I teach drama in an elementary school to boys and girls. Last year I taught 4, 5, and 6 grade. This year I am teaching 4, 6, and 7 graders. My 4th grade girls are funny, they’re loud, they speak up, they get mad when someone hurts them. A few weeks ago, one of my students did something that I really hope she will do for the rest of her life: she had raised her hand, been called on, and was contributing to class. As she was talking, another student started a side conversation with someone else. And the student stopped what she was saying, turned around, made eye contact with the offending student, and in a firm clear voice said, “Can you please stop talking while I’m talking?” It was very simple. A classmate was infringing on her ability to be heard and she stopped it.
My girls in 6th and 7th grade however, do not speak. They are incredibly polite, they are kind, most of them work really really hard, but as far as their voices go, they're silent. My 6th and 7th graders wait to be noticed rather than draw attention to themselves. While my 4th grade girls are comfortable laughing loudly, my 6th and 7th grade girls either do not let sound pass over their vocal chords when they laugh or the laugh starts and they physically stop it from coming all the way out with their hands. Did I mention they were less likely to get involved in class discussions or advocate for what they need? They are. I want you to take just 5 seconds and really think about what the implications of this are. What the short term implications of this are, and what the long terms implications of this are. We cannot stand here and be upset that women make up only 20% of congress and the senate if we are not willing to address this problem of what happens during adolescence that causes girls to loose their voices.
We are a girls’ empowerment program. One of the pillars of our program is to pair classical texts with 21st century skills that we believe help girls lead their lives with more agency and confidence. We will always be partnering with organizations to teach our students self defense, financial literacy, a better understand our legal system, etc. But if you can’t put your finger on why acting, why performance, why Shakespeare, I’m going to tell you right now.
Shakespeare’s characters use language to get what they want.
Viola (our namesake) does not sit meekly in the background hoping that the audience will cheer her on by observing the darting of her eyes, her smile, or what she might be wearing. Instead, Shakespeare’s characters lay their needs, their desires, their dreams, their prejudices out with specificity, determination, and promise of action. Shakespeare's characters are determined to get what they want, to be understood, to be listened to. They advocate for themselves, whether it's for a kingdom or a kiss. There is no better teacher for how to use language to make your voice heard than William Shakespeare.
If you know a girl whose head is filled with ideas but may lack the courage to speak out with conviction in front of her peers, send her to The Viola Project. Allow her to be Cleopatra, or Lady Percy, or Juliet, or Hamlet for a day. There is no better teacher for how to use language to make your voice heard than William Shakespeare.
-- Skyler Schrempp