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Burgers and Shakes: Shakespearean Dinner Theater at Judah

Josh Fredrick and Elise Coulter of Judah Christian School
Josh Fredrick and Elise Coulter prepare for Macbeth

AP English test scores at Judah Christian School have skyrocketed. But why? What makes these students do their best and rise to such a high level of achievement?

The answer is simple: they’re having fun.

This summer, six Judah students, a homeschool student associated with the Judah community, and a student who has since come to Judah visited the Illinois Shakespeare Festival at Bloomington’s historic Ewing Manor. The play they enjoyed watching  alongside many of their parents  was called The Book of Will by Lauren Gunderson. The Shakespearean performance traveled through many of Shakespeare’s works, quoting them generously, as it told the true story of the two protagonists who compiled the first collection of Shakespeare’s plays.

Several students relayed their excitement and joy about this experience. Senior Ava Carder, a Jane Austen enthusiast, said, “It’s really cool to go out and experience things as a class. There’s a difference between learning something in the classroom versus going out and learning something outside of class and doing fun things. I am excited to go back to the Shakespeare festival for Austen’s Sense and Sensibility next summer. I know we’re planning to go back, and I’m really looking forward to it. I hope every year we can go back to that.” 

Grace Maxwell, a senior and an avid participant in the English AP class, added how beneficial she thinks events like these are to students. She said, “It helps us retain stuff and remember things more, because you have a moment that you think about. You can go back and say, ‘Oh, I learned this then.’ When we did our fun stuff, yeah, we had fun, but we also learned about this. It connects the memories together and helps us remember key things.” 

Special occasions and opportunities like this challenge Judah’s English students to not only read and analyze, but also to get actively involved with what might otherwise be a difficult chore. Would students prefer learning Shakespeare by listening to a teacher’s monologue for an hour, or by going to a Shakespeare play at a beautiful mansion with all their friends? Everyone knows which of the two sounds more enticing.

Many high school students see English class as a bore: a dull class in which the teacher drones on about some vague subject briefly mentioned in the book, or where they are forced to read too much into the text and reach for a topic that isn’t even there. The English students at Judah Christian School, however, get the chance to enjoy themselves in a hands-on way and turn assignments into enjoyable activities. So enjoyable, apparently, that eight students and many of their parents willingly drove two hours to gather over the summer  all for Shakespeare.

Grace Maxwell, Josh Fredrick, Grant Ipsen, Juliana Stranberg, Ava Carter, and Hannah Jackson of Judah Christian School.
Judah students at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival

To keep the ball rolling, high school English teacher Michael Himick and his team of EDITAs (English Department Idea and Teaching Assistants) soon organized another entertaining endeavor, cleverly named Burgers and Shakes.

On November 16, 2023, about 15 students, with parents and teachers, came after school for an evening of Judah “dinner theater.” They watched the award-winning 1995 film Sense and Sensibility, based on Jane Austen’s novel, over a dinner of burgers and, as one would guess, shakes. Then, on January 19, 2024, about a dozen students, again with adults, gathered to watch an acclaimed 2010 production of Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth.

Both events were hits. Every student reported their delight in watching the films with their peers and their excitement for the next program. Braden Laird, a junior in AP English Literature, said after seeing Sense and Sensibility, “I really connected with everyone in the room just by going through the emotions with them. It was quite the experience, and hearing everyone yell at the characters was a lot of fun. Definitely a ten out of ten.” 

James Griffiths, a sophomore and new Judah student, made similar statements and even expressed his parents’ enthusiasm for the event. He said, “It was amazing, to be honest. You know, I never really thought that my parents would like it so much, especially being around us. I don’t mean that in a bad way, but we’re kids. It gave me and them a new experience of watching movies, especially with all the commentary and how immersive it was. It was really, really cool.”

Hannah Jackson, Grace Maxwell, and Elise Coulter of Judah Christian School
Judah students at Burgers and Shakes

The second event with Macbeth was just as popular. Junior Lydia Tian said, “Watching it made me realize that everyone has to make a wise choice for their life. Be aware of what choice you’re making, or else your head could get cut off and raised by someone else! It was my second time watching this movie. I had a lot more fun and saw more things. It was a good experience.”

Finally, Mr. Himick shared some of his thoughts about the evenings and how smoothly they ran. He said, “I was so pleased. Rena and I had so much fun just watching everyone engage with Jane Austen and Shakespeare like that. Students were talking back to the movies and cheering. You would hear ‘boooo’ from students predicting who was the bad guy. One of the parents said, ‘I’ve seen that movie five times, but I’ve never enjoyed it so much.’ We even had an alum come back, Jovona Neely! I think that’s so cool. I’m encouraged. We’ll do more of these.”

According to students, teachers, and parents, Burgers and Shakes is wildly popular and should happen again. Judah students are a prime example that when learning becomes fun, they want to do it even outside the classroom. Events like these show our students that they can enjoy the process of learning, and the English department is eager to enjoy every moment with them.

—Hannah Jackson, class of ’24


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