Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

UPark pupils emerge as Shakespeare stars

Attention DU community! If approached by cherubic fifth-graders inviting you to test your knowledge of William Shakespeare against theirs, say for lunch money or your backpack or your hockey tickets, do not accept the challenge.

Within minutes, your self-confidence will be bubbling in a witch’s cauldron of toil and trouble. And thy backpack, lunch money and hockey tickets will be walking back to University Park Elementary, ne’r to be seen again. Thou hast been warned, forsooth!

For 10 of the last dozen years, a team of fifth-graders from UPark has crushed all-comers at the annual Denver Public Schools Shakespeare Festival trivia contest just as it did in early May.

Consider that UPark’s intrepid team of Elizabethan learners has been giving up recess every Monday since January to bone up. Consider, too, that DU Honors students have been coaching youngsters at Carson Elementary on Shakespeare since winter quarter and the UPark threesome still won. And these same DU Honors students wrote all the questions!

“I had no idea on about 50 percent of the answers,” concedes Honors student Laurel Smith, a DU senior set to graduate in August with a structured major in creative nonfiction and memoir.

“I’ve spent two summers working at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival,” she says. “I’ve done five productions in Boulder and taken Shakespeare classes in high school. I’ve taken theater history classes in college that have gone over Shakespeare. I’m more well-versed than the average person, but the elementary schoolers knew a lot of the answers that I didn’t.”

Still want to try your luck against the UPark bunch?

UPark fifth-grade teachers Judy Manchak, a 13-year veteran, and Molly Kull, a first-year teacher, coached the 2009 Challenge Bowl champions. This year’s winners in the elementary school division were Will Palmquist, Ben Sandrin and Tommy Kidder, whose father Jim Kidder, directs DU’s Center for Teaching International Relations.

“It takes a lot of time,” Manchak says of the training regime. ”It’s not something I do casually or the kids do casually…But it has rigor, the kids learn a lot and they love it.”

To prepare for the contest, Manchak researched Richard III, this year’s featured play, and found a BBC broadcast on historic aspects of Shakespeare. She organized a field trip to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts to see a performance of Richard III, and talked, preached and prodded so effectively about the Bard and Elizabethan England that team members became enthralled by how much they knew.

All that plus direct the other 57 members of the fifth grade in segments from Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which they performed at a feast for parents and at the DPS festival in May.

“Everyone performed in a sonnet or in a play. We performed a musical piece, too,” she says. “What’s nice is to have options. If a child doesn’t want to act on the stage they can be in a musical group and perform. It was exciting to watch their faces and their extreme positive energy.”

Manchak’s enthusiasm is shared by Kent McKendry, a junior finance major at DU. As an Honors student, McKendry worked with kids from Carson Elementary to prepare them for the Challenge Bowl and perform segments from Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. He and other DU Honors students selected the format, wrote and honed the 150 questions for elementary, middle and high school competitors, and ran the Challenge Bowl.

“If you give kids the opportunity to show that they understand, they’ll get it much more than you think they will,” he says. “We had kids go from not even being able to pronounce words to understanding what was said without any interpretation. It was amazing to see how they developed.”

But could they really beat DU students?

McKendry isn’t sure. He helped write the trivia questions for the Challenge Bowl but didn’t bother testing them on his roommates.

“I live with two hockey players,” he says. “They don’t really get into Shakespeare that much.”

Which could get them hip-checked into the cheap seats if they were lured into a contest with the UPark kids.

“There were very few [questions] that nobody knew,” Smith points out. “[Kids] can do Shakespeare; they can understand it. They study up.”

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