Sharon Fennessey to retire after 22 years at Henry Barnard School

Sharon Fennessey
Professor Sharon Fennessey ’67 has spent most of her life behind the scenes, preparing children for the world stage. Now she takes her curtain call. She is retiring from Henry Barnard School after 22 years of teaching.

Fennessey is not only the “consummate teacher,” said Haven Starr, assistant principal of Henry Barnard, she is a gifted playwright who creates historical plays each year for her students to perform. To date, she’s written about 25 plays, which have become a staple of the fifth-grade curriculum.

Fennessey’s students have reenacted the newspaper strike of 1899; they’ve played French mill workers in Woonsocket; Irish immigrants in the 1900s; Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth; and homeless children on the orphan trains during the mid-1800s.

“Audiences are wowed by the children’s performances,” said Starr. “Her plays incorporate research, literature, language arts and social studies.”

Fennessey said she writes a play each summer. When she meets her new class in the fall, she makes further adjustments to the script based on the percentage of boys and girls in the class and their acting abilities. Rehearsals begin in January and the play is staged in March.

Fennessey believes there is an actor in every child and that all a child needs is self-confidence. Be they freckled, bespectacled or innately shy, Fennessey has never had a student suffer stage fright. She prepares them for public speaking by engaging them in readers’ theatre, poetry readings and debates.

For instance, at Fanuel Hall in Boston, her students reenacted the same debate held by the Loyalists and Patriots during the American Revolutionary War. “Observers are amazed at the children’s comprehension of the issues they’re debating because there’s no script, just knowledge of the issues,” said Starr.

Fennessey was once a child performer herself. As a member of the Four Fabulous Fennesseys, she and her sister and two brothers danced and sang their way up and down the east coast and auditioned for roles in summer theatre.

Life in the theatre has remained in her blood. Fennessey earned a bachelor’s in elementary education at RIC in 1967 and a master’s in theatre education at Columbia University in 1973.

After graduating from Columbia, she worked in summer theatre doing choreography in New York. Eventually she landed a teaching job for 13 years at New York’s Professional Children’s School, a private K-12 school for students pursuing careers in the arts. One of her students was Sarah Jessica Parker.

In 1989 she began her teaching career at Barnard. “The time has flown by,” she said. “I’ve been in the same classroom for 22 years. I’m going to miss teaching children. They keep you young. They keep you laughing. And they demand that you keep learning.”

Fennessey’s creative ideas are collected in two books: “History in the Spotlight: Creative Drama and Theatre Practices for the Social Studies Classroom” (2000) and “Language Arts Lessons for Active Learning, Grades 3–8” (2008).

Henry Barnard School fifth graders rehearse for a school play written and directed by Sharon Fennessey. The play, about an 1899 newspaper strike in New York City, was staged March 18, 2011.
Fennessey also teaches two courses, Creative Drama and Theatre for Children, as an adjunct professor in RIC’s Theatre Department. Susan St. Amand, a former student and secretary for the Henry Barnard School, said Fennessey’s enthusiasm in the classroom is contagious.

Many of her former students come back to visit and they always talk about their experiences in her plays. “Not only do children learn a lot about theatre, but when they’re in a play they become close as a cast,” Fennessey said. “They learn to be vulnerable and to rely on each other. It’s something that never leaves them.”

June 15 is Fennessey’s last day at Barnard. As she thinks about it, tears well. “It’s going to be hard,” she said. “But you have to decide at some point to retire. I’m still healthy and full of energy, but there’s a point where you have to say, it’s time.”

Of all the historical plays she’s written, Fennessey’s favorite is a poetic drama about Langston Hughes, along with his poem “Hold Fast to Dreams.” Fennessey intends to take Hughes’s advice, holding fast to life in the magical yet temporal world of theatre.

She’s already creating new roles for herself. “I’ve always had an interest in costuming,” she said, “but I don’t know how to sew. I’d like to learn to make costumes. And I just may continue teaching in the Theatre Department. Of course, I’d like to publish more plays.”

However she decides to apply her creative gifts, Fennessey’s show will go on.