Decoding Shakespeare: Utah festival teaches the teachers

Published August 18, 2013 5:43 pm
Lessons • Kinetic games help students overcome aversion to unfamiliar language.
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Cedar City • Teaching Shakespeare to middle- and high-school kids isn't like introducing Romeo to Juliet and watching the sparks fly.

"They look at you like, 'Ooo-kay,' " said Nanette Kearl, dance director at Clayton Middle School in Salt Lake City.

"I have theater kids, and there are still roadblocks," said Holly Morris, a teacher at the Las Vegas Academy for the Arts.

So they came to Michael Bahr, Shakespeare teacher to the teachers. And Bahr, the education director at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, knows the complaints:

"We can't understand him." "Why does he talk that way?" "Why doesn't he speak in normal English?"

But despite all the "thous" and "forsooths," the Bard actually helped create normal English.

Anyone who's had "too much of a good thing," told a friend "the long and the short of it" or worried something would disappear "into thin air" is, perhaps unknowingly, quoting him.

Tracing our linguistic roots isn't the only reason to keep Shakespeare in the schools, Bahr said.

"I don't think Shakespeare has all the answers, but he certainly asks all the questions. Every question asked by man is in his plays," he said. "We are better human beings when we understand ourselves through his works, and the key to do that is here in the public schools."

To help make his plays relevant for modern kids, the Utah Shakespeare Festival offers teacher-training workshops designed to help educators bring the Bard to the masses.

So how do you understand one of the greatest writers of the English language? Ditch English altogether.

On a recent day, Bahr put the group of about 10 secondary teachers into pairs and told them to describe what they had for lunch — in gibberish. Rather than words, they used noises, gestures and inflection to communicate their meaning.

He also asked the classroom leaders to lurch around the room like monsters, toss each other a sort of imaginary baton with a "schwing!" noise and mime to help a friend explain why they were late to work.

It's all designed to help teachers break out of the typical classroom mold and into something more kinetic.

"It's when we learn to have fun, when we learn to play with the text that suddenly it becomes not the works of William Shakespeare, but the plays of William Shakespeare," Bahr said.

Liz Dixon, an English and publications teacher from West Lafayette, Ind., said the tactics she learned will help her teach more than just Shakespeare. After all, he's far from the only school subject that can be a tough sell to high-school students.

"I can use [these tools] in my other classes too," she said. "There are some plays I haven't brought the same excitement to."

Tim Lineback brings his own enthusiasm for Shakespeare to his English as a second language, science and English classes at Horizonte, an alternative high school in Salt Lake City.

"I want them to know the richness of life," he said. "I don't want them to just be making a buck and making ends meet."


Twitter: @lwhitehurst —

Looking for more?

For more information about the Utah Shakespeare Festival's educational offerings, visit: bard.org/education/classes.html#.UgfAyFO9zUh


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