Whitefield Academy Blog
The Lion King, Hamlet, and Third Grade Karaoke
To most of us, especially those of us who may have not enjoyed a classical education, the classics may seem a little bit inaccessible. We have this idea that the classic books and plays are difficult to understand. They were written centuries ago, and who has time to try to decipher them, right?
However, sometimes kids realize they already know the classics. In fact, they already know them by heart without realizing it.
Bringing the Magic Kingdom to School
Recently, our third graders were enjoying art class, and it was a special reward time with me. That meant that while we finished our projects, rather than listening to our usual music (often Mozart or hymns), we were listening to some of our favorite songs from Disney movies. There is something really special that seems to happen when children see something, anything, that they have loved at home, now transported into their school environment. It makes them see their teachers in a new way too. And for what it’s worth, I cannot think of anything else in our culture today that can bridge generational differences and generate childlike enthusiasm than the music and storytelling of Disney movies.
By the end of the hour, when most students had finished their work, the room had pretty much turned into a karaoke party – which may have been my intention, considering I had the lyrics up on the projector screen. (By the way, I now believe that your life may not be totally complete until you’ve sung Mulan’s “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” with a bunch of third-grade girls.)
After belting out a couple of songs from The Lion King, I thought I’d play a game of “Stump the Third Graders.”
“Who knows what very old story The Lion King is based on?” I asked the class.
There was no way they’d know the answer. I was ready to blow their minds.
But a hand shot up in the air, no hesitation.
I paused. I squinted at the hand in the air. In my mind, I was skeptical at the student’s confidence.
“All right, take a stab at it,” I said.
“Hamlet,” the student answered definitively, and again, no hesitation,
“By Shakespeare,” she added for good
Again, I paused, surprised. We hadn’t danced around the answer or had any “good guesses” from the class. Just a walk-off home run and I had lost at my own game. But I was happy to lose this time. I’m okay with being as smart as a third grader.
“And how do you know that?” I asked.
The student explained that she had participated in our after-school Shakespeare club.
Another student asked what Hamlet was, which was answered with a thoroughly accurate rundown of Shakespeare’s story. Even Shakespearean laypeople would have been able to understand the plot, and know that the synopsis was accurate because the student’s plot line exactly followed The Lion King. There was a prince, a king, an uncle usurping the throne, a ghostly apparition, (although, Shakespeare’s story lacked a warthog and meerkat.)
Greatness Doesn’t Tarnish With Age
Our little drama that played out in third grade art class perfectly illustrates the beauty of the classics (and classical education) in the twenty-first century. The classic texts, books, and dramas are not just stuck in the past, inaccessible to us. They are still with us today whether we know them or not, but when we don’t know the classics, we are only experiencing one dimension of our modern world. Great stories don’t lose their greatness with age – they become timeless. And a third grader who has been singing Hakuna Matata since age four suddenly has a fresh perspective, understanding, and appreciation for something she already loves. She now does not only have a visceral response to the greatness of a film she loves; she understands why it embodies greatness.
Incidentally, the story of The Lion King’s development is an interesting one, as all the senior animators looked at the project and scoffed, saying, “It’s just Hamlet.” They left the project to the junior animators, who created one of the most beloved animated films of their generation. The senior animators went to work on Pocahontas.
The truth is our generation was not the first to discover Truth, Beauty, or Goodness. They weren’t invented by Disney or Pixar. Those have been available for all generations of people to find. Much of what shapes our imagination and that of our children is simply a retelling of the great old stories and timeless virtues. Our children’s experience of the world is so much richer when they know the origin of their contemporary stories.