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A Summer With The Bard

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The Folger hosts many groups of students each year, but this one was different. The animated, but mostly well-behaved, students were not schoolchildren. They were 25 American and 15 British secondary school teachers participating in the Folger's Teaching Shakespeare Institute, sponsored and operated this year in conjunction with England's Royal Shakespeare Company. The institute gave the teachers a chance to work with topnotch scholars and performers, explore ways to make Shakespeare come alive for their students, and get to know one another. It also seemed to bring out the Bard in them.

"I don't think I'll ever teach Shakespeare the same again,'' says Janet Dale, a teacher at HoffmanKensington (Minn.) High School, echoing the sentiments of many of the participants. "I've learned there is so much more you can bring into it.''

Although both the Folger and the RSC regularly sponsor institutes for teachers, this past summer was the first time the two collaborated on a program. The joint effort was the result of a meeting in an English pub between Peggy O'Brien, the Folger's director of education, and Tony Hill, her counterpart at the RSC. After discovering that they both were doing very similar work with teachers, O'Brien and Hill discussed the possibility of a joint program.

"The principle was really simple,'' Hill says. "Teachers have to have an academic background to what they're teaching. Therefore, you want scholarship. And you cannot do better in Shakespeare scholarship than the Folger. The second important thing is seeing a play as something written to be performed. Therefore, you've got to study performance. You're going to have a hard job to do better than going to the Royal Shakespeare Company.''

The discussions evolved into a onemonth program: two weeks in Stratford-on-Avon, Shakespeare's birthplace, where the teachers studied performance and worked with actors and voice coaches, and two weeks at the Folger, where they continued performance work, began developing their own curriculum, and used the library's extensive collection for archival research and textual interpretations. Each teacher's travel expenses and lodging were fully paid, and each received a weekly stipend of $250.

More than 500 American teachers applied for the 25 spaces available. In addition to a filling out a short application, teachers were required to submit letters of recommendation from a principal or department head, a fellow teacher, and a current student, and they had to answer a few questions from O'Brien. One pertained to the applicant's stamina. "Something like, 'Can you deal with jet lag?'' O'Brien says.

For the participants, stamina turned out to be an important trait. The
month-long whirlwind started the day after the American teachers landed in England, with a backstage tour of the RSC theater, voice lessons, and introductory lectures. The fast pace never stopped. In addition to Shakespeare, the schedule was liberally peppered with evenings at the theater, sightseeing trips, pub suppers, and baseball games.

"We're tired,'' said Anna BurdettSmith, a secondary school teacher from Yorkshire, England, during the final week of the program. "But not tired of Shakespeare.''

The summer institute's approach to teaching Shakespeare also sets it apart from other programs. Absolutely central is the belief that having students act out Shakespeare's plays is the most effective way to teach them. Although most of the teachers had no intention of appearing on the stage, all studied acting techniques and received voice coaching during the course.

"I had always relied on the lecture technique to do Shakespeare,'' says John Zdrazil, who teaches at West Central High School in Elbow Lake, Minn. "Now, I'll be getting my students up on their feet and getting them acting.''

The program also offered teachers a chance to learn not only from some of the world's foremost Shakespearians but also from each other.

"One of the best things about this program is talking to people from America and other people from your own country,'' Burdett-Smith says. "Teachers very often are on their own, or feel on their own.''

O'Brien concurs: "One of the fabulous things that happens when teachers come together like this is that they have time to schmooze with other teachers. And if you're schmoozing at the same time that you have a pretty high-level intellectual program and also a performance program, that's a great thing.''

At a curriculum session during the final week of the program, one teacher after another offered techniques for classroom instruction.

Martha Christian, a master teacher from Farmingdale (N.Y.) High School, told the group that she has her students watch videotapes or films of different productions of the same scene from a play--Hamlet's famous soliloquy, for example--and then tape themselves acting it out. "Invariably, my kids compare themselves to Olivier and say they're about the same,'' she said.

Ideas were tossed about for the full hour of the session and then again as teachers met in small groups for lunch. Shakespeare's spirit was everywhere. Summoned to meet friends for lunch, one teacher answered, "Anon, I come apace.'' Discussing an upcoming rock concert, two teachers compared Bob Dylan's lyrics, unfavorably, to Shakespeare's. Said Zdrazil: "If there were a Shakespeare shampoo, we'd probably be using it.''

Although O'Brien and Hill only obtained enough funding for one joint institute, they hope to raise the money to repeat the program. (The Folger plans to hold its regular summer institute for U.S. teachers next year.) Both feel the program was a success. The participants share their enthusiasm. "This has been an incredible experience,'' says Lynn Lawrence, a teacher from Osbourn Park High School in Manassas, Va. "I think the only problem I'm going to have because of it is somehow not teaching Shakespeare all year long.''

The experience seems to have bonded the group into one happy Shakespearian family. "We've all got on very well together,'' says Ron Norman, a secondary school teacher from Middlesbrough, England. "The plane will seem very empty going back without the Americans.''

In addition to new friendships and knowledge, the teachers have gained something else of value: ownership.

Says Hill: "These people can say, 'This is mine; I own it. This is my play, and my kids are going to do it.' You don't have to have four Ph.D.s and be stuck in a university to be good at Shakespeare. You don't have to have a standard Southern English accent and work on stage to be good at Shakespeare. You can be a junior high school teacher from the Midwest and be an expert in Shakespeare.''

Debra Ladestro
For more information about programs offered by the Folger, or to be included on their mailing list, write to: Peggy O'Brien, Head of Education, Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 E. Capitol St., S.E., Washington, DC 20003.

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