Students perform scenes from Macbeth at the
Folger's Children's Shakespeare Festival.

By Gail Kern Paster

Our culture’s long-standing reverence for Shakespeare—though sometimes not very informed—is, on the whole, a good thing. After all, it led Henry Folger to found this great library. But I sometimes feel that in the process of appreciating the plays for their undisputed greatness, the role of teachers in promoting students’ understanding of Shakespeare gets short shrift. Without the inspired guidance of a great teacher, students may find the language difficult, the motivations of the characters opaque and the gap in time between Elizabethan England and 21st-century America too large.

At the Folger, we make good on our mission to support teachers not only with the Folger Shakespeare editions (geared to classroom use) but also with activities like the Teaching Shakespeare Institute (TSI), which took place here this summer. Thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, 25 high school teachers come to the Folger every other summer for four weeks of intensive study with scholars, master teachers and actors. This summer, the teachers learned the latest scholarship about four plays—King Lear, Richard III, Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing. They learned how to introduce performance-based teaching into their classrooms, they worked on new curricula and they developed lesson plans for our Teaching Shakespeare Web site ( shakespeare). This year’s group was especially enthusiastic and intense, as I discovered when I gave a lecture on Elizabethan psychology and Taming of the Shrew and faced a battery of challenging questions about this difficult, often unlikable play.

These four-week institutes have been so successful that we have taken our show on the road for week-long mini-institutes around the country. We hope the teachers in these programs will be inspired to create Student Shakespeare Festivals in their own communities.

We ourselves love to teach, which is why Folger High School Fellows come to the library to learn from Director of Education Bob Young and his team. Teaching these kids is a bit like preaching to the choir: they already love Shakespeare. But our resources—the expertise of staff and scholars, the riches of the collection—are so dazzling that students leave with a transformed understanding not only of Shakespeare but of the excitement to be found in doing scholarship or performing old plays.

Folger Education is striving to broaden our impact nationally and deepen our impact locally. We want to be as indispensable to teachers of Shakespeare as teachers are to their students—the go-to resource for turning awe to “Aha!”

Paster is director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. The Folger opened with a gift from Henry Clay Folger, Class of 1879, and his wife, Emily, and is administered under the auspices of Amherst College.

Photo by Deidra Stames.