For These Middle Schoolers, Saturdays are for Shakespeare

Peek into the library of Loudoun Country Day School on most any Saturday morning, and you’ll see a scene that could just as easily be played out on a stage.

Tables are turned into castles. Chairs become thrones. Shelves serve as make-believe moats. And students from 10 to 14 years old take on the roles of Lady Macbeth, Claudius, Rosalind, Romeo and Juliet.

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” student Beatrix Edmonds announced on a recent Saturday, reciting from memory Marc Antony’s speech in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”

At this Leesburg school, Saturday mornings are for Shakespeare.

At the start of every weekend from January through April, between 15 and 20 students make their way to the school to take an in-depth course on Shakespeare taught by Headmaster Randy Hollister.

Hollister taught English at Loudoun Country Day School for 18 years. Early last year, he decided to use some of those lessons that former students enjoyed most and turn it into an informal Saturday course.

He first floated the idea in January 2017, emailing parents of fifth through eighth grade students that he would be at the school each Saturday to discuss and discover Shakespeare, if anyone wanted to join him.

“I thought maybe three or four kids would show up,” he said.

But more than 15 came and, some weeks, as many as 20 showed up. Attending doesn’t earn students extra credit, and attending is certainly not a requirement. But the students say they come because, well, it’s a lot fun.

The first part of each session is about learning the nuts and bolts of Shakespeare. Hollister taught the students about the playwright as a person and then moved on to his writings, including lessons on how Shakespeare structured his sonnets and soliloquies and what lessons can be learned from his 154 sonnets and 37 plays.

One lesson Hollister wants to leave with the students is that Shakespeare’s writings were less about the ideas the words portrayed and more about the words themselves. He gave the example of Shakespeare’s 12th Sonnet, which mostly is told through one syllable words to imitate the sound of a ticking clock: “When I do count the clock that tells the time…”

“That’s counter intuitive to not be focused on the overall message, right?” Hollister told the students. “But for Shakespeare, his focus was the artistry of the words.”

For the second half of each session, he invites students to break into groups to act out scenes from their favorite Shakespeare plays. Hollister steps back to let the student’s imagination and creativity lead, and he allows things to unfold that wouldn’t typically be permitted in a library: Students sword fight with Nerf lightsabers, stack chairs on top of desks, and don Medieval-looking helmets and cloaks. All to bring Shakespeare’s words to life.

Randy Hollister, headmaster of Loudoun Country Day School, talks to students about Shakespeare’s sonnets on a recent Saturday. [Danielle Nadler/Loudoun Now]
“It’s the weekend. You’ve got to make it enjoyable,” Hollister said on a recent Saturday, as a savage duel broke out nearby. “I know I certainly enjoy it, and they seem to, too.”

Fifth-grader Karl McDonald, one of those in the duel, said he doesn’t think he’ll go into a career related to literature or performing arts, but he sees the benefits of learning about the world’s most-famous playwrights.

“When I grow up I want to be an engineer, but I want to be well-rounded,” he said. He competes in the school’s Battle of the Books competition, which asks students to read and be quizzed on several books. “I kind of read books differently now” after taking part in Shakespeare Saturdays, he said. “I see now how much work goes into writing.”

Delaney Miller, a sixth-grader, said Hollister makes the subject especially interesting. “He’s very enthusiastic,” she said. “I’ve always been a book lover and Shakespeare is really interesting to me, but this has been even more fun than I thought it would be.”

Each of the students has been asked to choose a sonnet, speech, soliloquy or passage to memorize. By the end of the school year, they may put on a short performance to show their parents and classmates just what they’ve been up to on Saturday mornings.

Loudoun Country Day School student Beatrix Edmonds recites from memory Marc Antony’s speech in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” [Danielle Nadler/Loudoun Now]

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