For a split second, Krista Claypool’s sophomore English class is silent. All eyes are on four girls at the front of the room, frozen in dramatic poses. One is sprawled across a chair, reaching out to classmate lying on the floor, while the final two stand to the left, staring at a map.

“It’s Miranda and Prospero!” a student shouts.

“Are you people from the shipwreck?” another asks.

“We’re not even on a ship,” a posed girl hisses, breaking character.

“It’s Alonso and Antonio — they’re looking for the ship!” another student calls out. “And baby Miranda and Prospero are on their shipwreck.”

“Yes!” the girls exclaim as they take their seats.

If this exercise at Milwaukee High School of the Arts is any indication, students are enthusiastically engaged with The Tempest, the selection for this year’s edition of Great World Texts in Wisconsin.

Organized by the Center for the Humanities and launched in 2005, the program brings together UW-Madison scholars and teachers and students from across the state for a creative and multidisciplinary exploration of a shared work of world literature.

This year, 26 schools — large and small; urban, suburban and rural; public, private and charter — are participating, making it the largest Great World Texts class to date, with nearly 2,000 students delving into William Shakespeare’s story that begins with an overthrown duke who is exiled on a remote island with his daughter.

Andres Campa didn’t know he would be reading The Tempest in Ms. Claypool’s class. But he’s intrigued by the play, specifically how relatable Prospero has proven to be.

“He held that grudge,” he says of the main character who uses magic to shipwreck the men who did him wrong. “I don’t hold grudges, but I’ve felt like I’ve wanted to take revenge at times.”

His classmate Irais Gonzalez, meanwhile, has been taken with Ariel, the sprite who’s indebted to Prospero. “It kind of surprised me when I found out he was a slave,” she says. “I thought he’d be more like Tinkerbell.”

Gonzalez is considering Ariel as inspiration for the project she’ll create for the spring conference that concludes the Great World Texts experience.

Students act out the scene in which the witch Sycorax (left) places a spell on Ariel (center).
The class offers feedback to the students on their interpretation of a scene.
Students in Krista Claypool's class choose a scene from Act I of "The Tempest" to translate into a set of dramatic poses and expressions.
Krista Claypool (center) helps a student group interpret the text.
The exercise created an opportunity for students to collaboratively dig deeper into a scene that intrigued them, and to bring some of their own interpretations to life.

Held on April 3 at Union South and the Discovery Building, this year’s conference includes a plenary session in which each school presents a student project, a showcase of all student projects and an interactive keynote address by novelist Margaret Atwood, whose Hag-Seed is adapted from The Tempest. (She will also hold a public lecture that evening.)

The conference is remarkable in how it builds connections between the university and high schools across the state. And year after year, students’ projects are renowned for their creativity, ranging from music videos and Kanye West-style “confessions” to games, artwork and more.

After reading Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West in Ms. Claypool’s Great World Texts class last year, Rayden Montes combined his love of cello with an appreciation for the 100-chapter saga of a monk traveling in pursuit of sacred texts. For his project, he wrote an interpretive song for nine cellos, recorded eight different tracks and played along with them at the conference. 

“I was so nervous,” he says. “It was my first-ever composition and it was in front of 800 people.”

His presentation ended up being a “fan favorite” of the 2016 conference.

Great World Text selections have been drawn from a body of global literature spanning China, Russia, Nigeria, India, Colombia and beyond, and representing time periods ranging from 441 B.C. to 2002. This is the first year the program has focused on an English author.

Given UW-Madison’s yearlong focus on Shakespeare, including a visit from the First Folio —  the first collected edition of the writer’s plays, including The Tempest, published in 1623 — the program’s organizers decided to give the Bard a turn. 

The Tempest is arguably the most global of Shakespeare’s plays,” says Great World Texts program coordinator Devin Garofalo.

The issues raised in the play allow teachers from across disciplines to be involved. English, history, art, science and math teachers can all find relevance in The Tempest, and the program encourages multiple classes within a school to participate.

The topics also lend themselves to rich discussions — on colonialism, slavery, globalization, human impact on the environment and much more — that students can further explore in their individual projects.

Garofalo is most looking forward to seeing how they grapple with the complex issues presented in the text — specifically the power differentials, and especially because Shakespeare doesn’t reveal where he stands on them. 

“There’s no consensus on the part of scholars,” she says. “There are many different arguments to be made. Students can contribute a lot to those conversations. They’re by no means exhausted.”