Hot on the heels of my wonderful experience teaching my daughter’s fourth grade class, I went into my son’s second grade classroom to teach some Shakespeare. You may recall me asking you for your short, awesome lines for a game of “scenes from a hat.” Or my spontaneous Shakespeare Survivor game.
Quite frankly it went so badly I almost didn’t write about it.
As usual I brought all my props, my popup Globe Theatre, my Shakespeare finger puppets, my DVDs and so on. I decided that “scenes from a hat” was not going to work but I did take “Hamlet Survivor”. I wrote up 21 name cards (including Yorick and Ghost) with the intent of giving one to each child, and then playing the game as described (where I tell the story and students sit down when they die).
I also went a little insane. To date I’ve not yet shown any actual Shakespeare performance video to any of these classes I’ve been in. So I came up with a plan. I wrote up Henry V’s band of brothers speech, a few lines per card. I thought that, if things went well, I would have the kids recite the speech – and then I’d show them Kenneth Branagh’s version.
My expectations were, to put it bluntly, wildly too high. I asked questions like whether they knew when Columbus sailed to America, or the Pilgrims came (because I put Shakespeare in between them). Nope. Neither. Great. I mentioned the Plague, and suddenly they wanted to tell me everything they knew about germs and covering your mouth when you sneeze. At any time I did not have the attention of more than half the kids. When I was showing a prop, kids were looking in my bag of tricks to see what the next prop would be.
As time rapidly passed (mostly because every 5 minutes I was having to call their attention back to me) I decided to give up on the lecturing and go with the game. I gave everybody a name card, and said “You are now all actors in the play called Hamlet. The goal of the game is to survive. Stand up. When you’re dead, sit down.”
It’s at this point that I learn 7yr olds can’t read.
Now, fine, I expected problems with “Laertes” and “Guildenstern.” But, really? They can’t figure out Hamlet, or Yorick, or Polonius? That was a big shock to me, and really killed my spirit.
“Who has Old King Hamlet?” I asked. A student walks up to the front of the room with me. Ok, I hadn’t planned on actually acting it out like this, but maybe it will work. “You are the King of Denmark,” I tell him. “And when the play starts? You’re dead. Sit down.” He’s confused, but sits. I tell him, “Don’t worry – even though you’re dead you get to come back. Now, where’s my royal court? Where are Claudius and Gertrude?” I have to help them read their cards. A boy has gotten the Gertrude card, which causes plenty of laughter.
The game rapidly goes out of control, nobody can read their cards so I’ve got 18 kids who I haven’t called yet saying “What’s my name? What do I do?”
Finally I send them all back to their seats and start going up and down the aisles. “Who are you…Laertes? You try to kill Hamlet with a poisoned sword, but Hamlet finds out and kills you with your own sword. You’re dead. Next? Ophelia? You’re Hamlet’s girlfriend, Laertes’ sister. You go crazy and drown yourself in the river. You’re dead. Gertrude? You’re Hamlet’s mom. Your husband Claudius, who happens to be your former husband’s brother, tries to kill your son Hamlet with poison. You don’t know this and accidentally drink the poison. You’re dead.” And so on. That part was fun, especially when we got to Claudius and the “Hamlet stabs you and makes you drink the poison so you’re double dead” bit. But all the kids who got minor parts like Cornelius and Voltimand or Osric are wondering how come they basically didn’t get to play. All I can tell them is, “You survived the game, so you win.” They’re confused.
I never even attempted my Henry V game. Would never have worked in a million years.
I never regret going, but I had to admit to the teacher that I was way out of my league with that one, and that my expectations had been set abnormally high by the excellent fourth grade class I’d had. She thanked me for coming, probably disappointed herself in how little I’d done to keep the kids’ attention, and off I went, disappointed in my showing.
That was maybe two weeks ago.
Yesterday morning we had a nice day and I walked the kids to school. One of the moms who I always see said good morning to me, as she does. We cross and I keep walking until I hear, “Oh I needed to tell you!” I turn around. “Sarah has *never* come home from class more excited than she did after you came in to teach them about Shakespeare. Thank you for that. She didn’t really understand all of it,” she said. I had no idea that her daughter was in my son’s class.
“…of course,” I said, “We don’t expect them to, it’s more about exposing them to it for recognition when it keeps coming back over the years.”
“She really liked the bit about the brother who got stabbed with his own poisoned sword,” she continues. “At first she told me that they’d performed Hamilton. Took me a second.”
Totally worth it. 🙂