Shakespeare.  The students who graduated from our school (which ends in 8th grade) went on to enjoy Shakespeare in high school, having learned from us the joy of it.

My son is in fifth grade.  Last spring, a local theater company put on a production of “The Comedy of Errors.”  I decided he was ready for his first Shakespeare, and it would be a good one, being a somewhat slapstick comedy overall.  Before we went, I prepped him a bit, letting him know that he didn’t need to understand every individual word, and that as long as he got the gist of it, that was fine.

He loved it.  He guffawed, he hooted, he spent the intermission talking about the characters.  And he said afterwards that he felt he understood most of the language even though it was “old-fashioned.”

This fall a friend’s Shakespeare company in New York was putting on a new play that borrowed from and paid homage to Shakespeare.  I asked if the play was appropriate for an 11 year old; they said certainly.  So off we went.

Again, our son loved it.  He laughed, he talked at great length afterwards about the characters and the plot, he picked up on the meaning of the characters’ names by reading the program beforehand.  (He’d make a great “groundling” — he really loves to interact with the play, not only laughing, but responding loudly or repeating lines.  We’ve had to quash those instincts, as we are not actual Shakespearean theater-goers and the other audience members wouldn’t appreciate a loud child…)

Great success on both counts.  And yet, at both of these performances, our son was the only child in the audience.  The Shakespeare production was a matinee, and later on during the play’s run the company itself marketed the play to school groups and families, but that hadn’t caught on yet when we went.  And at the play in New York, there were no other kids at all.  My husband commented that maybe it was because it was late, but if you actually lived in New York, it wouldn’t be that strange to see a play that ended at 10:30 with your family.  I’ve seen younger children out later than that in Times Square.

So why no children in the audience?  Maybe it’s because there are still a lot of adults out there who had bad Shakespeare experiences in high school or college, the joy beaten out of the play with a focus on how difficult the language is rather than on how universal the themes within are.  Or maybe adults think that kids can’t possibly “get” Shakespeare, that it’s too difficult.

But really, assuming you’re taking kids to see something accessible (the comedies are perfect; teens can get the history plays pretty well if you talk about the power struggles within first; and of course teens can totally get the romances), Shakespeare works.  There’s a reason he has been held up all these years as such an amazing playwright.  And if you just let children get the gist of it and enjoy it, they will.

So take a child to a play. Let children discover the thrill of live theater. And don’t fret if it’s Shakespeare.  They’ll probably love it.

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The Wonder of “Wonder”

October 5, 2012

It was a lucky thing that I became a teacher, because I’ve always loved to read, and I’ve always loved children’s books.  Before I had a child, I had entire bookcases full of children’s books, but because I was a teacher, it didn’t strike folks as odd.

As a teacher, a mom, and a reader, I love to keep up with new books.  In the spring, I read good reviews of a book called “Wonder” and made a mental note.  Over spring break, I borrowed it from the local library and sat down to read.  I was enthralled.  I laughed.  I cried.  I didn’t want to the book to end.  I wanted to know more about the characters and what might happen to them.

And when I read a book and love it, I want to share it.  I decided it would make a great spring read-aloud with my advisee group (4th and 5th graders, a good age for the book).

They loved it.  Like me, they developed strong opinions about the characters, but then those opinions shifted throughout different parts of the story.  By the end (when I was crying again — and they’re used to me crying when I read and are very kind and supportive, bringing me water and tissues), we loved these characters.

Given the emphasis we place on community, friendship, being an “upstander,” being a mensch, etc., at our school and in our unit, I thought this would make an excellent summer read for our students.  My team of five teachers were meeting to discuss the summer work;  I said I thought we should have all the students read “Wonder,” which no one besides me had read.  Luckily, my teammates trusted my knowledge of children’s books and my impassioned plea.  We required all incoming 4th/5th grade students to read “Wonder” over the summer and answer (on a notecard) one of several questions (their choice) about it.

Here are some examples from written responses to these questions:

August and Jack have a really nice relationship, where they can trust each other and always have each other’s back.

August and Miranda are deep friends and think the best of each other.  They are like siblings (who like each other).

Julian and Jack are having a war.

Because I have arthritis, I can relate to Auggie.  It can disable me in some ways, but I manage!  I have MRIs just like August has hearing tests.

I think I relate to Via because I have a friend and I think we’ve had a misunderstanding.  She is not as close to me anymore.  Just like Via and Miranda.

And this is just what they’ve gotten out of the book on their own!  We are beginning to have small-group discussions about the book, and there are so many interesting thoughts the students have.  Although my students don’t have Auggie’s rare condition, they can relate to having a friend who does something really mean, or being a friend who makes a big mistake and wants to apologize.  They are experiencing (sometimes for the first time at this age) the shifting in friendships, and how sometimes even two people who are both lovely people can drift apart over time through no particular fault.  They have experienced cruelty and are trying to navigate what to do when these things happen.  “Wonder” is a fabulous book that allows all of these issues to be discussed without having to force a child to bare his or her soul in the discussion.  A kid can talk about what it must feel like to be in August’s shoes without having to say, “Someone was mean to me once and it really hurt.”  What a great common reading!

Thank you, R.J. Palacio, for writing a book that has resonated with so many students this year.

p.s.  I also shared it with my son.  At his school this year, some hearing-impaired students have been mainstreamed for part of the day into his classroom.  I was able to get him to think about Auggie in “Wonder” to help him see the experience from their perspective and to help him be more empathic.