Shakespeare Geek Versus The First Graders

Who wants to hear about my visit to first grade? I’m happy to say that I did not chicken out, I did not “plan B” it (that would be “Harold and the Purple Crayon”).  I really did walk into a room prepared to read Shakespeare – The Tempest, ‘natch – to a group of first graders. I came prepared with: * My bust of Shakespeare (tiny one, maybe 6” high) * Shakespeare action figure * Shakespeare pop-up Globe Theatre * Three copies of The Tempest – Shakespeare Can Be Fun, USBorne, and Manga. * Printouts of scenes from the play, to use as takeaways   Nobody recognized Shakespeare by sight – thought he was Abraham Lincoln.  But when I said his name, a bunch of hands shot up.  Apparently the “Magic Treehouse” books are popular, and there’s a Shakespeare edition of one of those. They also understood “400 years ago” when I said “Between Columbus and the Pilgrims.” My favorite student is the one who fed me the straight line, “What kinds of stories did he write?” giving me the opportunity to say, “Oh, well, he wrote about kings, and armies, and wizards and witches and ghosts and shipwrecks and sea monsters…” “And princesses?” one girl asked hopefully. “…and princesses, and princes and sword fights and weddings and happy endings…” I added.  Couldn’t have played that one better.  They seemed to quite love that. They *loved* the action figure.  Played with him the whole time. Didn’t fully understand the Globe Theatre.  Thought it was cool as a popup, and if I’d had more room to work I would have explained to them that they were the audience and I was the actor, but I had to basically show it and put it away. The story itself was difficult, as I expected.  The concept of “I will read passages, but some of it I’ll just tell you, so we can get through it” was confusing to them.  They kept asking, “Can’t you just read all the words without skipping any?”  Some kids thought it would be better to read every word, but then to only get as far in the book as we were able.  But, I persevered. Problem #2 was the attention span.  While I knew I would get interruptions, I had no idea how many (or how annoying).  Some were trivial, like “My name is Alana, that sounds like Alonzo” or “My brother is 14, you said Miranda is 15.”  But there’s always that one kid who, with the introduction of every character, “Is he good?  Is he bad?” over and over again, no matter how many times the character is brought up.  I mean, I’m 2/3rds the way through and I say Prospero.  “Is he good?  Who is he?”  You want to explain to this child that if he actually paid attention to the answers to his own questions he wouldn’t have to ask the same ones over and over again. Problem #3 was the concept of good and evil.  They haven’t finished the unit on Nietzsche yet (they couldn’t get beyond it, *badump*), so I had to explain every character in the black and white of good, or bad.  Sebastian, fine, we’ll call him bad.  But what about Alonso?  He did a bad thing in helping to get Prospero kicked out of Milan, but in the end he repents.  I made the mistake of saying “Everyone on the ship was basically bad guys” and then when Ferdinand shows up (I forgot!) they’re all “Why does Miranda like him?  You said he was a bad guy.”  D’oh.  Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano I got away with calling “loopy on too much medicine.”  One girl surprised me by saying, “Were they on drugs?”  So I explained that no, not drugs – but that they’d lost that tiny little cup you’re supposed to use for just a little medicine, and that now they’re drinking it straight out of the bottle, and look what happens when you do that! Last problem was one of pictures, which I kind of expected.  In the version of the book I used, different people wrote each picture.  So in one, Caliban is green.  But in another he is orange.  Likewise with Ariel who sometimes looks like a butterfly, sometimes like a fairy, heck, sometimes a girl and sometimes a boy.  Though I tried to explain this, hyping the whole idea that this was an imagination story and that you had to decide for yourself what you thought each person looked like, I still got “Now who is that?” for orange Caliban even when green Caliban was just 2 pages ago. We ran half an hour anyway! And even then I only really got to the harpy scene.  The teacher for the next segment came in so I had to wrap it up, and basically did the “Prospero comes out and says Haha, I’m alive!  I want my kingdom back! And then Miranda and Ferdinand say “we’re getting married!” so everybody celebrates.  Prospero tells Ariel that she can have the island, throws his magic books in the water and sails away to go play with his grandbabies.  The End.” Overall?  Glad I went for it.  I would much rather get a semi-positive response to Shakespeare than a resounding response to some random book off the shelf.  I even told the kids “If you like this story you have to remember to go home and tell your parents to get you some William Shakespeare, and your parents will be all Huh? What?”  Given a better understanding of what I was walking into, though, I think that I would much rather talk about Shakespeare for half an hour, then feel like I had a specific book I was trying to get through, you know?  Ask me to talk on the subject and you can’t shut me up (as I’m sure you’ve noticed).  But bringing a book makes it rigid, and you feel like if you do not get through it, then you will have failed.   I may even have tried that today, but technically this is supposed to be “celebrity reader” and I had no idea if the teacher wanted me to specifically focus on reading (rather than performing) something, so I didn’t think I had that option. Next time.

3 thoughts on “Shakespeare Geek Versus The First Graders

  1. Thanks for writing up your experience. I have a bunch of 3rd graders asking me about Shakespeare, and I wasn't quite sure how to approach it with them. This is really helpful (and it sounds like fun).

  2. I just found this post by Googling Shakespeare and kids. I'm a theater producer/director doing a ten-hour program for grades K-5 as a camp component this summer, and the camp directors asked me to do Shakespeare. I've been skeptical that it could work, but you're giving me confidence. Thanks for sharing this story.

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