A Guest Review by Emily Rome
Having a friend who’s a teacher or a parent and also a talented storyteller is a great gift; you know you’re always in for some good stories about kiddos when you’re with this friend. That’s how Mel Ryane’s memoir, Teaching Will, feels – like she’s a friend animatedly telling you charming stories of her classroom while you catch up during brunch. But the book is also packed with enough smart structure and language to be a story that’s a pleasure to read, rather than simply hear over coffee.
Teaching Will: What Shakespeare and 10 Kids Gave Me That Hollywood Couldn’t is Ryane’s hilarious and touching tale of her time leading a Shakespeare Club at a Title 1 elementary school in Los Angeles. With a background in acting and dialogue coaching but not teaching full classrooms of children, Ryane started the club when a flyer on her doorstep pleaded for volunteers to help at the local elementary school.
It’s a book that teachers, parents, actors, child psychologists (Ryane shares fascinating looks into the minds of these kids) and, of course, lovers of Shakespeare will enjoy, especially anyone who had the joy of discovering Shakespeare as a child and wants to relive that discovery.
It’s moving to follow the journey and growth of the third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders in the Shakespeare Club – and Ryane’s journey too. Kids who had never seen a play, let alone acted in one, are preparing for an abridged performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Kids who didn’t speak English three years prior are reading and understanding the words of the world’s greatest English playwright. Kids who made clear on Day 1 that they didn’t want to be in Shakespeare Club are weeks later all abuzz about Queen Elizabeth and Nick Bottom when they talk to their teachers and parents.
Ryane expertly captures the chaos of the classroom. She builds hilarious scenes of this mass of students unleashing disorder, but she also effectively defines and develops each individual child: Stella, the whiner; Dana, the conniving, compulsive liar who just wants attention and popularity; Marin, the one who’s perceptive beyond her years and always finds a way to challenge Ryane, usually in a good way.
Ryane also intersperses stories from her own childhood and teenage years. While these sections are not as captivating as the rest of the book (it’s tough to top kids being adorable and even being obnoxious while learning about Shakespeare), they give useful context for what brought her to Room 15 at what she calls Arden Street Elementary School. Chapters include boxes or “Lesson Plans,” which contain the lessons she has learned. They’re sometimes obvious but mostly genuinely insightful axioms packed with wisdom especially useful to new teachers, such as, “No matter how much you want to rescue, no matter how much they need saving, you can only offer respite and power.”
Ryane recalls times when she made mistakes and stumbled through the demanding task of maintaining order among unruly elementary schoolers, but one area where she never faltered was in her resolve to raise the bar for these students. She doesn’t revise or dumb down the Bard’s language, and it works. She teaches iambic pentameter to children who barely understand what a syllable is, and it works. She challenges them to be real when they act, and it works. She finds ways to make Midsummer relatable to nine-year-olds, and it shows in the brief journal entries featured throughout Teaching Will, where the kids write from Lysander or Titania’s point of view. Concepts of power and revenge are not too lofty them. When Ryane explains what “revenge” means, the kids “remember past crimes and dart looks to one another.”
Teaching Will is a delightful story about courage – the kids’ courage to get up on stage, to try something new, to be smarter and kinder than most adults expect them to be. And it’s about Ryane’s courage to teach Shakespeare and live to tell the tale – a brave act that surely will make a mark on both her students and her readers.
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About Mel Ryane
Following a distinguished career as a classically trained actor onstage and in film and television, Mel Ryane found a new artistic home in the written word with her memoir, Teaching Will: What Shakespeare and 10 Kids Gave Me That Hollywood Couldn’t. Mel travels across the country teaching “From Page to Podium: Reading Your Work Aloud,” a workshop that helps writers find their public speaking voice. She also offers school workshops introducing Shakespeare to students. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, their dog and cat.