Every year, Abby Whittrege’s seventh grade English class studies Shakespeare’s comedy
A Midsummmer Night’s Drean as part of their drama unit. This is one of the essential rites of passages for children at MERMS, and stands out in the minds of many older students as one of their favorite memories of middle school.
Two copies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream sit next to one another. The copy on the left contains the complete and unabridged original text, while the copy on the right adds a modern translation that any English speaker can understand. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is about the marriage of Theseus, duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons. Four young Athenian lovers and a group of six amateur actors (called “mechanicals”) are controlled and manipulated by the faeries who inhabit the forest in which most of the play is set. Whittredge has been teaching the play for over fifteen years. Credit: Benjamin Willems for Manchester Essex Multimedia Online
Shortly after beginning A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Abby Whittredge’s seventh grade English class created blackout poems. They took pages from copies that were about to be destroyed and blacked out lines from the play so all that is left is what the viewer can read, adding in their own artwork and designs. This is just one of many activities Whittredge uses with her students in class. “We act the play out as we read,” she says. “Some of the kids are actors, some of them are directors. There are also set designers, costume designers, coreographers. A few of my students even create musical compositions for each scene. When we’re finished, each group picks the one scene they like the best and perform it in front of the whole class.” Credit: Benjamin Willems for Manchester Essex Multimedia Online
In class, seventh grade English teacher Abby Whittredge tells her students what will happen in the next scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream while the class follows along in their copies of the play. William Shakespeare is known to have written at least thirty-five plays during his lifetime. Of all the comedies, tragedies, and histories in the Bard’s oeuvre, Whittredge teaches A Midsummer Night’s Dream because she thinks it is a great play for middle schoolers. “It’s funny, it’s confusing, it’s silly, and it’s crazy,” she said. “It’s everything seventh graders love. The tragedies, they’re a lot harder for them, so I think the comedies are the way to go with the middle school.” Credit: Benjamin Willems for Manchester Essex Multimedia Online
Once she has given them her scene overview, Abby Whittredge’s seventh grade English students read the scene to their classmates. Whittredge divides each of her classes into smaller groups, each consisting of the same people who worked on the picture book project from earlier in the drama unit. “I assign them their roles in the play, and each person plays a different character,” they said. “But when a character isn’t on stage acting, then they have other jobs. I ask, ‘who’s never been a director, who’s never been a set designer, who’s never been a composer? Who’s never done choreography or costume design?’ And then they read the whole scene of the play that we’re in with the mindset of a set designer or a member of the stage crew, something along those lines. They still have to read the play, but they’re reading it like a support member of the cast, not an actual actor.” Credit: Benjamin Willems for Manchester Essex Multimedia Online
After they have read through their scene, actors, directors, set designers, costume designers, coreographers, and composers in Abby Whittredge’s seventh grade English class decide how they will act it out. This year at MERMS, five members of Shakespeare & Company, a theatre troupe based in Lenox, hosted theatre workshops for grades six through eight. According to Whittredge, this change affected her curriculum tremendously. “I think the kids were really excited about Shakespeare,” she said. “I think they always are, they love him. But I think this year, they were less intimidated by him. They thought reading him would be more fun, and they couldn’t have been more right.” Credit: Benjamin Willems for Manchester Essex Multimedia Online
In the seventh grade pod, each group in Abby Whittredge’s English class performs their scene in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When asked about how her students react to the unit, Whittredge said, “They always love Shakespeare, because they love acting out the play and generally not sitting down. They love directing, they love costumes, they love set design… I think they like the whole thing. Most of what we do involves getting up and participating. It’s not just sitting down and writing something. Credit: Benjamin Willems for Manchester Essex Multimedia Online
Once each group has presented their scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Abby Whittredge’s seventh grade English class watches a film adaptation of the play. Whittredge’s favorite part about teaching the play is when she sees her students have “that moment where they understand what’s going on, where they get it, and they laugh at the jokes without me telling them.” She also loves “getting to see the talents of kids who maybe aren’t always as good at English, and all of a sudden, you get to see that they’re maybe good at Shakespeare and they’re good at acting! They’re great directors! They’re fantastic artists! I just learn so many things about them that I don’t get to see all the time.” Credit: Benjamin Willems for Manchester Essex Multimedia Online
Clara Tuttle and Caroline Francoeur interviewed several students about their thoughts about the middle school art show, for the ongoing series “Humans of Manchester Essex” based on the original “Humans of New York” project by Brandon Stanton.
Abby Whittredge’s seventh grade English class is currently doing a unit on drama. In order to introduce her students to the basics of theatre, she divides them into groups and has them work together to each act out a different picture book.
Seventh grade English teacher Abby Whittredge welcomes her students to the auditorium on the day her students present their projects. Whittredge has been using picture books in her drama unit for about four years. Credit: Benjamin Willems for Manchester Essex Multimedia Online
The first group of students to present performs their rendition of Margaret Wise Brown’s bedtime classic Goodnight Moon. Seventh grade English teacher Abby Whittredge organizes the project by putting her students in groups of three or four by their abilities in front of a group. “Shy kids are always with shy kids,” she said, “and loud kids are all together. Medium kids are all together. The reason why is because I don’t want the loud kids to take over all the groups. I want them to know what it’s like to work with kids who are like them. I want quiet kids not to stand behind other people who are not comfortable on stage. I want everybody to learn how to compromise if you’re one of the vocal people, to learn how to accept other people’s ideas, or to shut up and listen. And the quiet kids need to learn how to take charge.” Credit: Benjamin Willems for Manchester Essex Multimedia Online
The next group of students uses props, singing, and dancing to reenact Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, a book written by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambeault and illustrated by Louis Elhert that teaches the alphabet. Seventh grade English teacher Abby Whittredge assigns the book she wants each group to use. “They memorize the book as an actor,” she said. “Then, as a director, they have a vision for what it’s going to look like on stage. Then, they do the choreography where they block it all out, and they also do the costumes and everything.” Credit: Benjamin Willems for Manchester Essex Multimedia Online
Another group in seventh grade English teacher Abby Whittredge’s class acts out Snuggle Puppy by Sandra Boynton. In preparation for the project, Whittredge introduces her students to several important elements of drama, including projection, annunciation, eye contact, and voice inflection. She also teaches her students about looking at the audience, projecting one’s voice, speaking clearly, and how to change one’s voice to create a tone. Credit: Benjamin Willems for Manchester Essex Multimedia Online
Seventh grade English teacher Abby Whittredge chooses a different set of books for each of her classes. For the block being photographed, she selected Sheep in a Jeep by Nancy E. Shaw, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, Goodnight Moon (both already mentioned), and, written by Sandra Boynton, Moo! Baa! La La La!, Hippos Go Berserk, Snuggle Puppy, and The Barnyard Dance, performed by the group shown above. Whittredge chooses the books based on what her son loved when he was younger. She also has a master’s degree in children’s literature, and tries to keep up with the new trends in picture books in order to add new things to her list. Credit: Benjamin Willems for Manchester Essex Multimedia Online
The last group to present their performance stages Moo! Baa! La La La! in front of Abby Whittredge’s seventh grade English class. The picture book project is the beginning of Whittredge’s Shakespeare unit. “I teach them all the hard stuff – projection, annunciation, voice inflection, those things – with something simple and easy like a picture book,” she said. “If you can do it with a picture book, you learn it on something easy, then you can transfer it to something hard, like Shakespeare.” The project is worth several participation grades, and the performance acts as a quiz. Credit: Benjamin Willems for Manchester Essex Multimedia Online
As her seventh grade English class watches their fellow students perform, Abby Whittredge grades each group’s project. Student feedback has been extremely positive every year Whittredge has used the project in her classroom. “Everybody loves it, and I’m always shocked at how good they are,” she said. “Very few people get less than a B-plus, because they work really hard! And not because I’m an easy grader, it’s because they work so hard to do a good job.” Whittredge’s favorite part of the project is seeing her students demonstrate their creativity. “They’ll take something that I think ought to look a certain way, and they’ll change it, and do something way cooler than I ever thought about doing. And it looks awesome and it’s so smart and good, and it’s just a way for me to see them in a different light.” Credit: Benjamin Willems for Manchester Essex Multimedia Online
Clara Tuttle and Caroline Francoeur interviewed several students about their thoughts about the Manchester Essex school system, for the ongoing series “Humans of Manchester Essex” based on the original “Humans of New York” project by Brandon Stanton.
Vidula Plante’s eighth grade English class is currently doing a unit on
Macbeth. As part of this unit, five members of Shakespeare & Company, a theatre troupe based in the Berkshire town of Lenox, visited MERMS to host a theatre workshop for her students.
Luke Reed of Shakespeare & Company leads eighth grade English teacher Vidula Plante’s class in a warm-up, involving various forms of exercise. In the days leading up to the theatre workshop, Shakespeare & Company performed Hamlet for the middle school, in which Reed played the title role. “I contacted them to see if we could attend a play that they were staging,” Plante said, “and that play was Hamlet. And then in speaking to them I learned that they could also come to our school and do workshops, and rather than spending the money getting the kids out to the Berkshires, we thought we would invite the troupe, have them stage the play here, and conduct workshops at each grade level. So I had to write a grant for that, and that took a lot of time and energy, but it was totally worth it!” She has submitted another grant for Shakespeare & Company to come again next year. Credit: Benjamin Willems for Manchester Essex Multimedia Online
In another part of the warm-up, Vidula Plante’s eighth grade English class is divided into two rival tribes, who are locked in heated battle as they discover that they are each other’s long-lost siblings. Plante discovered the company over the summer while searching for resources to help her teach Macbeth in class. She believes they are a rare combination in theatre education – “they know Shakespeare and can perform him well,” and “they know students and can work with them well.” Credit: Benjamin Willems for Manchester Essex Multimedia Online
Later on in the warm-up, Luke Reed of Shakespeare & Company orders the classmates into a circle and calls on students to recite a famous Shakespeare soliloquy. When the students are called on, they must repeat a motion Reed assigns them, such as doing jumping jacks or running in place. When asked why she chose Macbeth out of Shakespeare’s thirty-five plays, Plante said, “Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s four best known tragedies. It’s also his shortest play, and it’s set during feudal times, so it ties in with what Mr. Thomas is teaching in his history class. We wanted something that we could integrate into the current setting but would be accessible for students.” Credit: Benjamin Willems for Manchester Essex Multimedia Online
After the five members of Shakespeare & Company divide the Vidula Plante’s eighth grade English class into groups, they hand them each a different series of fragmented lines from pivotal scenes in Macbeth. Plante’s group works together to decide how they will act out this scene in front of the class, using only these lines, a few props, and the combined imagination of her students. The theater workshops were organized in groups of up to fifty students. “We took the eighth grade and divided them up into three groups at three stations,” Plante said. “A group would attend the workshop while the other two were doing an MCAS review activity and a third team choice activity, which happened at each grade level.” Credit: Benjamin Willems for Manchester Essex Multimedia Online
Once they had decided how they would act out their scene, each group took some time to rehearse it. Luke Reed of Shakespeare & Company watches as his group practices for the group performance. According to eighth grade English teacher Vidula Plante, the student feedback regarding the workshops was very positive. “My students said that they thought that the actors interacted well with them, and that they made it fun for everyone,” she said, sharing results from a class survey. “They thought the opening warm-up was a great way to break the ice and move people outside their comfort zone. They felt the actors were outgoing and helped them take risks while they were acting, and they thought that moving from a large group to a small group was a great way to manage things. They also loved the presentation of Hamlet. They thought that it was cool that they added so much humor to it, they found it interesting, and they thought each actor did a great job building a specific personality for each character.” Credit: Benjamin Willems for Manchester Essex Multimedia Online
The class performance has begun. Before each group presents their scene from Macbeth, Ally Allen of Shakespeare & Company (who played Ophelia in their production of Hamlet) provides some context regarding the plot, setting, and characters so it is less confusing to the class, which has not yet finished the cursed “Scottish Play.” The Shakespeare unit, of course, is not confined to the auditorium, and in the classroom, Vidula Plante’s eighth grade English class does some interpretation of the characters through acting, some prop analysis by looking at which characters could be connected to certain props, and reading the play and engaging in Socratic circles. “They’re very much like a typical small group question-and-answer, except we do it as a larger group,” she said. “Sometimes it’s half the class, sometimes it’s the whole class. The students start by posing a question, and other students answer. Then, they move on to additional questions, often generating their own meaning of the text in a discussion that’s not teacher-led or directed.” Shakespeare also uses a lot of dramatic irony in setting up the story, and according to Plante, “there are places where the play becomes more engaging because we can see how it’s going to unfold.” Her class often talks about the rhetorical devices of pathos, logos, and ethos, and applies them to several scenes in the play. Plante is also interested in “the theme of fate versus free will” and “how the characters distinctly represent their ideas, what their motivations are, and how they change.” Credit: Benjamin Willems for Manchester Essex Multimedia Online
A group of students from Vidula Plante’s eighth grade English class recite to the auditorium their rendition of Macbeth’s final soliloquy, one of the most famous speeches in the English language. When asked what she enjoyed the most about having Shakespeare & Company host theatre workshops at MERMS, Plante said, “Their rapport with students was strong, but I think they had a strong rapport with each other. And so after the workshops, I said to my students, ‘Did you enjoy how much they enjoyed what they were doing?’ I wish for my students that whatever they choose in their futures, they can be as appreciative and engaged in what they do, because the sheer joy that they brought to Shakespeare and to working with kids was contagious.” Credit: Benjamin Willems for Manchester Essex Multimedia Online
On Wednesday, May 6
th, high school advisory groups take advantage of the warm weather by spending their 30 minute period outside. Students play football, Frisbee, and other engaging activities to help increase group bonding. Credit: Cole Bourbon for Manchester Essex Multimedia Online
Sophomore Noah Smith tosses the Frisbee to fellow classmates. High school advisory’s take place more than 10 times each year. Usually students work with advisors about academic and social issues. Credit: Cole Bourbon for Manchester Essex Multimedia Online
Junior Cassandra Gonser plays football with the rest of her advisory class. Other students enjoy the warm weather and soak up the sunshine. Credit: Cole Bourbon for Manchester Essex Multimedia Online
Freshman girls gather in social circle during the high school advisory. Other students participated in throwing Frisbees and footballs. Credit: Cole Bourbon for Manchester Essex Multimedia Online
Sophomore boys prepare to play Apples to Apples on the football field.Credit: Cole Bourbon for Manchester Essex Multimedia Online
Allison Krause’s 10th grade CP English class begins to read “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain. This novel raises extreme controversy over its use of the N-word over 200 times throughout the book. Some English classes in America have switched to a modified version of the book were the N-word is replaced with the word slave each time it is used. After reading the book, the class will be required to write a 4 page paper arguing whether the book promotes or condemns racism.
Students review worksheets that will need to be completed for the major paper at the end of the novel. The worksheet will include quotes from the text that either promote racism or condemn it. Credit: Cole Bourbon for Manchester Essex multimedia online.
English teacher Allison Krause clarifies to the class what will be expected when writing about an extremely controversial book such as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. The book is set before the Civil War and is about a boy who is traveling with an runaway slave to the free states farther north. Credit: Cole Bourbon for Manchester Essex multimedia online.
Sophomore Jennifer Beardsley begins to read “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. The English CP class has begun to read this controversial novel in preparation for a major four page paper. Credit: Cole Bourbon for Manchester Essex multimedia online.
The class reviews the website librovox.com for free audio book recordings on each chapter of Huckleberry Finn. Audio books for Huckleberry Finn are also found on Youtube.com. Credit: Cole Bourbon for Manchester Essex multimedia online.