The After-School Program That's Turning CMS 6th Graders Into Shakespeare Scholars

Oct 26, 2018

As districts like Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools look for ways to close student achievement gaps, they are trying to make sure that each student has access to a quality in-school education. But research shows that what’s offered out of school for students is just as important as what’s taught in school.

One Charlotte man is looking to increase opportunities for students in CMS schools and is using the words of William Shakespeare to do so.

Zach, left, and Hadrian recite the first few lines of the famous Hamlet soliloquy "To be or not to be."
Credit Jessa O'Connor / WFAE

Sixth-grade students Hadrian and Zach have been memorizing the famous Hamlet soliloquy — "To be, or not to be, that is the question" — and a slew of other works by Shakespeare. Unless you’re an English professor or maybe an actor, you probably don’t know much beyond those first 10 words. But not Hadrian and Zach. 

“Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," the boys recite in unison. "Or to take arms against a sea of arrows, and by opposing, end them?”

The boys are being led by Mark Williams, 58, who founded Shakespeare in a Chair, an after-school literacy program for middle schoolers. On Wednesdays, you can find Williams at Sedgefield Middle School with a group of about five to 10 students.

Williams, who is a former businessman, thought of the program a few years ago in a Pineville barbershop when he saw kids idly sitting around. He shared the story at a CreativeMornings talk in Charlotte last year.

“So I went to the head barber and I said I want to create a reading program for kids so when they come in each week they have something to do,” Williams said.

"And he said, ‘Sure. What would you like to teach them?’ And I said, Shakespeare. And he said, 'OK,' " Williams said, inspiring laughter from the large crowd.

He and the kids worked through “Othello” together that year, and since then the program has grown out of the local barbershop. More than three years later, he’s now at two middle schools, Sedgefield and Alexander Graham, and also has a weekend program. He works with about 50 kids in total and runs the program full-time.

Williams said he chose Shakespeare because he wants the kids to have access to difficult texts that challenge their reading comprehension and vocabulary.

“So my word is slumber. Who knows what slumber means?” he asks students, who are sitting in a circle with open copies of “Julius Caesar” on their laps.

When kids encounter words they don’t recognize, he writes them down on a notecard and assigns them as a word of the day.

Williams gives every student in his program a binder filled with monologues they will memorize over the years. He also includes a "goal page" that every student fills out, and works to complete before the end of the year.
Credit Jessa O'Connor / WFAE

But beyond improving reading skills, Williams said he chose the works of Shakespeare because of their complex themes. The kids are currently memorizing key passages of “Julius Caesar.”

“Cowards die many times before their death,” the students recite in unison. “The valiant never taste of death but once.”

Life. Death. Bravery. Cowardice. Loyalty. Betrayal.

Williams works through these themes and has the students apply them to their own lives.

“Has anyone ever asked you to do something you know you shouldn’t do?” he asks the sixth graders.

A few hands shoot in the air, and kids share stories about being pressured to steal something off a teacher’s desk or bully a classmate. That deeper conversation, Williams said, is the point.

“It’s not just a matter of just reading Shakespeare,” he explained, “But it’s also — as you can tell — there are life lessons that we talk about that I’m able to pull from the story.”

The educational nonprofit MeckEd partners with Williams to fund the program. MeckEd’s President Ross Danis said they help fund programs like Shakespeare in a Chair because offering out-of-school opportunities for middle schoolers is crucial for a student’s development.

“The experiences they have outside of school sometimes can transform their lives,” Danis said.

Sedgefield Middle School Principal Erik Turner agreed and added that the presence of someone like Williams in their lives is also key.

From left to right: Ross Danis, Erik Turner and Mark Williams.
Credit Jessa O'Connor / WFAE

“We know, and there’s so much research out there that says, when kids can connect with a caring adult, their academic achievements, their attendance all improves,” Turner said.

Hadrian wasn’t really sure about the program when he first started. He was "volun-told" by his mom to do it. But now, he said, he’s hooked.

“It’s really interesting and I really do like it because we can be creative and we can have fun with it like we’re not just sitting down and reading a book,” he said.

He and Zach can’t help but share Shakespeare wherever they go.

“We’ve also been asking our classmates, do you know Shakespeare? And we’ve been reciting it to them,” Hadrian told Williams with enthusiasm.

Zach added, “They didn’t understand anything though.”

Williams said sparking that curiosity and inspiring that confidence to share — that’s the point of Shakespeare in a Chair.

Video courtesy of CreativeMornings Charlotte and Charlotte Star Room.