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Shakespeare, as Performed by Fifth-Graders in Rural China

students group shot.jpgAs a 22-year-old Asian American with zero teaching experience who found myself as a special educator at a tiny boarding school on the Navajo Nation almost 9 years ago, I clearly did not belong.

I tried being mindful by reading Native American literature in class , developing a healthy appreciation for mutton stew, listening to my students, families and friends' experiences as Navajos, and studying up on culturally responsive classrooms. I also shared my Chinese heritage by reading stories about Chinese holidays, sharing my family's experience as immigrants and bringing in homemade kung pao chicken (which I sold during lunchtime in the school lobby, next to the enchilada man. Big win.).

These were small efforts that were woefully inadequate, despite my close friends and colleagues' support. I was an outsider, no matter how much of a community I built. And yet, part of me wishes I was even more open with my own interests and passions and wasn't so overly conscious of constantly adapting myself to my community's context.

This is what I love about first-year Teach For China Fellow, Craig Isser's reflections below. Although he's most definitely not a young Chinese teacher from a mountain village, it doesn't stop him from making an effort and for sharing his passion for Shakespeare. The results so far with his 5th graders? The universal appreciation of culture, theater and scandalous love triangles.

I wasn't going to show another movie that week. It'd be a cop out, one that I'd at least save for a really, really rough week. Instead, for my 5th grade English club, I dug into my bag 'o' tricks and pulled out an old gem I remember from my own middle school years on Long Island, New York. So, my 5th graders and I performed a Shakespearean "story whoosh", a technique I picked up while participating and interning with The Public Theatre's Shakespeare Lab Jr. in New York City. With a few cheap/free props (a paper crown, cooking pot drum and chopstick drumsticks) my students would get up, out of their seats, to become the characters of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, while I, narrated an abridged version of the comedy.

craig and students.jpgNow, my students are not New Yorkers. In fact, they are not even American. I teach at Xinhe Elementary School in the Lincang region of Yunnan Province, China. Xinhe is a very small village in a rural and very poor part of China. Most of my kids come from low-income families and their parents are either farm workers or migrant factory workers in distant cities.

I arrived in Xinhe as a Teaching Fellow with Teach For China, a non-profit organization that vies to end educational inequity in China. My students are in a very different educational context than I was in suburban Long Island. The odds are against them and their academic success. For many, graduating or even entering high school is an unlikely dream. College is a mere fantasy. My students face debilitating regional quotas for entering high school, a cutthroat college application process and the simple fact that their school is just nowhere in the league of big city schools when it comes to educational resources and well-qualified teachers.

There are so many problems that I, a first-year teacher in an educational context a world away from my own, cannot solve on my own. As hard as Teach For China and its Teaching Fellows work, we are just one organization that is dealing with issues so deeply rooted in China's national and cultural structure - so many more systemic changes need to happen, hopefully led by my colleagues one day.

Yet my work is far from useless. It isn't my responsibility to solve my students' problems. It is my responsibility as their teacher to push them, to give them the tools to solve their problems themselves. One of my tools is Shakespeare. With it, they gain the confidence to stand up and speak, the drive to understand what is going on in the world that they are in and how to find beauty and fun in the culture that the world has to offer.

As the story progressed, my students howled with laughter as a little boy proudly volunteered to strut his stuff as the countess Olivia (fair enough in a play chock full of cross-dressing). I had to pause for minutes at every mention of one character falling in love with another, which does really happen a lot in this play. But despite being 10-years old (an age highly susceptible to cooties anywhere in the world)and having grown up in rural China my kids got the story. They followed its arc, enjoying the various love triangles and webs as they unfolded. I condensed and summarized the plot to make it accessible, but even still, my 5th graders in rural China experienced Shakespeare.

Of all the ways to teach my students English, why did I choose to use Shakespeare, something even American students struggle with? Because it's awesome. It's something that has continuously blessed my life. I remember that when I was about 10 or 11 I went with my father to see our local high school's production of "A Midsummer's Night Dream", and that we laughed our butts off. I wrote my senior thesis in college about "Romeo and Juliet", and one of my strongest points about the play as well as the rest of the Bard's works is that they are remarkably adaptable and beautifully universal.

And most importantly, I believe that although my students live in a time, place and culture that is very distant from that of "Twelfth Night", they should still be able to enjoy the tale and the excitement it has to offer. In standing up, performing, becoming a duke, making music as a minstrel, donning a paper mustache as Viola in disguise, my students can claim the story as theirs, as part of their experience.

I love teaching Shakespeare not because I give these kids the stories I love, but because they reach over to take it. Next week, I foresee blood. Me thinks the Scottish play will suit them nicely.

Photos by Craig Isser, 2013-15 Teach For China Fellow

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