How The Bard Boosts Bravery in Middle School Students

Last week, we had several Middle School students compete in the Shakespeare Monologue and Scene Contest at Pittsburgh Public Theater under the direction of Performing Arts Teacher Liz Gray. 
Through the elective, two grade 8 students received honorable mentions for their monologues and were named finalists in the competition. In addition, a grade 6 student entered the competition independently and also received an honorable mention. I was particularly proud of these students, as I had a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the work that went into preparing for the contest a few days earlier.

The faculty in the Middle School have worked with intention and purpose to increase the robustness of our elective offerings. By providing students with a range of electives, from visual arts to creative writing and technology, we are offering them choice and space to indulge in an interest or nurture a passion. This is the first year of our Acting Shakespeare elective for grade 7 and 8 students, and 15 girls spent the second trimester learning and interpreting Shakespeare’s lines, as well as fine-tuning how to put herself inside the minds of the characters and playwright. Simple exercises with everyday objects were used to help the students think like a director to make a scene more aesthetically pleasing. I saw some of our quiet Middle School leaders able to express opinions and practice using their voice in these small, collaborative groups.

Then, students were pushed to improvise on their monologues as they practiced working in pairs. I was amazed at the students’ willingness to be silly in front of their classmates and me, as well as the enjoyment they found in improvisation as they practiced blocking and using emotion to say one word three different ways to convey meaning. I’ve seen Middle School students become increasingly comfortable on the stage during class plays, but a monologue seems scarier––you’re on your own on the stage or with a partner at most.  

When I shared this with Ms. Gray, she agreed: “They’ve already decided before they step through the door that vulnerability is going to be part of their life.” This personal risk-taking presented itself differently for our more reserved Middle School students than our most gregarious ones; I observed them taking risks by facing situations that felt uncomfortable by volunteering first.

Perhaps this courage in putting yourself out there comes from adopting the character’s perspective and portraying their emotional response. It is certainly a product of the safe, welcoming environment that Ms. Gray has created in her classroom. I believe that it comes in incremental steps and sometimes leaps––as girls are encouraged to push out of their comfort zones with experiences that are designed to allow them the space to take risks––wherever they are on this journey.

The knowledge that they have dealt with discomfort and grown gives our Middle School girls the confidence to push themselves. This openness to vulnerability will serve them well in all parts of their lives––academics, athletics, relationships, and more––and is an important characteristic of impactful leadership.