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"Oh This Learning, What a Thing It Is!":
Service Learning Shakespeare and Community Partnerships

by Prof. Dorothy Todd, University of Georgia

(December 2016 Issue / PDF)

William Shakespeare and service learning might, at first glance, seem like odd bedfellows. Yet, as higher education recognizes the importance of service and experiential learning, professors across the disciplines are designing meaningful content-based courses that engage with communities outside of the classroom and the university to encourage public discourse (New). In the spring of 2013, I enrolled in Dr. Sujata Iyengar’s service learning course, “Shakespeare in the Classroom,” a course at the University of Georgia that collaborated with local schools to support and enhance their Shakespeare curricula. This course was transformational for me in terms of my research strategies, my pedagogy, and my understanding of my role as an academic in my community. The inclusion of a service learning component in a course devoted to the study of Shakespeare and his works provided me with a non-traditional approach to canonical texts. Examining Shakespeare’s texts from the perspective of community outreach resulted in a meaningful, nuanced engagement with both the texts and the local community as we worked to make Shakespeare accessible for our community partners.

Experiential learning, and service learning in particular, fosters collaboration, critical analysis, reflection, empathy, and mutual learning. Because of these transferable skills, experiential learning is part of a larger trend in higher education as colleges and universities seek to enhance learning and to better prepare students for the demands that they will face after graduation. The increased engagement of universities with the public in recent years is also rooted in the idea that knowledge resides not only within an academic setting and that experiences outside of the academy can serve as foundational learning opportunities. Partnerships formed between universities and their surrounding communities are collaborative and have the goal that everyone involved is a learner. For many universities, including my own, experiential or service learning is also a means through which to return to the roots and missions of our schools. Fitzgerald, Bruns, Sonka, Furco, and Swanson argue that public universities and land grant institutions have a special responsibility to work with their surrounding communities through experiential learning and community engagement (Fitzgerald). My experiences suggest that all institutes of higher learning, from larger public universities to small private liberal arts colleges, have the opportunity to draw on the expertise of their students and faculty not only to educate but also to transform the communities of which these schools are a part. 

Because of the service component focus of the course, Shakespeare in the Classroom was unlike any other English class I had taken before or have taken since. For the first four weeks of the semester, we did not visit the local schools with which we were working. Instead, we read and discussed A Midsummer Night’s Dream, watched and analyzed film adaptations, discussed learning models and trends in middle school education, explored the pillars of experiential learning, and wrote reflectively about ourselves as learners and teachers. Only after this “boot camp” in Shakespeare and service learning did we enter the community. The first month of the course was content heavy as we read everything from Dewey’s writings on education and learning outcomes for 8th grade English language arts classes in the state of Georgia to criticism on Shakespeare film adaptations, but the front-heavy design of the course allowed us to fully prepare ourselves for an immersive experience in local schools. We could not go into schools and serve as content experts for teachers and students if we ourselves were not extremely comfortable both with the material and with the current practices in education.

Once we started working formally with our community partners, the structure of our class changed. During the first few visits to our primary community partner, Hilsman Middle School, we observed 8th grade English language arts classes. This gave us the opportunity to see the classes in action, to see how the teachers and students interacted, and to see how we could best complement the school’s current curriculum. After observing the class and meeting with the 8th grade English language arts teachers to find how we could most effectively enhance their Shakespeare units, we began to take a more active role in helping teachers develop and implement lesson plans. We adopted a new schedule in which we held our class meeting on our university’s campus on Tuesdays and then met at Hilsman Middle School on Thursdays to attend 8th grade English language arts classes and implement the lessons and activities that we collaboratively developed. We helped students block and perform scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we created and delivered small presentations on Elizabethan England and the supernatural, and we worked one-on-one with students to paraphrase and analyze small sections of text. We also developed materials including worksheets and film guides for the English language arts teachers to use in their Shakespeare units. In addition to our regular visits to Hilsman Middle School, we had the opportunity to visit the Athens Montessori School and the Athens Technical Adult Education Center, a program affiliated with Athens Technical College that provides “instruction for the non-reader all the way up to those preparing for the […] GED test” free of charge (“Athens Tech”). Throughout the semester, we practiced reflective journaling, continued to develop materials and lesson plans for the faculty of Hilsman Middle School, and created an electronic portfolio at the end of the semester as the culmination of our work.    

While I was originally concerned that splitting my focus between working with Shakespeare’s texts and learning about service learning practices would diminish my engagement with Shakespeare, I found the complete opposite to be true. After working with A Midsummer Night’s Dream for an entire semester, my classmates and I became intimately familiar with the text and felt like true experts on the play. Working so extensively with A Midsummer Night's Dream also taught me valuable skills needed for prolonged and sustained research. As I began writing my dissertation during the summer following the semester in which I took Shakespeare in the Classroom, I found that I was prepared to work intimately with primary texts, that I knew how to organize and structure my research time more effectively, and that I was better equipped to work collaboratively with a group of people whose research interests varied widely. Students at all levels benefitted from the Shakespeare service learning course as we worked closely with materials in order to make Shakespeare and his works engaging and accessible to different demographics including 8th graders and adult students studying for the GED. In particular, we all became more cognizant of audience awareness and the importance of communicating information and ideas in appropriate, accessible forms. The inherently reflective nature of service and experiential learning also helped us improve our metacognition as we reflected on how we best learned and taught. By stopping to reflect critically on our own habits and behaviors, we became better equipped to learn and teach using a variety of techniques and technologies. Throughout the course, we also developed a nuanced understanding of adaptation and appropriation, interrogated the cultural and educational capital of Shakespeare, and developed lasting partnerships within our local community. 

In the space that remains, I would like to shift my attention from what we learned about Shakespeare to what we learned about the role of Shakespeare in our community. Each time we visited a new school or community partner, our class introduced Shakespeare by playing a game. Without identifying the alleged creator of these phrases, we would begin to dictate phrases attributed to Shakespeare and then would let the students complete the phrases. At Hilsman Middle School, Athens Montessori School, and the Athens Technical Adult Education Center, the 12 year olds, the 75 year olds, and everyone in between, almost without exception, could complete these phrases. Only after having students complete phrases such as “I have not slept one…,” “I wear my heart on my…,” “Vanish into thin…” and “Brave New…” did we tell these students that they were reciting Shakespeare.  When we told students that they knew Shakespeare, even if they had not read an entire play by the playwright, their excitement and pride were palpable. Hearing those voices reciting Shakespeare in unison had a profound impact on our class as well. Here were students of all walks of life, students in honors language arts classes in a highly ranked public school system to students who for a variety of reasons never finished high school but took the initiative to return to school later in life, and they could all recite Shakespeare. It was during these moments that we as a class realized just how important Shakespeare is to our society, to our communities, and even to our language. These students may not ever have read a play or a poem by Shakespeare, but his language has become so much a part of our own lexicon that we encounter him in everyday colloquialisms and his words roll smoothly off our tongues. But even more important than Shakespeare’s omnipresence in our language is the empowering effect that the ubiquity of Shakespeare’s language has on students. When members of society are told time and time again that Shakespeare is the pinnacle of Western literature and then they discover that they can recite Shakespearean phrases even if they have never read his poems or seen one of his plays, that they can read his poetry and prose, and that they can understand and connect to Shakespeare’s words on a deep and personal level, they are empowered. This empowerment can lead to increased levels of confidence, educational gains, community development, and self-discovery.

Throughout our service learning course, we focused on examining the role of Shakespeare within education, specifically language arts, and within our society.  We committed ourselves to making literature, language, and learning accessible to students of different income levels, abilities, interests, and ages. At the root of our course was an attempt to explore, understand, and combat the defeatist and elitist ideas about who can “do” Shakespeare.  The specter that haunted me throughout much of the class was the question, “Why Shakespeare?”.  I have devoted my academic life to studying Shakespeare and his contemporaries, but still I found myself asking this during the moments of reflection that were built into the course. Is Shakespeare relevant to students of diverse backgrounds, or should students instead be reading authors who emerged from their own cultural heritage, worldview, and time? Should Shakespeare be the litmus test of education and sophistication? Should students devote classroom time to reading, performing, and understanding Shakespeare when he does not show up on state and federally mandated assessment tests? Yet as I continued to reflect on these questions and had the experience of hearing all those students reciting Shakespeare, many of whom had never opened a book containing Shakespeare’s words, I realized that our goal of debunking theories about who can “do’ Shakespeare answered the question “Why Shakespeare?”  In fact, it is precisely because of the defeatist and elitist attitudes about who can engage with and understand Shakespeare that Shakespeare is such a potent tool for empowering children and adults alike.

The empowering effect of Shakespeare is not something I take credit for discovering but rather something that I recognized for myself during our service learning course. In fact, there are programs all over the world that bring Shakespeare to people and people to Shakespeare.  In 2009, prisoners in Kentucky’s Luther Luckettt Correctional Institute, working with a program called Shakespeare behind Bars, put on their own production of Macbeth. Working alongside professional artistic directors, prisoners attended rehearsals, learned lines, and staged performances for family, friends, and fellow prisoners. Describing the aims of Shakespeare behind Bars, Yu Jin Ko writes that Shakespeare Behind Bars “tries to help with an inmate's ‘reintegration into society’ by using Shakespeare's plays and an extended rehearsal process to ‘educate the hearts’ of the participants, most importantly so that they can develop ‘empathy’ and ‘take responsibility for their crimes’” (Ko). For many of these prisoners, the back-stories of the play’s characters become deeply personal. Through examining both the behaviors of these characters and the powerful language used to communicate their feelings and actions, actors often come to know themselves. Many prisoners reflect on how participating in these performances has allowed them to regain sight of their own humanity because they never lost sight of the humanity of Shakespeare’s characters, even the characters who commit egregious crimes. 

The World Shakespeare Project, based at Emory University, uses video conferencing to connect Emory students and faculty to students and faculty across the globe to engage in discussions about Shakespeare. Shelia T. Cavanaugh, founder of the World Shakespeare Project (WSP), explains the purpose of the Project in this way: “As much as possible, moreover, the WSP endeavors to ‘level the playing field’ so that each partner institution contributes and gains something substantive through these collaborations” (Cavanagh). What this means in the classroom is that students in the United States, Morocco, India, and tribal colleges across North America can read and discuss Shakespeare together, with each group of students bringing their unique cultural, political, and religious worldview to a common text. What emerges is a sense of the intellectual richness of Shakespeare wherein students and faculty alike come to recognize that everyone brings something unique and important to the text

Though our service learning class worked on a much smaller scale than the two projects I have described, the same basic principles were at work. Shakespeare is available and accessible to people regardless of income level, ability, interest, age, culture, or station in life.  Often times, it is merely the recognition of this fact that is the basis for transformation and growth. 

One of my favorite moments from our service learning class was Poetry Night at Hilsman Middle School. Students had painted posters and decorated the cafeteria to look like a beatnik bookstore. One of the English language arts teachers with whom we had worked throughout the semester, along with the assistant principal, played the drums to mark the opening of poetry night. Students, though at times timid to take the microphone, went to the front of the cafeteria to share poetry that resonated with them or even to recite poetry that they had penned themselves.  When asked if we would like to share any poetry, our class recited the famous lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Over hill, over dale,    
Thorough bush, thorough briar,
Over park, over pale,    
Through blood, through fire; (2.1.2-5)
As we continued our recitation, the teacher and assistant principal started playing the drums again, this time keeping time with Shakespeare’s words. Though the 8th grade students might not have understood the meaning of every one of Shakespeare’s lines, they could feel the rhythm of his language. They could see the landscape his words described. They could indeed do Shakespeare. I felt a profound sense of community in that middle school cafeteria, a sense of community that I did not expect to find that evening. Here we were reciting Shakespeare from memory with students and teachers drumming, clapping, and moving to the beat.

I hope that our class taught our community partners something about Shakespeare. We can receive thank you cards, smiles from enthusiastic children, and positive feedback from teachers and administrators, but we cannot always immediately know the degree to which we have succeeded in meeting our goals and objectives. That being said, I know for a fact that the community partnership forged during Shakespeare in the Classroom taught me about Shakespeare’s text, about myself as a student and teacher, and about the charge that we in academia have been given to try out something new in the hopes of reaching someone new.

Works Cited

“Athens Technical College Adult Education.” Athens Technical College, Athens Technical College, n.d.,

Cavanagh, Sheila T. “‘The World’s Common Place’: Leveling the Shakespearean Playing Field.” Borrowers and Lenders, vol. 8, no.2, 2014, n.p.

Fitzgerald, Hiram E., et al. “The Centrality of Engagement in Higher Education.” Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, vol.16, no. 3, 2012, pp.7-27.

Ko, Yu Jin.  “Macbeth Behind Bars.” Borrowers and Lenders, vol. 8, no.2, 2014, n.p.

New, Jack. “Civic Learning.” Inside Higher Ed, Inside Higher Ed, 10 May 2016,


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