Joe Winston and Miles Tandy take playful approaches to ‘The Comedy of Errors’ with 4 to 11 year olds, at WORLDS TOGETHER – a conference hosted by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Tate Modern Gallery, in collaboration with the British Museum and the National Theatre, London, 6th – 8th September, 2012.

We, a dozen Conference delegates, are the 4 to 11 year olds, embarking on a 3 hour workshop with Joe Winston, Professor of Arts Education at Warwick University, and Miles Tandy, an RSC Education Lead Practitioner. ‘There are no right answers’, says Miles, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t discover what works best, what takes us most excitingly into the mysterious virtual reality we are exploring together – the world of Shakespeare’s play. It just means that everyone’s personal experiments and contributions will be received without censure, so we are free to let our minds and imaginations work. Released from the temptation to judge  and compare what our colleagues are doing and saying, the class moves along easily with a shared sense of purpose and full concentration on all the things we are being invited to do. We enjoy our own efforts and we also enjoy what the whole class is doing – as, importantly, Joe and Miles seem to as well. I know, from the first minute, that this is going to be active learning for us all, not teaching by demonstration, using a few of us to participate or illustrate, while  the rest watch and, perhaps, start to daydream or tune out. And, as all teachers who work as ‘animateurs’ know, in a class in which all are active and motivated,  energy does not spill out into disruption or distraction: it is constantly drawn back into the group, where it seems to build and intensify as the work goes on, so that, by the end of the session, we all have a sense of having deepened our experience, of having travelled, and of having reached conclusions. We are really ‘on to’ a lot of things about this play – its language, its characters and predicaments, its unique world. We do not have to pretend we are 4 to 11 year olds: we have processed, entirely in our own adult, ‘experienced’ ways,  the same activities that Joe and Miles would have provided for a class of young children.

So what were the things we actually did that took us into Shakespeare’s Ephesus, a town ‘full of cozenage’, peopled by ‘nimble jugglers…dark-working sorcerers… soul-killing witches…disguisèd cheaters…prating mountebanks, and many such libertines of sin’? How did we get into the story of the merchant Egeon and his long-lost wife, who, many years earlier had given birth to the identical Antipholus twins, each served by one of the identical Dromio twins, the whole family separated in a terrible storm at sea, when the children were infants? What did we do to experience loss, confusion, danger, comedy? First came activities to ‘meet and mix’, with collective ‘freedom of the space’ established, so we moved easily, ‘going’ and ‘stopping’ on command and ‘showing’, when asked, adjectives such as ‘happy’ and ‘fearful’ and images such as ‘twins’ and ‘shipwrecks’. Joe and Miles had chosen a ‘way in’ appropriate for 4-11 year olds (for us too), through emotions and  feelings which were already ours, from our own lives, but which very soon were acting as vectors taking us seamlessly into Shakepeares’s story and, vitally, his language. Soon we would be exploring themes such as twinning and confusion (playing ‘catch yourself out’ games to break habitual mind-body connexions) and, using tableaux, the events of the ‘back story’ to the play. Part of me, as teacher, was noting the skilful adaptation of a range of  drama activities, so that tried and tested active pedagogy could be marshalled to transport us, our minds, bodies and imaginations alert and responsive, into the particular world of this play, The Comedy of Errors. For example, there were games requiring the whole group to collaborate (such as speaking phrases or lines from the text to ‘save’ those about to be banished) and activities such as ‘Word Carpet’, which  involved everyone in contributing to the creation of a store of words and phrases (written by all of us on slips of paper), to be used in an imaginative ‘guided tour’ (carried out, simultaneously, in pairs) of the mysterious town of Ephesus.

You can learn more about the techniques, structure and activities of the workshop in Beginning Shakespeare 4-11 (Joe Winston and Miles Tandy, London, David Fulton, 2012), for what we did was based on an example from Joe and Miles’s excellent book – but to finish, I want to return to the personal experience of doing the workshop. I always find it refreshing and revealing – and often rather sobering too – to take part in the sort of activities we expect our students to carry out. Teacherly authority suspended and the course of events unknown and outside my control, I am now just one of the group, eager to make something with that group, but, perhaps, a little apprehensive. How will I do, will I look foolish… but that doesn’t matter, does it?

We are a few minutes into the workshop. Complete the sentence, Miles says, beginning:  ‘I am confused…’  We go round in turn. Everyone speaks, pretty much on cue. Some answers are funny, everyone seems to have a ready response. I find that I do not. I watch the powder trail fizz towards me and realise I am really engaged by the question and that it will not be long before I must answer. It’s my turn and I pause, not knowing quite what to say. I am confused by the question – not because I don’t understand it, but because there’s something hidden I want to articulate, but ‘I’ve lost the key’. I find myself saying, lamely, ‘ I’m confused by irreconcilables’. So dry and theoretical, so unappealingly lacking in the concrete or illustrative! Is that it? Isn’t confusion always about that? I know that I love truth games – there’s a kind of therapeutic excitement in searching for something about yourself that you only half know (or only half admit), but I’m also very conscious that this is just a quick circle game, so I must speak and quickly let go of the words I have, somewhat to my own surprise, just  spoken. But much further back in my mind, there is something else resonating – the first time I had to make a choice in class, along with the other 5-year olds, the ‘Infants’, as we were called, on our first day at the Village School. We had all been given cardboard boxes in which to keep our pencils and note-books. Then the teacher said ‘now, all of you, come up to the table at the front and choose a picture’. There was a rush to choose. I sat at my desk and watched, wondering what the other children were doing. Then I became aware of Miss Bullard standing above me. ‘You haven’t chosen a picture. Come with me and choose.’ I loved birds and there was a picture of a Green Woodpecker left. I chose that, something connected with my own world prior to this strange school-room, and she helped me to paste it onto my box. It is good, I think, for us, as teachers, to find ourselves back where are students are – some inhibited within their group, some nervous about contributing, some bemused by the need to make snap decisions and choices. This is why the ‘drama way’ is so important, for not only can it provide the most open  and stimulating of learning environments – it can also be the most reassuring, the most secure. I know that I am in one of those learning environments now – it will be challenging, but it will be safe and it will build confidence. ‘Come with me and choose.’

Back to Joe and Miles: soon, in groups of 3 or 4, we are making images, speaking lines we have been given from the play. Then we all add another image and another, building up representations of the story. At first our group only just completes its image and its actions before it is time to show the result, but as we get used to working together we become more confident. Finally, all the groups  combine to run all the little scenes in sequence, without pause or introduction. This is very much how I like to work – everyone as both audience and actors. We have created a piece of living theatre for our own delight – and, of course, instruction. Joe is pleased with us. ‘We could take this performance outside into the Turbine Hall now,’ he says, ‘and people would look at it and enjoy it.’ We are proud of ourselves. Once again I reflect on the experience of making choices to deadlines, this time in a group, and also what has been going on in my own mind during this exercise: how, perhaps, I mentally resist quick solutions, because I want to reflect and explore new ideas, but, conversely, how I also have a store of drama teacher’s ‘quick fixes’. I am wary of these. I hate the idea of coming forward too quickly or too strongly, of imposing my view. I hang back, interested in what others have to say, but conscious that I want our group to produce something that is good, that works well. As always, I am fascinated by the matter of how we debate, and make choices, with others, and how, as teachers, we set up learning situations which involve complex group dynamics. When the workshop moves on to the next exercise, creating the strange town, I forget all these thoughts, for now, off the text, we are invited to devise tricks and incidents that might beguile a visiting stranger. I love seeing what we all get up to and I feel blessedly  free to add to the entertainment myself. Joe adds in our ‘word carpet’ and we all, I think, have a very good time. What is more, we would be capable, I know, of discussing all the work in terms of insights gained about Shakespeare’s play.

There are other activities I could describe (like Joe’s masterly story-telling, using his ‘Whoosh!’ technique, which makes lovely, fluid use of the class, while allowing the teacher’s knowledge and skill full rein, to become available to all), but when I think back for a final defining image, I find I am sneeking a sideways look at our teachers. They look amused and pleased, for their ‘playful approaches’ to The Comedy of Errors have shown (it is written all over our faces) just how effectively profit can be mixed with pleasure in the active classroom.


Shakespeare in the special education classroom – a rationale from Heather Ruth Edgren, in Eagle River, Alaska

Posted September 1st, 2012 by James Stredder and filed in Blank, Pedagogy, Teaching approaches and techniques

Heather Ruth Edgren graduated from Memphis State University (now named University of Memphis) in 1989 with a degree in Special Education. She  taught for two years in Memphis, Tennessee, in a self-contained Special Education classroom at the elementary level (students 10-12 years old) before moving to Alaska. The next 18 years were spent teaching students with special needs at both the middle school and high school levels  with the Anchorage School District, the last 11 years at Chugiak High School, near Eagle River, Alaska.

The article that follows complements Heather’s  feature on her work with Shakespeare in the Special Education classroom, which will appear  in the September issue of the BSA’s magazine, Teaching Shakespeare

A rationale for Shakespeare in the special education classroom

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,

(As You Like It: Act ll, Scene Vll)

Overuse of these lines from Shakespeare makes them sound trite, but the truth is that there are those who still stand in the wings waiting for their turn on the stage.  They are only waiting for someone to give them their cue and the encouragement that they need to step from one role- one thrust upon them by circumstance- into another  that has the potential to change both the way they see their world and the way it sees them.

The first year Shakespeare was part of my special education curriculum I observed something that really caught my attention and thought, well, okay that’s interesting. Then the next year I saw it again, and began to suspect that I was on to something. And I was right, every year the same thing happened. There is something about teaching Shakespeare to students with special needs. I have had autistic pupils who exhibit traits typical of those on the autism spectrum: they don’t know how to respond in a social situation; they won’t make eye contact; they don’t want to touch or be touched by someone; they have tactile hypersensitivity; exhibit hand flapping, and talk in unusual speech patterns. While I am teaching Shakespeare, however, I have seen these students respond in a way that is stunning. In learning about the character that they are playing, about how their character would feel, about how he or she would respond in a situation, about the rhythm and pacing and idiom of the character’s language- something happens. I watched a young man whose only time out of his self-contained classroom was to come to English class in my room. Sometimes if he became agitated or could not be redirected he would have to leave my classroom as he would begin rocking or pacing the room and repeating phrases over and over, and would escalate from there. One year he played Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew.  By the time we were ready to present our scenes, he had his lines memorized, dragged Kate through the archway, and displayed appropriate emotion and voice control and his hand movements were down to a minimum. Over the subsequent couple of years he progressed to the point where most of his classes were outside the self-contained room and he no longer required an escort to be in class with him. His primary special education teacher  said to me and others that this transformation started with the Shakespeare play we did in my classroom. A similar story is that of a student who played Horatio in the final Act of Hamlet the first year I had him and played Lucentio in the final Act of Taming of the Shrew the next year. He would seek me out after he was no longer in my class to show me that he still had his lines memorized, and he did! Every year, the transformation and growth shown in particular by students on the autism spectrum both during and following this portion of my curriculum was amazing to watch. The power of Shakespeare in the classroom to reach and transform students has never ceased to amaze me.

Somehow, it always seemed to me that the last class of the day had the most students  with severe emotional disturbances, which often means teenage boys with anger issues, poor self-control, and oppositional behavior. These young men always chose the final Act of Hamlet for some reason. Most likely it had something to do at first glance with death, swords, and violence. A change takes place in these students, though, once they get into the curriculum, and I am not exactly sure what accounts for it. What is it that allows two otherwise angry boys to clasp arms and vow, “…But till that time, I do receive your offer’d love like love, and will not wrong it.” I have never had a problem, despite the disabilities of these students, directing a Horatio to hold the head of a dying Hamlet. One of my students was a young man with severe anger outbursts. He also had a learning disability in written expression and poor reading skills. Of course, he was in a class that did the last scene in Hamlet. This student ultimately ended up being moved out of the class for the Severely Emotionally Disturbed, out of Special Education English, took Shakespeare as his English elective class, passed the High School Graduation Qualifying Examination, and graduated with a high school diploma.  Can all those things be attributed to performing in a Shakespeare play in my classroom?  Probably not, but the changes for him started somewhere.

Then there’s my girls- beautiful young ladies whose disabilities prevent them from seeing how special they truly are. There’s the student who would cut herself, and hide her beauty, but as Kate she came alive. Another student came in from one of the villages where drinking and suicide are rampant. She never spoke above a whisper and never lifted her head. In Queen Gertrude’s dress, the sparkle in her eyes said what her voice could not. I had a girl in my class whose father suddenly and unexpectedly died. She struggled through a year at school and then left for a while. She had begun to drink and experiment with drugs. When she finally came back, our class was doing Hamlet. She strongly identified with the themes in this work and it was not an easy play for her to do. We shed many tears in that class that year, but she saw it through. I am still in touch with this student and we talked recently about her experience. It is an accomplishment of which, looking back, she remains very proud.

There have been so many students who have stood out in my mind over the years. I would love to sit here and fill these pages with every one of them. They each have a story to tell. Each one of them is a young person who, in most special education classes, would have never been introduced to the world of Shakespeare: the beauty and novelty of his use of language; the humanity of his characters; the chance to step onto the stage. They, too, have become through this shared experience players and have exits and entrances to make, and in their time, many parts to play. I remain eternally grateful to that first student who saw the possibility inherent in the classroom as a stage, and the teacher as a fellow player.