Mary Rojas strides to the front of her 2nd-grade classroom, extends her arms and launches into Marc Antony’s famous, grief-filled speech from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”

When the 8-year-old gets to the oft-quoted “This was the most unkindest cut of all,” her voice trembles and she shakes tiny fists over a bundle of white cotton that represents the shrouded body of Caesar.

It’s a remarkable piece of acting and memorization made even more so because a year ago Mary knew very little English. And she is not alone in her accomplishment.

Twenty-eight Spanish-speaking children in a bilingual classroom in West Chicago are learning English by studying Shakespeare. It’s an admittedly unorthodox approach, but one that seems to be working for 2nd-grade bilingual teacher Alex Tamayo.

For an hour each morning, the children read and talk about the plays; Tamayo teaches them the lines and helps them act out the stories. The goal is to teach English to immigrant children as quickly as possible.

“It’s just common sense. Anyone on the street knows that if you want to learn a language you have to speak it,” said Tamayo, 39, who teaches at Turner School in West Chicago District 33. “Kids can learn anything that you teach them.”

Spanish is not banned from the classroom. Children speak it if they want to or need to, and he will answer them in Spanish.

But Tamayo wanted to challenge and excite his pupils to learn English. And he figured one way to engage them would be by using some of the most stirring literature ever written: Shakespeare’s plays. The plays, he said, have all the plot ingredients that kids love, such as fighting and gore, intrigue and romance.

“Yes, I could give them Batman, but why not give them the English fighting the French as in ‘Henry V’?” he said.

During a recent video showing of “Henry V” with Kenneth Branagh as Harry the English king, the children started quietly mouthing the words to Harry’s famous soliloquy as the English prepared to face the French at the critical Battle of Agincourt. By the end of the scene, the children had climbed atop their chairs and were excitedly shouting the words.

“I like Shakespeare and all the things about him,” said Andy Jesus, 7. “He’s my best guy, cause he’s kind of smart. And it makes us feel good.”

Tamayo acknowledges that teaching Shakespeare to 2nd graders, no matter what their native language, might not work for everybody.

“It was a wild idea I had. I started it as an experiment and I was not sure what the response would be,” he said. “But they exceeded my expectations.”

Test scores improve

Most of the pupils entered 1st grade with the lowest possible scores. Now, near the end of 2nd grade, 16 of his pupils have the highest possible oral English skills on proficiency tests and may be eligible for regular, English-speaking classes six months to a year earlier than many other children.

State officials applaud Tamayo’s approach to language instruction.

“In Illinois, we want to get kids up to par in speaking and reading and writing the English language as quickly as possible,” said Xavier Botana, an administrator for bilingual education for the Illinois State Board of Education.

“What you are seeing in West Chicago is somebody who is doing that in a very creative way.”

Educators in District 33 said Tamayo’s success is due in part to the challenging nature of his classes and Tamayo’s enthusiastic, personal teaching style.

“He uses an approach where he likes to expose children to very high academic skills and expose them to concepts. It’s going to give them a jump when they move into an English-speaking classroom,” said Karen Mulattieri, director of language assistance for District 33, which has about 1,200 bilingual pupils from pre-kindergarten through 8th grade, out of nearly 5,000.

“Shakespeare makes it fun. He told them that this is very advanced literature and they grabbed on to that and made a game out of it,” she said.

Poems, books, then plays

Another advantage is that Tamayo has been teaching these children since 1st grade. It’s a process known as looping, in which pupils have the same teacher for two years. When they were in 1st grade, Tamayo began reading poems and books to them in English. Those lessons prepared them, he said, for greater challenges in 2nd grade.

Tamayo and his brother Salvador, a Milken Award winner for excellent teaching who also is at Turner School, immigrated to the United States when Tamayo was 25.

The brothers’ goal was to study film at Columbia College, where they received their teaching degrees. Tamayo incorporates that passion for theater and art in the classroom. He reads to the pupils every day, teaching them new words to help with comprehension.

“Every time we come to a word, I teach it to them,” he said. “And even though they might not totally understand at first, they like the sound. And then they follow me along and pretty soon they start reading them on their own.”

After the pupils learn the lines, Tamayo teaches them dramatic movements. Big white posters that diagram the plots and characters help bring the plays to life. On the bookshelves are copies of student essays illustrated with student artwork. Popular motifs include the witches in “Macbeth” around their steaming caldron, and the foreboding castle in “Hamlet.”

“I consider my role as a teacher as a unique opportunity,” Tamayo said. “I have only 10 months to teach these kids something, and I want them to have everlasting knowledge.”

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