As an unperfect actor on the stage
Who with his fear is put besides his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart.
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite…
-Shakespeare, Sonnet 23
The students were fantastic, a couple of dozen young actors gathered in the library to talk Shakespeare, clever, confident, and more than able.
As a principal (and recovering English teacher), I’m always thankful for the opportunity to get to work with students in the classroom, and my appreciation was real and profound to the drama teacher who allowed me time to introduce these kids to a raft of poems, the joys of scansion, and the delight that comes with reading Shakespeare’s sonnets for the first time.
My lesson was nothing fancy: a little (only a little) context, time on sonnet structure, guided practice scanning a poem, and then some work in small groups on structure and meaning.
We talked about the sonnets as a sequence, reading one I suspected might have the best chance of being familiar to them, sonnet 18, together, and then (after some time for smaller conversations with peers) ticking through half a dozen others as a class.
This was an acting class, so their reading aloud of the poems was inspiring; these were some of the same actors I’d seen perform Romeo and Juliet a couple of weeks earlier. Their understanding of the sonnets was strong too. Some youthful wrestling with the language (“ow’st” means…?) aside, they were able to use context to gain understanding and came up with clever readings of Shakespeare’s verse.
It was a reminder of just how fun it is to see students grapple with new material, in this case kids predisposed to Shakespeare engaging with texts they didn’t know as well as the plays they’d already studied. Watching them talk with each other was a lesson in the importance of prompting students and then getting out of their way.
And then, because it was a special schedule that day, the bell rang ten minutes before we were really done, sonnets 116, 130 and 138 still on the shelf.
I am, I thought, to use Shakespeare’s words: “an unperfect actor.” How could we not have had time for three sonnets that would have enriched our conversation? Heck, I hadn’t even introduced them to the dark lady or fair youth, not really anyway.
And… while we might not have had “the perfect ceremony” what we did have was an opportunity to engage, both with the text and each other. As a principal I’ve come to believe that this kind of interaction is more important than many of the other things I do at school.
We all know that teachers are the most powerful force for good at a school, and when students can see their principal as a teacher too, recognizing that I didn’t get into this profession to be a principal, but to work with students, then we begin to break down the artificial barriers to connection that sometimes come when a fellow puts on a tie.
I loved working with the students on sonnets, and hope to get back to that class for our last few sonnets sometime soon. Until then I’ll whisper Shakespeare’s words: “For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings / That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”