Harvey Sadis '68 is passionate about Shakespeare. He has attended the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland every year for 30 years; he dressed up as the Bard when the Arts and Sciences Dean’s Club celebrated “Shakespeare’s Birthday” (see photo) this spring; and he teaches Shakespeare to students. Harvey is proud that his students have joined in his passion and that parents clamor to have their children in his class to study someone many of the parents have never read.
What distinguishes Harvey from other gifted teachers who use Shakespeare in their classes is that Harvey teaches second grade. His students perform a full length Shakespeare play every spring, in costume. They not only memorize Shakespeare’s original text, they know the meaning of what they are saying. In April, KING-TV picked up the story: Harvey’s kids, performing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, were on the local and national news.
Harvey grew up in Seattle’s Mt. Baker neighborhood and his background didn’t necessarily point to a future of sonnets and the stage. His mother was a secretary and his father was a pinball and juke box mechanic. His love of literature began in English classes at Franklin High School. When he came to the UW in 1964 and majored in English, his love of literature became a passion. Here, great teachers introduced him to the literature that they loved – Beowulf, Mark Twain, 19th century English writers and, of course, Shakespeare. One of his professors suggested that he go to Ashland. He went and got hooked on the Bard forever.
His first job after graduation was teaching English at a local high school. Many of his students literally could not read and he decided that he wanted to teach at the point when students learn to read. It was then that Harvey started teaching elementary school.
In 1982, Harvey started the Spruce Street School. He began doing puppet shows with kids, and even wrote some Wagner operettas to expose kids to Wagner because he loved the Ring cycle. With no drama background except for a part in South Pacific in high school, he started teaching elementary school students to perform Shakespeare in 1985 and has never stopped. Five years ago, Harvey left Spruce Street and started teaching in the Renton School District where he is today.
The process of putting on a Shakespeare play starts in the fall, Harvey says. “I figure that if I have 180 days to effect a 180 degree shift in children’s, parents’, and colleagues’ thinking, the sooner I can get everyone thinking Shakespeare the better. The amazing thing is that no one is ever skeptical about his or her child’s ability to act in a Shakespeare play in second grade. Everyone shares in the excitement. On the other hand, parents, who have little or no understanding of what it is I do, cannot begin to fathom the enormity of the project until it’s too late and their children have fallen hopelessly in love with Shakespeare.”
He uses Shakespeare throughout the day – not just in language arts – to help kids understand the characters, the language and the world they reflect. “We draw Shakespeare, compute with Shakespeare, sing Shakespeare’s songs with melodies of William Johnson and my own, and we travel around the world to ferret out the settings of the plays that we study,” he explains. In addition, his classes study the Renaissance and daily life, family life, women’s roles, public health and the plague, superstitions, religion, the monarchy, and the theater during this time. Everything his students know about their own lives is compared to Shakespeare’s time. When students know enough about both, they can begin to conjecture about which life they would rather be living.
By winter, when his students know their parts and can recite their lines without too much stumbling, Harvey begins staging their movements. He teaches them how to memorize their lines and how to retain the language through a careful system of peer listening and review. While the rehearsals are in full swing, Harvey has the children explore their characters further by writing letters to each other as the character would.
Harvey has found that at the end of the school year, his students excel in language comprehension and have become voracious readers as a result of their experience in his class. “Children are such incredible observers and listeners that they soak up everything,” he says. “I have never bought the notion that children have limited attention spans, not when I see such attention to detail exhibited every day.”
We think Will Shakespeare himself would be as awed and touched as we were by this teacher’s accomplishments. Watch our website for the dates of next year’s production of The Comedy of Errors.
On January 21, 2005, Harvey was presented with a Golden Apple award "honoring excellence in education" by KCTS. These prestigious awards are given to individuals and programs who make positive differences in Washington state education in grades PreK-12.