Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Hard News: In the Clouds

I'm a big fan of downtime. Lots and lots of downtime. The kind of time where I lay on my back and watch clouds stream overhead.

Oh look, an elephant...a massage therapist.

For the first time in my six years of teaching little kids the disciplines of stagecraft, meditation, yoga, identification with character, Elizabethan history, scansion of iambic verse, vocal technique, journal writing and the plots of Shakespearean text, I am seriously considering that this program may be too ambitious.

Perhaps I am part of the problem and adding one more pressure to already full plates.

"No child left behind" is a well-meaning mantra with a cruel spine of standardized testing that, in my opinion, muddies its good intentions.

But it is a real thing and stressful both for teachers and students.

Eager parents want everything for their children, but when is it simply too much?

This article addresses the question better than I can:

Parents, take a deep breath (Mary MacVean, LA Times)

Monday, March 28, 2011

There's This Kid...

"Hey, so I want to tell you about this kid."

They sit up straight. They think I'm going to tell them some schoolyard rumor, and who doesn't like good gossip?

"This kid was born with a crummy hand, all twisted up like this. It wasn't his fault; he was just born with it. He also has this big lump on his back, which makes him kinda bent over like this. And if that weren't enough, he has this lousy foot that's all messed up and drags along the ground like this."

Faces scrunch up as they picture this kid.

"This kid's name is Richard. When Richard walks around the cafeteria with his tray, looking for a place to sit, the other kids move away from him. They think he's kind of creepy looking. He sees this super-cute girl, Lady Anne, and he wouldn't mind having lunch with her, but she stays with all her friends 'cause she's popular and doesn't want to talk to Richard."

Our auditorium is quiet.

"How do you think Richard feels?"


"Yeah, I guess so. What else?"

Angry. Mad. Embarrassed!

"Right. Right. Right. All that, I would imagine. Anyone here ever feel like Richard?"


"Okay, here's another thing. Over on the other side of the cafeteria is this other guy. A cool-looking guy with lots of friends. Super-funny and smart. A really good soccer player, and guess what?"

What, Ms. Ryane?

"This guy is Richard's brother, Edward. And here's the other thing: Richard and Edward are princes, 'cause their dad is King."


"Then their dad dies, and Edward becomes King. Now how do you think Richard feels?"

Jealous! Mad!

"I would say so. What does Richard want?"

He wants to be King!

"Because if he were King, what would Richard get?"

The people would be nice to him! Lady Anne would talk to him!

"Yup, and what else?"

They would have to listen to him!

"But why would they have to listen to him? What would he have if he were King?"


"Yup. This play is called 'Richard III' and it's a Shakespeare play with the theme of power."

What does Richard do, Ms. Ryane?

"He gets a couple of guys in the castle to sneak into Edward's bedroom at night and kill him. Richard becomes King and makes Lady Anne marry him. But he is an angry guy and does lots of bad stuff. Lots of people figure him out and in the end he has to try and fight a whole army by himself. Impossible. He's all alone on the battlefield, he raises his sword high and cries out, 'A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!' "

Oooooh. This Shakespeare guy knew what he was writing.

When I go in the 6th grade I am going to be scared. I am going to be scared because I am so small and I think I am going to get picked on and beat up.
Lizzie, 5th grade

Friday, March 25, 2011

Going Crazy

I am not a scientist. Really not. And never could have been because I have math skills that would make a five-year-old laugh.

But I can tell when something scientific is happening, and in my six years of running The Shakespeare Club, I'm witnessing a first.

A couple of fifth-grade boys and few fifth-grade girls are exhibiting the sort of crazy that looks positively hormonal.

"I feel weird!" claimed Oliver after reading a chunk of text opposite a girl.

As we were cleaning up, I grabbed Oliver's hand and led him to an area at the back of the auditorium.

"Oliver, what do you mean, weird?"

He shuffled and looked at the floor.

"It's private."

"Okay, that's fine, but just tell me this: weird bad or weird good?"


"Get outta here."

I knew right then I was into new territory with Oliver and with Dominick.

How fitting that we're working on "A Midsummer Night's Dream," a play about overheated teenagers running around in a forest, never sure who they're in love with, but in love nonetheless.

Except these kids aren't teenagers. They're still supposed to be little kids shrouded in innocence.

I'm not a scientist and I don't know why this happening, but it surely is.

These kids are showing signs of aggression, getting crushes and acting absent-minded. They're saying "yes" but meaning "no," saying they've cleaned up a mess when they didn't, and saying that they did do their homework while having no idea what the homework is. They're as crazy as doped-up adolescents running wild on flower juice in an Athenian grove.

The boys will be bad and the girls will cry when the boys are bad. The boys will spout terms like "badass" and make fun of the girls and sculpt plasticine into boobs, and the girls will cry more and I will be the one to go crazy.

It's called midsummer madness and Shakespeare knew what the heck he was writing about. What to do? What to say? What will they hear or not?

The most compelling reason for my not being a scientist is that I don't wear that kind of logic; it is simply not in me.

The most compelling reason for my doing Shakespeare with kids is that I remember it. I vividly recall that craziness, and the medicine may well be giving them gigantic language on a big stage, to scare the willies right out of them.

At the very least they may be distracted by their actorly greatness, and leave the opposite sex alone.

I hope.

If I was a groundling and I knew a play was coming I would root some apples. When the big day came I would throw apples at them for no reason. I would also throw stones at them.

If I was King, I would wear the most fairest clothes in al the land. I would hire the best tailor to tailor all my clothes for me. Also, I would have a Palace as far as the eyes can see. I would eat the freshest growen berrys, fruits in the land to make sure I don't end up as fat as Henry the VIII. I would no be all greedy. I would give some of my food to the poor people. I will rule the wourld with a Iron fist.
—Oliver, 5th grade

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Sassy Girls

In the hallways of every Shakespearean acting company, female actors mourn the dearth of women's parts in the Bard's canon.

Women were not permitted to be actors in the Elizabethan period, so he focused on the fellas.

However, the roles he did write for women are good ones. The female characters tend to be smarter and far more sensible than their male counterparts.

Consider "Romeo and Juliet," wherein Romeo runs to Friar Laurence in a state of histrionic panic and falls to floor in a crying jag. The boy can't put two clear thoughts together and one longs for the friar to knock some sense into his noggin.

Meanwhile, back at the Capulet home, Juliet, all alone, talks herself out of the terrifying prospect of faking her death and gulps down a vial of mysterious potion. Brave cookie.

In "The Taming of the Shrew," a feisty Kate holds her own against the bravado of the cocky Petruchio when he decides to make her his bride. Not so fast, mister-mister, and not without a good fight.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" brings us three sassy women. Titania gives Oberon a tongue-lashing with "Not for thy fairy kingdom. Fairies away!" leaving him aghast that she won't give him what he wants.

Helena, in the face of what she sees as outlandish mockery, calls her best friend out as a vixen and uses sarcasm — "O excellent" — to make points to the two foolish lads suddenly begging for her affection.

Hermia takes the cake when it comes to spunk. Given three choices by her father:

  • marry Demetrius
  • live as a nun
  • die

    she chooses death. Stunningly gutsy.

    As our casting day neared, I overheard snippets of playground conversations from Shakespeare Club girls.

    "What part do you want?"


    "Why do you want Hermia?"

    " 'Cause she's pretty!"


    CHILDREN'S WRITES: A Journal Entry
    If I was Ann and I had 4 kids I would ask my husband if he can take me with him and the kids.

    Dear William Shakesphere

    We miss you very much. I hope we can come see you and your play. Jayden, Kashse and William miss you very much. They cry every night just over you.

    P.S. Hamnet died.

    your wife and your kids
    Wendy, 4th grade

    Kate: Austin Live Theatre; Hermia: Shakespeare Santa Cruz

  • Monday, March 21, 2011

    Laughing Matters

    Slippage happens. It is a hazard of teaching. One glance away, one runny nose, one sneaky swipe of my lip gloss, and there's no predicting the fallout.

    For our third meeting, the Shakespeare Club was moved to the school library because the charter school attached to our campus had taken over the auditorium.

    When I arrived at our auditorium to set up, I was greeted by what appeared to be a rehearsal for a production of "Oklahoma." Bales of hay were scattered around the floor and onstage they surrounded a quaint rocking chair.

    It was disturbing enough to be usurped in this fashion, but worse, I had to scuttle to the library, rearrange my curriculum and prepare a new game plan for this confined area. I whipped together ideas as I dragged tables and chairs into a unified layout.

    Okay. We'll use our lack of space to start a read-through of the play. No dancing or yoga.

    I set journals, pencils and scripts at specific spots on the tables. By our third meeting, I'd already figured out potential cliques or possible enemies, and wanted to make sure certain kids were separated.

    I met the twenty-four outside the library and had them file inside to sit where they found their journals.

    I stood on a chair in order to conduct the meeting with some authority.

    Slippage happens.

    As I introduced Shakespeare's characters, "Puck" came out of my mouth starting with an "F."


    This is what can happen when former sailors become teachers.

    I tried to ignore my error, but it was impossible. The kids covered their faces and pressed their foreheads into the tabletops in fits of rolling, gut-splitting laughter.

    My cheeks flushed. This was how quickly I lost them. Gone, gone and I had zero defense.

    When Titania awakes and tells Oberon, "Methought I was enamored of an ass," I thought the roof would come right off the building.

    A nine-year-old girl, Bailey, jumped up and down, calling to her fellow actors, "It means donkey."

    They paid her as much heed as they did me and that word, ass, ricocheted off the library walls like bullets bouncing off tin.

    Thank you, William Shakespeare. Thank you, charter school. And a final word of gratitude to my way-too-colorful years treading the boards, where the language was rarely highbrow Elizabethan English.

    CHILDREN'S WRITES: A Journal Entry
    I want to be in Shakespear club because I love acting and I want to be an actor when I grow up. I also want to be in Shakespear because it is very interesting and amazing thing to me.

    Dear William,

    I love you so mutch and I can not stop thinking about you. This morning I used my cherrios to spell I LOVE WILLIAM. I took it and counted all of the cherrios there 77 and I know that is your lucky number. Love you see tomorrow at noon.

    Love, Anne
    Ellie, 5th grade

    Friday, March 18, 2011

    What's the Story, Morning Glory?

    I felt terrible there wasn't room for every eager child who auditioned for The Shakespeare Club. So terrible that I started a second program for a small group of non-acting kids.

    On Wednesdays, after school, I meet for two hours with The Shakespeare Club.

    On Wednesdays, at lunch, I meet with a group I call the Plot People.

    Not the "Pod People" — I try to avoid those as much as possible — these kids are much different.

    My idea was for a kind of pint-sized book club to study the story of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." These kids could be the point persons in their classrooms as teachers prepared their students before the May 26 performances.

    I'm assuming A LOT. I'm assuming that the Teacher's Prep Kit I deliver to each teacher actually gets used, and that anyone cares about kids and Shakespeare.

    In any case, I joined my circle of Plot People in the library for our inaugural meeting.

    Two boys and five girls. A cross-section from the third-, fourth- and fifth grades.

    They opened their lunches, I handed out fresh, brightly colored journals with newly sharpened pencils and we started with an overview of William Shakespeare, the man and his times.

    By week two, I'd lost the two boys and one girl.

    By week three, I'd replaced that girl with another fourth-grader and now had a regular group of five girls. Every week, I look forward to our time together. In the middle of our table, I place a bucket of oatmeal-raisin cookies to go along with their meals.

    Two of the girls eat the cafeteria's offerings, which involve items like chocolate milk, spaghetti and a piece of fruit.

    One girl brings spears of grilled tofu or rounds of sushi.

    Another girl has her fingers dyed bright orange from dipping into a bag of Red Hot Cheetos. She's extremely careful not to mar her Plot People paperwork by licking every digit clean, one by one.

    I do not eat at these meetings.

    CHILDREN'S WRITES: A Journal Entry
    I am a groundling. I've saw many plays and lost lots of fruit but I dont throw fuirt on Shakesperes plays. There magnifacint! the comady, love and war. I was amased how the theater burned down. I went to his funaral and saw the sky go dark and the flowers fall off there stemes. I wish the lord will exsepet the very great mans soul.
    Henry, 5th grade

    Wednesday, March 16, 2011

    The Principle of the Principals

    I've read interviews with teachers and had conversations where the overriding sentiment was how a school's principal is paramount to an educator's success in the classroom.

    It's been documented that the number-one reason people leave their jobs is because of their bosses. A cruel or indifferent leader can make or break satisfaction in the workplace.

    I'm not keen on directors, principals, teachers or coaches befriending their charges or employees, but gosh, basic decency and a friendly "hello" can go a long way to make a day on the job a pleasant one.

    Leadership is a tricky business and I've met more than one school administrator with a desk covered in heaps of paper, and with a longing for more human contact.

    They miss the kids. They miss the teaching. They miss inspiring.

    When I first approached our school's principal with my idea of starting an after-school program I would call The Shakespeare Club, she knew I was idealistic and somewhat naive, but she didn't try to stop or even warn me. Every time I dropped by her office, Yuri gave me a kind look. She offered tips and said, "Mel, we're going to make a public school teacher out of you, you'll see."

    Three years later, Yuri retired and we had a new principal. Oh man. I wasn't ready for a new principal. I needed the rock I'd come to depend on.

    I grabbed one of my cardboard fold-outs with a photo collage of Shakespeare Club kids. I arrived in what was now Arlene's office at our school and breathlessly displayed my photos, hoping to impress her with The Shakespeare Club. Flop sweat dripped off my forehead and my hands were clammy. I needed her onboard for me to continue my work. I wanted her approval.

    As it turned out, our new principal had fond memories of playing a witch in a high school production of "Macbeth" and she herself had taught Shakespeare to sixth-graders before she became a principal.

    Like Yuri, Arlene also dishes out encouragement and supports The Shakespeare Club.

    With both of these women, I was judicious about knocking on their doors. I've tried to solve my problems and challenges without adding one more piece of paper to their overburdened desktops, but without their embracing my work, it simply would not have been possible.

    Every year since her retirement, Yuri has returned to see the kids perform. I melt every time I see her. It was her "Yes, Mel" that made The Shakespeare Club grow.

    CHILDREN'S WRITES: A Journal Entry
    I want to be in Shakespeare club because I want to be imspierd by William Shakespear, I want to learn about William Shakespear, and I want to and act and have fun in Shakespear club.

    Today I learned William Shakespear had 2 sisters but they both died in there moms belly.

    William Shakespeare was his parents first baby that servived.
    —Bailey, 4th grade

    Monday, March 14, 2011


    Over my six years of running The Shakespeare Club, I've created a tight curriculum. In eighteen meetings I teach the kids vocal warm-ups and yoga; cover that nutbar, Henry VIII, and the feminist queen, Elizabeth I; explore the life of William Shakespeare; and rehearse a play to performance readiness.

    "Okay, William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564, and died — get this — on April 23, 1616. Anything strange about that?"

    He died on his birthday!

    "I know. Bummer, right? I mean, did he even have a piece of cake or open one single present? Who can tell me how old he was when he died?"

    This is a trick to include some math in the program.

    "So, 1564 is a looooong time ago. What things do you think William Shakespeare did not have that we have today?"

    A fourth-grade boy's arm flies up.

    "Yes, Sam?"


    Oh boy. Sparkplug.

    "That's exactly right. Medicine was not as advanced as it is today and so there were no antibiotics, which brings me to that terrible illness the Elizabethans feared most of all. The Black Plague, also called the Black Death, or bubonic plague. Creepersville."

    I pass around a little bag with cinnamon sticks, cloves and lavender.

    "There was no running water and no showers and no toilets. The streets were full of garbage and smelly old poop."

    Screams because they love the poop part.

    "The Elizabethans carried sachets or bits of plants, herbs or flowers inside a handkerchief to hold up to their noses so they wouldn't have to smell the bad stuff."

    I show them drawings of the rats and fleas that spread the illness.

    "And check this guy out," I say, holding up a picture of the gluttonous Henry VIII. "This was Queen Elizabeth's dad. You know, he started out fine. He married a girl from Spain named Catherine, and he liked to ride his horse and work out in the palace gym. But then he completely lost control and couldn't stop eating. He chowed down on whole sides of beef and hoovered up all the cakes he could get his hands on. He got so fat his helpers had to roll him around the castle in a special cart."

    More screams because they love fat as well as poop.

    I can't wait to get to the beheadings next week. I've got them in a grip as tight as any Harry Potter adventure.

    CHILDREN'S WRITES: A Journal Entry
    If I was a Queen I would be nice but also greety because I do want alot of things. I would want a candy house with a vegtible bath tub because I don't want to be fat like Heanry the 8th and most of all I would want a jello pool, but sience I said I would be nice too every one would have the same. And I would also exrisize every single day. So I would not get fat.
    —Carina, 3rd grade

    Jell-O cartoon from Graphic Ramblings in Chi Town

    Friday, March 11, 2011

    Bieber Fever

    On April 23, 1564, in the town of Stratford-Upon-Avon in England, a boy was born and named William Shakespeare.

    On March 1, 1994, in the town of Stratford-Upon-Avon in Canada, a boy was born and named Justin Bieber.

    Bieber Fever has hit The Shakespeare Club.

    The girls have scrawled J.B., J.B. and more J.B.s all over their journals.

    When William Shakespeare fell in love with Anne Hathaway and skipped over to Hewland's farm to court her with poetry and lip-smacking teenage love — according to the girls in Shakespeare Club — he bore an uncanny resemblance to Master Bieber.

    Now, I'm going to make a giant leap here: W.S. was educated in Stratford, England, where he studied astronomy, Latin and math. J.B. was educated in a town where schools bear names such as Hamlet Elementary, Anne Hathaway Elementary, Romeo Elementary and Falstaff Middle School.

    Don't tell me there's no correlation; the kid's as big any star in the galaxy and we're still performing the Bard over 400 years later.

    Our pre-show music for "A Midsummer Night's Dream" will consist entirely of songs with the word "dream" in their lyrics.

    One of these songs will be by you know who and you can only imagine the screams when the kids hear it for the first time.

    Maybe it's biological, I don't know, but let's face it: Every generation has one.

    Rudy Vallée
    Frank Sinatra
    Elvis Presley
    The Beatles
    The Rolling Stones
    The Monkees (?!)
    David Cassidy
    Michael Jackson
    New Kids on the Block
    'N Sync/The Backstreet Boys

    Need I go on?

    CHILDREN'S WRITES: A Journal Entry
    If I was queen my name would be Queen Natalie. I would be skinny. I would want to rule canada. Canda would be green. My casle will be next to the longest beautiful river. My cloths would made out of coton, silk and with dimons on it. My room would be purple with dimonds. Everybody in Canda has the same rights.

    But one day I was on my carage and I saw this young men. The carage pulled over. I said "what's your name!"

    He said "Justin Bieber." I said "come in my carage."

    We turned around. Then we got the castle and asked "would you marry me."

    Justin Bieber said "Yes."

    We grow up and had 2 kids. Then my name would be Queen Natalie Bieber.
    Natalie, 5th grade

    castle photo by Red Bubble user Steve plowman

    Wednesday, March 9, 2011

    What's It All About, Alfie?

    From our first meeting in his third-grade classroom, Alfie impressed me as a super-eager beaver and just the kind of guy I look for to be in Shakespeare Club.

    Toward the end of our group's second meeting, Alfie approached me, his blue eyes wide and his cheeks pale.

    "Ms. Ryane?"

    "Yes, Alfie, what's up?"

    "Can I have a private chat?"

    "But of course. Come with me."

    I'd told the kids that if they had any concerns they could always ask for "a private chat" and I would find the time for them. Especially if they decided perhaps Shakespeare Club wasn't for them. No problem.

    I walked Alfie to the rear of the auditorium while others worked on their journals. Alfie and I took seats next to each other.

    "So, what's on your mind, Alfie?"

    "Well, it's just that, like...well, I have a lot of things to do....Like, I have another acting class I do on Tuesdays and I have swimming class and then I have a lot of homework...and it's just that...."

    Alfie's little voice drifted away.

    "Sounds to me like you have a pretty full plate and are maybe feeling overwhelmed. Is that what you mean?"

    A vigorous nod.

    "No problem, Alfie. I'm impressed that you came forward to talk to me. You don't have to do Shakespeare Club. Really."

    "Well, I could let you know next week."

    "I need to know before then because I have to let another child in from the waiting list. So, how about you talk it over with your mom tonight and she can email me your final decision. Okay?"

    That appeared to be okay with Alfie. I met up with his mom as I was cleaning up the auditorium and she seemed to think that he just wanted to play with other friends outside.

    "I'm not so sure," I said. "He does sound stressed and this may not be the year for him and Shakespeare Club."

    She emailed me two days later that he wanted to stay in the club and that it was entirely his idea.

    The next week all were in attendance except for Alfie.

    We started our work and twenty minutes later Alfie's teacher brought a red-eyed crying boy into the room with a note saying he didn't want to disappoint me but he just couldn't do Shakespeare Club.

    A few days later I took Alfie out of class for another private chat.

    "Alfie, first let me say I'm not at all disappointed in you. In fact, I'm big-time impressed because you know yourself and you know your boundaries. That's a huge thing. If someone said to me, 'Ms. Ryane, come up to the top of this high mountain and ski fast all the way to the bottom,' I would have to say 'no thanks' because I know myself."

    "You mean like Fear Bear would help you decide?"

    "Yeah, like that. Alfie, you've done a very nice thing for a little girl who was so sad she didn't get into Shakespeare Club this year, and now you've made a place for her. Thank you for that."

    "Thank you, Ms. Ryane."

    Every time that I see Alfie on the campus or in his classroom, he throws his arms around my legs and delivers an update on his busy life.

    Nine-year-old Krystal levitated when I told her the good news: "I found you a place."

    Thank you, Alfie.

    CHILDREN'S WRITES: A Journal Entry
    One reason I want to be in Shakespeare club is because it is it is awesome. I also want to be in this club is because I want to learn about William Shakesphere.

    Today I learned that Willaim was 18 when he got married. Today I also learned an Indian dance. The dance is quiet freaky.
    Phoebe, 5th grade

    "Sad Boy" by Sammy Hernandez