Decoding Shakespeare 

Boise State program helps college and elementary students untangle Shakespeare

Boise State Associate Professor Matthew Hansen.

Patrick Sweeney

Boise State Associate Professor Matthew Hansen.

Platforms, drapes and lighting equipment allow Boise State associate English professor Matthew Hansen to turn any elementary school gym into a Shakespeare-worthy stage. A box can readily morph into a castle, or be folded out to become chairs and a couch.

"The intellectually elite can wall themselves off with Shakespeare; that should not be the case," said Hansen. "Shakespeare's original context was intended for pop culture."

And there's nothing more disarming than a bunch of fourth- through sixth-graders struggling to pronounce words like "Plantagenet" or "Agincourt" from Shakespeare's Henry V. That's why Hansen started the Shake It Up after-school program for his spring semester English 345 Shakespeare class.

"To teach something, you have to really understand it," said Hansen. "The younger kids help eliminate the fear by showing my college students that even they can read Shakespeare."

Watching kids perform Shakespeare helps deflate its perceived elitist agenda. Nervous children struggle to project their voices over a gym full of parents and their peers. The performances carry a less formal tone that is reinforced by children butchering or forgetting lines.

Many girls have to dress up as men--dukes, archbishops and kings--reversing the practice in Shakespeare's day of young men playing the roles of women. And the kids' performances aren't without humor, as they fight to their deaths in battle scenes, or when the director has to yell, "Stop!" as the children try to sing past their cue for a second time.

Shake It Up was started as a service-learning program in 2006 at Hillcrest Elementary, then it partnered with Whitney Elementary in 2008. These early partnerships didn't work out, however, and Hansen struggled to find a venue for Shake It Up. In 2009, he established a partnership with Lowell Elementary, which has grown into a home for the program. Shake It Up has since expanded to W.H. Taft Elementary in 2011 and Whittier Elementary in 2012.

As one of Hansen's English 345 students, I quickly learned that his theories--that performing Shakespeare can help erode the Bard's elitist image--were correct. Students were thrown into groups that would enact scenes from the five plays assigned for the semester. Classmates quickly began to rely on each other for help with interpretation, while discussing script cuts, props and physical movement as means of better understanding the plays. And as we started participating in the Shake It Up after-school program, we brought our problem-solving experiences from class straight to the elementary schools.

"The emphasis has to be on the word 'learning' as much, if not more, than on the word 'service,'" said Hansen.

Shake It Up has become a source of research and study for Hansen; he chooses only to work with Title I schools--those with the highest percentages of children from low-income families--in order to expose the kids to a major player in the English-speaking theater world. Ultimately, Hansen hopes to motivate teachers to stop ignoring Shakespeare in their classrooms.

It's easy to see change in the children by the end of the program. In addition to projecting a sense of accomplishment, children become more outgoing and comfortable with themselves.

"I think the biggest benefit of participating in the program for Riley has been an increase in confidence," said Dayna Mitchell, mother of Riley, a fifth-grader at Lowell. "She has learned to trust the process. She has learned that if she puts in the work and time to practice, she can do it."

Lowell sixth-grader Abram Shadle has also learned some lessons about hard work.

"I've learned a lot of things," said Abram. "The biggest thing I learned is that you have to work hard to get what you want. Just because you're good at something doesn't mean you'll get it."

"I think the payoff for this is something we'll see in the long term, as he'll be able to look back at this as a touchstone," added Susan Shadle, Abram's mother. "Bottom line: He thinks it is fun. He understands that this is a unique opportunity."

But not all children enjoy the process as much as Abram and Riley. Shake It Up has faced some problems competing with other after-school activities, as well as getting students to make the commitment. In the first years, Hansen had an issue with students dropping out, some for reasons as simple as not liking the plot. Other children have expressed concerns over not getting their desired roles--the lead roles are usually cast with sixth-grade students because of the time commitment, and sometimes younger students have a hard time accepting this.

Aside from these small squabbles, Hansen has also had to fret over funding.

Grants allow Shake It Up to operate at a minimal cost to participating schools, and the program has received funding from the City of Boise's Department of Arts and History (2010-2012), Charlotte Y. Martin Foundation (2011, 2013), as well as the Greater Boise Rotary Foundation (2013). Grant monies go to everything from lighting equipment, costumes and sets, to props and stipends to coordinate teachers at each school.

"This year, we were unable to have teacher stipends because we were not given the grant from the City of Boise," said Hansen. "They have been very supportive in the past, but our goals this year did not match theirs."

Setbacks aside, Hansen will continue to advocate the Shake It Up program because it helps decode the texts of a larger-than-life literary icon. And that's something both adults and children can benefit from.

"The children may struggle or forget a line but when it comes down to it, they understand what is going on," said Hansen. "All the children have to do is tell the story."

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