Longview Shakespeare students learn more than “To Be or Not To Be”
Sixth-graders Sarah Sagers as Bianca and Alissa Riches as Kate entertain Longview students and families during Longview Elementary’s “The Taming of the Shrew” vignette during its Shakespeare unit. (Julie Slama/City Journals)
By Julie Slama | Julie@mycityjournals.com
Longview sixth-grader Brie Cooper grew up hearing Shakespearean lines rehearsed around her home.
As the third Cooper daughter, she watched her older sisters perform as Shakespeare, himself, as well as Hermia and Peaseblossom in “A Midsummer’s Night Dream.”
“They told me it’s the biggest thing in sixth-grade and it’s so much fun,” said Brie, who, despite her shyness, gained confidence to play Queen Titania in “A Midsummer’s Night Dream.” “They talk and laugh about their memories so much I couldn’t wait to do it myself. It’s been a lot of work and I’ve learned so much from the plays. Once I put on the costume, it just became magical.”
That magic has been why for 20 years, Longview sixth-grade teachers have not just taught Shakespeare, but turned their students into thespians after learning about the time period from making family crests and a coat of arms to learning more than 100 things about the Renaissance.
It began when now fifth-grade teacher Tina Nilsson was inspired by both a college “Intro to Shakespeare” class she was taking as well as a Washington Elementary class in Salt Lake City preparing to perform Shakespeare.
“I got the bug…to share Shakespeare with students,” she said. “I gathered scripts from, what was then, an outdated, no longer being published, theatre book called, ‘Shake Hands with Shakespeare’ and I brought that to my first job, here at Longview Elementary, hoping to begin a program wherein children could perform and value great literature like Shakespeare.”
That was two decades ago.
With 32 students and a para-educator, who helped part-time, Nilsson attempted to create a Shakespeare festival, complete with jousting Nerf swords, puppet shows and much like the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City.
Although they combined with the other sixth-grade class and created props and costumes out of T-shirts, Nilsson went back to the drawing board to figure out a better way to teach the unit. The next year, she returned job sharing with now retired teacher Dale Johnson.
“Dale was excited, talented and well suited for this role (of leading director). She spearheaded an entire new view on how to accomplish the task. She made the classroom into the stage and incorporated dance and music. She organized parents to sew with material donated, practiced in the classroom and organized Renaissance activities for students to do while not practicing their parts,” Nilsson said.
That “new view” is how much of the program remains today even through 10 other teachers and hundreds of sixth-grade students.
“Dale deserves all the credit for really launching the Shakespeare program the way it looks today. We’ve gone from presenting one full play written for kids complete with dances and introductions to the period and times, to vignettes of several plays so more could have a ‘big’ part,” she said.
During the years, three teachers—Johnson, Jennifer Allred Salveson and Nilsson—have been invited to take students to perform at the Utah Shakespeare Festival elementary showcase. So instead of finishing the unit in late February, they would continue rehearsing, volunteering afterschool and sewing and mending costumes, and finding students to substitute when original cast members had conflicts.
“What that means is an entire summer, no pay, devoted to practicing for one performance…all costumes, props, and scenery taken down to Cedar City (with) lots of organization and cooperation with parents,” Nilsson said. She devoted one summer and Johnson and Allred Salveson each dedicated three summers.
And that doesn’t include time teachers spent writing new and creative parts to intertwine plays and vignettes, attending workshops and applying for grants. They, as well as parents and community members, have created props and sewed, cleaned, mended and collected costumes to go from none to four double-doored closets full of Renaissance costumes, hats, headwear, belts, capes and other accessories.
Most importantly, Nilsson said, the teachers nurture students.
Allred Salveson, who is in her 10th year teaching Shakespeare, said that students learn more than memorizing lines or facts of the time period.
“They learn to help each other with their lines, to gain confidence, to rely upon one another,” she said. “They’re kind and learn teamwork. They practice both written and oral skills and research. There’s so much language arts built in when they read the information, paraphrase it, bring in evidence from the text and apply it. They’re not just reading about it, but living and comprehending what they’ve learned. These are all skills they’ll need in college and for their careers.”
Salveson said through it all, the students rise to the expectations.
“They learn to trust themselves, each other and the teachers. We learn patience and realize to achieve this, it takes time, dedication and hard work. And that’s when we bond and what we call the ‘Shakespeare magic’ comes into play. Some students’ families already know about it as older siblings have brought it home as they rehearse lines, but for some, it’s their first experience and they’re excited,” she said.
This year, several former students offered to help coach this year’s sixth-graders with rehearsals.
“When students return to Longview or meet up with one of us in the community, there is always a hug and a thank you and guess what they always remember? Shakespeare,” Nilsson said.
For students new to Shakespeare, like sixth-grader Harry Thompson, he was surprised how much simpler and better he understood Shakespeare when the class began acting.
“I was worried about stage fright, but it turned out to be a lot of fun,” said Harry, who portrayed Lysander in “A Midsummer’s Night Dream.” “I learned about castles and cannons and the lack of water pumps and Shakespeare copyrights and the Globe Theatre burning down and 100 other interesting facts about medieval times that I’ll use in high school.”
Also, new this year was professional actress McKalle Dahl who came to coach one of the classes with their theater skills of voice, projection, blocking and character analysis.
Second-year teacher Phebe Tanner noticed a transformation in students that went beyond just improved acting skills.
“The students became more aware of others and became more empathetic and not so much focused on themselves,’ she said. “They gained confidence and now attempt things they wouldn’t have before so they’ve become more successful in their math, writing and school work. This is the best thing we can do.”
Nilsson said that with community and family support of the teachers, “it truly does take a village to raise kids. No one person could have accomplished so much. I’m so grateful for the team effort that has been a tradition at Longview for so long.”