Yesterday was the last of four sessions I've spent with a self-selected group of about 12 middle school students (the number varies slightly each week due to absences or whatever), 5th through 8th grade. The sessions are only 50 minutes long, and kids at this level (particularly the 5th and 6th graders) require a fair amount of structure rather than tons of free-writing time. However, I've still worked to stay with my preferred approach to creative writing classes: reading, conversation, writing, sharing.
In the first two sessions we focused on prose: six-word memoirs, flash-fiction character studies, dialogue. In the second two sessions we focused on poetry. Last week I brought in four different free-verse poems about animals (by Anne Sexton, Wallace Stevens, Donald Finkel, and Kathryn Mahan) and we discussed the different techniques that each writer used to introduce us to his or her subject. Yesterday I decided to give them Shakespeare.
When I'm working with elementary and middle school teachers, I try to emphasize how important it is to introduce young students to classic literature rather than just stay with self-styled children's or YA materials. Too often 9th graders are overwhelmed by the sudden shift from the expectations in their 8th-grade language arts classes to the expectations of their high school classes. I saw how gob-smacked my own boys were when they suddenly had to wrestle with Homer and Shakespeare after an in-school diet of YA chapter books.
Poetry is the perfect medium for introducing children to the complexities of great literature. The secret is quality, not quantity. Even a taste of a great poem gives kids a sense of curiosity and accomplishment ("I can do this!") without making them anxious or overwhelmed. For instance, I've used single lines from Coleridge and Dickinson with kindergartners and first graders, just to give them a chance to feel those words in their mouths. And I've found that Shakespeare is particularly good with middle school kids.
I start out by writing an Anglo-Saxon line from Beowulf and a Middle English line from Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales on the board or on a few pieces of paper spread around the room. I offer no explanation: the kids walk into the room and start guessing and wondering. Eventually we have a quick conversation about the history of the English language, and then I pass out a scene from Romeo and Juliet. They discover that, in comparison to the lines on the board, Shakespeare is quite easy to read. This approach, which takes all of 5 minutes, is a great diffuser of defensiveness (no "why do we have to read this old stuff?" etc.).
The R&J scene is an edited version of the sword-fight scene between Tybalt and Mercutio. When I say edited, I mean that I cut some lines to make the action clearer. I did not edit the language at all. The goal here is for students to get the chance to quickly enact a Shakespeare scene--to learn that his plays are not just talk but also dramas. (Important note: do not give the kids prop swords. If you do, all they will do is hit each other.)
After a couple of groups of kids have acted out the scene, we switch to another play, The Tempest, and read the "Full fathom five" speech. My goal here is to show them how poetry and drama intersect in the plays, that Shakespeare is not one or the other but both. Then we shift to the sonnets. Yesterday we first read the famous Sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?") and then the less famous Sonnet 81 ("Or I shall live your epitaph to make"). They thought about the words they liked; they looked at the rhyme scheme; they thought about the meter . . . but lightly, quickly, not as brisk instruction, more as "We notice that a few things are going on in this poem." Once again, in this context, my goal is to make them curious and eager to do more, not to impose A Lesson. That will happen soon enough in their lives. For now they have language and mystery and few bright diamonds of words and images.
All of this has taken about 25 minutes. And now I ask them to circle the first word in each line in Sonnet 81 and use it as the first word in each line of their own 14-line first draft. I assure them that I don't want them to write like Shakespeare; I want them to write like themselves.
The first words in Sonnet 81 are all very plain, very familiar: words such as or and from and although and you. So the students are not at all intimidated. At the same time, as I learned, they are vibrating with the feelings of Shakespeare--the drama and the strong emotions, which we have not discussed in any instructional way but which they have absorbed naturally. So when they share their first drafts, their own strong emotions are immediately front and center. I almost started crying; I was so moved by both the individuality and the clarity of their drafts. One boy wrote about how much he loved his mother. One girl focused deeply on the sounds of an old house. These poems were not Shakespearean imitations in any way, but they clearly arose from 25 minutes of living inside his work . . . 25 minutes; that's all it took. Imagine if we'd had a week.
At the end of the class a couple of kids asked, "Are you coming back next year? We really want you to come back next year." So my heart is full. This is what it's about, teaching: seeing your students' eyes shine, seeing them long for more opportunities to read and experiment and share. My heart is very full.