Julia Perlowski paired students for breathing exercises, followed by nonstop talk: saying whatever came into their heads. Next, with everyone seated, she asked them if they know what adults fight about. Their answers were candid: bills, taxes, rent, not listening, who’s doing the laundry.
Perlowski segued to her teaching point. “All of you have something in common with what Shakespeare wrote,” she said.
She goes where other teachers might not. Although Shakespeare is a requirement in Common Core English Language Arts standards for high school students, what she’s doing at the Parthum Middle School in Lawrence is extraordinary.
“The whole world is in Shakespeare,” she said. “There’s nothing in those plays that we don’t experience. Our children are really at high-intensity emotions, and so are those plays.”
On a recent morning, 18 fifth-graders poured into Perlowski’s drama class, part of a six-day rotation for all 515 Parthum students every six weeks.
From a one-page handout of “Romeo and Juliet,” students tackled pronunciations. “Just try the words,” she said. “I didn’t live in Shakespeare’s time, either.”
“Quarrel” stumped them, but she gave a definition.
“I work from the word to the sentence to the paragraph, and to the theme eventually,” she said. “We scaffold the learning that way.”
The day before, she presented a brief plot summary. Today, the objective was to perform an ensemble scene in 50 minutes. Standing, students formed two rows facing each other for the verbal face-off of the opening scene of “Romeo and Juliet,” the confrontation between the Capulets and the Montagues.
It doesn’t seem to matter that for about 65 percent of Parthum students, English is not their first language.
Line by line, students alternated recitation to draw out the angry emotions. Girls were matched against boys.
“Does anyone know why people remember Shakespeare’s lines 20 years later?” Perlowski asked later. “Because his words are sequenced in rhythmic beats.”
She referenced Eminem’s music. “Shakespeare is hip-hop, really,” she told her students.
The thumb-biting in the scene drew curiosity. Perlowski noted that back in the day, the gesture would have the emotional impact now of “flipping the middle finger. How bad is that?” she asked. “Could that possibly start a fight?”
Students were pumped. Scripts became “weapons” for the final showdown. According to Perlowski, this is performance-based learning, “giving students a task to perform that requires a close reading of the text to execute. If I ask students to create Hamlet’s Facebook page, they have to know the text intimately to be able to say whether or not he wanted to friend Rosencrantz or Guildenstern.
“We find that when you give a child a task beyond the text and they really want to do it, they will engage with the text. Sometimes it’s performance, doing a scene with five other people.”
Originally from Long Island, Perlowski studied at the University of York in England and taught English, reading, and drama for 10 years at Pompano Beach High School in Florida before coming to Lawrence in 2014.
Since 2006, she has served as teaching ambassador, master teacher, and teacher corps member for the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, consulting with teachers locally and nationally. She is a board member of the Boston branch of the English-Speaking Union, and coordinates area students in grades 9-12 in the group’s National Shakespeare Competition.
Perlowski has coached Yankelina Duran, 17, a junior at the Performing and Fine Arts Academy of Lawrence, who finished third among about 200 students participating in the ESU Shakespeare contest, held in 24 Massachusetts schools.
“What I really get out of the plays are the different themes: love, joy, anger, and the variety of people and their stories,” Duran said.
She joined Ilaisa Garcia, 15, an academy sophomore, and Liam Houlihan, 17, a North Andover High School junior, who gave their ESU Shakespeare performances for the class at Parthum.
“It’s like a game in some ways, deciphering things to see how different people think. I enjoy it,” Garcia said.
“When performing, you see how everyone takes Shakespeare’s words, and they act them out in so many ways, said Houlihan. “I think that’s what he wanted: interpretation.”
“I do what I call ‘Go down the rabbit hole,’ ” Perlowski said. “Find that section that will suck them in. Once you hook them, then you radiate out from that point. I do not start from the beginning and go to the end with my fifth- through eighth-graders. This way I get kids into the text, not by changing the text, but by asking them what to do with it. You have many opportunities.”
Finally, the ensemble of Parthum students was ready for the big moment. The confrontation was loud and boisterous. Every student was engaged, mimicking the anger of the feuding families.
Perlowski smiled. “They wanted to hit each other, but we got the language in, didn’t we?”