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Introducing Shakespeare to K-2 Learners

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How do elementary school students celebrate the 400th birthday of William Shakespeare, one of the most famous writers ever? The students in the K-2 classes at Kendall Demonstration Elementary School (KDES) had the unique opportunity to tour the First Folio traveling exhibit during its stop at Gallaudet University.

The First Folio, on loan from the Folger Shakespeare Library, is a rare printed manuscript of Shakespeare's plays published in 1623. The exhibit also features a model of the Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London, an interactive video game, and theatrical props; and at Gallaudet, a complementary exhibit gave the history of deaf theater performing Shakespeare in American Sign Language and displayed performance videos and theater tickets, programs, posters, and props.

Shakespeare writing exercise

KDES teacher Tammy Murphy explained how she introduced Shakespeare to her second grade students. "When we found out about 'The First Folio' exhibit at Gallaudet, the K-2 teachers discussed how we would cover Shakespeare before the students took the tour. Each class had its own way of introducing Shakespeare into the classroom, and we split the tour into three days--one day for each class."

Globe Theatre Model

In preparation for their tour of the exhibit, the second grade class viewed an animated version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. When the film ended, the students started talking about the story. "They loved the magic potion part and how Nick Bottoms's head turned into a donkey's. We had a small improv skit in our classroom after the movie," said Murphy.

As a result of their enthusiasm, Murphy decided to extend the scope of the project. She introduced the concept of a play script. She assigned each student a character from A Midsummer Night's Dream and then had him or her act it out. The students then explored and acted out short version scripts of Henry V and Hamlet. The class read about Shakespeare's life and where the plays took place. Student Johan Hewapathirana learned that "many, many years ago, William Shakespeare wrote long plays and shared them with his boss. The boss liked his plays so they made them. He was from England."

Creating a folio

The students discussed how Shakespeare wrote comedic, tragic, and historical plays. They studied the Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and labeled each part of the stage: stage, trap door, and where the groundlings (the audience) sat. "William Shakespeare was a playwright. His 37 different plays are found in a very thick book. He worked hard in writing, and all his writings were good," said student Angelina Kivitis. "He shared his plays, and people followed his scripts to make them. The actors acted on the stage in front of an audience. In the past, there were no seats in the audience. Everyone was patient and stood until the end of the play." 

Gallaudet Shakespeare Theatre display

The students studied the characters of three plays--A Midsummer Night's Dream, Henry V, and Hamlet--and what costumes and props they needed. "I enjoyed Hamlet because they used swords," said student Jeremy Wilson. "The king died, his son was upset at his uncle for killing him, and at the end of the story, the queen died, too."   The day of the tour arrived, and it was time to go and celebrate Shakespeare. The Gallaudet volunteer tour guides were amazed at how well-prepared the students were for the exhibit and by the great questions they asked.

Computer Shakespeare Avatar

The heart of the exhibit was the First Folio book on display in a glass cabinet, opened to a scene from Hamlet. Student Cameron Brown summed up his feeling about seeing the actual book. "I was surprised that the First Folio was thick. It's real. It's not fake. I know so because I saw it. We cannot touch it. It is protected by a glass case. The book is REAL. I'm not kidding. After Shakespeare died, the book was brought to America, and it is now protected. We care about the book as we look back and remember Shakespeare."

ASL Sign for Shakespeare

Happy 400th birthday, William Shakespeare!

(All photos courtesy of Tammy Murphy)