"I am always awed, and often humbled, by the ability and dedication of my eleven- and twelve-year-old students," says Andrea LoCastro. "They never miss a rehearsal, they always learn their parts (no matter how lengthy), and the final performance is always phenomenal. When I look at casts that have included such a broad range of students -- from honor-level students to special education/inclusion students -- I am even more impressed."
Sixth graders perform Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing." Photos provided by Andrea LoCastro.
LoCastro's Shakespearean performing group, the Sixth Grade Players, have become a tradition at Thomas E. Bowe Elementary School in Glassboro, New Jersey. Over the past eight years, the performers have put on several challenging works, including Twelfth Night, The Taming of the Shrew, A MidSummer Night's Dream, Romeo and Juliet, MacBeth, and Much Ado About Nothing.
The concept for the players came out of LoCastro's love of Renaissance history and English literature. She saw the Shakespearean play as a means to enhance the sixth grade social studies curriculum, which covers the Medieval Period in Europe. Nancy Jane Doyle, LoCastro's cousin and a retired teacher, also provided inspiration as she described the exciting third-grade learning experiences she had designed for more than twenty years. A production of A Midsummer Night's Dream was among them.
With minimal scenery or props, the focus of the productions is always the language.
"I started out having just my own class perform Julius Caesar to culminate our unit on Ancient Rome," recalled LoCastro. "That was so successful that I wanted to extend the opportunity to the rest of the sixth grade students. The superintendent of curriculum also encouraged the undertaking because she firmly believed, as did I, that young children can understand and grow from exposure to Shakespeare."
Students must first apply to become a member of the Sixth Grade Players. The application form is similar to an employment application and requires signatures from teachers, administrators, and parents to attest to the child's work ethic and responsibility. LoCastro accepts all students who complete the application process. When applications have been collected, the group begins to meet after school to learn about Shakespeare and drama terminology and techniques, and to begin reading the selected play together.
Every student who completes the application process gets a part.
"Each play is adapted from the original text for students. However, the language is still in the Shakespearean style, and each play runs for well over an hour," explained LoCastro. "For some plays, I use commercial adaptations, but for Much Ado About Nothing, I rewrote the play myself since I couldn't find it anywhere commercially. I provide each of the players with an audition piece from the play, and then they have about two weeks to learn the role before auditions begin."
When auditions are held, the players are scored on the "5 P's" -- presence, projection, pronunciation, position, and preparation. Roles are awarded based on the performances and a bit of intuition. All students who apply and audition receive a role, which can create management issues for LoCastro and her helpers. The most recent production included forty-five students.
The rehearsal schedule is rigorous. Students practice after school three days a week for one hour. If those who play the lead roles are not traveling, students also rehearse over spring break. Each performer signs a "contract" and promises to maintain the academic and behavioral expectations set forth by his or her teacher. Students must learn their lines and choreography. (Plays usually include a dance sequence.) The children perform on stage at Glassboro High School and partner with its stage crew, which includes many former Sixth Grade Players.
"I can never make it through a performance without shedding a few tears of admiration and joy at the triumphs of these wonderfully talented children," admitted LoCastro. "A few years ago, it was brought to my attention that many of my former players made up the majority of the high school's honors English class. Many of those students still refer to their sixth grade experience when learning Shakespeare in this much more formal setting. Of course, that makes me feel very proud of my former stars, while at the same time, it validates what I do and justifies all the hard work thats put into each year's production."
When LoCastro first encountered Shakespeare at the age of fifteen, she found it "boring" and difficult to follow. As she evolved as a reader, she developed an appreciation for the beauty of the language. She feels that the plays performed by her young students help them avoid the same hurdle.
"I translate The Bard for my students into a more modern context without sacrificing Shakespeare's beautiful poetry," LoCastro shared. "I usually start by reading or telling a narrative overview of the story. Then, as we read the text aloud, we discuss what is happening, what the characters are thinking, and especially what the characters are feeling."
LoCastro's group spends much of its initial meetings finding a personal connection to Shakespeare's work. Once the children tap into the feelings of the characters, they can begin to perform.
"As soon as possible, I get the children up and moving about in the world of Shakespeare as characters in the play," she reports. "We also study Shakespeare himself and the impact of his work on our culture. I refer students to many aspects of our everyday lives that are allusions to Shakespeare's works and ask them to go home and find their own allusions."
When considering a production like the ones given by the Sixth Grade Players, never underestimate the abilities of your students, LoCastro advises. She believes that children often are far more capable of meeting challenges than teachers might imagine. Comedies usually prove easier for her students to relate to as "stories" and typically make better early productions. If you keep expectations high, students will rise to them, she says. Also, LoCastro focuses on the language of Shakespeare's plays. Her productions never feature much scenery or many props.
"Don't let anyone tell you your students are too young," she added. "Any child can learn to love Shakespeare. Your students will become more articulate from the experience, and I think they also will become stronger academically."
Article by Cara Bafile
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