Dr. Stacy Erickson-Pesetski, a professor of English and associate dean of Academic Affairs, conducts class once a week over a four-week period at Logansport Juvenile Correctional Facility. Photo provided
Dr. Stacy Erickson-Pesetski, a professor of English and associate dean of Academic Affairs, conducts class once a week over a four-week period at Logansport Juvenile Correctional Facility. Photo provided
As the end of the school year approaches, Logansport High School English teacher Chris Pearcy is preparing for a tradition: introducing his students to William Shakespeare through the play “Romeo and Juliet.”

Shakespeare is as timely as ever. “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” starring Denzel Washington in the title role, was nominated for three academy awards. HBO’s series “Station Eleven,” based on the 2014 novel by Emily St. John Mandel, follows a troupe of Shakespearean actors long after a plague leaves America post apocalyptic. And there’s Steven Speilberg’s remake of “West Side Story,” a retelling of “Romeo and Juliet.”

Shakespeare’s birthdate is unknown but records show he was baptized on April 26, 1564. His birth is normally celebrated on April 23rd, which is also the day of his death in 1616.

Pearcy has taught “Romeo and Juliet” the past three years since moving up from middle school. Students go into the reading expecting a really old and boring play. He is happy they walk away with new opinions.

“Usually at this point freshmen don’t know that much about Shakespeare,” he said. “They know he wrote a bunch of plays and they know he writes in a weird way and sounds funny to their ears when they hear it. But they have no idea about the content. They are often surprised.”

Pearcy’s approach to teaching the bard is having his students read the “No Fear Shakespeare” version from Sparknotes. It puts the traditional text alongside a modern translation. Once they finish an act, he shows them video of a live performance from Canada’s Stratford Festival. When they complete the play they watch a modernized Broadway version starring Orlando Bloom.

Pearcy will then wrap up the lesson with a film adaptation. Last year he showed the animated “Gnomeo and Juliet.”

His colleague, Logansport English teacher April Beene, approaches Shakespeare differently depending on if it’s her freshman class or her senior AP course. She likes to make Shakespeare fun for the freshman, starting with Shakespearian insults and slowly working into the standard “Romeo and Juliet” text. She also incorporates video into the process.

For the AP class, she focuses on the relevancy of issues in the plays. This year she taught Shakespeare’s sonnets due to time issues but hopes to treat her students to “Macbeth” in future courses.

She said when students get started with Shakespeare they moan and groan but as they learn more about Shakespeare’s life and times they grow more interested. They especially love performing scenes from the plays.

“By the end they usually end up enjoying it,” she said. “With “Romeo and Juliet” they enjoy talking about whether or not it’s real love, the choices that they make or the parents’ influence. They end up pretty intrigued.”

Pearcy said “Romeo and Juliet” continues to connect with young audiences because it’s a story of intense teen love.

“Most of them have experienced it in some way,” he said. “By their own admission they think Romeo and Juliet are nuts. But they do understand that strong feeling of obsession when you first fall for somebody hard. I think we have all experienced that in our lives and maybe not making the smartest decisions in those moments.”

While there are definitely ideas in Shakespeare’s work that are dated, Pearcy remained surprised at how relevant the themes in the plays are.

“Anyone interested in teaching Shakespeare to kids, I really suggest trying to relate it back to how it’s relevant today,” said Beene. “That’s why his plays have stood the test of time–they are still so relevant. I did “Hamlet” in high school and that’s a young man coming of age, trying to make all these choices about his life. He has all these issues with his parents and I think if you can get kids to see how their lives connect to those things then I think they are already hooked. They love talking about big issues that apply to them and you can do that with Shakespeare.”

SHAKESPEARE IN EDUCATION

Stacy Erickson-Pesetski, professor of English at Manchester University in North Manchester, has been teaching Shakespeare to students in the Logansport Juvenile Correctional Facility each summer since 2018.

“We talk a lot about characters going through transitions,” she said.

Students for the course are selected by English teachers so they come in already a bit interested in Shakespeare, she said.

One year she taught “Othello,” but now tends to pick and choose moments from different plays, giving the students a wide ranging taste of what is on offer in Shakespeare’s universe. She said they love the big speeches by both heroes and villains.

“They don’t necessarily have a lot of background knowledge but they are just up for it,” Erickson-Pesetski said. “And they connect pretty quickly. I think it takes them far less time [to connect] than college students.”

She said part of the Shakespeare experience is showing them they can handle difficult subject matter, something that even college students struggle with. It gives the students a big confidence boost which plays a role towards improving their behavior.

“I think we really connect a lot to real life and that this is relevant today,” she said. “These are stories about families and not as far away and hard to believe as one might think.”

Plus, Shakespeare’s characters are generally messy people. Much like every other person on the planet.

So when presented to a classroom of teenagers or juvenile offenders, they can feel the love, passion, anger, hatred even if they don’t quite understand the way it is being said.

“I think it makes it more intriguing for [students] and more realistic,” said Beene. “I was thinking the other day about Toni Morrison, my favorite writer. Her characters are the same way. Nobody is just good or bad. There’s a layer of complexity that you have in Shakespeare, too. Even his villains are always intriguing. Kids like that. It feels more true to life than having this one dimensional character. They like the complexity of it and they love ethical dilemmas. They like discussing the choices characters made and whether or not it was the right choice.”

BANNING SHAKESPEARE?

Book banning is popular again. Texas and Florida are the most arduous in the endeavor. LGTBQ+ and Black voices are the current targets.

Yet Shakespeare remains on the syllabus, a sly smirk on his face.

“I was just talking about this to my AP kids the other day,” Beene said. “People think of him as this very fancy poet and playwright but he was really a people’s poet. He was writing to a wide audience. He’s something I think the kids connect to but a lot of the folks who want to challenge a book–it flies over their radar. Luckily.”

Shakespeare’s work is filled with gender-bending, bawdy taunts and language that would still make a grandparent blush.

To Pearcy’s students credit, they found the hypersexualized jibes to be the least interesting aspect of “Romeo and Juliet,” he said. Why, it’s almost as if young people can think and decide for themselves.

“If Shakespeare were publishing today I think his books would be challenged,” Beene said. “I think he gets by because so many people aren’t reading Shakespeare. They don’t realize he has a very raunchy sense of humor sometimes. He gets by because he is an older text.”
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