My Brownie Adventure

So yesterday, I’m happy to say, was my first official “Stand up in front of a group of children not my own, and talk about Shakespeare.”  Long time readers will know that I’ve had a number of false starts along this path, ranging from the time I read The Tempest to a bunch of first graders, to the time that the school principal shot down my plans to stage Dream among the second graders.

This time we went informal – my 7yr old daughter’s Brownie (small Girl Scout) troop, which in this instance numbered just 4 girls.  5, if you count my older daughter who hangs out and keeps herself busy.  6, if you count my boy.

Yesterday I posted The Plan.  Aren’t you just dying to know how it went?

So, I bring with me a bust of Shakespeare and my pop-up Globe theatre.  Spend some time talking about who Shakespeare was, when he lived, what he did.  I make a timeline on the board, showing them events that they know — Abraham Lincoln, Columbus, Pilgrims — and where Shakespeare was on that spectrum.

We then get into Talk Like Shakespeare.  I try to give some examples of the whole thee/thou, ist/wast, stuff like that, but I have no good examples.  I tried to pull some modern song lyrics that we could “Shakespeareize”, but I was stuck in that world of not knowing what’s appropriate for other people’s children, so I had to punt on that one.  I used some simple examples (“Shakespeare would not have had someone say Good morning, how are you today?  He would have had somebody say An excellent morrow to you good mistress!  How art thou this fine morn?”)

This led to the first game.  I really hyped on the whole “flowery” language thing, and how you would never just toss out one or two words when you could use a bunch and really sell it.  I have brought with me a hand made version of “The Compliment Game”, which is kid-safe version of the more infamous Insult Kit.  I’ve taken a deck of index cards and written a word on each.  Each card is then labelled A/B/C on both front and back.  I spread out the entire deck (30 cards, total) on the floor around us and tell the kids that the rules are to pick up an A, B and C card, then pick one of your troopmates, start with “Thou”, and then pay them a compliment.  Don’t just read the cards, really sell it.  Pour it on.

They loved this, found it ridiculously silly.  My daughter was called a pigeon-egg and had no idea how that was supposed to be a compliment.  My other daughter called me a wafer-cake and thought this was just hysterical.  Some of the words were beyond their reading ability, but that didn’t stop them from simply asking me to read it.

Definitely a hit, as we went through one round, and they immediately wanted to go again and again until all the cards were used up.  We even had an odd number left and I had to bring in my older daughter to read that one, so that we could keep it fair and not have somebody left with an extra turn.

I then talk about how Shakespeare went ahead and just made up words as he needed them, and show them the word search puzzle I made for them to play with. Since I’d specifically been told to keep them up and active I treat this like “Here’s something for you to take home.”

This all leads into a discussion of rhyme and meter (after all, why did Shakespeare go through so much trouble to shuffle words around and make up new ones?  Because he needed them to fit a specific pattern).

So I break out my bigger game.  I’ve taken three famous speeches from three famous plays — Juliet’s balcony scene, the witches spell from Macbeth, and Puck’s closing of Dream.  I’ve printed them out onto refrigerator magnet sheets, and cut them into strips.  I then give the kids the pile of lines, describe the three plays, and tell them to separate the lines into the logical piles.  “Juliet’s speech is all about names, and about how things still have value even if you don’t call them by the same words that everybody else does…..Macbeth’s witches are whipping up a disgusting witches potion, so look for ingredients that might go into it … Puck is a fairy who tells the audience that i they didn’t like the play, they should just think that they dreamed it, so you want to look for words about dreaming, or about forgiveness.”

This was the most active bit of the class, with all the girls up at the magnetic white board, reading the strips and trying to move them into the right categories.  Some were easy (“eye of newt?”), some were hard (“Take all myself”).  Best moment for me came when one girl read aloud, “By the pricking of my thumbs….oh, wait! I saw something…..Something wicked this way comes. Those must go together.”

*shiver*  Yes, my wonderful child, yes they do.  Of all the lines to pop out of this exercise, it had to be that one?  I love it.  That line is already spine tingling as it is.

(Side note — when speaking of Macbeth I went ahead and told them about the curse, and the Scottish Play.  How if an actor says the M word inside a theatre, the other actors will take him away and he has to perform a magic spell to break the curse so nothing bad happens.  First they wanted to know if this was true, and I said absolutely.  Then they wanted to know what the magic spell was to break the curse, and I said I don’t know, I’m not an actor.  But that I had in fact seen an actor say Macbeth in a theatre back in college, and I did indeed see his fellow actors take him away to perform the rite.)

This game was too big and too long, unfortunately.  I probably could have gotten by with one speech at a time (scrambled), rather than trying to separate three.  They started to lose interest toward the end.

So then I broke out my Complete Works and began reading the originals, so that they could see how close they came.  Actually they did very well, at least in terms of which lines went with which play.  Very hard to get them in the right order without a great deal of context.

I tried to do some acting – got one girl to volunteer to be Juliet, had her stand on a table/balcony, and then borrowed my son to be Romeo, hiding him behind a bookcase with instructions to yell “Here I am, Juliet!” when she was done.

Unfortunately this is where I lost them.  I’ve got one girl reciting, one girl listening, but then the other two drifted off to draw on the whiteboard.  Oh, well.

The witches spell was a little better, because I made them all interact.  We all stood in a circle, holding hands and chanting doing one line at a time (chorus on the “Double doubles”).  I insisted that everybody give it their best witches’ cackle, and for the most part they played along.  One girl did say that this was her favorite, and that she wanted that speech to use at Halloween.  (Interestingly enough?  Same girl that spotted the Something wicked…. line initially.  She’s going to be a dark one when she grows up :))

At this point we were running long so I just read Puck’s speech, but their attention spans were shot.  My wife suggested that maybe they could sit down and work on the puzzle, which is what we did, and that became the “wind down until the end of class” project.  Again, though – a big hit. I had not fully appreciated how an entire group of kids will tear into a puzzle, comparing notes and sharing information.

Overall?  Glad to have done it.  Need to come better prepared with actual notes about what to talk about next time – you can’t wing that sort of thing, it comes off as really unprepared.  Games and activities have to be kept relatively simple – the compliment game and the word search scored big, the unscrambling of speeches started out strong but ended weak.

I plan to take this experience and roll it in to working with my older daughter’s Girl Scout troop.  they are 9-10yr olds, and there are *18* of them.  Holy Toledo.  I’ve already said we’re going to jump straight in to acting with them.  I’ve got a number of kid-friendly versions of the plays to try out.  That seems the best approach for a group that size and age.

9 thoughts on “My Brownie Adventure

  1. Being a member of the theatre community who has made the mistake of saying McB in a theatre, the ritual involves spinning around and spitting. You only make that mistake once. 🙂

  2. Hi Duane,

    Just the right time to roll
    out my favourite Chinese Proverb:

    "Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand."

    Performance is King!

  3. I applaud your effort. I used to teach second grade and know full well how long kid's attention spans are. Believe it or not, many of the children will remember this for a long, long time.

  4. It's neat to hear of your experiences introducing kids to Shakespeare. The compliment game sounds great. How did you come up with the list?

  5. Thanks for the encouragement, everybody!

    SA – check the link. The game itself came from Folger Library. If I can find the time I want to make my own extended version of it, based on reactions I got from the kids. Some of the words ("cucko-bud") went over much bigger while some fell flat ("song").

  6. Hi Duane,

    Just curious…you mention "kid-friendly versions" of the plays. As a resident teaching artist,the parameters are ever-changing for me per presentation (age group, number of grades/students, time restraints, etc.), so I write my own adaptations as needed for the occasion. –Which ones do you mean? And are they available on-line?

  7. What? … Woops, sorry, competely lost track of this thread.

    I have two books that I'd reach for if called upon. One is Brendan Kelso's "Shakespeare for Kids", the other is Cass Foster's "60 Minute Shakespeare."

    I can't really speak to the efficacy of either in the classroom, because I've never used them nor do I have anything else to compare them to. They would have to serve as my baseline from which I'd then decide what I liked and didn't like. I know that I think Kelso needs to include more source material (he goes "modern translation" too much for my taste, and when he forces in original material it feels awkward). I do not yet have enough experience with the other one to make a judgement.

  8. I agree on "modern translation". It's totally unnecessary and NOT "Shakespeare".
    Editing, other than for content and/or time constraints, is necessary at times, but it's discretionary–a word here or there *within* the context of the line or scene. "Translation" is the teachers job in my opinion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *