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In the spring of 2007, Sabot at Stony Point declared its intention to carry out a year-long study of William Shakespeare and his work, life and times. A generous grant from Partners in the Arts brought the idea to fruition, fueling a year of inquiry, exploration, teamwork, inspiration and discovery across all grade levels on the Stony Point campus. The project developed as a collaborative endeavor that drew on our own faculty and volunteer resources, as well as on the education staff at Agecroft Hall, the education outreach arm of Richmond Shakespeare Theater, and the expertise of a specialist in Renaissance music.

Nothing will come of nothing. –Lear in King Lear

Throughout the year, each grade took part in different activities related to Shakespeare’s life and work. Although there was no uniform program of study, the children did not begin with “nothing.” Rather, they were introduced to a variety of “threads” relating to Shakespeare, the Renaissance, and Elizabethan England, but decisions about how to pursue those threads were their own. Thus, the inquiry emerged differently in every classroom.

At all grade levels, the study began with trips to Agecroft Hall, an English manor house purchased in 1925 by an American tobacco and banking magnate and transported piece by piece to Richmond, where it was reassembled. Agecroft’s education staff designed programs to familiarize students with life in a manor house in Shakespeare’s time. Topics included the house itself, family life, servants, the kitchen and cooking, medicine, the English garden, a kid’s life, jobs and work, and typical recreation of the time, including period games and dancing.

These visits set the stage for the workshops led by Cynde Liffick, Director of Education at Richmond Shakespeare Theater. Each child took part in Ms. Liffick’s workshops, which covered theater techniques and acting exercises, as well as discussions of Shakespeare’s words, what they meant, and how to speak them. Students also attended a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by the American Shakespeare Center at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia.
Students in Middle School continued their study via individual research projects on the art, medicine, theatre, and other aspects of life in Elizabethan England.

Each student presented his or her research to the Middle School, with each of the 25 topics creating a snapshot of Elizabethan society. Students then turned to Shakespeare’s work and life, focusing on the major events of his life as a playwright and examining and discussing his plays and poetry. This research laid the ground for the work to follow in the rest of the year: a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream created through weekly two-hour workshop sessions with Ms. Liffick and performed at Sabot at Stony Point’s crowning Shakespeare event in April.

Among the elementary children, workshops with Ms. Liffick stimulated questions and discussions about the history of the period, which led to further projects. For example, the third grade boys became so interested in the rulers and power struggles of the Renaissance that they created timelines of historical events and wrote a play inspired by Shakespeare’s Henry V.

The kindergartners’ fascination with A Midsummer Night’s Dream led them to create small clay figures and paintings to represent the characters. They wrote the story in their own words created the scenery and made music for the play, and, in collaboration with a group of first graders, filmed it.

Another group of first graders united three shared interests in a Shakespeare-inspired project: the intriguing idea of a play, their fascination with castles and building, and their interest in medieval and Renaissance life. Together, they planned, wrote, constructed sets, props and costumes for, and performed their own play centering on a battle for control of a castle.

In the second grade class, the students themselves prepared a Renaissance feast in the school’s kitchen, including an original stew recipe they invented using ingredients available during Shakespeare’s time. And, they wrote, illustrated, printed and bound a book recounting their experiences at Agecroft Hall and their reflections on those visits.

Song plays an important role in Shakespeare’s plays, reflecting its importance in the Renaissance world, and the musical element emerged in our study as well. For seven weeks in the fall, fourth and fifth graders worked with Kelly Kennedy, an expert on and performer of Renaissance music. With her help, the children learned songs from Shakespeare’s plays and other period pieces, which they performed for the public at Agecroft Hall’s Elizabethan Holiday celebration in December, and again in the garden at Sabot at Stony Point in April.

The wheel is come full circle. – Edmund in King Lear

Our Shakespeare study culminated in a warm April evening of theater, song and dance in our school’s beautiful Gillette Garden, under a clear blue sky. Families and friends from both campuses of our school picnicked on the lawn, while students from kindergarten through eighth grade performed scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, period songs and dances from Shakespeare’s time, and a play inspired by Henry V.

Edmund’s words from King Lear sum up our year with Shakespeare. Our collective journey into Elizabethan times brought us together to share our learning and accomplishments across the entire school community. The children used the threads to weave a full tapestry, representing their learning and exploration of Shakespeare through words and art, performance and music. Shakespeare himself would surely share in our excitement about this year together.

About the Author: 

Kerry Mills is a Sabot at Stony Point parent who has contributed extensively to the school as a volunteer for many years. In conjunction with faculty, she conceived the Shakespeare theme for this year’s quest, applied for the Partners in the Arts funding that made it possible, and served as the program’s coordinator. We are immensely grateful to her for making possible this year of learning and community centered on Shakespeare.