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Learn All About the Shakes, About the Shakes, No Trouble!

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Learn All About the Shakes, William Shakes, No Trouble!

By Richard DiMaggio, for didyouweekend.com

Let’s all admit something painfully obvious: For most of us, learning Shakespeare in school was one of the worst experiences ever. (It ranked up there with getting books knocked out of your hands so they flew all over the hallway, but that’s another story.)

Your English teacher, a well-intentioned usually spectacled nice person who offered a warm classroom, handed you a book you knew was important for some reason, but you were never told why. The book was tattered and old, the covers were meant, and you opened it up only to discover it was written in a foreign language-- Old English. Can Ye thinketh of anything worse? It made no sense of either plot or purpose. The result was making footballs in the shapes of triangles out of your loose leaf, and kicking them over to your buddy three rows up, who was as interested in the text as you were.

Well, iPhones have replaced footballs, and knocking books out of your hands gets you suspended now, but guess what? Not much has changed in the Shakespeare department. Kids are still bored. Teachers still struggle to teach it and stay within the confines of their curriculum. And the beauty and wisdom of the meaning of Shakespeare and what he wrote about the essence of our humanity continues to fail kids--

Until now.

Shakespeare & Co, one of didyouweekend’s favorite theater companies of all time, has revolutionized the way young adults learn all about the Bard. Every year the folks at Shakes have a student Fall Festival second to none—an event that every single educator in America should come and see. Not only does Shakes get students involved in Shakespeare like nothing I have ever seen, but their techniques can be used across the board, in all topics, and revolutionize  education much the same way the Khan Academy revolutionized math.

The students come from all schools surrounding the Lenox area—from West Springfield to Chatham, NY. This makes for a terribly long day, but one that has them literally running off the school bus to be with friends from other schools. Not only do they team up and learn Shakespeare from the masters at Shakespeare & Co, but the Shakespeare actors actually go to the schools and help the school launch a Shakespeare play.

The number one reason Shakespeare sucks so much in school? It’s not a novel, the way it is presented. It is a play. Novels get read. Plays get acted out. A play that gets read like a novel is destined to fail as a learning experience, 100% of the time—yet schools still give out the play, and instruct students to read it as a novel. Not blaming the teachers here—with limited time, budget and resources, what else can you do?

Shakespeare & Co has created the perfect solution, and one students cannot get enough of. Imagine the brilliance and magic of getting students and scream and rally and enjoy something as educational as Shakespeare?

We pulled four kids out of hundreds to talk to us to continue our coverage of this amazing story. Here is what they said. We spoke to Tom Reynolds, a senior at Lenox High School; Taylor Heath, a senior at Lee High School; Emily Montague, a junior at Taconic Hills, and Ava Kilmer, a senior at Taconic Hills. I have not quoted them individually, because they are pretty much agreeable on everything.

“Why can’t schools pull of Shakespeare?” I asked.

“Shakespeare is meant to played, it is not a book,” they told me. “There is a human element to it that does not come out as a book. Schools don’t make it fun to learn. Shakespeare & Co makes you want to learn, they make it a fun experience.”

Indeed, I was invited to a pep rally. A room filled with chanting, happy teenagers jumping up and down all over Shakespeare. Don’t believe me? Here is a link:

 “This program that Shakespeare & Co has brings people together, “ they told me. “Shakespeare & Co teachers ‘turn the light on’, so to speak, in a way a public classroom does not. Not only that, you meet a lot of friends from other schools. It’s all about camaraderie, meeting other kids.”

The result is a four day long Shakespeare presentation known as the Fall Festival that runs from November 19st thru the 21st. So while the teachers from Shakespeare & Co are out at the schools helping the schools work on their project, there is a simultaneous event being put on by interested students at the main stage in the Lenox campus on Kemble Street. The Fall Festival at the main stage is the culmination of the program, where they all get to act out in front of each other, with no voting, no competition, just all camaraderie and fun.

“Honestly, this is the best program my school offers,” they added. “You don’t get judged, it’s all fun, and we all have friends we met here that we talk to all year long.”

All the students have been doing this for several years.

Still, the question remains—why Shakespeare? Why do we continue to study someone who wrote over four hundred years ago?

Shakespeare captured the human element, the students tell me. Thinking about Romeo & Juliet, I agree—Romeo and Juliet takes the pain of first love, and magnifies it tenfold. So we learn the raw emotion of first love today is no different than it was hundreds of years ago. Technology may have changed, but people remain people at the most basic levels of our existence.

Or take the example of Richard III, I am reminded: “Richard the III would do anything to get ahead, at anyone’s expense.” Yes, anyone who ever worked in a corporate setting knows that one.

I have covered this event several years now, and with my own 13 year old going to be painfully exposed to Shakespeare the old way in another year or two, I am hopeful other schools pick up on this program. Shakespeare in the traditional school setting remains a terrible experience—almost as bad, in fact, as those memories of first love.

But it doesn’t have to be bad. Shakespeare & Co has literally revolutionized learning. Now we need the rest of the world to follow its example.

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Address: 70 Kemble St, Lenox, MA 01240, USA

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