In sixth grade, the study of Shakespeare goes beyond the page and onto the stage, with the entire sixth grade forming the cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The work takes place both in their regular English classes as well as through a trimester of performing arts classes.
This collaboration, and the opportunity to “physicalize” the language of Shakespeare, helps students to absorb the material more fully, says Katie De Vries, director of performing arts.
“Our faculty does a lot of co-curricular work, and this is one of the best integrations we have, bringing English and performing arts together,” she says. “Teaching Shakespeare not just as literature but as performance helps students to create and inhabit a character, to feel and express the emotions Shakespeare wrote.”
Tom Kuck, sixth grade English teacher, agrees. “The students gain an intimate knowledge of the play,” Mr. Kuck says. “Performing it allows them to show that they own the language in a way that essays and tests don’t convey.”
In addition to Ms. De Vries and Mr. Kuck, students receive guidance from two longtime friends of the performing arts program, former sixth grade teacher—and alumni parent—Gene Santarelli P ’05, who served as a vocal coach, and Bobbi Crabtree P ’07, ’13, who acted as costume director. “To have all of this person power dedicated to Shakespeare is very valuable,” Mr. Kuck says.
The collaboration makes a difference, agrees Ms. De Vries. Sixth grade is a pivotal year intellectually, physically, and emotionally, says Ms. De Vries, and the Shakespeare performance unites students for a common creative cause, which is important during a time when so many changes are taking place. “This is the year they begin competitive team sports at school—they all play basketball together in the winter,” she says, “so they come into this collaboration as an established team.”
Mr. Kuck agrees. “Sixth grade is a huge bonding experience at St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s, and our coaches and teachers establish a healthy, supportive dynamic among the students. In basketball, the strong players look out for the learners. The same dynamic takes place with Shakespeare. The experienced actors were comforting to those new to the footlights.”
Mr. Kuck, who taught on the high school level for 18 years before coming to St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s, enjoys teaching Shakespeare at this level. “Students very quickly let you know how they feel about the material. As a teacher, I’ve learned that people can be traumatized by a pedantic approach to Shakespeare. The emphasis on the performance engages students in a way that doesn’t put them off.”
That, he says, is the goal. “To the degree they come away from this trimester comfortable and confident wading into Shakespeare with a proper and patient approach, they will find that Shakespeare is worth encountering further throughout their lives.”