The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.1512  Wednesday, 14 September 2005

From: 		Richard Burt <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
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. 
Pretty impressive.

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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