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To Perform or Not to Perform? That is the Question

The study of Shakespeare through the performing arts brings to life the history of the Elizabethan period, the language of artistic passion, and the ability to connect with one of the greatest literary minds in history. For younger students (such as my wonderful fourth grade class!), performing plays creates an opportunity to comprehend the incomprehensible and learn that studying literature can be great fun.

Last year, my class received an invitation to perform at a Shakespeare festival. Of course, as a teacher who is all about learning while having fun, I was very excited about the opportunity, but previous experience had taught me that unless the children themselves decided to take part as a collaborative team, this play would never happen. It was important that they take ownership of this play from the very start. Therefore, we took a vote by secret ballot. (Yes, everything is secret when working with 4th graders!) Although some of the students were not too excited about the idea of extra work and line memorization, the other half of the class - all of whom had taken part in plays before - wanted very much to participate, because they knew how much fun it could be. Ultimately, the majority vote was to take part in the Shakespeare festival. The loud voice of the students screaming, "Yaay!!" was wonderful to hear.

So we began to plan our stages of preparing to select a play, memorize our lines, rehearse, and - Voila! - perform. (See handout for easy-to-follow, step-by-step directions)

First, I read to my students every day from children's books based on Shakespeare's plays. Then, each day for homework, the students wrote about their favorite scenes and characters. This allowed me to gauge if a large percentage of the group preferred a specific play. Next, I narrowed the selection down to three plays, according to their write-ups. From those three plays, the students voted on a selection by secret ballot and chose "Twelfth Night." Finally, I had everyone share their written opinions of the characters in the play, and asked the students to create small skits displaying the traits of each character.

Once the play was chosen and the students had some idea of who the characters were and what the play was about, I decided to hold our class auditions. The significance of holding auditions, as informal as they may be, rather than just assigning parts, is to give children an opportunity to show themselves in a different light. (You may be surprised with the results; I was!) Remember to give the children a short period of time in class to rehearse the part they wish to audition for; it will help them, as well as you, to prepare.

I had a couple students who spoke English as a second language and both were too shy to audition. As the other students were asked to improvise and to read lines with one another in partners and in groups, the informality of this process and the relaxed pace of the class removed their fears. So with the encouragement and support of friends the students leaped to the audition stage.

Although the auditions were informal, the process helped me to know how comfortable my students were in front of an audience (no matter how small) and if any new talents would reveal themselves (There maybe a superstar hiding under the guise of a young fourth grade student!).

The key to having a successful play with children is breaking down their walls of fear and invoking in them the level of competency and confidence they need in order to know that they can learn anything...even Shakespeare! Overcoming our fears enabled all of us to learn a great deal from this experience!! Mainly we learned that performing is from the heart! Subsequently, find out how much time you are given to present the play. Since we were only offered twenty minutes of stage time, we had to cut many scenes out of the play. In the end it was still great! What's more note that two students can play one part, especially in a big class. After all, this is a 4th grade play - not Broadway.

After each child was assigned a part, I gave a deadline for line memorization. Because the children were having difficulty memorizing their lines, we practiced in class with buddies. In the beginning, we would often read from the script, or I would prompt them if they didn't remember their lines - they just had to call out "line". Later, I became stricter and required the students to memorize small sections at a time, so that they would be prepared for our rehearsals. Getting things going was somewhat challenging, but these children were studying and memorizing Shakespeare in its original text!

In order to help the students better understand the scenes, I rented the BBC and other versions of "Twelfth Night" to watch in class. With time, practice, and exciting movie - watching, we began to have fun, and soon the students not only knew their own lines, but the lines of all their peers. It was truly amazing!

During this period of rehearsal, faculty, parents, and other students donated items of clothing and hats to complete our costumes. The last touch our play needed was a school banner to hang in the theatre. The students and I created a piece that included all of their names and parts on a scroll in the center of the banner with two theatrical masks on either side. The banner was named "The John Eaton Players." (Get it? Shakespeare's actors were called "players" so we thought it would only be appropriate to name ourselves after them.)

Finally, we were just two weeks away from being on stage, and the students needed to have a dress rehearsal. I talked with my colleagues and principal to set aside three different dates to perform for the other grade levels in the school. This would give our children the opportunity to perform and then to rectify mistakes (if any) during their scenes. This process tremendously helped them to calm their nerves and, more importantly, to practice in front of a live audience. By the third attempt, these kids were ready for Broadway!

About the Author

Paria M. Akhavan teaches fourth grade at John Eaton Elementary School in Washington, DC.

Handout

To Perform or Not to Perform? That is the Question
Shakespeare for Elementary Students

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