Russell Harris writes: I am an English teacher at a central London academy, who also enjoys writing. I’ve had one or two small contributions published in the TES (and some longer articles in other publications) and would like to try to develop this interest.
Teaching Shakespeare leaves you breathless
by Russell Harris
Teaching: doesn’t it leave you breathless? One minute you’re involved in day-to-day drudgery, such as counting dictionaries and prising up crusty globules of chewing gum, while the next you’re discussing the intricacies of a Shakespearean couplet. For an English teacher, it is of course the latter that provides the excitement (usually). Let me explain.
Recently, my year 11 class were tasked with comparing a modern adaptation of Macbeth with the original: we went for Goold’s 2010 film starring Patrick Stewart and it certainly forced my creaking brain into gear. Picture this. Panicky questions ricochet around the classroom; while some of the boys almost fall off their chairs in erotic excitement when I introduce the idea – from an essay by Stephen Greenblatt -that Lady Macbeth is a sexual terrorist. (Those last two words are perhaps among a teenage boy’s favourites.)
No, I reassure my class, I’m not a sadist; I’m just trying to inspire you to explore, interpret and – above all – to imagine. (Oh, and achieve a good grade in your GCSE.) Look – “Fair is foul and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air” – isn’t this the epitome of language that both defies and creates meaning? Isn’t this the Shakespearean equivalent of that incredibly rich, intercultural North London dialect that surrounds us? One or two eyes flicker in understanding.
But what do I write next, Sir? Well, try to connect the points you make about Shakespeare’s original text with detailed comments on how that scene is depicted in the film. Think about it. The film opens in a grim military hospital, wounded soldiers scream in agony and lights flicker as the thunder of modern warfare crashes through the shaking walls. And who are the nurses here? That’s right – the modern equivalent of the witches: medical practitioners who fatally inject their patient. A silent moment descends… That’s deep, Sir.
And here’s my example paragraph: what do you think? Have I met the assessment criteria? Or missed the point altogether? Suddenly, the injured man is alone with the nurses, and the audience realizes that something utterly appalling is occurring. Electric ceiling lamps switch off one by one – seemingly at the invisible will of the nurses – and the light focuses on the three women as they fatally inject their patient. The supernatural potency of Shakespeare’s original text has become the power of perverted Science to kill. A modern audience is terrified: the dominant sound of the heart monitor enhances this terror; while the dramatic lighting focuses our attention on the nurses, whose costumes remind us disturbingly of nuns. Goold succeeds in creating a horrifying start to his film just as Shakespeare terrorized his audience: both create an atmosphere of profound fear.
My students look quizzically at my triumphant face. Just have a go, I urge. Be creative. Take a risk. Then, slowly at first, pens begin to move, words start appearing and a hush falls. It dawns upon me that this is another exciting aspect of teaching Shakespeare: taking that shared plunge into new ideas.
On 28th June, Oxford Brookes University will be hosting a one-day Symposium, exploring ‘how creative teaching and learning fits with, or doesn’t fit with, formal learning structures at school and university’. BSA trustee Paul Prescott, of the RSC/University of Warwick ‘Teaching Shakespeare’ partnership, will be giving one of the two keynote lectures. The Symposium is free – and there are still places available! Please click on the link to Unlearning Shakespeare in our ‘Recent Posts’ for more details.
To help me prepare for the workshop I am giving at the Oxford Symposium, I met with a group of practising teachers, who were at the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, for a week in early April, as part of their work for the MA in Shakespeare and Education. What would they have to say, from their current classroom experience, about the usefulness and efficiency of active approaches to teaching Shakespeare? The workshop I have planned for the Oxford Symposium is concerned with three issues that I took from the MA group’s comments on their own, widely differing, working situations.
(i) The first issue gave me the subject for the workshop – how to set about reading the text. This is not as obvious as it sounds: commentaries, study guides, the provision of notes, all appear to give ‘right answers’ that may be learned – perhaps, even, without much recourse to the text itself. But isn’t the most secure learning, and the learning that has the most lasting educational value, built on students’ personal experience of reading the text for themselves? In the words of Tom Barlow, in his first teaching post in the East End of London: ‘Ultimately, the challenge is that, to some degree or other, the text does still have to be read in class – and part of my job is to stop the kids from switching off when this happens.’ (About 70% of Tom’s students are black, of African origin. The remainder are almost entirely white, mostly of Irish origin. He says that they are generally responsive and motivated but come from families where reading is not highly prized; there are high aspirations amongst the students to go onto higher education).
We want our students to be able to read independently, experiencing that internal animation that accomplished readers enjoy in private reading, but we can probably all agree with Tom Barlow that ‘the text still does have to be read in class’. We shall test the idea that active approaches to ‘reading in class’ can not only take the class through the text in an engaged way, removing, through dramatic involvement, the option to ‘switch off’ – they can also help students in their development as confident, independent readers. We’ll examine the claim that those who have experienced (personally and collectively, in the classroom, through drama) something of the life and force of the unmediated text itself, are well-positioned to recreate the experience for themselves again, in private reading.
As our time will be limited to one hour for the workshop and discussion on 28th June, the practical activities will deal only with ‘basic reading techniques’- the first level of encounter with the printed words, rather than with more demanding exercises to do with experiment and interpretation. I’ll report on the workshop exercises, in my next blog.
(ii) The second important issue that emerged from the MA group’s comments is the matter of ‘English or Drama?’ for, in spite of extensive areas of overlap and common ground in the profiles and practice of individual teachers, the two subjects have somewhat different aims, methodologies and assessment concerns, not to speak of teaching spaces and student expectations. Richard Smith, who teaches Drama at Friends’ School, Saffron Walden, a Quaker school for 11-18 year-olds, comments: ‘The English Department’s approach is very different to mine and very static, I feel…Creative Methods are essential and the only way to work for me. Interestingly students deem the work they do with Shakespeare in Drama, different to the work they do in English at my school.’ English teachers frequently speak of their enthusiasm for ‘creative’ or ‘active’ methods, but also of the difficulties of developing their own practice. Tom Barlow comments on this: ‘Since an Inset Day six years ago with the RSC I have applied creative methods to my teaching of literature, and Shakespeare in particular, but despite acquiring the RSC’s Shakespeare Toolkit, I have definitely felt the need for more training. I wish, for example, that as a PGCE student I had been given some drama training. A one-day inset is not enough – these methods (at least in my practice) need to be more deeply entrenched and reinforced over time’. How do we, as teachers, cope with curricular divisions and the inevitable insecurities associated with the feeling, or the demand, that we should change our pedagogy? And to what extent, putting teacher mediation to one side, can a student’s primary experience of the text, whether in the English classroom or the Drama studio, be a personal possession, alive and coherent in their imagination?
(iii) The third issue for the workshop concerns the appropriateness and efficiency of active methods. ‘Efficiency’ will be a central reference point for our discussions, for creative pedagogy must be able to demonstrate its efficiency as preparation for the assessment tasks faced by our students, as well as for the long-term development of their skills and abilities. Our students must ‘think while they dance’ – the reference is to Kate Mcluskie’s essay in Skip Shand’s collection of essays, Teaching Shakespeare (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009). And the criterion of ‘appropriateness’ means thinking carefully about suitability and exercising judgement, rather than wheeling out a game or activity, just because it is lively. For Susie Crozier, currently working in a Medium Secure Unit for Pyschiatric Young Offenders, all of whom are on the Autism Spectrum, with some being severely Aspergers, as well as having a diagnosed psychiatric condition, students ‘don’t all react to lessons in the same way: some love Drama and getting up in the classroom, others prefer to sit and write, hence my comment about restrictions…My GCSE group are aware they’ll be using Drama to explore Romeo and Juliet. Methods I favour tend to be thought-tracking or thought talk (which for my pupils is a way into teaching empathy), still image, chair thermometer. I won’t be doing anything with sound, because I do teach some schizophrenic pupils…’
Two of the Shakespeare Institute MA group work predominantly with students for whom English is a foreign language. Some of their oral assessment involves the speaking of commentaries on Shakespearian passages. Active methods of approaching this work, involving the internalisation of the text through dramatization in role, should certainly be able to prove their worth and efficiency. Piers Smettem teaches at MEF International School, Istanbul, Turkey. For the International Baccalaureate Diploma, Piers says, students have to produce oral commentaries on a 40 line passage, which may be from a Shakespeare play. Active methods that focus on language can allow students to appreciate how language operates within a strictly defined context (the forty line passage), and how it relates to the text as a whole (in terms of character, plot and theme, for example). And Melissa Kwok, who prepares 13 to 18 year-olds for the International Baccalaureate, at the School of the Arts Singapore (SOTA), reports that her last term’s Year 4 students, in their pre-IB work, ‘ were assessed, via an individual oral presentation on a given 50 – 60 line passage from Macbeth. They were expected to do a detailed language and thematic analysis of the piece. This was to prepare them for their oral assessments in the IB years. Othello, the IB text, will be assessed in an Individual Oral Commentary. The students will be given an unknown passage, a short time to prepare an oral commentary, and will then be asked to deliver their commentary on the spot.
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In the workshop at Oxford Brookes, participants will be encouraged to report on their own teaching. Here are a few more reflections from three of the Shakespeare Institute MA group – first those of Melissa Kwok: ‘I often wonder what can be counted as a creative activity. I see it as involving lots of activity and movement. At times, I do really think that I’m quite a boring teacher. I go into class, whip out a passage from the text, explain away at vocabulary, and get the students to identify devices and theme. But, when I can, I do get the students to play with the lines. I remind them that it’s not about sounding “Shakespearean”, but to just have the experience of saying the lines out loud of themselves. I often get my students into groups to dramatise the lines. At other times, I ask them to be directors and to direct classmates who are playing characters. I must say that now as I write this – it really doesn’t sound all that creative. On the other hand, I know that I have very open discussions about the text. I suppose that in that way, I’m allowing my students to create and discover ideas. AND I’m really excited about what I learnt and refreshed at the course up in Stratford. It’s really gotten me excited about teaching Shakespeare with the open-space method that the RSC uses. I like the idea of approaching the text as a playscript and experience. I wish I now had a Shakespearean class to teach! However, I’ve been doing Strindberg’s Miss Julie with my Year 5s now, and just today, I got them to walk the lines, changing directions as they came to punctuation marks. We also played the drama game when one student had to struggle against two who were holding them back at the shoulders whilst saying specific lines. I must say that the kids had a blast, and they did really discover Jean’s frustration and Miss Julie’s sense of entrapment!’
Tom Barlow writes: ‘These (active) methods are sporadic and my aim is to create more of a culture in my classrooms that uses active approaches… I am a big believer in the efficacy of dramatic/active methods but do not feel that I can take children to the drama studio every week. Physical space is a problem – the moving of chairs/tables in a small classroom creates its own logistical problems. I think, however, that active approaches can be incorporated and the pay-off for some chaos in re-arranging chairs/tables is worth it (as long as I have the energy). I’m very interested in developing more bite-sized approaches to active methods, which can be incorporated into lessons more organically without the need always to clear a huge space. As someone who was ultimately swayed from studying English literature at university due to uninspiring teaching methods, I am a big advocate of active/dramatic methods. When I use these, I see the impact almost immediately quite simply because the children seem to be more engaged. They are seeing that Shakespeare is much more than a dull text to be read. They become motivated and excited about his plays.’
And Piers Smetton writes: The creative methods that I have used are dependent on age and what is required in terms of assessment. With classes from 11 – 14 I have been able to use some drama-based exercises. When doing The Taming of the Shrew with an advanced International Baccalaureate literature group, various drama-based activities were used, such as different interpretations of Kate’s final speech. We have also used some active methods to an extent in Much Ado About Nothing for an IGCSE class (Cambridge University’s International General Certificate of Secondary). There was much, however, that was not very creatively set up, as I have relatively little experience in acting or using drama in the classroom. In middle school classes, a variety of active or creative methods are used, including drama activities that focus on character and language – I’ve used the Cambridge School Shakespeare series for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet. I have added other creative tasks, particularly based around empathic and creative writing.
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