New York City dual-enrollment students adapted Antigone to criticize high school closures — and were closed down by school authorities, writes their teacher, Brian Pickett.
As part of a credit-bearing class at Queensborough Community College, students from Jamaica High School and Queens Collegiate, a smaller school within the same building, spent the fall semester reading and discussing the classic Greek play Antigone and creating scenes that connected the play to their own experiences. In addition to Sophocles’ original text, we also read The Island, a play about two political prisoners who stage Antigone to protest the policies of apartheid South Africa.
New York City school officials plan to close Jamaica High School, a low-performing school. Jamaica High students suggested adapting Antigone to explore the loss of their school.
In the story of Antigone, King Creon decrees that one of her brothers shall receive proper burial rights, while the other is “left out for the birds to feed on.” Within the school building some of the newer small schools are receiving adequate funding and technology, while the older Jamaica High School has seen its teaching staff cut by 30 percent and struggles with large class sizes and a lack of resources. It seemed to be the perfect fit for our project, with many of the characters in Antigone easily finding their modern equivalent — Antigone and her sister as students at the two schools, Creon as the School Chancellor, and prophet Tireseus as veteran teacher. Even the Greek chorus manifested itself in the guise of a school security guard, the Department of Education secretary, and two janitors who bicker in the hallway over whether or not the school should be closed.
Despite their differences, students “created a play that did not vilify either school,” Pickett writes.
As an educator — seeing students engage with a classical text, making direct connections to their own lives and the politics of the times we live in — it doesn’t get any better than this.
Principals of the two schools refused to allow students to perform the play on school grounds because of “negative references to the Department of Education as well as the Chancellor and Mayor,” Pickett writes.
Students have asked for a meeting with the principals and are looking for an off-school venue to perform the play. Valerie Strauss’s blog, The Answer Sheet, has the script of the students’ play.