Jewels in Young Mouths: Shakespeare in Dawson’s Fifth-Grade Humanities Program

Angela's Ashes recalls author Frank McCourt’s harrowing, impoverished childhood living in 1930s Ireland. In this Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, McCourt writes of discovering Shakespeare as a critically ill ten-year-old. Struggling to recover from typhoid fever, young McCourt has access to books for the first time while in the hospital. In his poverty, fear, and loneliness, he is overwhelmed by the power of Shakespeare’s writing and finds himself repeating a speech from Henry VIII, "I do believe / Induced by potent circumstances / That thou art mine enemy.”  The words of Shakespeare, McCourt writes as an old man, felt to his deprived and desperate young self, "like having jewels in my mouth."
I'm sure I'm not the only English teacher to wish more students felt as McCourt did (and it is perhaps worth mentioning that McCourt was a career English teacher himself before Angela's Ashes made him rich and famous). More often, what we hear when we introduce the Bard to students is Shakespeare is boring, old-fashioned, or impossible to understand. And, of course, it's not just kids who feel this way, but an alarming number of parents as well. In a twenty-first century defined by technology, instant access to information, and popular entertainment richer in special effects than in wisdom, ideas, or character development, why should one devote several hours to a complicated play that's nearly 500 years old and presented in archaic, ornamented dialogue?

This is an easy question to answer: because it's among the greatest of human achievements, one that may enrich your life immeasurably. However, my purpose here isn't to sell Shakespeare to everybody, but to address what may be a more subtle question: What possessed me last February, as a brand new Dawson humanities teacher, to insist that my first major project with the kids be to read, understand, and perform a Shakespeare play, The Tempest -- in the original Shakespearean language! -- with 50-plus fifth graders?

Actually, the answers are the same. We did it because it's the best stuff in the world, and we had a great time with it. We did it because studying The Tempest allowed the students to consider issues they had studied all year, such as community, culture, economics, politics, and humans’ need to depend on one another. Shakespeare, seen through the lens of Dawson’s Core Beliefs, is some of the most beautiful and expressive poetry ever written in English. And we did it because Dawson students DESERVE to study difficult material, even if (and, perhaps, especially when) they’d rather be playing Fortnite or watching a movie. Like I told them, if you can do Shakespeare - especially in front of your parents - then you can do ANYTHING!

In the end, the students appreciated and enjoyed the challenge of Shakespeare. Certainly, I did. And isn’t that what really matters? Often, when students ask, “Why do we have to do this?” I answer jokingly, “To amuse me…” As they stood on the stage in the Forman Music Building Multi-Purpose Room embodying heroes, villains, magical creatures and young lovers, and speaking centuries-old verse that had taken them weeks to understand and memorize, they were enjoying themselves. And they looked immensely satisfied the next day when they asked if we had time left in the year to do another play. And why shouldn’t they have enjoyed themselves and felt proud of the project? For a little while there, they’d had jewels in their mouths.

Simon Hunt has taught at The Alexander Dawson School since February 2018. He co-edited a book largely about Shakespeare, Renaissance Culture and the Everyday (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), and authored one of the chapters. His book of poems, Lesser Magi (Hummingbird Press, 2018) contains several Shakespearean sonnets. His first play, the ten-minute Re-run, will premiere in January 2019. Shakespeare (whose school teacher, by the way, was named “Simon Hunt”) wrote three dozen of the greatest full-length plays in history before his death. According to legend, this occurred on his fifty-second birthday. Simon is 51, so he has a ways to go...

The Alexander Dawson School

The Alexander Dawson School at Rainbow Mountain, an independent school located on 33-acres in the community of Summerlin, is Nevada’s first Stanford University Challenge Success partner school for students in early childhood through grade eight. Utilizing the unique Challenge Success framework, Dawson uses research-based strategies and programs that emphasize student academics, wellbeing, and a healthy school-life balance to create more engaged, motivated, and resilient learners and leaders. At Dawson, students achieve their individual potential while savoring life and meeting the challenges of the world.