As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, I’m a 6th grade teacher on Leave of Absence. Because I’m on Leave, I’m not feeling the usual May fatigue, or writing this post with the same “Voice of May,” as described by Dolce Bellezza in one of her posts last week. Instead, I’m feeling some sadness that, this year, I’m not part of what happens in my classroom every May/June. MACBETH is what happens at this time of year!
For the last 16 years, my teammates and I have introduced our 6th graders to William Shakespeare. It’s our final big project of the school year, and it’s my favorite. Our recipe for fun works like this: I usually start the unit on April 23rd, the Bard’s birthday and death day, a piece of information that captures the hearts of 6th graders immediately. To build some background understanding for the play, we discuss readings and watch films about Shakespeare’s life, the theater during Shakespeare’s day, and life during Elizabethan times, that sort of thing. My next step is to read a prose version of MACBETH to the class. Many years ago, I found a used copy of Bernard Miles’s Five Tales From Shakespeare, long out of print. It’s a teaching treasure! The prose retelling of the story is perfect for young people of all ages, takes me about 40 minutes to read aloud to the class, and you can hear a pin drop each year as I read it.
After the students have become familiar with the storyline of the play, I pass out our scripts. (We do an abbreviated version of the play, a series of “skits” of the most important scenes, but with Shakespeare’s language kept intact.) First, I read the script aloud, with the students following along, so they can hear the language. We then take a couple of days to read the script together, and I translate everything into a 6th grader’s understanding. Then, as they become more and more familiar with the play, parts are chosen and memorizing begins. (Incidentally, the photo at the left was taken during a rehearsal, and the student is doing a very humorous job of overacting in the role of the drunken porter!)
Another delightful tradition and wonderful part of this experience is a collaboration with the Seattle Children’s Theater. Each May, we ask one of their very talented actor/teachers to come to our classrooms for a “dramashop.” These drama workshops are part of the SCT’s educational outreach program, but individualized for our study of MACBETH. The teacher spends 1 hour in each of our classrooms, introducing the kids to the magic fun of theater and Shakespearean acting. This hour provides the spark, and the kids begin to put heart and soul into our rehearsals.
Performances are in our own classrooms (each class performing separately with their own unique interpretation of the play), during the last week of the school year, with desks pushed back, everyone in black t-shirts, and parents and grandparents in attendance. When the performance is over, the students answer questions from the audience.
I get goosebumps thinking about those performances, year after year. What a pleasure to hear the Bard’s language being spoken so eloquently by my 6th graders, and what a delight to see the pride of accomplishment on their faces. They learn so much during this unit. You’re never too young to learn to love Shakespeare and his language!