Why Young Writers Need to Enjoy Shakespeare
by Sarah Reaves White
The Internet Writing Journal
In a now famous study at the University of California at Irvine it was discovered that young children who listened to Mozart and other classical music scored higher on certain mental tests. While this research continues today at several universities, we have yet to perform any studies on the effect that great language has on later writing skills. It would admittedly be difficult to structure such research so that it could be reduced to numerical equivalents. Nevertheless, few of us would refute the notion that hearing good writing and pronouncing it is bound to be preferable to trying to see if one can do a reasonable impression of a Beavis and Butthead dialog for the merriment of one's peers. To see a child first stumble and then later proclaim a line from Shakespeare is a delight. To watch him or her enjoy doing this is to experience one of the highest joys of the teaching profession. For this reason, I have introduced Shakespeare to my sixth grade students and seen it catch fire like one of those compressed paper logs people use in their fireplaces at winter holiday parties.
It happens every year somewhere near the second week in October. One of my students, usually a girl, will say "Are we going to get to do Macbeth this year?" My answer, always the same, is "I suppose we can if you really want to, but remember you must keep up with all of your assignments and get your homework done on time." Although we are a Montessori Magnet school in a large urban school system, this kind of question, I imagine, is rarely asked by sixth grade students anywhere. Most of the students come from working class families who simply want the best education possible for their children. Just to make sure that you understand, I have to add that within a two week period on their own a group of fourth, fifth , and sixth grade students in a racially balanced school actually put on two scenes from Shakespeare's Macbeth for no grades and in addition to all the other required work in math, geometry, writing and social studies. Not only do they put on the play, but they invite parents and other students in the school to watch the performance.
By Halloween, everything is ready and the signal goes out to don greasepaint, throw on homemade costumes, grab props, seize scripts, flashlights, get the dry ice into the kettle and hurry down to the auditorium. There, waiting with parental paraphernalia ranging from point and click cameras to camcorders are parents, classmates, and best of all, older students who did the play in previous years. I stand in the wings reminding students to say their lines to the EXIT sign at the rear of the auditorium. Saying one's lines while looking at a classmate who may slowly cross his eyes is a grave danger for any twelve year old reciting in public. The thunder rolls on the synthesizer, the curtain rises and three witches begin their incantations.
How did this occur in a large magnet school where the main criteria for entrance is that one be a reasonably well behaved person who enjoys learning? The answer lies, as always, in a story.
To begin with the environment that produces this happy little event is one in which the child is given respect, not only for his intelligence (which we now know is there from very early times) but he is given respect for the job with which he is faced, educating and preparing himself for a successful life. With this point of reference, the child is educated in a curriculum that is unabashedly intellectual. Students are encouraged to learn not only the proper names for all things studied, but are also encouraged to read good literature.
Given this particular setting, one day many years ago I decided to tell my students the story of an ambitious man who believed in witches and came to a bad end. I also lightened things up by telling the students that this story contained the world's worst recipe and that one should never spend the night at the Macbeths'. One thing led to another, and soon I had changed from their ordinary teacher into a cackling crone with a chilling laugh. The students enjoyed my amateurish performance so much that they asked for xerox copies of the recipe. Then we began a "read through" just for fun after all our other work was done. One thing led to another. Sixth graders got their pick of the parts, and then fifth graders were allowed to take left over parts. The fourth grade started out as a little Greek chorus chiming in with "Double, double toil and trouble, Fire burn and cauldron bubble." Then it was discovered that we needed an entire row of ghostly kings. There were apparitions to be acted out. Before long there was a part for everyone who wanted to be included. Somehow things began to grow into something much more important than just a little read through of a play written in the English of Elizabeth I and King James.
The magic of Shakespeare on the English speaking person had begun to take effect. It became a great deal of fun to call out "Open locks, whoever knocks" to astonished messengers from the office. Or some would say, "By the pricking of my thumbs, Something evil this way comes." And I was the most astonished person of all to see my students practicing their speeches on each other during recess. One of my colleagues reported hearing two sixth grade girls in a heated argument over which one of them would play Hecate and who would get to be the first witch, who had more lines.
One of the roles that remains a mystery until the last ten days is who is going to play Macbeth? This role allows a young man of twelve some tempting lines, as Macbeth says some rather insulting things to the three witches and even curses them. This no doubt is a factor in the decision. I have had Macbeth played by all ethnic groups, and each young man has done a brave job.
While many scholarly treatises have been written on every aspect of Shakespeare, the fact remains undeniable that his speeches have an effect on all who speak them. It is uplifting to hear young voices struggling with unfamiliar words and enjoying the effect of great thoughts strung together.
The most gratifying experience for this lover of Shakespeare occurred this year. After I had replied to the question with "well if you really want to do Macbeth, I suppose it's all right as long as you get your class work done on time." Immediately three paperback copies of Macbeth emerged from desks where they had been hidden just in case. Then after all the exhaustion from our performance, several students asked if we could actually do Romeo and Juliet for Valentine's Day and could we please do the murder scene in Julius Caesar on the Ides of March? I keep thinking that these kids should be doing Midsummer Night's Dream, but they seem to like the really serious scenes at this point. I have a feeling that their teacher needs to do some summer study on how to bring this about. The drama teacher tells me that my students are ready to act and quite fearless and free of doubts. Why shouldn't they be? After you've done Shakespeare, what else can be much of a challenge?
What can one derive as a lesson from all this? I can only say that if you can get to young people early enough with great literature, they will respond. If you can get to them before they form prejudices, and if you are not afraid to give the very best to young people, they will come through with courage and style. They will respond to the best with the best that is in them, and enjoy it. Now they will never understand those who think Shakespeare is boring. And this is a good thought. Just think. In about forty years these are the people who will be running the world for us.
**Sarah Reaves White holds a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Texas at Austin. She is a Montessori teacher at the Geo. B. Dealey Montessori Academy, which is a magnet school in the Dallas Public Schools system. When the magnet school system was set up to desegregate the public schools on a more voluntary basis, she, together with three other teachers and an administrator set up the first elementary Montessori public school in Dallas. The school was situated across from a huge public housing project and accepted neighborhood children and children from other parts of Dallas in a racially-balanced student body. The school became so popular that later it was divided into two magnet schools.