Shakespeare in the special education classroom – a rationale from Heather Ruth Edgren, in Eagle River, Alaska
Heather Ruth Edgren graduated from Memphis State University (now named University of Memphis) in 1989 with a degree in Special Education. She taught for two years in Memphis, Tennessee, in a self-contained Special Education classroom at the elementary level (students 10-12 years old) before moving to Alaska. The next 18 years were spent teaching students with special needs at both the middle school and high school levels with the Anchorage School District, the last 11 years at Chugiak High School, near Eagle River, Alaska.
The article that follows complements Heather’s feature on her work with Shakespeare in the Special Education classroom, which will appear in the September issue of the BSA’s magazine, Teaching Shakespeare
A rationale for Shakespeare in the special education classroom
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
(As You Like It: Act ll, Scene Vll)
Overuse of these lines from Shakespeare makes them sound trite, but the truth is that there are those who still stand in the wings waiting for their turn on the stage. They are only waiting for someone to give them their cue and the encouragement that they need to step from one role- one thrust upon them by circumstance- into another that has the potential to change both the way they see their world and the way it sees them.
The first year Shakespeare was part of my special education curriculum I observed something that really caught my attention and thought, well, okay that’s interesting. Then the next year I saw it again, and began to suspect that I was on to something. And I was right, every year the same thing happened. There is something about teaching Shakespeare to students with special needs. I have had autistic pupils who exhibit traits typical of those on the autism spectrum: they don’t know how to respond in a social situation; they won’t make eye contact; they don’t want to touch or be touched by someone; they have tactile hypersensitivity; exhibit hand flapping, and talk in unusual speech patterns. While I am teaching Shakespeare, however, I have seen these students respond in a way that is stunning. In learning about the character that they are playing, about how their character would feel, about how he or she would respond in a situation, about the rhythm and pacing and idiom of the character’s language- something happens. I watched a young man whose only time out of his self-contained classroom was to come to English class in my room. Sometimes if he became agitated or could not be redirected he would have to leave my classroom as he would begin rocking or pacing the room and repeating phrases over and over, and would escalate from there. One year he played Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew. By the time we were ready to present our scenes, he had his lines memorized, dragged Kate through the archway, and displayed appropriate emotion and voice control and his hand movements were down to a minimum. Over the subsequent couple of years he progressed to the point where most of his classes were outside the self-contained room and he no longer required an escort to be in class with him. His primary special education teacher said to me and others that this transformation started with the Shakespeare play we did in my classroom. A similar story is that of a student who played Horatio in the final Act of Hamlet the first year I had him and played Lucentio in the final Act of Taming of the Shrew the next year. He would seek me out after he was no longer in my class to show me that he still had his lines memorized, and he did! Every year, the transformation and growth shown in particular by students on the autism spectrum both during and following this portion of my curriculum was amazing to watch. The power of Shakespeare in the classroom to reach and transform students has never ceased to amaze me.
Somehow, it always seemed to me that the last class of the day had the most students with severe emotional disturbances, which often means teenage boys with anger issues, poor self-control, and oppositional behavior. These young men always chose the final Act of Hamlet for some reason. Most likely it had something to do at first glance with death, swords, and violence. A change takes place in these students, though, once they get into the curriculum, and I am not exactly sure what accounts for it. What is it that allows two otherwise angry boys to clasp arms and vow, “…But till that time, I do receive your offer’d love like love, and will not wrong it.” I have never had a problem, despite the disabilities of these students, directing a Horatio to hold the head of a dying Hamlet. One of my students was a young man with severe anger outbursts. He also had a learning disability in written expression and poor reading skills. Of course, he was in a class that did the last scene in Hamlet. This student ultimately ended up being moved out of the class for the Severely Emotionally Disturbed, out of Special Education English, took Shakespeare as his English elective class, passed the High School Graduation Qualifying Examination, and graduated with a high school diploma. Can all those things be attributed to performing in a Shakespeare play in my classroom? Probably not, but the changes for him started somewhere.
Then there’s my girls- beautiful young ladies whose disabilities prevent them from seeing how special they truly are. There’s the student who would cut herself, and hide her beauty, but as Kate she came alive. Another student came in from one of the villages where drinking and suicide are rampant. She never spoke above a whisper and never lifted her head. In Queen Gertrude’s dress, the sparkle in her eyes said what her voice could not. I had a girl in my class whose father suddenly and unexpectedly died. She struggled through a year at school and then left for a while. She had begun to drink and experiment with drugs. When she finally came back, our class was doing Hamlet. She strongly identified with the themes in this work and it was not an easy play for her to do. We shed many tears in that class that year, but she saw it through. I am still in touch with this student and we talked recently about her experience. It is an accomplishment of which, looking back, she remains very proud.
There have been so many students who have stood out in my mind over the years. I would love to sit here and fill these pages with every one of them. They each have a story to tell. Each one of them is a young person who, in most special education classes, would have never been introduced to the world of Shakespeare: the beauty and novelty of his use of language; the humanity of his characters; the chance to step onto the stage. They, too, have become through this shared experience players and have exits and entrances to make, and in their time, many parts to play. I remain eternally grateful to that first student who saw the possibility inherent in the classroom as a stage, and the teacher as a fellow player.