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Research & Insights / Evolution of a Partnership: Developing Culturally Responsive Curriculum

Evolution of a Partnership: Developing Culturally Responsive Curriculum

by Mara Sidmore

Actors’ Shakespeare Project (ASP) is an award-winning professional theater company that performs Shakespeare’s plays in neighborhoods around Boston and offers extensive education, youth, and community programs. 2016-2017 marks the 7th year that ASP has had the privilege of partnering with Boston Day and Evening Academy (BDEA), a student-centered, competency-based, alternative in-district charter high school located in Roxbury serving students who are overage for high school. Five of those years are thanks to being a BPS Arts Expansion grantee. This long-term relationship has allowed the partnership to deepen in unexpected ways. We’ve discovered “more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy,” to quote our friend Hamlet.

In 2010, ASP began delivering short workshops to prepare BDEA students prior to attending a student matinee. Shortly thereafter we began partnering with BDEA teachers, working alongside them to bring Shakespeare to life in their ELA (English Language Arts) classrooms. We felt successful as students became closer to Shakespeare and more comfortable performing his texts. And yet, while students appreciated Shakespeare’s stories, they wanted to spend more time talking about how the characters in the plays were similar to people they knew or experiences they were having. They wanted to discuss how the themes were relevant to them in their families and neighborhoods. They wanted to move and speak in ways that expressed their true selves. We knew that we needed to listen and respond accordingly as teaching artists. As the partnership evolved, it became clear that for Shakespeare to be most meaningful, we needed to go even deeper, and embrace the idea of being a culturally responsive arts partner.

We committed to shifting our model. We began to ask specifically what Shakespeare meant to and for each of the BDEA students we worked with, in their world, here and now today. We also let them tell us what they were good at and how they wanted to use those skills in our final piece. And there began our exploration of a “mash-up” performance model at the school. BDEA ELA teachers do an incredible job of making Shakespeare’s texts relevant to students’ lives through character and theme analysis, discussions and writing assignments. So how could we as theatre artists help the students take the next step?

We firmly believe that to fully understand Shakespeare one needs to perform Shakespeare. But what we discovered was that BDEA students needed to tell their stories, too, in connection with Shakespeare’s text. Given our history at BDEA, we were able to experiment in ways that only trust and understanding of a long-term relationship can allow, brainstorming best curriculum approaches with the ELA teachers. We threw out our regular monologue and scene study approach and began a thematic exploration through spoken word, writing, dance, and song that we staged either alongside or woven throughout Shakespeare’s actual text. Voila: a “mash-up”!

Here’s an example from our production of Macbeth during BDEA’s Symposium Project, also known as Project Month, where students select one class as a month-long intensive, and in which we are in residence every December. We began the play with a choral piece of lines from the text, and then launched into interpretive performances of student-written pieces. Excerpts below:

Lights up on one student who reads another student’s reflection on power

Power corrupts

People who are given a lot of power tend to abuse their power, the justice system is corrupt. Not only unjust, but corrupt as well. They are the law…they are the highest rank…nobody is there to punish them…they are allowed to literally get away with murder.

Another student steps into the light and performs his own spoken word piece…

I am afraid of my own dark side

As calm as a soft breeze no signs of its potent power When it first came out to light the darkness took over. A complete conscious blackout that only brought out the rage I locked away. I snapped and within seconds I had realized what happened.

From that moment on I knew the severity of it it wasn't a laughing matter it was my most violent adrenaline rush mixed with survival instinct. it made me realize who I was. We all have some darkness within us But I was afraid of my own darkness

… lights fade and the Witches enter, preparing to meet Macbeth and tempt him with potential power, from which he gives himself permission to turn to his dark side.

Third Witch

A drum, a drum! Macbeth doth come.

As our country grapples with a tremendous power shift, never does Shakespeare seem as resonant as it does in this moment. And as we start our 5th Symposium Project at BDEA, we are grateful for the opportunity to connect culturally to a school and its students and to Shakespeare.

BDEA students say it best:

"When I first learned about the acting part of the Project, I was hesitant...I am a shy person and acting was way out of my comfort zone. Now, I am enjoying it...the ASP artists helped me be free to discover the character and explore the play and HAVE FUN WITH IT!" –Taming of the Shrew Project Month Participant

“… we would write about themes and situations that come up in Macbeth and apply it to our own lives. I made connections between the theme of our words saying one thing but our actions another … I wrote about how I SAY I want to be successful in school but I don’t always match my actions to that intention. I realized through the mash up pieces that I need to follow through on my intentions in order to be successful in life.” –Macbeth Project Month Participant

While this performance style itself is not groundbreaking by any means, its effect on our work at BDEA has been transformative, allowing us to dig deeper into the plays in ways that are led by the students’ interests versus what we might think the play is about. It also allows us to be more culturally responsive: the play and the words on the page come alive in new ways based on the individuals we have in the classroom at that moment. This is particularly special given the students at BDEA, coming from all over Boston, seeking a second chance to be reengaged in their high school career in a student-centered way. It gives them a place for their stories to be told in connection with arguably the most famous playwright of all time. And it’s essential to our mission at ASP, where we seek always to understand how Shakespeare’s words remain urgently relevant today.

To learn more about this initiative, please contact Mara Sidmore, Actors’ Shakespeare Project Director of Education Programs, Projects, and Partnerships at