Sixth Graders, Seniors, and Shakespeare
Sixth Graders, Seniors, and Shakespeare

by Judith Beerman O'Hanlon, Upper School English Teacher

For the 19th year in a row, the 6th graders, accompanied by their teachers Jonathan Arriaran, Anne Carr, and Gina Rocca, and the seniors in my two AP Literature classes met on January 23 to explore Shakespeare's Hamlet and Macbeth.

The seniors presented some of their creative projects inspired by the "To be or not to be" speech as well as a number of dramatic performances of key scenes in the play, including an energetic and meticulously choreographed duel scene including, in one 6th grader's words, "fencing tricks and flips." The younger students shared their clever storyboard projects from Macbeth. During lunch, everyone divided up into discussion groups led by the seniors to consider such thought-provoking questions as "Which character did you like best? Hate the most? Feel most frustrated by and why?" Or "If you could rewrite the ending of the play, what would happen differently?" or "What connections do you see between Macbeth and Hamlet?" Is there anything not heroic or admirable about Hamlet?" "Is studying Shakespeare still relevant to students today?" The seniors guided the 6th graders as they contemplated powerful themes such as parent-child relationships, hypocrisy, loyalty, revenge, power, madness, and suicide.

Sixth grader Ryan loved his discussion group and the projects and skits that were "funny and inspiring," commenting, "I never knew that seniors could be so talented." Tara was grateful for the chance to "collaborat[e]" and also was impressed by the "elaborate" and sophisticated level of the seniors' understanding of the play. For Tyler, the incorporation of technology in four of the seniors' creative projects was one of the "highlights" of the event. Daniela wrote, "All the projects that [the] students did were incredible, and they have inspired me in a very important way. I can't believe that [the seniors] accomplished [what they did and made] the presentations so amazing....everyone was so kind and welcoming...I had a marvelous experience that I will always remember."

The seniors relished the opportunity to guide and challenge the younger students to go further in their understanding of the plays. Some were especially nostalgic about their similar experience at the Lower School in 2013, like Sarah M., who commented, "The 6th Grade event was truly full circle." The students eagerly and enthusiastically grappled with the discussion questions, and Esther K. "was so impressed with the insight of the 6th Grade students in my discussion group. It felt like I was discussing Shakespeare with my peers." Mackenzie L. explained that the event was "truly a highlight of my senior year. Not only was I able to see some of my classmates' projects and speeches from the other track, but I was also able to see how the 6th graders interpreted Macbeth with modern-day characters. A high point of the event was the reenactment of the duel scene, during which seniors, 6th graders, and teachers were all enthralled by the theatrical talent of the seniors. It was exciting to see them bring the play to life."

Ultimately, I am sure everyone there would agree with Samuel Johnson's 1765 statement: Shakespeare's "characters...are the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply, and observation will always find," or, as Mackenzie put it: "I discovered that Shakespeare's work, while centuries old, can encourage creativity, provide very relevant discussions, and unite people of many different age groups." Having the opportunity to make these connections and to witness the vivid, original efforts of this dynamic group of students made for a memorable experience for us all.

[Photo of Senior Esther K. and her 6th Grade sister Goldie K. by Mackenzie L. '19]

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