Bard for the summer

Barely into their summer vacation, a few dozen teachers spent all last week in an almost-windowless Oregon Shakespeare Festival classroom.

By Friday, they were barefoot, dropping to the floor, standing on chairs, pointing into the distance and screeching, "Banished!"

"What a smart group of students you are," says Joan Langley, who has been teaching teachers about Shakespeare for 26 years as the festival's education director.

Across the globe, instructors on summer break are conducting field research, racking up certifications online and yes, going back into a classroom to learn more about a subject they love.

Studies show that educators' summer ed boosts their competency, confidence and excitement, and all that can be passed on to students in the fall.

Schoolteachers in sweater sets and pearls, or cargo pants and ball caps, come to Ashland throughout the year to learn how to make the Bard more relatable to everyone, from elementary school kids to mid-life college students.

But those who enroll in the weeklong Shakespeare in the Classroom summer program spend long days studying select passages, receiving lesson suggestions and finding new ways to connect their students to 16th-century verse and prose.

Tapping into different modes of learning, they discover how complicated text can be understood with art, music, Renaissance dance, skits and even aerobic chorale readings.

Complex passages are broken up and punctuated by bouts of walking, sitting and standing, or clapping. "You can get really goofy," says Langley, who sometimes uses twists and turns to drill in a sonnet or two.

During the course, the teachers attend lectures such as "Battle of the Sexes: The Taming of the Shrew and the Tamer Tamed." They flip through curriculum books and attend a play each of the five nights.

In between, they eat and commiserate with other busy educators, who are mostly veteran English and theater teachers from Oregon, Washington and California.

"Teachers are the hardest working people in the country," says Kirsten Giroux, OSF's curriculum specialist and course instructor.

Langley agrees: "These are people who care deeply about Shakespeare's work. They have success teaching it, but wonder how they can also make it vital to all kids." A few of the instructors taking the course are new to Shakespeare.

Giroux has noticed that because of budget cuts and staff consolidations, an American lit or French teacher may now be asked to explain iambic pentameter.

"There is a need to teach this," she says. "We are a Shakespeare festival and we deal with his text every day. In this program, we may employ theater techniques, but it always comes back to the text."

At the beginning of the course, the teachers — just as their students may experience later — are given a quote from a character in "The Taming of the Shrew" and are asked to create a mask inspired by it.

"People know more than they think they do about Shakespeare," says Langley, standing in the classroom near a banner with the declarative statement "Teachers First!"

"Shakespeare isn't that murky," she continues. "With these activities, students will say, 'I get this.'"

On Friday, the teachers had graduated to creating tableaus on the spot to represent scenes from the rarely performed "Cymbeline." The rules were that everyone had to participate — that's the goal in every classroom — and the four groups, each enacting one passage, were limited to three short stagings.

Members in the first group began with their backs to the rest, reciting, "O boys, this story the world may read in me: my body mark'd with Roman swords." They then swung around and some of the participants posed as trees, while, in witch-like voices, others eerily echoed the word "banishment." Sharon Weselman of Ashland was part of this group. She played a throne.

After earning a master's in teaching from Southern Oregon University, she was granted an $810 scholarship to attend the OSF program.

"I want to be able to make Shakespeare accessible to my students," says Weselman, 30, who plans to teach drama to high school students this fall.

Some of the members of the second group formed a rock-like backdrop for two men to act out the roles of the princesses in true Elizabethan style.

Humorously, they flicked two fingers when they said, "sparks of nature." The third group rushed toward the middle of the room holding hands or pretending to be a three-foot stool. "Hark, the game is roused," they chorused.

As the attention turned to the fourth group, Jim Shelby, a 58-year-old high school theater teacher from Palo Alto, Calif., climbed on top of a folding chair and bellowed as the king: "O Cymbeline, heaven and my conscience knows thou didst unjustly banish me." Seconds later, Beth Cain, 49 of Midland, Texas, fell to the floor to illustrate the nurse at her grave.

And the teachers ended the passage in unison, "The game is up."

After 15 years of teaching English at a middle school, Cain believes that sixth-graders are at the beginning of their ability to understand abstract thinking, and Shakespeare can play a part.

"It's not boring," says Cain, whose tuition and travel expenses were paid for by Fund for Teachers, a Houston-based group that gives preschool to high school teachers money for "learning odysseys." Shelby, who has been teaching and directing Shakespeare's plays for 30 years, says that his job could easily fall into a routine.

This program, however, and previous classes he has taken with Langley have been "a shot of energy."

Langley has been teaching so long that she remembers when it was considered revolutionary to get students on their feet to comprehend language arts.

"Teachers now know different learning styles," she says.

Before the lunch recess on Friday, she offered up practical advice on how to manage a classroom of active Bard learners.

She gave proven methods to deal with a student who announces, "I'm done," minutes into the class and the opposite type who demands more time to perfect an assignment.

Teacher-monitored collaboration, she adds, keeps some kids from checking out and others from taking charge.

"There are ways," she says, "to curb the enthusiasm" of students who are "all output and no input." With that description, the teachers, sitting kid-like and cross-legged on the carpet, laughed in recognition.

"It's so great," says Langley, looking around the classroom, "for us to be students."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or

Editing errors appeared in the print edition.

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