Kiddo!-funded teacher grant affords William Shakespeare Unit at Old Mill School and has kids studying tragedies, comedies and some pretty epic soliloquies. Oh yeah, and broadsword fighting.
By Candace Murphy
It’s mid-morning on the Old Mill School playground, and amid the concrete jungle off Lovell, there’s healthy parrying between two broadsword fighters. One combatant, dressed in a turquoise pullover, raises her sword – actually a three-foot wooden pole - high atop her head with a guttural yell. In defense, her purple parka-clad opponent answers with a shout and parries the thrust.
New physical education class?
Nope. It’s all a part of Shakespearience for Old Mill fourth graders, a grant that fourth-grade teacher Karen Levin has applied for and received the past four years, and one of 23 that were awarded throughout the district this year by the Kiddo! Teacher Grants Committee. The Shakespearience unit, which highlights some of the classic works of William Shakespeare, has been a success story in the fourth-grade curriculum.
“The kids get so engaged with the drama of the stories,” says Levin, taking a time-out during an early recess break at Old Mill. “The dramas are full of guts and gore and love. It appeals to all kinds. And of course, they get the opportunity to do some broadsword fighting, which they can’t get enough of.”
Most parents with older children in the school district might be familiar with the seventh grade Kiddo!-funded Shakespearience unit. This fourth-grade program is slightly different, mostly in that it exposes kids of a younger age to William Shakespeare. In addition to that addictive broadsword fighting, the students also study soliloquies and sonnets of Shakespeare, tragedies, comedies and the old London Globe Theater. Public speaking skills are also an area of focus in the program.
“It does amazing things for the quiet students,” says Levin. “There are some students that throughout the year, you barely hear their voices. And then by the end of this, there they are, spouting monologues from ‘Macbeth.’”
Adding Shakespeare to the classroom was a pet project for Levin. Having graduated from Boston University with a Masters in Directing, Levin spent a lot of time directing theater in Boston before moving to California to raise her family and become a school teacher (“I never really was able to find many paying jobs in theater,” she quips). To feed the part of her soul that loved the theater, Levin directed the variety show at Edna Maguire in the 11 years she taught there.
When she moved to Old Mill though, Levin found there was no variety show to direct. Then the youngest son of Shakespearience founder Kitty Thompson – the local woman who created the Mill Valley Shakespearience non-profit in 2014 – walked into Levin’s fourth-grade classroom. Levin and Thompson soon began talking about more than just Thompson’s son’s progress in the class. The idea of a Shakespeare program for fourth graders was born.
“What an amazing woman,” Thompson says of Levin. “She and I discussed bringing our program into her class. The program cottoned quickly, and the following year, a fifth-grade unit was added (by the PTA).”
The Shakespearience project for the fourth graders lasts six sessions. Thompson stars with background on Shakespeare, the Globe Theatre and the time period, and then moves on to talk about the meaty works: “Macbeth,” “Hamlet,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
“It’s a storytelling thing,” says Levin. “And woven into the storytelling are the monologues. They are given the monologues to learn, and then some years, she has them doing mini-performances in the classroom. The last session is usually the broadsword fighting. It’s never boring.”
Watching the students find their voices, not to mention prepping the stage for when they study Shakespeare in middle school, is one of the greatest joys for Levin and Thompson.
Her first year, she recalls a girl who was very quiet, never raised her hand and hadn’t found her voice. Two years ago, another boy entered Levin’s classroom, who was reserved and remained in the background.
“They both glommed onto it all, unbelievably,” says Levin. “It changed them. It gave them confidence. It allowed them both to be a presence they were not,” says Levin. “That feeds my soul, personally. I believe from a curriculum education, it touches so many bases: oral presentation, confidence, language, comprehension, character development, theme. This hits on something that is not touched upon in other ways.”
Levin wants to see Shakespearience spread to the other elementary schools in the district, like other Kiddo!-funded programs, like music, dance, and history.
“It’s so well received. There is so much excitement surrounding it, and the kids love it,” says Levin. “I’ve heard from the older kids that when they get into seventh grade, they are right on it. It turns into what is really a progressive program.”
The fourth-grade Shakespearience unit is one of 23 Kiddo!-Funded Teachers Grants that were awarded this year. Here are some other Kiddo!-funded Teacher Grants that have been awarded throughout the school district.