I'm resurrecting my blog in order to document my process. I'm open to feedback.
The first week of class, we submitted our proposal. I am in a class with fifteen peers. Though we are all working on individual papers (and everyone in my class has picked such interesting topics!), we work together, week by week, to bounce ideas off each other. I love working collaboratively, so I look forward to what the next ten weeks hold.
Here's my proposal:
“Stories are a powerfully formative force. They furnish children with rich vocabulary, broad imagination, and the spirit of possibility necessary to purposeful living or heroic action…Childhood formation, according to many models, seems to be about the filling of a mental bucket rather than the forming of a whole, vibrant soul ready to act justly, love beauty, and bring goodness into the world…While knowledge and skill are, of course, vital, they are only the skeleton structure of a great life. They will remain inanimate until the child who possesses them is kindled to passion and movement by a vision bigger than a list of accomplishments.” Sarah Clarkson, Caught Up in a Story
I would like to propose an exploration of the usefulness of dramatic play with Shakespeare curriculum for younger children, ages five to nine. I’ve noticed that most people aren’t exposed to Shakespeare until they are teenagers. They are shielded from Shakespeare’s plays at a younger age because the texts have some complex (sometimes dirty!) language, dark plot twists, and also bring to light some uncomfortable, ethically dicey questions. By the time teenagers are challenged to read a Shakespeare play, they have often absorbed the popular notion that Shakespeare is too difficult and boring, without even checking it out first. However, embracing the original First Folio “on your feet” style (for that is how Shakespeare meant for his plays to be experienced – viscerally heard and seen, not just read out of a book) can open up incredible “aha moments” and capture young children as Shakespeare fans for life. We need not condescend to our tiny humans: they can absolutely grasp heightened language, as they are entertained by rhymes in toddlerhood and become observant of rap music as they mature. As for dark plot twists, they are already the cornerstone of popular “kid magnet” movie classics like Star Wars and Harry Potter. Finally, for addressing messy ethical issues, five years of age is a perfect time to start encouraging children to train themselves to think critically.
This topic is important to me because I know the “powerfully formative force” that author Sarah Clarkson speaks of in her book. As a student of classical acting, I contacted a local theater company and asked if I could observe their educational troupe in a performance of “Othello.” It just so happened that my schedule was booked in such a way that the only date I was available was for a morning performance at public elementary school Brooklyn. “Lower your expectations because we don’t usually perform for kids this young, but if the school administration wants to book us, we’ll do it,” explained the executive director of the acting company, as she rolled her eyes, sighed and shrugged. Contrary to her wary opinion, I found the children well-behaved, nay, enthralled by the performance – vocal with delighted squeals whenever characters had a romantic moment or indignant with sharp gasps when they witnessed characters behaving badly. At a Q & A session after the performance, in which the actors stayed in character so the children could keep their questions centered on the text, a chubby little black girl raised her hand and jumped up to her feet when she was called on. She put her hands on her hips, looked the actress playing Desdemona straight the eyes and authoritatively sassed, “Why din’t choo LEAVE when he HIT choo?!” It was a magical moment. Here was a little black girl, likely from an at-risk background, exposed for the first time to a story about a black man navigating his life amongst a bunch of privileged white people, written four hundred years ago by a white man. It was such a thrill to watch her connect to “Othello” and courageously stand up and ask a question that cut like a laser. In that moment, I thought to myself, "Wow, there's something meaningful here that goes beyond academics."
In the quote that I selected from Sarah Clarkson’s book, she mentions “a mental bucket” that children are expected to fill – certainly with checkpoints along the way in their education. It is impossible to radically change the measurables that are currently used in elementary education, but I would like to discuss the many ways that I think drama play with Shakespearean curriculum can be woven in to the current curriculum to help meet those measurables in a way that is fun for children, parents and teachers. In my research, I would like to find out exactly what our current education system in New York City expects, developmentally, from children by the time they graduate from third grade. What level of language proficiency, math skills, and reading comprehension is expected? What about their emotional health? How do we create a generation that is able to learn what they need to learn in order to be successful academically, but also has the wisdom to know when it is appropriate to put down their screens and be present: expressing empathy and a desire to be in community with their peers?