Why Is the Study of Shakespeare Important For My Middle School Child?

Here is the email I sent to parents as we began a huge Shakespeare project last winter. Again, I communicate often with parents so they have a clearer picture of why and how we planned to mount a full production (with an edited script) of  “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” during school hours.

Why is the study of Shakespeare important for my child?
A Note To Middle School Families

For the last hour of the day, for four days a week, our children will be working on A Midsummer Night’s Dream (MSND) by William Shakespeare from January through mid-March. This project is a highly integrated interdisciplinary activity that engages all facets of our learning community.
The task of reading, analyzing and interpreting Shakespeare demands a complex form of literacy. In fact, evidence shows that studying Shakespeare’s plays has a direct impact on students’ ability to approach other complicated literature, as well as non-fiction texts in Mathematics and Science.
When your child opens up his or her copy of the play to delve into the language of Shakespeare, what will he/she learn? I hope she will discover a world that is strikingly like hers…
This Helena sounds just like a seventh grader!
~ A Baker Seventh Grader.
Studying Shakespeare…

“..is about unfolding and opening oneself—to the highest level of literacy, to Shakespeare’s language, to the ideas and meanings contained in his words, to other people. At the same time, it is about embodying the work…revealing oneself—taking risks and accepting and embracing the vulnerability inherent in those risks. In is about moving away from a sleepy, protective posture of being folded up or folded into oneself and moving toward a tall, open, awake and graceful stance.”
~“Stand and Unfold Yourself” A Monograph on the Shakespeare and Company Website
Steve Seidel, Harvard Project Zero

Shakespeare, the SAT Test and Reading Comprehension
Shakespeare is required reading in every high school across the US. How many high school students enjoy their studies of Shakespeare? Did you know that students who study theatre in high school score, on average, 65 points higher on the verbal component of the SAT test and 35.5 points higher in Math?

A series of studies on the arts and education revealed a consistent causal link between performing texts in the classroom and the improvement of a variety of verbal skills, including especially significant increases in story recall and understanding of written material.

The Big Idea

Our objective is to have children gain some understanding and knowledge of how to “crack open” Shakespeare for themselves. We want them to think, “Oh yeah, Shakespeare, I did that in middle school. I like it. It’s fun”. We want our students to leave Baker with a deep understanding of at least one Shakespeare play and an openness to a long-term relationship with Shakespeare’s work overall.

The adults that will facilitate the children’s work in the project include the entire middle school team  and the All School Team.

Staff and Administrators working with us will include:
Deirdre Harrison- will serve as voice and language coach for the project. With a certificate from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London and a Literature degree from Yale, Ms. Harrison has the best voice and text analysis training available.

Peter Carlson will work with our student business managers.

Parent volunteers include:
Doug Haight, Filmmaker
Todd Hensley, Lighting Designer
Frank Rose, Technical Director
Nancy Rose, Professional Visual and Theatre Artist.

For the MSND project, each child will work in some area of play production. For each area of study, the child will have to read and analyze the play. It’s tricky in a way. How does one get a child to want to do the hard work to understand the play? We offer multiple pathways to understanding in this project, be it music composition, acting, design, stage management, the business of play production or creating a film about the experience. And to plan, create, design, act, write, or produce well about the experience, one has to understand the play. The project creates a profound need for the child to understand the play, to delve into the language for her. Making theatre asks for a deep level of understanding on the part of the artist—that’s why it’s so thrilling for the middle school student. It demands everything we have to offer and challenges us to give more.

We can’t make theatre through technology on a computer or via cell phone or Skype. Theatre is immediate. It requires active participation. Good theatre draws us in and demands our emotional, physical and psychological involvement in the experience. Great theatre demands the involvement of every fiber of our being. The skills required to produce the play involve not only the obvious language and interpretive skills, but mathematics and physics in design and construction, the writing and interpretive skills of bloggers and filmmakers, the challenge of composing music to heighten and support the story, and meta-cognitive skills to communicate these ideas to each other and to interpret the play within the context of each child’s life.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is filled with the universal thoughts, feelings and experiences shared by our children, contained within the form of complex poetic language. It isn’t difficult to get inside the language, but it takes time and effort and patience. The students must take each baby step to master the language as their own. Then they will take these understandings and together – as an ensemble of artists – they will bring them to life on our stage and through the entire performance project.

If you have questions about any aspect of the project, I encourage you to contact me through the school office via phone at 847-425-5800 or via email at lwilson@bakerdemschool.org

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