Gage Park High School teacher
Some high school students are attempting something most adults wouldn't even consider. They are studying the language, learning their lines and performing Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" onstage at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
The 25 students are not from elite high schools but from some of the most at-risk Chicago public schools. They are not diehard drama students; many are discovering Shakespeare for the first time. And four students from Gage Park High School are ESL students—that's English as a Second Language, which makes tackling Shakespeare a special challenge.
Maria Rivera is their energetic ESL teacher who never takes no for an answer. She inaugurated the ESL/Shakespeare program a year ago at Gage Park with full support from the school and mild trepidation on the part of her students.
"Teaching from a textbook was not so interesting to me," said Rivera, whose lifelong love of Shakespeare began as a teen. "So I quickly began looking for ways to adapt Shakespeare into my classes."
Rivera found inspiration at CST, where, like many other area teachers, she took part in Team Shakespeare's Bard Core program, a professional development seminar offered annually to CPS teachers that helps them formulate practical reading strategies and exercises for their students. Five other teachers and their students from area high schools also are involved in the current production.
Rivera's students, nearly 100 of them this year, immediately buy into the process of studying Shakespeare's language. She says it gives them a new creative avenue into the English language, a new way of learning words and their meanings that they find unique, exciting and fulfilling.
"As soon as kids can tap into the language, they feel brilliant, and it means something more to them," Rivera, 37, said. "They feel a part of something bigger, and they feel connected to you for giving them that access."
Rivera chose four students from her ESL classes—Isis Navarro, Lilia Rivera, David Patricio and Roque Sanchez—who she feels "didn't necessarily see themselves as having the potential to do something different or great."
"But I could see that if they got out of their environment they could do great things," Rivera said.
The students admit it has been a challenge but are eager to get on stage and give it all they've got. In the process, they are becoming more comfortable with their English language skills.
"I like all things that have to do with drama because I'm really dramatic," Navarro, 16, said flashing a bright smile. "I really like the play but wasn't sure I could do this. But now I feel it's bringing something else out of me that I didn't know was there."
The ESL students are most definitely stepping outside their comfort zone and according to CST director of education Marilyn Halperin "taking a tremendous risk."
"They are brave and stretching themselves to do something they think is impossible and then succeeding at it," Halperin said. "It's a life lesson and a great confidence builder about what happens when you take a risk."
The students hide their nerves well. Onstage at a recent rehearsal, they seemed right at home running their lines.
"At first, it was hard to read but now I'm understanding it better," Lilia Rivera, 17, said. "I'm still nervous, but it's also a lot of fun to become an expert with these words."
The play's adapter and director Kirsten Kelly has helmed the CPS productions for five years. The work with the ESL students is also a learning process for her.
One of Maria Rivera's students
as the Prince
"I think we are learning a lot this year from Maria and her students," Kelly said. "We are trying new things to bridge the gap, to experiment with the words and images that Shakespeare gave us. And that can be very exciting."
Rivera sees her younger self in her students. She grew up outside of Detroit, where she attended a high school that was so underfunded it used walls of books to partition off classroom space.
Rivera says she was blessed with parents who encouraged her to learn, which instilled in her a love of books and reading. She could never get enough of both and spent days in the library. There she discovered her favorite playwright.
After high school, she moved to Chicago, where she worked at myriad jobs. But for someone so addicted to learning, college was an unattainable dream.
"Paying for college was a complete mystery to me," Rivera said. "But I kept reading like a maniac, and I could hold my own in any conversation."
One random conversation with a woman who turned out to be a financial aid officer at DePaul University turned Rivera's life around. An aid package was worked out, and Rivera graduated with degrees in English and sociology, as well as an education degree from Northeastern Illinois University.
After completing her student teaching at Gage Park, she was hired as an ESL teacher. She and her husband, William Rivera, and their two children now live in the neighborhood, where their home is often a gathering place for students, their families and friends, all wanting help with their language skills.
Rivera pays for the students' tickets out of her own pocket to give as many of them as possible the opportunity to see CST's mainstage productions. Many, she says, have never visited downtown Chicago before this yearly field trip.
"I found that my students have very little exposure to the outside world and that was the same for me when I was their age," Rivera said. "Reading and studying helped get me out of my bubble. I want my students to reach out. I want them to have more in life."
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