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Why Teach and Perform Shakespeare?
Learning from the Bard

Philip Levien , San Marcos High School
Santa Barbara, CA

Building Community Learning and Performing Gatekeeper Texts Serving Diverse Learners

Where do I teach?

What are my students learning?

Teaching Practice
What's my approach?

Student Work





Note: This text is a transcript of a tape recorded conversation between the Carnegie Quest team and Phil Levien.


About Me

I acted in New York and California for about 20 years. During that time, my wife and I were living in West Hollywood. When our son was quite young I noticed something in the paper saying that if your kids grow up in LA, after 10 years they’d have diminished lung capacity, and that started me thinking.  I talked to my wife, and she was a screenwriter, so she could do that work anywhere, but for me being an actor, doing that would be difficult out of town. It took us about 5 years, and I came to feel that the business itself was not life-affirming, but art is supposed to be; that was a tension that I felt.  I’d think about, “What would I do if I didn’t act?” I thought about producing and directing, but I’d have more of similar issues. 

I thought about what was the last thing I’d done—I’d made a living acting for a number of years, when I started out I scooped ice cream, cleaned apartments, but I’d never done anything for money other than act.  But I was a camp counselor for about 5 years in New Hampshire and I thought, well, I really loved doing that, maybe I should try to teach. When I was in college, my first year or two I was so interested in writing, and I thought I would be an English teacher and write, in addition to teaching English. So it’s funny how I came back to this original thing. Junior year I discovered acting., and it was like breathing for the first time, so teaching and writing fell by the wayside. 

My family moved to Santa Barbara, where my wife’s family was.  I came to UCSB, and got an MA in dramatic art, and thought that would be enough to teach.  I'd been teaching for one year in LA, as an assistant in a fourth grade classroom, and I loved it.  It was a little private school called Crossroads…. My colleagues there said, “If you’re going to teach, don’t study teaching, study something you really love.” So I got the MA in dramatic art, graduated, with the MA, and started looking for work, and I thought, “Oh, I really blew it, because now I need to get a credential.” So I taught acting from K-6, I did some other things, and then went at night to get my credential. Ironically at that point I started getting movies!  At this point, I didn’t even care about it that much… I wasn’t pursuing it, they weren’t big roles, but it was lucrative.  I wrote 3 papers for grad school and read several books while I was on the set, and it paid for my grad school.

And those things come to bear as the project unfolds, you do whatever you need to do to get the show on.  When you teach a class, you do whatever you need to do to move the students through the curriculum. You rely on whatever skills you brought to the job to the first place. 

About My School

Everyone thinks Santa Barbara is a rich community, and it is—we have a lot of middle class who grew up here, and then there’s a lot of the new arrivals, or kids from the minority community, mostly Latino.  There are few black students, typically one or two in my class.  San Marcos High School is about 2000 students, we’re one of three high schools in Santa Barbara, all about the same size.  We’re the only one on the block schedule.  As a teacher, I find it very helpful, and as a parent I think it was wonderful for my daughter.  She said the 90 minutes  gave her a lot more time to ask questions in class, the teachers had time to answer, they only have to focus on a few things at any one time.   As a teacher, for the play, in a 90 minute class we can get the play done.  If we had a 50 minute class it would be really hard.

About My Class

I teach the transition class for the ELD department, "Types of Literature", and we do work in different genres, and I conduct it like an English class as opposed to an ELD class.  I also teach English 11 and Playwriting. I developed the Sheltered Theater Production as a way to get different groups of kids working together, developing their English, and making a stronger connection to school.

At my school, there’s been an attempt to mainstream kids as opposed to warehousing them, and I really agree with that idea.  A few years ago the administration said, “We’re going to send you five severely handicapped kids.”  And one was profoundly autistic, I don’t think he ever said anything other than a grunt.  Then we had a boy in a chair.  He was language minority, in a chair, developmentally delayed, speech impaired.  In total, we had five kids who were severely challenged, who came with an aide.  A few people had some concerns (and they were legitimate), they thought that the ELD kids are struggling enough and then you’re adding this other thing to it, and I just thought, “Well, I want to accommodate these kids, I agree with it philosophically, I think the other kids will be fine.”  We had about 22 ELD and then 5 special ed with the aide.  My students have been great together.  The ELD kids are so soulful, they’ve got their own struggles in life, that’s true, but it makes them really  accepting of all kinds of people.  We've had some wonderful happy accidents with the acting, and we get the kids involved at whatever level they can be involved in. 


The work on this website includes ethnographic video documentation recorded by Richard Nardi and ChunXia Wang, and was supported in part by the Center for Teaching for Social Justice at U.C. Santa Barbara.

Site last updated February 21, 2006