Last night my fifth grade students performed Julius Caesar, using an abbreviated but otherwise unaltered version of Shakespeare’s original script. I’ve been teaching Shakespeare to my second, third and now fifth graders for the last ten years, and there is nothing more rewarding than watching my kids perform on stage and work as a team backstage in order to make the production happen without a hitch. By the time we actually perform for an audience, the kids are well versed in the story, the characters and the language, as well as the skills and techniques of theatre, so much so that for the entire fifty minute performance, I simply sit back and watch the kids work.
It’s one of my favorite moments of the school year.
This process began ten years ago with a class of second graders who also performed Julius Caesar. One autumn morning during my first year of teaching, I said to my students, who were shockingly inattentive at that moment:
“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.”
This phrase, stolen from Marc Antony, may not have been enough to get the class’s attention, but the fact that I had shouted it from atop my desk in an act of first-year desperation did get their attention. A student then asked me, “What’s that mean?”
Twenty minutes later I had summarized Julius Caesar to my students, and for the first time that year, they were blessedly quiet, attentive and engaged.
I had discovered something important: If I am passionate about something, so too will my students.
A day later the kids had begun to ask me if they could perform the play for their parents.
That first year the students and I adapted the script myself, translating most of the lines into modem English, and the kids loved it. We spent the rest of the year reading adaptations of many of Shakespeare’s other plays, and each time, the kids fell more in love with his plays, the stories behind them, and reading in general.
Since then, I have moved from modern English adaptations to the original scripts, and the students have responded well. In the past ten years, we have performed nine different plays, both tragedies and comedies, including MacBeth, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew, and more. This was the first year that I performed the same play twice, but having never taught students using the original script, I thought it was time.
When I stepped on stage last night to greet the audience, I saw something remarkable: Five of the original twenty students in my first class were sitting in the audience, including my very first Caesar, the same girl who had piped up ten years ago and begun this crazy journey by asking, “What’s that mean?” Though our performances are not advertised and typically done just for family and friends, these kids had heard about this year’s play and had decided to attend. Juniors in high school now, they sat quietly in the audience until the show was over and then charged the stage with stories from ten years ago, moments and memories that I had long since forgotten that had lived in their hearts for all this time.
There are times when I wonder if I might one day quit teaching to focus solely on my writing, but it is moments like last night that remind me how much I love to teach, and how I will simply have to continue to find a way to fit both writing and teaching into my busy life.
Giving it up would break my heart.