The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.1512 Wednesday, 14 September 2005
From: Richard Burt <
Date: Tuesday, 13 Sep 2005 13:44:47 -0400
Subject: 16.1498 The Hobart Shakespeareans
Comment: Re: SHK 16.1498 The Hobart Shakespeareans
Did anyone else happen to see it? The teacher is a bit of a blowhard
whose school program is all about "hard work," "being nice, "and
"character." He claims his class is responsible for kids (all Asian and
Hispanic) who took it eventually getting into college. Kind of
preposterous, but a Yale law student who took the class actually
remembered the teacher and got significant private funding for the
program. The teacher is white and married to an Asian woman. They are
both very anti-pc and in favor teaching DWM authors. Thirty years ago,
they might have seemed liberal, creating a classics for kids programs
kind of like Leonard Bernstein's program for classical music. Only a
small part of the PBS / POV documentary actually focuses on Shakespeare.
It's also not clear how much of a given Shakespeare play the kids
(fifth-graders) perform (or how much of Huck Finn they read). But
several students are seen performing scenes from Hamlet ( play about
death, according to the teacher) having memorized entire speeches.
The official website (it has a trailer for the program) is at
A DVD may be purchased for under 30 dollars.
Imagine the sight and sound of American nine- and eleven-year-old
children performing Shakespeare's Hamlet or Henry V - and understanding
every word they recite. Imagine them performing well enough to elicit
praise from such accomplished Shakespearean actors as Ian McKellen and
Michael York, and to be invited to perform with the Royal Shakespeare
Company in England. Such a spectacle would be highly impressive in the
toniest of America's private schools. But what if the kids were the
children of recent Latino and Asian immigrants attending a large Los
Angeles inner-city public school in one of America's toughest neighborhoods?
That is the astonishing story told by the new documentary "The Hobart
Shakespeareans," which discovers how one man's uncommon commitment and
resourcefulness have opened up worlds of opportunity for his
"disadvantaged" students - and perhaps have demonstrated a way forward
for America's beleaguered public education system.
The Latino- and Asian-American children crowding Los Angeles' sprawling
Hobart Boulevard Elementary face daunting odds. Their neighborhood in
the heart of Central Los Angeles is better known for crime than for
opportunity. They grow up in low-income households. Their school,
typically for public education in poor districts, is under-funded and
overcrowded. Most of their parents do not speak English. No one is
giving these kids educational perks, like class trips and intensive
tutoring. And no one is expecting any but the smartest and luckiest to
rise beyond the limitations of their environment. No one, that is,
except Rafe Esquith.
"The Hobart Shakespeareans" finds fifth-grade teacher Esquith has very
strong - some might say uncompromising - ideas about educating today's
children of immigrants. He has developed a renowned if unusual battery
of methods, challenging those who would expect less from immigrant
children. The one thing Esquith insists on is expecting the best from
these kids, no matter what their backgrounds are, and he backs up that
expectation by giving them the educational resources to defy the odds.
"I fear something for these children," Esquith says. "And it's not
gangs; it's not drugs. What I fear is that they're ordinary. I don't
want my students to be ordinary; I want them to be extraordinary because
I know that they are."
With that abiding faith - and passion - Esquith leads his fifth-graders
through a rigorous core curriculum of English, mathematics, geography
and literature. But he goes further, creating a real-world learning
environment. The film shows how it works: students must apply for a job,
such as banker, office monitor, clerk, janitor, police officer and many
others. Each child receives a monthly "paycheck" in a classroom
currency. They correspondingly pay rent to sit at their desks - the
closer to the front of the room, the higher the rent. Students can make
extra money by getting good grades and participating in extracurricular
activities; they can also be fined for breaking class rules or getting
poor grades. The classroom motto is "Be nice, work hard. There are no
shortcuts." Esquith also inspires them with cross-country trips to learn
history firsthand - and to experience a world of opportunity beyond the
troubled confines of Central LA.
The pinnacle of achievement for the students each year is the
performance of a play by Shakespeare; during the year of filming, the
play was Hamlet. Lest anyone think these kids might be performing
adolescent skits, think again. Esquith's students perform full-length,
unabridged versions, and spend the year studying the plays so that they
understand every word and allusion; they arrive at class at 6:30 a.m.
and don't leave until 5 p.m. in order to do so.
In "The Hobart Shakespeareans," student Alan Avila plays Hamlet, Brenda
De Leon is a breathtaking Ophelia, Damien Mendieta is Polonius and Lidia
Medina is Gertrude, and each testifies to the impact of Esquith's class.
Avila, a former problem student, tells us his favorite book is The
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn "because it holds a mirror to our
nature...shows us how humans really think." "It was easier to memorize
lines than to learn character," opines Mendieta like a veteran thespian.
And Medina says, "This is the best thing that's ever happened to me,
performing and showing what I've worked for in front of all those people!"
The efforts of the "Hobart Shakespeareans" have drawn the attention and
help of such renowned actors as Michael York and Sir Ian McKellen, who,
fresh from playing the wizard Gandolf in The Lord of the Rings trilogy,
sends quite a ripple of excitement through Esquith's fifth-graders when
he visits. But he is clearly as delighted with them as they are with
him. And it's easy to see why - these students embrace Shakespeare as
one of their own. York calls the Hobart Shakespeareans "one of the great
Shakespeare troupes" in Los Angeles.
That's where some controversy accrues to Esquith's methods. What's he
doing teaching Shakespeare - or other "dead white men" such as Mark
Twain - to Latino- and Asian-American kids in Central LA, anyway?
Shouldn't he be teaching them something more relevant to their lives?
The class, it turns out, also reads The Autobiography of Malcolm X and
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee . But Esquith is an unreconstructed
humanist. In the first place, he feels he should teach what he loves. He
also believes that seizing the universal human element in seemingly
disparate material is a key to learning, and to a wider world of
knowledge and achievement. Rather than favoring the kids' disadvantages,
Esquith wants to turn these liabilities on their heads. "If a
10-year-old, who doesn't speak English at home, can step in front of you
and do a scene from Shakespeare," says Esquith, "then there is nothing
that he cannot accomplish."
Beyond controversy are the results of Esquith's multi-faceted program.
An uncommon number of former Hobart Shakespeareans have moved on to
attend top colleges and universities throughout the country. "I have
students at Harvard, at Yale, at Swarthmore and UCLA," says Esquith. "My
younger students were invited to give a performance at the US Supreme
Court, and my older students to give a performance at the Globe Theatre
in London. It was the greatest day of my teaching life."
At first, Esquith and his wife, Barbara, funded his program out of their
own pockets and with prodigious expenditures of their time and energy.
Today, donations from major corporations and private individuals cover
the cost of the class's extra-curricular activities None of these funds
are used to supplement Esquith's salary as an inner-city school teacher.
Some say that Esquith's successes are the product of a singular sense of
mission, and therefore not examples broadly applicable to an education
crisis in which poor kids in poor schools fall ever farther behind. But
what Esquith has proved, albeit through singular sacrifice, is that with
the best educational tools - tools that society could provide if it
wanted - any kid can succeed. That, for Rafe Esquith, is the American dream.
"With all my thrilling experiences in the movie business, this was a
wonderful film to shoot," says producer/director Mel Stuart. "We can see
these kids blossom and open up. It's a testament to the powers of art
and to the diff
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