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22nd June

First Published in The New York Sun, June 22, 2007

By Andrew Wolf

Last week was a good one for Gail and Herman Badillo, arguably New York’s first couple when it comes to matters educational.

Mr. Badillo and his recent book, “One Nation, One Standard,” was celebrated at a cocktail reception at the National Arts Club, an affair attended by New York’s political, journalistic, and educational elite, most prominent was Mayor Bloomberg. The mayor had glowing praise for both Badillos, and why not?

Mr. Badillo’s name is inscribed in the history books for the many “firsts” in his distinguished political career. But Mr. Badillo is more than just the first of Puerto Rican heritage to be elected to Congress or the first Latino elected to a high city office. Among many other accomplishments, it was Mr. Badillo who successfully led the charge to restore high academic standards to the City University of New York.

This was a seemingly impossible task, yet, as chairman of the City University’s trustees, Mr. Badillo, more than anyone else, made it happen. If one had to point to the greatest civic triumphs of the past quarter century, this is certainly one of them. Others that come to mind are the miraculous reduction in crime brought about by Mayor Giuliani and the reclaiming of the subway system, under the leadership of Richard Ravitch.

One accomplishment in Mr. Bloomberg’s controversial stewardship of the public schools will be the efforts to end social promotion, in place largely as the result of Mr. Badillo’s initiative. The mayor noted last week that Mr. Badillo would be the first to point out that the accomplishments of Mrs. Badillo, though less well known, are equally important.

On Friday, Gail Badillo, who teaches English at the Senator Robert F. Wagner Junior High School on Manhattan’s east side, celebrated the school’s annual Shakespeare festival, an event of her creation. Like her husband, she is known for her insistence on high standards and her commitment to traditional curriculum and teaching methodologies.

For her seventh graders, that means reading, indeed living, Shakespeare.

Mrs. Badillo’s Shakespeare program is, in the current atmosphere in New York’s public schools, almost an act of defiance. Shakespeare, after all, is one of the dead white European males who can’t possibly relate to today’s children, particularly those recently arrived to our shores.

To teach Shakespeare effectively, a strong teacher needs to direct her entire class, a teaching strategy frowned upon in a system that demands group work using a strategy called the “workshop model.” Shakespeare is content. I recently heard about a staff developer who wrote the word “content” on the blackboard, and then proceeded to put a big X through it.

“You are not to teach content, ever,” he warned. Students should choose their own books, and discuss them in groups and thus “construct their own knowledge.”

“What about ‘Romeo and Juliet’?” asked one teacher, who has taught the plays of Shakespeare in her class for years. “Why would you want to teach that?” replied the staff developer.

This is why people describe Gail Badillo with the word courageous. Her seventh graders read classics such as “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Of Mice and Men,” and, yes, “Romeo and Juliet.” Mrs. Badillo doesn’t limit this to just the more academically advanced students, but rather offers this challenging literature to all of her classes.

At Friday’s festivities, some children, such as Jared Kemp, Ivette Benitez, and Taulant Ibraj recited long passages of the Bard’s work, from memory. Others wrote original work in the style of Shakespeare. Some of the children built models of the Globe Theater and other Elizabethan structures, while others worked on costumes typical of the times.

Giselle Sanchez wrote and read from a series of love letters between Romeo and Juliet that, to my Bronx ear, were worthy of the Bard’s own quill.

Juliet Ragasik, who also performed Juliet’s soliloquy, was so taken with the play that she filmed the famous balcony scene as a “claymation” animated movie that required a huge amount of dedicated labor to create.

One group of students, led by Amber Lamourt, wrote an original play in Shakespearian style, her troupe traveling to the Cloisters where they filmed it, and later edited it into a DVD.

Aldon James, the President of the National Arts Club who hosted the event for Mr. Badillo on Wednesday, came to Mrs. Badillo’s festival on Friday. He was so impressed with Miss Lamourt’s production that he whipped out his checkbook and gave her a $500 prize for her accomplishment.

The importance of Friday’s festival was summed up in remarks by Mr. Badillo, telling the assembled students, parents, and staff that the words of Shakespeare are just as important today as they were hundreds of years ago. “With all that is happening in the world, is there any phrase that is more relevant than ‘what fools these mortals be’?” Mr. Badillo asked.

© 2007 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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