How to Teach 'Hamlet' the Dave Eggers Way

At this San Francisco-based program, movement, theater, and glossy publications are all part of learning to read and write.


Left to right: Students involved with 826 Valencia programs sign copies of their books, read a new issue of their school magazine, and workshop in the computer lab. (826 Valencia)

The results at New Dorp High School, highlighted in Peg Tyre's "The Writing Revolution," are inspiring. We can learn from the school-wide teacher training, the introduction of expository writing across all subjects, and the review of sentence-level construction. We can be optimistic as many teachers across the country adopt similar models.

But there is danger is in accepting "lockstep instruction" as a replacement for creative writing in the classroom. With too many formulas, we lose a major piece of what fosters good writing and, as a result, innovative thinking. Through my work with students and teachers at 826 Valencia, a San Francisco-based nonprofit tutoring and writing center, I have seen firsthand that creativity is a direct and necessary precedent to analytical writing.

Started by an author, Dave Eggers, and a teacher, Nínive Calegari, 826 Valencia helps students gain skills and confidence by providing one-on-one tutor support and publishing their finished work. Strong proponents of analytical writing instruction might shudder at the sound of most of what we publish: personal narratives, memoirs, stories, and poems rooted in the students' realities. But these are the important building blocks for critical thinking, not the soft anti-essays that those craving a return to 1950s grammar drills oppose.

Peg Tyre explains that "kids that come from poverty, who had weak early instruction, or who have learning difficulties" can't absorb what they need to know about good writing from loose creative assignments, or the "catch method." However, a precursor to being able to write analytically is having the confidence to express oneself, and this is where creative writing assignments become so important.

At Downtown High School, a continuation school where we have an ongoing partnership, 826 Valencia tutors work each week with students in Eunice Nuval and Robert Ayala's semester-long class called "Acting for Critical Thought." Students first work with their tutors on writing monologues and 10-minute plays. At the same time, they take acting classes with American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.). They watch theater, learn movement, practice diction, and read texts like Hamlet.

Students who are reluctant to write even a sentence see their peers acting out their own monologues, and they hear the writing tutors from 826 and the company members from A.C.T. commenting on their most powerful lines. They connect the monologues they've written to the soliloquies they see on stage, and when they get to analyzing Hamlet and writing essays about it, they are starting from a place of deeper understanding.

Presented by

Emilie Coulson

Emily Coulson is the director of education at 826 Valencia, an educational non-profit cofounded by writer Dave Eggers.

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