The Beat Goes On: Shakespeare’s Heartbeat Program for Students on the Autism Spectrum Finds a Home at Francisco Middle School

SF Shakes talks with Natalia Ceniseroz, AKA “Ms. C.” about the impact of Shakespeare’s Heartbeat in her Francisco Middle School classroom

Last year San Francisco Shakespeare Festival embraced the Hunter Heartbeat Method by piloting Shakespeare’s Heartbeat, a classroom curriculum for students on the autism spectrum. This experiment in theater education for neurodiverse kids was overseen by Joe Schmitz, the founder of Eureka Street Learning, and taught by Lauren Kivowitz, the founder of Inclusive Arts. You can learn more about this program by reading our interview with Lauren from March 2020. Essentially, Shakespeare’s Heartbeat uses games and riffs derived from Shakespeare’s characters to help autistic kids engage with the world around them. It fosters emotional and physical awareness as well as self-expression.

This year, despite the challenges posed by remote learning, Shakespeare’s Heartbeat found a home in the San Francisco Unified School District in the classroom of Natalia Ceniseroz (affectionately known as “Miss. C”), a Special Ed. teacher at Francisco Middle School. Once a week, Joe Schmitz and SF Shakes Teaching Artist Evan Held lead a session of Shakespeare’s Heartbeat for Ms. C.’s class. Here’s a short video featuring Joe and Evan explaining the program at our annual gala. When they mention “doinggg” eyes, you must imagine with your inner eyes and ears the exaggerated cartoon effect of eyes popping out of their sockets.

Joe Schmitz and Evan Held demonstrate a Shakespeare’s Heartbeat game

Meet Ms. C.

Ms. C. has an infectious smile and in the course of our Zoom chat we laughed a lot. She is exactly the kind of professional you want in the classroom: kind, articulate, and smart. SF Shakes asked her about how she came to this vocation and her answer may surprise you: Ms. C. became a teacher not because school was a breeze, but because school was a struggle. Growing up with a twin brother gave Ms. C. a unique point of comparison from which to understand her own school experience. In this introductory excerpt Ms. C. explains how her early challenges with school inspired her to change the narrative about academic success.

Ms. C. Describes Her Class

In the next clip, Ms. C. provides us a general description of the students in her class. Her classroom represents a broad range of student needs and communication preferences; some students are very vocal while others are nonverbal; still others require physical support. Ms. C. smiles a lot when she thinks about her students and is quick to point out that they all have unique talents as well as diverse interests. It’s clear that Ms. C. understands the individuals in her class in this holistic way. She also relates what it means for Joe Schmitz and Evan Held to visit once a week and how the work of Shakespeare’s Heartbeat helps achieve the learning goals of Ms. C.’s classroom in part by giving a voice to her students.

Observations

SF Shakes was eager to hear about any changes or growth that Ms. C. may have observed among her students since the start of Shakespeare’s Heartbeat. In this clip, Ms. C. describes the signs of enthusiasm and engagement she has tracked among her students in anticipation of Heartbeat day. Ms. C. also answers a challenging question about the power of theater arts education. We asked her how she would describe her students’ participation in this accommodated theater program especially when some of her students are nonverbal. Her response to this is amazing. Watch the clip.

Team Heartbeat

Even superhero educators like Ms. C. need a little help. In this clip, Ms. C. acknowledges the paraeducators at Francisco Middle School who help facilitate—and participate in—Shakespeare’s Heartbeat sessions. Finally, Ms. C. offers advice to teachers of neurodiverse students who might be considering collaborating with SF Shakes on integrating Shakespeare’s Heartbeat into their classrooms. More information about Shakespeare’s Heartbeat is available on our website.