Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Enrich Your Children's Lives:

Share Literature, Theater, and the Arts with Your Kids this Summer!!!
At the end of her seventh grade year, our oldest daughter Lizzie announced at breakfast that over the summer she was going to read all of William Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets.
“All of them?” we asked.
“Yep,” was her confident reply.
Her father smiled and went back to reading The Boston Globe sports page. 
I went immediately into mom worry-wort overdrive. 
“Why don’t you pick five plays that we can read aloud together over the summer?” I asked. I was concerned that with such a large goal she was setting herself up for failure, concerned that the content and language in the plays would be overwhelming. I thought that if we read them together, I could offer guidance and explanation.
“I want to read them myself, without any help,” she said, walking to the living room bookcase, removing the three volume set of Shakespeare’s Tragedies, Comedies, and Sonnets off the top shelf, claiming it as her own.
Her father was unconcerned, thinking that Lizzie’s summer reading project would quietly fizzle out at some point, that friends and summer activities would eventually sideline her ambition. I was not so sure. Elizabeth had loved theater and opera since she was a very little. I well remembered the Thanksgiving she was four, when I turned the Macy’s parade on TV mid-morning to keep her occupied while I got the turkey into the oven. Fifteen minutes later when I checked on her, I found she had changed the channel to a PBS station and was watching a performance of Die Fledermaus, utterly engrossed. As often as we could, we took her, and her younger siblings, to children’s and adult local repertory theater performances. And when we could afford to, we splurged and bought discount “nose-bleed” tickets for a major Broadway play. I encouraged their imaginative play at home, filling a huge old bureau in the basement, not with store bought costumes, but with used “dress-up” clothes—worn men’s suits, old bride’s maid and prom dresses, scarves, beads, funny hats, high heels, and clunky men’s boots. Enthralled by every aspect of the theater Liz, with her friends and siblings, often raided that bureau, dressing up, engaging in imaginary play.
Elizabeth was a voracious reader, and she had a major stubborn streak. I believed she really was going to try and read all the plays over the summer. I managed to assuage my worries by borrowing a few young people’s books from the library for her that contained prose versions of the plays, thinking that then she would at least have basic plot and the character information.
And that summer before she entered eighth grade, she did exactly what she said she was going to do, she read every play written by William Shakespeare, and every sonnet, the Oxford three volume edition —totally on her own without parental intervention or motivation. She was driven by her own passion and curiosity. What we did not know, until months later, was that each time she finished reading a play, she sat down with her six year old brother and verbally told him the story.
Friday nights during the school year, we would make popcorn and pizza, push all the old sofa sectionals in the basement together creating a huge mega-couch, and all five of us would sprawl out to watch videos. On this particular spring night, the kids wanted to watch the recently released The Lion King. About thirty minutes into the movie, six year old Patrick jumped up shouting, “This is Hamlet! The Lion King is really Hamlet!” My husband and I looked at each other, in one of those moments when you know exactly what your spouse is thinking, in this case—my god, it is Hamlet! And how the heck does Patrick know about Hamlet? Only then did we find out about Elizabeth’s summer Shakespearean storytelling. Later when sharing this anecdote with a friend who worked in marketing for Disney’s Hyperion publishing, she told me that the original screen treatment, written by Thomas Disch, was indeed inspired by Hamlet. 
Magic had happened in our house—magic that can happen in your house, too, when you make an effort to expose your kids to theater, the arts, and literature! We live in small three bedroom, one bathroom house—yes only one bathroom. (You can imagine the drama created by that situation!) Our kids are highly imperfect, wonderfully weird, average in most things, smart in some things. They all attended our small town's public schools. We have had enough money to survive, but not a lot for many extras. But we decided that as parents we would try to expose our kids to as many different things as we could, trying to give them experiences and opportunities that we did not have as kids. It was our hope that taking them to the library, to museums, to theatrical and music productions and events, to sporting events, to parks and historical sites, would not only compensate for whatever their formal education lacked, but would enrich their lives, expanding their own personal and future professional life choices. Besides, doing things together, exploring, sharing experiences with them, was huge fun—and now we have so many amazing family memories to share!
“Longitudinal data of 25,000 students involved in the arts, conducted at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education by Dr. James Catterall, shows that consistent participation greatly improves academic performance and significantly bumps up standardized test scores. Students who make time for the arts are also more involved in community service, and less likely to drop out of school. And we’re not just talking about upper middle class kids. These facts remain, regardless of a child’s socio-economic background.” Danielle Wood, Editor-In-Chief of
Kids need time to explore things they are passionate about on their own; they need to flex their mental muscles and their imaginations. And getting involved in the arts gets them off the couch, and away from electronic screens. Kids who read great books, draw, paint, dance, sculpt, play a musical instrument, participate in theatrical productions or create their own backyard theater, expand their imaginations and also learn essential critical and creative thinking skills, skills that will help them in their science and math studies.
Take time this summer, and throughout the school year, to introduce your kids to great books, theater, and the arts! Your local neighborhood library not only has all the information and books you need about the arts, it also has books that have arts activity suggestions and ideas for your kids—as well as plays that your kids can perform on their own. Your library has music CD’s and DVD’s and videos of professional theater performances that you can share with your kids. And many of you neighborhood libraries will have free passes to museums, parks, events, and children’s theater that you can reserve for your family.

Mary Brigid Barrett is the president and executive director of The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance. She is the author of the recently released children’s picture book Shoebox Sam (HarperCollins: Zonderkidz), and is the editor of, and contributor to, the NCBLA’s award-winning publication Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out (Candlewick Press). She is also the creative editor, along with Geri Eddins, of the NCBLA’sforthcoming publication The Exquisite Corpse Adventure, an adventure story game created originally for the Library of Congress website.

To find museums and theaters near you with special programs and events for children and teens, check at your local library and your online city newspaper listings. Many cities also have special parent newspapers and websites that can aide you in finding interesting art, literature, and theater experiences for your kids.
Shakespeare books for kids:
You can find many wonderful editions of Shakespeare’s original plays, prose versions of the plays, books about Shakespeare, plays written especially for kids to perform, and books with dramatic activates for kids, at your local neighborhood library and bookstore.  Do not hesitate to ask for help if you cannot find what you need!

A few specific suggestions:  
«  Shakespeare for Kids: His Life and Times, 21 Activities For Kids by Colleen Aagesen and Margie Blumberg.
«  Shakespeare Stories by Leon Garfield and Michael Foreman.
«  Tales from Shakespeare by Tina Packer, President and Artistic Director of Shakespeare & Company theater and theater education group.
«  Shakespeare with Children: Six Scripts For Young Players by Elizabeth Weinstein.
«  Bard of Avon: The Story of William Shakespeare by Peter Vennema, illustrated by Diane Stanley.

Web links!