Teaching Children Shakespeare

Teaching Will, a new book by Mel Ryane
Teaching Will, a new book by Mel Ryane

“Did you know him?”

“Oh, no. William Shakespeare lived over four hundred and forty years ago.”

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“Yeah, but did you know him?”

It’s one of the first questions a child asks Mel Ryane, actor, director and founder of The Shakespeare Club, an afterschool program for elementary school students. In her new book, Teaching Will: What Shakespeare and 10 Kids Gave Me That Hollywood Couldn’t, Ryane provides sharp insights into the lessons learned from teaching theater to children.

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Ryane became a school volunteer after a parents’ group requested help from the community. She felt lost and empty in her arts career. After finding fulfillment as a reading tutor, she proposed a Shakespeare Club to the principal of the school.

Most of the kids in the school came from low-income families. Ryane explains that the public school’s population was 95 percent non-white, while neighboring school districts have demographics that are quite the opposite.

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“The school had a dedicated principal and teaching staff, but these days, civilian help was the key to success in public schools,” she writes.

Children from third through fifth grade showed up for her afterschool club. In all, there were two boys and 10 girls. For the first 90-minute session, she set down the following rules:

1) We help each other.

2) We share with each other.

3) We honor the works of William Shakespeare.

Following discussions and activities, the kids journal their thoughts about what they’ve experienced.

Dear Jirnal, What I learned about Shakespeare? I learned that he had 3 chledren and his fist jode was to be a water doy. On stage he wasll so was a riter. he was also a play riter,” writes one child.

As with most children, discipline and focus prove to be a problem for the group. The kids hide, steal markers, hold paper wars and argue with each other. It causes Ryane to wonder if she didn’t make a mistake. She imagines herself on a road trip in Texas, ordering local barbeque and a longneck. Bringing herself back from the brink, she decides to keep the children preoccupied, and bribe them with promises of pizza and parties when necessary.

As the children learn more about Shakespeare’s life, she rewards good behavior and takes away privileges when they misbehave. The method is successful. They begin to study A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with an eye toward performing in front of the school. Casting is a challenge. There’s doubling and even tripling of roles. Some of the girls must play male parts, and one child is unhappy with playing Nick Bottom.

Throughout the book, Ryane faces the challenges that come from working with children, along with problems associated with theater. Some kids will drop out of the play because of an unstable home life or their feelings will be hurt by other children during rehearsal. She closes each chapter with a lesson plan, a bit of advice for anyone planning to work with children.

Ryane presents each child as an individual. Through these deftly drawn portrayals, readers get a sense of their personalities and challenges. She tells them that if they can do Shakespeare, they can do anything. Teaching Will is a light, fun and engaging book that, in the end, is also quite moving.


Mel Ryane
Mel Ryane

Questions and Answers with Mel Ryane

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Is there anything in your background that prepared you for teaching?
I had quite a lot of teaching and coaching experience with both professional adult and child actors. What I was not prepared for was the classroom chaos in a public school. It’s very different to be working with professional adults or one-on-one with professional children and facing the negotiations of a classroom. This was my learning curve.

What qualities did you need to teach Shakespeare to children?
My background as a classically-trained actor gave me the tools needed to pass theatre craft onto these children. My experience with Shakespeare, as a professional, gave me the excitement to turn them onto the plays of the Bard. But, let me be clear, I don’t believe you need my particular history to do this well with kids. Teachers can read the Cliff’s Notes to a Shakespeare play and get kids jazzed on the stories. Hamlet has a ghost, murder, sword fights, a sad girlfriend, a teenager fighting with his mom and revenge. Kids get this stuff.

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In the book, you touched on transitioning from a working actor to an artist/teacher. Do you have any advice for artists or theatermakers who are considering using their skills to teach others?
The eye-opener about teaching is that it doesn’t become clear — until you are passing information forward — how much you actually know. Any professional theatre artist has accrued an enormous amount of knowledge that is hugely valuable to others. Theatre artists have to get along with each other, have to listen, have to develop curiosity and empathy. Students can attain enormous life skills from theatre discipline. It doesn’t have to be all about showmanship and performing. There is so much to be gained from identifying with a character’s motives, goals, and struggles. I often chose the shyest kids to be in the Shakespeare Club. As long as they expressed a real interest I brought them on board and witnessed them blossom. Reading their journal writing aloud to fellow students was extremely powerful. To anyone considering jumping into teaching others, I say, “Jump!”

What is the best experience you’ve had as a theater teacher?
Best? Yikes, that’s hard. Over my six-year run with the Shakespeare Club I had a zillion great experiences. I’ll give you one example:

I was rehearsing Romeo and Juliet in a private rehearsal with an eight-year-old Juliet and a nine-year-old Romeo. These kids understood the text and the plot, but it was almost impossible to get them to look at each other. I mean, really, this brand new stuff for little kids and the intimacy of looking someone in the eye is something we adults take for granted. I explained to them that the audience was going to have trouble understanding the relationship unless…I asked the Juliet to just try, as the talented actress she was, to give it a go. And she did. She looked right into Romeo’s eyes and said her lines with an amazing clear truth.

Then, from somewhere deep in his jacket pocket, the Romeo pulled out a candy sucker and handed it to her.

She found courage and he found gallantry.

Adults wept when they saw the performance of Romeo and Juliet.

In your opinion, how does learning Shakespeare change children?
Shakespeare’s three main themes in the plays are power, revenge and love.

Take a glance across any schoolyard at a lunch break and you’ll see kids struggling with these themes every day.

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So they identify. I would tell them Shakespeare wrote big, fat speeches for his characters because the feelings were so huge. Kids have gigantic feelings. Again, they identify.

Kids want power. The word they hear the most is, “No.” What they get when working on a Shakespearean play is a big, “Yes” and they are empowered.

The arts have a difficult time with funding, particularly in public schools. How was your program funded?
I was a volunteer and worked for free. I did need money for props, food, journals, pens, crayons, copying, mailing and T-shirts. I never used costumes and would dissuade anyone from using costumes. They are distracting and emphasize cuteness. which isn’t a great goal. I had all the kids dressed in blue jeans and a Shakespeare Club T-shirt for the performances.

The parents’ booster club gave me the budget I needed, and it wasn’t a lot. I think I had $325 the first year and it grew to about $1,300 by the final year. Go after the parents; they want this for their kids.

What are your future plans?
My plans include offering workshops to students in schools, to possible volunteers and to teachers. Over my years of introducing Shakespeare’s works to kids I developed a pedagogy that works and I love to pass that forward. I would be so happy if Shakespeare Clubs mushroomed all over the country.

So much has been written about how arts programs inspire success in math and the sciences. We know this to be true. We all know that arts budgets have been slashed, but here’s what’s also true: There are artists all across this nation who would love to be included in schools as after-school teachers or assembly guests.

Ask them. Reach out. Everybody wins.

Creating and running the Shakespeare Club changed my life. For anyone considering volunteering with kids I say, “Start small, if you like. Become a reading mentor, or teach a kid how to build a birdhouse or knit a scarf. Children want what we all want: to be seen, to be heard and to be acknowledged. This is so doable.”