Innovator: Paul Garrison

Much ado about something

This profile of an outstanding, innovative educator is part of the feature section “On the Leading Edge” in our annual Innovation Issue. Photos by Scott Buschman.

The Bard and rock ’n’ roll?

To get his students excited about William Shakespeare, Paul Garrison has them perform a complete Shakespearean production accompanied by live rock ’n’ roll songs. Some students are actors; others are musicians and vocalists.

It’s a lot of work, but no one doth protest too much. Students, in fact, love it.

Garrison, a sixth-grade teacher at Ruus Elementary School in Hayward, started the after-school program for fifth- and sixth-graders seven years ago after hearing about a similar program in Southern California. Last year, CTA’s Institute for Teaching gave him a grant to support his innovative program, which has also received support from the Hayward Education Foundation.

“It’s funny, because I’ve heard that kids today can’t relate to Shakespeare, but his themes are actually very relatable,” says the Hayward Education Association member. “When we performed Much Ado About Nothing, kids could relate to one of the characters making a big deal about something that was not necessarily true, which happens all the time on social media. This year we are doing The Tempest, where a lot of the characters find themselves trapped or stuck emotionally. It’s not difficult to get my students to relate to these things.”

Music helps. For the upcoming production of The Tempest, an accompanying song will be Nick Lowe’s “Cruel to Be Kind,” which reflects the struggle of a character who owes his life to someone, and then is called ungrateful for wanting his freedom.

The group of 25 to 30 students rehearse four days a week for 90 minutes at a time. Garrison teaches guitar and drums before school, and has former students teach keyboard to other students, many of whom have never played a note in their lives before signing up.

“There really isn’t one type of student who participates,” says Garrison. “We’ve had some wonderful actors who can speak super well, and others who you can barely hear and understand. We’ve had amazing musicians perform a full concerto on their own, and some who can barely play two notes in a row. We’ve had English learners — one of them was a lead character last year. The great thing is that there’s something for everyone, and all students can contribute and be part of a team, whether it’s performing, working the sound and light system, or dancing.”

Last year, student Isabella Barron wrote a letter thanking him for the experience that transformed her life.

“It’s hard to let go of something that has changed everything about me. I will miss Room 26 and Shakespeare. But as Dr. Seuss says, ‘Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.’”

The program is very popular, but Garrison recalls that when he first suggested it, others looked at him askance.

“They thought combining Shakespeare and rock was interesting. But it teaches so many things. Students learn language, music, teamwork, focus, discipline and practice. They understand Shakespeare better for their PSAT and SAT. It builds their confidence.”

Garrison is excited as work gets under way for The Tempest, a story of reconciliation and forgiveness that is especially timely in today’s climate. Students will perform their production multiple times at the end of the school year.

“I’m very proud of my students,” he says. “And if Shakespeare were here today, he’d think what we do is pretty cool.”

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