16th Century Literature Inspires 21st Century Students

Neuse Charter 4th and 5th grade classes learn more about the works of Shakespeare during an in-school performance by the Burning Coal Theater Company in early February.(photo credit: Shannon Mann)

By: Shannon Mann

Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, MacBeth, Othello…more than likely you read most of these in high school English class or maybe you skimmed the Cliff Notes. Either way, the works of Shakespeare became an ingrained part of your high school memories.

At Neuse Charter School, the Bard’s works are being introduced a bit earlier to students. In fact, elementary students are experiencing the comedies and tragedies as part of NCS’s Artists in the School program.

Actors from the Burning Coal Theater Company in Raleigh perform for Neuse Charter students in early February. (photo credit: Shannon Mann)

Throughout February students in the 4th and 5th grade attended workshops and a performance by the Burning Coal Theater Company.

Geri Hubbard, one of the organizers of the school’s artist program, said they came up with the idea as a way to inspire younger students to learn about Shakespeare.

“Most kids don’t experience his works until high school,” she said. “We want to get them involved much earlier in the hopes they would enjoy it and not see it for the first time their 9th grade year.”

The acting team from Raleigh, N.C. has performed at NCS several times over the school’s 10-year history in the Smithfield Selma community.

NCS 5th graders from Mrs. Tyson’s Language Arts class act out scenes they created based on Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. (photo credit: Kristin Tyson)

“They aren’t here every year as we try to stagger our artist programs and the grades that get to experience it,” said Hubbard. “But when they do perform here they are always well received.”

Nearly 140 students attended the workshops and more than 170 watched the performance, as a few third graders were also able to attend.

During the in-classroom workshops students partnered with each other to perform a scene from Taming of the Shrew.

Kristin Tyson, 5th grade language arts teacher, explained that the students were told to think about a setting where the particular scene could take place in today’s time and to think of two characters that could be having an argument. “Like a pencil and a pen or a bowl and a spoon,” Tyson said. Students then acted out the scene in front of their peers while the audience tried to guess about the characters they were portraying.

5th graders at Neuse Charter collaborate on a project to rewrite and act out a scene from Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. (photo credit: Kristin Tyson)

While Tyson hasn’t had any classroom instruction around Shakespeare she thinks the opportunity of interacting with the theater company has great benefits for her students.  “It exposes them to interesting language and shows them they can understand Shakespeare despite all the funny sounding words. “

Gabby Carpenter, a 5th grader, may have found her future thanks to the experience. “I liked the part when we got to do our own scene because it let us get creative,” she said. “I now have an interest in directing and acting.”

During the in-school performance students learned to interpret insults from Romeo and Juliet and learned how funny A Midsummer Night’s Dream could be when translated to plain English.

Burning Coal Theater Company’s Jennifer Markowitz watches Neuse Charter School 5th graders perform creative adaptations of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. The theater company is based in Raleigh and provided the Smithfield Selma charter school with classroom workshops and a performance based on Shakespeare’s works during the month of February. (photo credit: Kristin Tyson)

While the actors from Burning Coal also worked with the school’s drama classes, the overwhelming amount of comments came from elementary students that enjoyed breaking down the language barrier and opening the door to some of the world’s most well-known literary works.

“I thought that it was cool,” said Kennedy Holloman, 5th grader. “I enjoyed learning about Shakespeare and watching people be creative. I would so do this again!”