Courtesy / San Antonio Symphony
Jeremy Brimhall read Shakespeare’s famous play about love, Romeo and Juliet, and experienced a similar emotion to that of its main characters.
As director of education and community engagement for the San Antonio Symphony, Brimhall came across a new children’s version of the tale, Romeo and Juliet For Kids, and “I just fell in love with it,” he said.
Brimhall contacted Lois Burdett, the Canadian author of the book, and an eventual collaboration was born. Her company, QWILL Media & Education Inc., partnered with the Symphony last year to perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream For Kids, and the program returns this year for four Young People’s Concerts at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts Jan. 16-17. The concerts also include the Children’s Ballet of San Antonio, and guest narrators Miss Anastasia of The Twig Book Shop and former San Antonio poet laureate Carmen Tafolla.
Brimhall said 6,000 students will attend the Young People's Concerts, with 400 from various schools involved in the QWILL part of the program.
The concerts are actually the culmination of a semester-long deep dive into Burdett’s book, which embeds more than 120 writing exercises within her rhyming-verse translation of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter. The QWILL exercises are designed to build language skills of fourth- to seventh-grade students.
“This has been the most exciting program that I’ve ever done in my years of teaching,” said Irma Gonzalez, who has taught fourth- and fifth-grade English Language Arts at Blessed Sacrament Catholic School for 12 years. This year marks her 34th year of teaching. Gonzalez and her students participated last year and clamored to be part of the program again.
“The kids get so excited, they get so motivated to come to my classroom. They ask me, ‘Are we having Shakespeare today?’ every day,” though she teaches only three days per week, she said.
“The majority of the writing activities are fun, but they’re learning,” Gonzalez said.
First workshopped in Burdett’s own elementary classrooms, the exercises are meant to build an array of writing skills, including writing persuasively, conducting research, compiling informational lists, writing instructional language like recipes, composing business letters, and making job applications, as well as penning poetry similar to Shakespeare’s and Burdett’s – all while empathizing with the experiences of Shakespeare’s famous characters.
You won’t beleeve the dream
I had. I was part man
part mule. It felt so real!
I was just singing my fury
head off when a fairy
Queen cuddled up to me.
She served me as only Queen’s
can. First she gave me a
magnifusunt smooch. Then
she dropped grapes in my
mouth. I felt like a prince.
These words were written by Matt Hunt, age 7, for Burdett's class, and appear as one among many student examples peppered throughout her books.
The results of Burdett's work with students are viewable in short videos on the QWILL website, including statements by the students years after their initial experience attesting to the effectiveness of the program.
Quoting the purpose of the QWILL (Quality Writing Inspires Lifelong Learning) program, co-President Andrew Lester said that students will learn to appreciate the power of words, and master new reading, writing, and communication skills for expressing and recording thoughts, feelings, and information.
“They learn how to write these different forms of writing depending on what’s going on in the story at any time,” Lester said.
Beyond learning practical skills, though, Lester emphasized that the early engagement with Shakespeare encourages students to become lifelong fans, and lifelong learners. The experience with the San Antonio Symphony, though, is even more powerful, he said.
Brimhall’s idea to incorporate Burdett’s texts into the Symphony’s education program is “brilliant,” Lester said, and creates “an arts experience that is a touchpoint in anyone’s life.” Students enter the “sumptuous, elegant auditorium of the Tobin Center, and see the majesty of a room like that,” he said, which makes a deep impression. Entering prepared because of their semester-long involvement with the story helps young students feel confidence they might not have otherwise, he said.
Those involved in the QWILL program attest to its success, but for the moment, San Antonio remains its only symphonic elaboration.
“What’s happening with Jeremy and the San Antonio Symphony is unique,” Lester said, though he hopes to bring the QWILL program to other symphony orchestras in the state, and beyond.
Brimhall sees the QWILL program as an ideal way to make classical music, like Felix Mendelssohn's musical transcription of A Midsummer Night's Dream, or Sergei Prokofiev's three Romeo and Juliet suites for orchestra, more relatable to young kids.
And ultimately, Lester believes the immersive learning experience, combining the QWILL materials with a Symphony's education program, will “convert young children to be arts lovers for the rest of their lives. I think that makes the world a better place,” he said.
All four Jan. 16-17 concerts are sold out, and advance registration is required for student groups. Schools interested in participating can learn more about the program through the Symphony’s website, and can look for the 2020 program application in September. For the first time this year, a Spanish translation read by Tafolla will be featured for the second concert on Thursday.