In Hartford, Using Shakespeare To Teach About Bullying Behavior
By VANESSA DE LA TORRE
December 13, 2012
HARTFORD —— Thalia Rodriguez needed a few moments to calm her middle-school nerves before taking the stage at McDonough Expeditionary Learning School.
After all, the 12-year-old was tasked with cooling a rivalry dating back to the 16th century.
"No! Violence doesn't solve anything," Thalia asserted, hands on her hips, demanding and receiving apologies from the grown actors playing mortal enemies in a scene from William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet."
Learning how to stop a fight from escalating is one lesson from Speaking Daggers, an anti-bullying, Shakespearean theater workshop that stresses the power of words.
Shakespeare on the Sound, an outdoor theater company in Fairfield County, began the workshop as a pilot program earlier this year in Norwalk middle schools and is now raising money to bring Speaking Daggers to schools across Connecticut, said Scott Bartelson, the company's teaching artist.
Hartford administrators heard about the Norwalk performances and invited the group to city schools. The professional actors performed at America's Choice at SAND School on Wednesday before coming to McDonough on Hillside Avenue, where about 400 students in grades 6 to 8 all had a chance to participate in Thursday's workshops.
Bartelson asked a group of more than 75 students in the school auditorium if they had heard of Shakespeare. Only several showed their hands.
"Didn't that guy die?" one boy said.
But many of them knew about Romeo and Juliet, and soon were engrossed in a condensed version of the play's opening scene that exposes the deadly discord between the Montagues and Capulets. The actors hurled Shakespearean insults and fought.
Students called to the stage improvised the role of Benvolio, the peacemaker, showing how they would diffuse the situation with words and body language to prevent any punches.
The workshop also featured a monologue from "The Merchant Of Venice," spoken by the Jewish character Shylock. His feelings of persecution were associated with the cases of children bullied for being overweight, for example, or gay.
"If you prick us, do we not bleed?" Shylock asks. "If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?"
"It taught me a lot about how people feel and not to make fun of them," said seventh-grader Charlie Bruno, 13.
There also was a modernized scene from "A Midsummer Night's Dream," in which characters Lysander and Demetrius pull out their cellphones to record a heated argument between female friends — and sudden rivals — Hermia and Helena. The men's intent is to post the video on social media.
McDonough Principal Stacy Chambers said the workshop scenes were essentially based on some of her staff's biggest concerns, including the videotaping of fights that end up on YouTube or Facebook — a twisted form of cyberbullying — and conflicts between buddies that arise out of misunderstood text messages or online postings.
"You've got really good friends fighting over a problem that doesn't exist," she said.
The neighborhood school has been working to improve its culture over the past year and a half, Chambers said. Once spotty, attendance now hovers around 90 percent. The honor roll is for students who treat others with respect, not necessarily those who score highest on tests.
"It's the ethics that we really need to bring out — that kids are trusted and believed in, because that's going to get us to the academic achievement … We can control what happens in here," Chambers said, "but we've got to help them deal with the world outside."
For more information on "Speaking Daggers" and to donate funds for the program, visit http://www.indiegogo.com/speakingdaggers.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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