Graves teacher studies at Globe Theatre

Graves County High School English teacher Tessa Powell early in her now-five-plus years of teaching at the school developed a reputation for making the plays of William Shakespeare come alive for her students. Of course, the Bard is the man who many consider the greatest writer in the English language, even the best in human history. The downside for modern Americans is that he wrote his 37 plays some 400 years ago. The problem is that language has changed considerably and some students find his words difficult to understand.
So, why does Shakespeare still matter? “I think it’s because of the universal themes that his writing shows,” she explained. “The themes are so relevant. Romeo and Juliet is the story of teenage lovers that can’t be together. When you walk into Graves County High School, you’re going to see that situation. Julius Caesar is about a republic overthrowing its own leader. You see that in The Hunger Games. I think it’s important for kids to see the relationship in those things. History repeats itself. The language is beautiful. It’s fun to hear. It’s very clever. Shakespeare can be very funny, too, and people normally don’t realize that!”
Powell knows she’s fortunate because this summer she took advantage of a unique and rewarding experience in London, England. “I got a scholarship for a three-week long class,” she said, “from the English Speaking Union’s Kentucky chapter. The English Speaking Union is for anybody. Basically, they promote the culture of the English language. Each branch can send however many teachers they want, depending on how much money they have. Kentucky usually just sends one teacher a year.
“Twenty-one English and drama teachers from the United States were in my class: ‘Teaching Shakespeare through Performance,’” Powell noted. “Instead of just having students read the play behind their desks, we learned ways to help them interpret it and make it more fun. Adding performance to the plays helps us understand the old language, because it’s meant to be seen, not just read.”
“A lot of the trouble is becoming familiar with that language,” she continued. “Once it becomes familiar and you get used to it, it becomes easier. We learned a lot about rhythm and how he uses rhythm to convey the message. Some characters speak with multisyllabic words, because they are upper class. The lower class speaks with monosyllabic words. Looking at those sorts of things can make it easier for the students; they don’t have to understand every word
“In the class, we had teachers who are professional actors,” she added. “They basically taught us games and activities to use with different scenes of the plays and get the kids up out of their seats to make it more fun and help them understand it better. They learn characterization, iambic pentameter, the structure of the plays, how the structure affects the emotion of the plays.”
Powell said, “It was really good to be with other teachers from America. We could bounce ideas off of each other. There were people from public schools, private schools – people from California, New York, Montana, and Florida. We got to collaborate, which is really neat.
“The people I worked with now have a Facebook group. We are already communicating, talking about school activities and ideas. All of the activities we learned can be adapted to other things, not just Shakespeare. I feel like I made some lifelong friends.
“This program also is available for social studies and drama teachers. The sponsoring organization pays for nearly everything.
“I felt really lucky, because other teachers were talking about how they were afraid their administration might get upset at what they are doing in class – maybe it’s too loud. I told them that I don’t have that problem at Graves County. I believe our administration really promotes anything new or engaging that’s going to help kids get excited.” Powell concluded, “Shakespeare is still part of the Common Core Standards nationwide. I believe he is the only author named who we are required to teach. It’s part of our curriculum.”
Learn more about Powell’s trip to England via her blog: www.powellinlondon.wordpress.com.

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