The bard as muse

It’s not every second grader who can comfortably throw around words like thou, thee and doth. But the students in Harvey Sadis’ Cascade Elementary class aren’t any second graders.

It’s not every second grader who can comfortably throw around words like thou, thee and doth. But the students in Harvey Sadis’ Cascade Elementary class aren’t any second graders.

The vocabularies of Sadis’ 21 students now include many Elizabethan-era words. All learned for William Shakespeare’s comedy “Twelfth Night,” which the class will perform May 20 at Cascade and May 22 at IKEA Performing Arts Center.

The teacher with the tortoise-shell glasses and horseshoe of short, white hair interrupts the actors often during a recent rehearsal.

Talk louder, he says. Gesture bigger. Remember, he says, “You’re like, thumpa, thumpa, thumpa,” he says, patting his chest. “You’re falling in love.”

He doesn’t sugarcoat his instruction.

“Listen guys, I’m getting bored by your conversation,” he tells a group of perform-ers. “There’s no dynamic. Give me more, more, more.”

“Twelfth Night” isn’t as simple as Sadis’ student Logan Radcliffe was expecting.

“I thought it would be just an easy play,” he says. “I didn’t realize it was Shakespeare and stuff.”

Radcliffe didn’t know who Shakespeare was until looking him up in the dictionary.

“It said, ‘wonderful writer, actor and poet,’” Radcliffe says.

Radcliffe plays Malvolio, a butler.

In addition to all the Shakespearean words, Radcliffe learned some hard words still common today. “Misdemeanor” was the hardest, he says. But learning new words has improved his reading.

“Now I am a speed reader,” he says.

Improving reading is one of the goals of Sadis’ Shakespeare program. Many of his students come in unable to read at the second-grade level.

“There’s no question about it,” Sadis says. “They are not only better readers, they are becoming more confident readers. The confidence makes them able to do more things. Students are not reluctant to jump right into things and participate in class as a result of this performance skill.”

Sadis calls it the “Shakespeare effect.” Reading aloud is the key, he says.

“For me, the metaphor is the surf,” he says. “Shakespeare is like the surf. He just kind of swooshes over you constantly, wave after wave after wave.”

The first swoosh may knock you off your feet, but eventually you can stand with your feet in the sand, Sadis says. You can withstand the surf, or Shakespeare.

Sadis’ classes have performed Shakespeare for more than 20 years. The last 12 in Renton schools and before that in Seattle public schools and at Spruce Street School, a private Seattle school he founded.

Sadis has been a Shakespeare fan since his first trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in college. He has seen more than 300 Shakespeare performances.

Sadis began his teaching career 39 years ago as a language-arts teacher at his alma mater: Seattle’s Franklin High School.

He then realized that many of his students were “functionally illiterate” and decided to help by teaching elementary students.

Sadis’ students start on Shakespeare at the year’s beginning. Parents hear about the play in the first newsletter home. Students begin learning lines about a month into the school year.

Aside from learning lines, students learn about life during Shakespeare’s time, and life as the bard himself.

They also go and see live Shakespeare productions.

Sadis edits each play, cutting lengths from two to three hours to about an hour. He sometimes divvies lines between characters, and takes out “too obtuse” lines. But even though most his students are beginning readers, and 9 of 21 are ELL (English Language Learners), he doesn’t change any words.

Instead, he spends a lot of time explaining the play so his students understand what’s going on. And understand they do.

“Do they know every single word? No,” Sadis says. “Do I know every single word? No. They’re totally getting the gist. I think the gist is what I expect.”

Sadis’ students don’t just get the gist, they enjoy it. They especially enjoy slinging Shakespearean insults at each other, Sadis says.

Melissa Charboneau isn’t the only student who struggled to learn her lines. But once students learn the words, they don’t easily forget.

“Not only do they remember their own lines, they remember everyone else’s,” Sadis laughs.

Charboneau has been in 15 plays, mostly at her church. She says she’s enjoyed “Twelfth Night” the most.

“This one’s harder, but more funner,” she says.

She plays Viola, a lead role.

Expecting second graders to perform Shakespeare may seem more than a little ambitious. But Sadis has yet to hear from concerned parents.

“No one in more than 20 years has ever said, ‘But these are second graders — isn’t this over their head?” Sadis says. “I never get this… I don’t know whether it’s trust, naiveté, lack of knowledge, what it is about, but by the time they get the full notion of what’s going on, the kids have brought their scripts home and totally won them over. They say, ‘Oh, these kids can read this stuff?’”

That doesn’t mean Sadis is free from doubts.

“Every year I say to myself, ‘Why are you doing this?’” he says. “’It’s never going to come together. There’s absolutely no way they’ll get through this.’”

But every year his students come through.

“The closer we get to the performance, all of a sudden a light goes on,” he says. “Almost immediately, by the time we have a dress rehearsal, they get the fact that the missing ingredient that makes theater is there: the audience. And it really comes together. They understand that this is their moment in the sun. Their parents are watching, and they can do this.”

Sadis has won grants and awards for his Shakespeare program, including the Washington State “Golden Apple Award” in 2005. His acceptance speech was a sonnet. A Target grant is paying for Cascade’s students to go see Sadis’ class perform “Twelfth Night” at IKEA Performing Arts Center.

The Cascade Shakespeare Players, as Sadis’ class is called, will also perform a dress rehearsal of “Twelfth Night” at Cascade, and an official performance at a Seattle retirement community. Past classes have performed at the Henry Art Gallery, the Women’s University Club of Seattle and area schools.

The Shakespeare education of Sadis’ students comes at the expense of computer lab. Something had to go, Sadis says. Art was not one of those things.

“There are huge mandates to sharpen skills in math and writing, but my belief is (students) should be heavily exposed to arts,” Sadis says. “My mission is to embed the curriculum with lots of arts opportunities.”

Sadis takes his students to a slew of art events each year. This year’s class visited the Seattle Art Museum, the Seattle Asian Art Museum, the ballet and the theater. Cascade’s PTA funds one field trip per teacher per year. The rest of the outings were paid for by Sadis’ fundraising. He figures he’s raised more than $30,000

in the last six years.

But the model skeleton and Einstein bust in his classroom window show that Sadis’ teaching isn’t all about art. His class studies the standard second-grade curriculum, learning about subjects like forests, salmon and worms.

Still, Sadis is proud of his art instruction and field trips. He says not many teachers fundraise for field trips.

“I’m the only one I’m aware of in this school district,” he says of the field-trip funding. “And I know there’s not another second-grade teacher in America studying Shakespeare all year long.”

Emily Garland can be reached at or (425) 255-3484, ext. 5052.