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Spanish-Speaking US Students Use Shakepeare to Learn English - 2002-04-24

Children in the United States who do not speak English as their native language often attend bilingual classes. There, they slowly learn English as they keep up with the rest of their studies, using their native language. But it is not done that way everywhere. At school in suburban Chicago, where young, Spanish-speaking students are getting their English lessons from an unusual source.

It's morning in a second-grade classroom at Turner Elementary School in West Chicago, Illinois. Eight-year-old Mary Rojas stands before her class and prepares to deliver a speech.

"If you have tears, prepare to shed them now," she recited. "You all do know this mantle. I remember the first time ever Caesar put it on."

Mary's recitation of Antony's speech from the William Shakepeare play, "Julius Caesar," is part of the day's lessons. It is part of how teacher Alex Tamayo helps his students learn English.

"They are sponges. They absorb any knowledge you give them, but you have to give them knowledge," he said. "You have to pour into their mind, not standardized tests, but stuff that will be in their minds forever."

For about an hour each morning, the children in Mr. Tamayo's class learn the works of the English dramatist and poet. As they become more familiar with Shakespeare's works, Mr. Tamayo uses the stories to help the students learn about poetry, sentence structure and analogies.

The settings of the stories help the kids learn history and geography. Mr. Tamayo says his students are children of immigrants, or are immigrants themselves. Most come from low-income families. Their parents speak Spanish at home and most have never read Shakespeare, who lived between 1564 and 1616. But, he considers the lessons a challenging way to teach English, while exposing the kids to classical literature.

"My kids all are 'at risk' kids. It means some of them might drop out of high school," he said. "I want them at least to have the opportunity to be exposed to Shakespeare. Not just that, but also to (the music of) Wagner, to painting, to whatever I can give them."

Mr. Tamayo plays games to help the children learn. He gives part of a line from a Shakespearean play, then one-by-one, students add the next word to the quote.

Students who are able to memorize long passages deliver them before the class. A couple of years ago, eight-year-old Mary Rojas knew very little English. "I like the poems of William Shakespeare because they are, like, real," she said.

Shakespeare seems to be helping these kids with their English proficiency. At least half the students in this class have received the highest possible oral English skill marks on state tests, meaning they could be ready for regular English-speaking classes as much as a year ahead of Spanish-speaking children from other schools.

Mr. Tamayo says some of his students might one day pursue careers in theater, but that's not his goal. "Even if it does not help them, it is making them better individuals. Art makes you a better, more sensitive, tolerant individual. That is my goal," he said. "I do not care if they end up flipping hamburgers or if they end up being President of the United States. I want them to have their Shakespeare."

And for these youngsters, having their Shakespeare means they can join in while watching the movie version of "Henry V."