Erasmus plays with legos, drawing by John Lithgow

Great news! My book will be published by Routledge Press in Oxford, England. I’m thrilled. It was my first choice of a publisher from the very beginning. It will be published under the title: “Lessons for Today from Shakespeare’s Classroom: The Cognitive Benefits of Drama and Rhetoric in Schools,” I’ve just signed the contract and will keep my readers informed about the publication date, but that should be within 18 months. In the meantime, I’ll start posting more regularly.

I hope “Lessons for Today….”  will be in the library and bookstore of every college and university in England and the U.S. training teachers in the humanities, Fingers crossed!

For a teaser, here is the Introduction:

My years in education have convinced me that performing arts, storytelling, and creative language should be at the core of education. We need more of them in our schools. A great deal more. Every day. This is not because we need more actors, dancers, musicians, and writers but because we need smarter, more thoughtful citizens. We need nimble thinkers with the mental flexibility to process the daily onslaught of information provided to us in the age of the Internet. We need a population of adults for whom creative and critical thinking comes instinctively. We need to think about the education of children the way Desiderius Erasmus did six hundred years ago, when he was helping to construct the foundations of humanism and design the curriculum enjoyed by William Shakespeare’s entire generation, elements of which still resonate today. For the humanists, the education of children was for the benefit of the commonwealth, and the curriculum they designed was far richer in the arts than has been commonly realized.

In this book we will examine two relatively short spans of time during which unimaginable changes occurred: the Reformation and the dawning of modern English language and literature. What if we could wave a magic wand and make the radical changes I would like to see in public education in the post-pandemic generation, reflecting on what we know now about how education can develop wise and healthy adults? Just as the Renaissance emerged after the Black Plague, there will soon be new cultural models that may give us an opportunity to rethink old norms. One area that is ripe for renewal is the evaluation of educational programs. My fervent hope is that the era of drill-and-kill test preparation is ending, and that the arts will lead in a new look at assessment that is authentic and supportive of life-long learning.

There were three igniting realizations that set my course as I began this journey. First was learning that two of Shakespeare’s teachers were students of Richard Mulcaster, headmaster of the Merchant Taylors’ School in London, who was influenced by the early humanists and was famous for his use of drama in the classroom. The second was the common practice of students performing colloquies (brief scripted scenes) for practice in Latin. Finally it was learning about the artistry of dramatic language that was nurtured by the centuries-old study of rhetoric, or the “art of speaking well.” Colloquial (conversational) language and rhetorical (elevated) language were partners in Shakespeare’s education. Both involved dramatic presentation, and both contributed to the cognitive brilliance of the age.

If humanist education in Shakespeare’s day in any way produced smarter and more more flexible thinkers, more discerning minds, and more intelligent citizens (and it will be obvious that I believe it did), it is worth our effort to identify what elements of that education could be simulated in schools today, with a particular examination of the arts of performance.

Schoolboys performing colloquies —drawing by John Lithgow

I know, I know—the “whining school-boy…creeping like snail unwillingly to school” and all that—but I actually think Shakespeare had a lot of fun at Stratford’s Latin Grammar school. Not only that, he shared that fun with his classmates.

For one thing, I am absolutely convinced that the first draft of his The Taming of the Shrew was based on a riotously funny collaboration written and performed by Stratford schoolboys, but I’ll save that for a another post when I can show a reading of Erasmus’s hilarious colloquy “Uxor” (Marriage), starring Xanthippe, the Shrew. (My gut tells me that young Will played that part and relished it!)

But I also think that learning dozens and dozens of rhetorical figures and devices was fun too. Why? Well, when you think about it, they ARE fun in themselves—like intricate word puzzles—and wordplay was a major source of entertainment back then. Either by good pedagogy or by necessity, collaboration was a constant factor in the Elizabethan classroom, and figuring out those devices together must have been totally engaging.

Just to demonstrate: I’ve attached here the full video of a presentation I did recently at the studio of Susan Cambique Tracey in which the participants, many of them colleagues and Music Center teaching artists, engaged in a collaborative activity creating examples of four figures. (I’ve posted segments of the video featuring readings from two colloquies—and hope to have one soon of “Uxor”— but the rhetoric portion of the video is in the first half.)

(Video filmed by Scott Powell at the studio of Paul Susan Cambique Tracey)

I’ve been told that some of my blog posts are “erudite.” I hate hearing that. Honestly, I am no scholar. All the years of research I’ve done on this project have been fueled by pleasure and passion: the same qualities that the performing arts bring to the education of children. I hope the laughter and delight experienced by the participants in this video bolsters my theory that arts education, in addition to developing cognition, is a solution to the doldrums our children are experiencing in the contemporary classroom.

 

“To Play” vs “The Play”

Pirates Playing

Pirates Playing

In 1582, in his book Positions, Richard Mulcaster, citing Plato, listed five essential studies for the young student: reading, writing, singing, drawing, and playing. When I first read that I thought that he meant “playing” as in “player,” or “actor,” and was kind of disappointed when I realized that he was referring not to drama but to playing a musical instrument (which, with singing, doubles the number for music!) Still, I was delighted that music and visual arts were up there with the essentials, and if you include rhetoric and the artistry of writing, the arts get four of the five!

But the more I learned about Mulcaster and his daily use of drama in his classroom, the more I realized that theatre was not, at the time, considered an arts discipline in itself, but the product of music, dance, visual arts, and “actio” (physical rhetoric), all of which Mulcaster included in his daily instruction. Through rhetoric, drama is directly connected to writing. (I am personally convinced by my research that the first draft of The Taming of the Shrew was a riotous and “play”ful collaboration of schoolboys at Stratford Grammar School, but I’ll save that for another post).

Playing Around

Playing Around Photo by Mi-Pham via unsplash

Today, outside of the field of child development, “‘play” is too often perceived as a distraction from learning—something in conflict with instruction. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, play is the first—and the most vital—foundational step in literacy; and the more that play can be folded into instruction, the the deeper and more enduring the learning. This is true all through childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age (as I am here to testify!)

The following is an excerpt from the final chapter of my book:

“When my four-year-old granddaughter walks in the door, inevitably the first thing she says to me is ‘play with me.’ That primal need for social connection and play will be dominant for at least the next twenty years and, in fact, it will never go away completely. Our minds develop in a social context. Children learn from playing with each other far more than they learn from schooling, which, for better or for worse, opens a wealth of opportunity. Is it any wonder that the most ancient and authentic form of communicating a story is called a ‘play’?”

At any age and IN any age, drama, whether as the verb “play” (e.g. improvisation) or as the noun “play” (e.g. finished performance) engages and entertains as it educates. The education one receives through drama/theatre goes way beyond literacy. It teaches empathy, social skills, time management, collaboration, cooperation, listening, thinking-on-feet, and on and on. Most important, once again, it “frames the mind for learning.” Cognition!