‘It’s making me a bit more like Shakespeare’ – Teaching Shakespeare at an all-boys comprehensive, post 2
For the past week, the boys have been working on presentations which give an overview of their knowledge of the play and an analysis of their choices in adaptation in their performance and video.
The assessment is for Speaking and Listening, for which the four criteria are:
Talking to others
Talking with others
Talking within role play and drama
Talking about talk
When I went through this with my initially bewildered class (‘Miss, I don’t get the difference!’), I put it forward as basically an assessment of how well you can say what you mean to other people, and how well you can understand what other people say to you. After which, one boy commented: ‘I think whoever wrote the curriculum would fail this assessment’. The drama and film were the assessment for criteria 1 and 3, and the presentation to the class is the assessment for criteria 2 and 4.
They have written individual presentations, and then regrouped with the same groups they did the filming with to present to the class. The idea behind this was that the group presentation would be an amalgamation of the best bits of each group members’ individual presentation.
By majority, my class have aced this assessment as they’re good at speaking and listening (i.e. they never shut up). They thrive from discussion with one another, and from the pressure of speaking in front of their peers. However, when you compare the standard of speaking and listening to the standard of written work, they don’t always correlate. This is a sweeping generalization, but in my experience the majority of kids are better at talking than they are at reading and writing. But being able to talk intelligently, sensitively, confidently, is essentially the same thing as reading a text and responding to it through writing – on a practical level, you’re just doing it with your tongue rather than with your hand. Why then, is there such a difference in reading and writing ability in comparison to speaking and listening ability?
My ideas about this are that we’re born to talk and move: we weren’t born holding pencils, as some may like to imagine Shakespeare. Yet there is nearly always an assumption that it is skills in written work that prove someone to be the best communicator. The greater weighting of written work to spoken work in English (and in the majority of subjects) suggests this. Kids who are great communicators in class often have difficulty transferring this skill in writing, and therefore attain a poorer grade in English than their good communicating abilities deserve. Just as the idea of the good written communicator as superior to the spoken can warp the view of an emotionally intelligent and responsive child, it also has the potential to warp the view of Shakespeare as primarily a genius of the written word: because people are in the habit of valuing what they can quantify.
Shakespeare probably wouldn’t have been the most fantastic writer ever – he was an actor, a collaborator, a creative doer as much as he would have been a pen-to-paper man. From what I’ve read of Shakespeare and the collaborative, unstable nature of Renaissance authorship, my idea as to why the works bearing Shakespeare’s name are considered such profound insights into the nature of man is that they were made by someone who was wholly humanly involved in the creation of meaning in the text. These are namely with voice, body, in writing, in collaboration, and independently – experiencing the text in as many ways as possible. The texts were also frequently adapted by other people who experienced the text in the same way(s) as Shakespeare. Logically, this kind of entire involvement results in a fuller expression and identification with feeling. Which brings me back to the idea in the first post that if you increase the amount of ways you perceive a text, the better you’ll understand it.
With this in mind, this is how the scheme of work has run – with the aim of involving all of the potential talents of children in developing their understanding of the text. When I ran a similar project at Chorlton High School that incorporated the use of media and drama to create modern-day adaptations of Romeo and Juliet (see: http://shakespeareineducation.com/2012/03/kathryn-westwoods-presentation-shakespeare-inside-out-part-3/), a quote from the student feedback was that ‘[the workshops] helped me to understand the play more because I now have a clear idea of how Shakespeare creates.’ This was because the students at this school had an awareness of the nature of the Renaissance stage, and identified that mimicking the practice of the writer to create their own text engaged them with the meaning of the original.
My class have responded to these feedback questions about their assessment:
1. On a scale of 1-5, how confident do you feel about your understanding of Macbeth (1. Not confident at all, 5. Very confident)?
2. Which parts of our work do you feel have helped you most? (E.g, filming, drama, writing/ reading exercises, making the presentation, or the combination of all of them?)
3. Please explain how they/it helped you to understand the play.
4. Did you find working in groups helpful?
5. Was how we’ve learnt Macbeth very different from your usual English lessons?
6. If our lessons were different, tell me how:
7. Was there anything you would have liked to have done more of in lessons?
I will check if it is possible to publish the results in the new year (permission slips need to be returned etc). But the general response so far has been very positive: over 80% indicated that they felt confident (scoring 4 or 5) with the text, and the majority indicated that they found that a variety of activities aided their learning more than doing just writing or speaking exercises. The overall impression I’ve got so far is that they have learnt the text by becoming ‘a bit more like Shakespeare’.
2013 holds more Shakespeare/ Literature/ Drama/ Film projects with my English class and the wider school. I will also be giving papers atManchesterUniversityandTrinityCollegeabout; the work I’ve done so far in schools, increasing the dialogue between academia and compulsory education, and the topic of new literacies in relation to media. But for now, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
 Jeffrey Masten, ‘Textual Intercourse: Collaboration, Authorship, and Sexualities in Renaissance Drama’, in Reconceiving the Renaissance: A Critical Reader, ed. Ewan Fernie, Ramona Wray, Mark Thornton Burnett, Clare McManus, (Oxford,OxfordUniversity Press: 2005), pp. 32-39.
A week or so ago Jason Lodge posted an article on The Conversation blog entitled Education in the information age: is technology making us stupid?
Lodge’s post is well worth reading so do follow the link, but one of his conclusions is that the age-old model of teaching based on a group of students absorbing knowledge directly from a teacher within a space dedicated to learning, may be disappearing fast.
Most discussions centre on the future of university teaching. A consortium of British Universities led by the Open University under the name FutureLearn have just announced they are entering the field of delivering Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) which have been in use in the US and Australia for several years. These online courses will be available free of charge to anyone from around the world. Some have predicted the death of the lecture, or even the end of the University, and it seems certain that a rethink is under way. A spokesman for the new company suggested “think of it as the democratisation of education.”
Going back to Lodge’s article, his main point centres on the widely-held feeling that “While information is everywhere, knowledge is declining and technology is to blame”. When information about every subject under the sun is available in seconds through our smartphones, why bother to learn?
Of course people still need to learn, but different things (how to operate a smartphone, for one). Ever-changing technology itself challenges us to keep learning: just think how much you have learned about how to operate new generations of computers and software over the past decade.
Professionally I’m a librarian, a job which I’ve always seen as being an intermediary between information and potential users. Accessing and digesting information by thinking leads to learning and knowledge. Even the most creative of people depend on some kind of spark coming from information. Technology now supplies us with an infinite amount of information from multiple resources and the challenge for many of us is filtering and selecting from these resources. Having more resources doesn’t make us stupid, but can make us confused. I’m particularly interested in resources for independent lifelong learners, who are often not well served by university and even publicly-funded library, archive and museum sites, though the good news is that this is gradually changing.
I worked at the Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive, where up to a million images relating to the staging of Shakespeare are held, in particular the archives of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Having met many teachers during my thirty years there, I am aware of how valuable images can be in teaching Shakespeare’s plays in a range of settings. There are a whole range of issues relating to making images available online, which I’ll be going into in a future post. One problem is simply that organisations tend to protect their own image resources so each site has to be visited separately: and these can be difficult to find. Some are now cooperative to form massive picture banks while maintaining the integrity of the holding institution.
For now, if you’d like to catch up on some of the many online image resources available online, as well as links to a recent JISC conference on learning in a digital age take a look at the latest post on The Shakespeare blog. Most of the resources don’t relate directly to Shakespeare but that doesn’t mean that creative teachers won’t find inspiration for their lesson-planning among the riches on offer.
From Sarah Olive, Lecturer in English in Education, University of York:
In my last article for Alluvium, I presented a rationale for using Lady Gaga to teach Shakespeare, along with a Powerpoint teaching resource. Sheffield Children’s Festival offered a unique chance to observe the transmission and contestation of cultural values around Shakespeare at an informal and diversely-attended occasion. In the Winter Gardens, on July 7, a group of twenty-four university researchers, from a range of disciplines, gathered to share their research with the general public. For a fuller report visit <http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/news/nr/box-ideas-discover-children-learn-sheffield-1.193656>. I had planned two activities to involve the events’ visitors. Marker pens and post-it notes were handed out to those able to write so that they could record which pop artists they would like to see featured in the classroom and why – an acknowledgement that Gaga’s cultural currency is finite, and that the principle of pairing figures from popular culture with Early Modern drama is more important than the choice of individuals. Additionally, everyone passing by was invited to vote for the figure they would most like to see in the classroom, Gaga or Shakespeare. This was done by casting beads into two ‘ballot boxes’ decorated with their faces.
Any attempt at quantitative analysis of the results would be futile: some people were so enthusiastic that they voted multiple times; so committed that they meddled with the vote of a parent or sibling who shared a different view; or so passionate that they threw fistfuls of beads in at one go. More useful are efforts to characterise the voting patterns by demographic: most (but not all) adults voted for Shakespeare; the children’s votes were reasonably equally split, though with younger children less familiar with either figure, girls overwhelmingly voted for Gaga, boys for Shakespeare – suggesting that gender played a key role in their decision-making. Adults who did not vote for Shakespeare tended to comment on difficult experiences with him at school or university. Children who liked Shakespeare, on further investigation, tended to be involved in drama at or outside of school, so had some knowledge of his works and aspirations to play in them. Alternatively, they commented on the inspirational qualities of a teacher influencing their preference for Shakespeare. These patterns articulate the considerable role institutions have in shaping cultural values for (or against) Shakespeare. Discussion of his phenomenon can be found in existing literature including Graham Holderness’ The Shakespeare Myth, Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield’s Political Shakespeare and, most recently, a dedicated issue of Shakespeare Survey (64) on Shakespeare as a cultural catalyst. Meanwhile, Jerome Bruner, an educational psychologist, offers wide-ranging evidence of the ways in which culture shapes education.
However, like Pierre Bourdieu and his many successors, I want to focus here on the role which family plays in determining the children’s cultural values. Participating in the activity described, often, a parent would take the lead in establishing a family identity or family values, with the aim that the child would adhere to those in making their choice. One woman commented as her teenage son voted (for Shakespeare): ‘We don’t like Lady Gaga in our family’, a thinly-veiled effort to ensure her son, in spite of any individual views he might have held, conformed to the family ‘project’. Others commented in approving retrospect on their child’s choice. For example, after an infant voted for Shakespeare, I commented on her age (or lack thereof) to which her mother replied: ‘that’s having a Mum who’s a teacher’. Her response reveals a conception of the privileged access to cultural and educational capital for children of parents’ in such careers, and an expectation on the parent’s part that her child will reflect and uphold her mother’s professional values. Another permutation in interactions was that a parent would offer a gentle reprimand if their child failed to uphold the family project, of acculturation and education: for instance, saying ‘We’ve got a Shakespeare book, haven’t we. I’d’ve thought you’d’ve gone for Shakespeare’.
In other families, there was opportunity for the individual family member’s values and Shakespeare’s worth to be contested as the decision was being made. On each occasion I witnessed this, it took the form of an older/more powerful family member asserting Shakespeare’s greatness: an older sister told her younger sister, ‘He’s written loads and what’s she done except sit on the beach in a bikini'; a grandma explained to her grandson, ‘She’s a pop star, he’s a big author’. In both cases, the younger family member was not conscious of having encountered Shakespeare elsewhere. As such, they were being conditioned into privileging him on a cultural hierarchy over another candidate with whom they were familiar, before ever experiencing a performance or text of his work. This is a common element of much childrearing: children are constantly told what is good or bad for them and are expected to accept this on trust, without empirical experience: ‘eat your carrots, they’re good for your eyes’, ‘don’t touch that, it’s hot’. Such instruction plays a valuable part in children’s health and well-being. What interests me here is the extension of its application to culture, hardly, one might think, a matter of life or death. Yet Shakespeare is seemingly constructed as a player in an aspirational, cultural/educational survival of the fittest: the sooner you know him and acknowledge his superiority, the better your future. Nonetheless, the targets of this instruction frequently contested the assertions they were subject to, gleefully throwing their bead into Gaga’s box. Occasionally, such interference was explicitly resisted as resulting in a kind of cheating, or untruthfulness – one boy commented, ‘Mu-um, you have to go with what you know’. In addition to this, I noticed one child engaging in a struggle with a parent (not to mention the curriculum) over the relative value of different cultural forms: Mum: ‘He wrote all those plays‘, Daughter: ‘She’s a really good singer‘. For this girl, a shelf full of plays did not trump vocal skill.
Adults tended to justify their vote more than children. This might be explained by their generally greater confidence, articulateness, and sense of responsibility (to be a good parent, good citizen, good example). One girl, however, taking her time weighing up the pros and cons of Shakespeare and Gaga voiced her opinion that Shakespeare’s ‘making up lies’ about Richard III’s physique and murder of the princes in the Tower was going against him. She was already having a sophisticated internal dialogue about these artists’ relative merits, and being given space to do so. Interestingly, she eventually voted by placing one bead in each of the boxes, affirming their equal value in her eyes. You could argue that I should have held her to a rule of one vote only, forced her to make a choice – but, out of all the people I encountered that day, she alone had hit on the argument that both their creativities should be celebrated in our culture and education system. She demonstrated a belief that there is room in the classroom for both traditional and emergent icons, plays and popular music.
As anecdotal and ungeneralisable as this data is, the exercise highlighted for me the vital role of the family in shaping the value of Shakespeare, before peers, external institutions and the media play their part. The majority of research on Shakespeare in education and society starts with school-age children, although there is work that looks at ways in which children are engaged with Shakespeare by fiction and theatre. This includes Naomi Miller’s edited collection Reimagining Shakespeare for Children and Young Adults, Joe Winston and Miles Tandy’s Beginning Shakespeare 4-11 and the RSC and Oily Cart’s 2012 production of The Winter’s Tale/In a pickle for toddlers. Elsewhere, the formative influence of the family has been analysed in relation to arenas ranging from literacy (Denny Taylor and Catherine Dorsey-Gaines’s Growing up Literate) to diet (Peter Jackson’s Changing Families, Changing Foods). Sociology, education and childhood studies offer fruitful models for future explorations of the influence of the family on children’s conceptions of Shakespeare. I would certainly consider setting such a topic for an undergraduate dissertation for my programme (the B.A. English in Education) next year.
Bruner, J. The Culture of Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1997.
Dollimore, J. and A. Sinfield (eds). Political Shakespeare: new essays in cultural materialism. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1985.
Holderness, G. (ed). The Shakespeare Myth. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1988.
Holland, P. (ed). Shakespeare Survey 64. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011.
Miller, N. (ed). Reimagining Shakespeare for Children and Young Adults. London: Routledge, 2003.
Jackson, P. (ed). Changing Families, Changing Foods. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
Taylor, D. and C. Dorsey-Gaines. Growing up Literate. London: Heinemann, 1988.
Winston, J. and M. Tandy. Beginning Shakespeare 4-11. London: Routledge, 2012.
‘All our knowledge has its origin in our perceptions’ – Teaching Shakespeare at an all-boys comprehensive, post 1
So, here begins the diary of my experiences teaching Shakespeare in an all-boys secondary school. After studying an MA in Renaissance Literature, completing a dissertation on Shakespeare in education, and researching how Shakespeare is taught around the world for the Royal Shakespeare Company, I was ready to start putting some of my ideas about engaging young people with Shakespeare into practice.
My class are key stage three, aged 12-13, and mixed ability. The school is in a deprived area of Manchester with a large Asian population; I would estimate around 80% of the students are of south Asian origin. It is a secular state school for boys aged 11-16.
The diversity of ethnic origins, religions, and languages are the major challenges faced by the school, along with the often deprived backgrounds of the students. My English class are a drop in this ocean.
What I’ve been testing out with them over the past fortnight, is whether studying Shakespeare through utilising a variety of skills, or ‘intelligences’ as Gardner would put it, will benefit their engagement and understanding of the text. Obviously, all kids, as all people, are talented at different things. In theory, if you can offer ways into a complex text through using their best ‘intelligences’, each student will gain some comprehension and confidence with its meaning. In using the term ‘intelligences’, I do not mean putting the individual in their V/A/K box, but allowing kids to develop as many ‘intelligences’ as they can in order to become literate with the text. The VAK test – to determine whether the student is a visual, auditory, or kinaesthetic learner – focuses, I think, a bit too much on finding the learner’s preference of learning style and developing only that one preference. In doing so, it can potentially cause a barrier to the opportunity for each learning style to influence the other. For instance, a visual learner does not learn only by what they see – what they hear and what they do inevitably informs it. This is what the lessons I have been running aim to do: allow each kid to develop their understanding of literature through using all of these ways of learning together in one project.
I’ve been teaching Macbeth through a series of different projects leading up to the final assessment. The class have made a performance and film of the ‘is this a dagger I see before me’ soliloquy, and will be making a Powerpoint presentation to give the class that demonstrates their choices in adaptation. We have read the text together, watched Rupert Goold’s 2009 adaptation, analysed both, and looked at a variety of other adaptations of Macbeth on TV and film.
The mix of activities draws on those which are typically used English, Drama, and Media Studies classes. Each subject demands a slightly different set of skills, and begets a different way of looking at the text. Using Gardner’s breakdown of intelligences, or ‘ways in which we understand the world’ for clarity, by incorporating Drama and Media within English teaching allows students to learn the text through:
language, spatial representation, […] musical thinking, the use of the body to solve problems or to make things, an understanding of other individuals, and an understanding of [self].
Every intelligence is used except logical mathematical analysis. I would also argue that in a media-centred world young people also form an understanding through images. Below is a table of which intelligences are developed in each subject:
|English||Language, understanding of other individuals, understanding of self|
|Drama||Language, spatial representation, musical thinking, use of the body to solve problems and make things, understanding of other individuals, understanding of self|
|Media||Language, spatial representation, musical thinking, images, use of the body to solve problems and make things, understanding of individuals, understanding of self|
The core these subjects arguably share is the understanding of self and others through various modes of representation. It is to have emotional intelligence, to be literate in feeling and how to represent/ express it. Together, they can be used as different ways of perceiving the same thing, and in this case, the thing is Shakespeare.
Most importantly, using this range of creative media theoretically allows for a range of creative perspectives on the source text. Looking at the text as an adaptation allows students to own the text, and to develop their personal view of it.
Today, we made the film. There were 5 groups, each with a different sentence or two from the ‘is this a dagger I see before me’ soliloquy. Each student had to memorize the line, and perform it in a tone that was different from everyone else in their group. The resulting drama was a range of Macbeths; some angry, some confused, some melancholy, some stressed, some cold, some panicked (because they’d forgotten their lines: ‘is this a dagger I see before me, er… or not?’). They all performed and filmed in front of the class. Later this week, I will show them the footage to edit and then analyse (if I can organise it around school regulations, I will post their film on here). After doing so, the class will have begun to explore and experience a range of ways Shakespeare can be presented and perceived. We will subsequently be closer to gauging if, as Leonardo da Vinci put it, ‘all our knowledge has its origin in our perceptions’.
 Howard Gardner, The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach, (New York, BasicBooks: 1991), p. 12.
Brian Lighthill explores ways of breaking down student resistance to compulsory Shakespeare in the curriculum…
To be honest, breaking down student apathy towards all things Shakespeare doesn’t always come easily. There are always going to be students who just balk at the mere mention of Shakespeare. They might not know much about him – but they are ‘dead sure he is going to be boring, like…’ The teacher’s objective is, in my opinion, very simple – we just have to make the old Bard ‘relevant’. We just have to show that the fictional issues Will was going on about are actually relevant to the students’ real life-world.
After three years of collaborative research with the teachers and students in a ‘challenging’ school in Warwickshire I developed a modus operandi which can be broken down into three stages:
First, using an interactive storytelling method based on Joe Winston and the RSC’s ‘Shakespeare Whoosh’* I tell a Shakespearean ‘story’ – not the text, just the story – and get the students to help enact it, so that freed from the barriers engendered by archaic language the students get a good idea of the journey the characters take. (An aside: Why do I say ‘freed from archaic language?’ In a survey conducted for the RSC Learning department, in answer to the question, ‘do you find Shakespeare difficult to understand’, 49% said ‘yes’, 28% said they found it ‘OK’, and 22% were non-committal. So, a clear majority found ‘the language’ challenging.)
*The RSC Tool Kit for Teachers (Methuen: 2012) defines the ‘Whoosh’ as ‘a quick, physical, participatory telling of a story that uses text and action to establish consensual understanding and invite participants to play.’ (p.300)
In stage two, I set the students conundrums arising from the story. Now, what is interesting about the ‘Whoosh’ is the amount of knowledge the students retain. Recently, weeks after actually telling the ‘Whoosh’ of the whole of Romeo and Juliet, in a school in Oxfordshire, I was discussing with a cohort of Year 7 students (11-12 year old) the following conundrum, ‘Now, who is to blame for the fact that Romeo and Juliet felt the need to marry in secret?’ (Another aside: I was starting to explore the heady philosophical ideas of ‘free-will’ and ‘independent thinking’ with these students – but wanted them to arrive at those concepts themselves.)
What delighted me was that the students were very knowledgeable about the names of the characters they blamed and were able to suggest, ‘the Parents, Tybalt, the Nurse, Romeo, Sampson, Friar Lawrence, Juliet, the Ancestors etc.’ as being ‘to blame’. In further small group, and then whole class sharing, the students were also able to come up with detailed reasons, based on their knowledge of the ‘Whoosh’, as to why they blamed their chosen character which finally boiled down to, ‘because the parents did not let Romeo and Juliet make their own decisions about who they want to marry – it is their decision’.
And finally I turn the conundrums onto the students’ own lives by asking ‘Should you always obey your parents?’ ‘Should we always do what our peers do?’ ‘We’ve discussed the choices Romeo and Juliet had, now – what choices do you have in your lives?’
Shakespeare’s texts are beautiful, exquisite, sublime – but the key to breaking down the students’ resistance to all things Shakespearean is proving relevance. But as Skrebels * wrote, ‘as beautiful and valuable as objects in a glass case may be, they are still detritus of the past. In preserving them we render them fixed and lifeless, and leave to chance the possible impact they may have on people’s lives’. I’m pleased to note that teacher response to my approach to the Bard has been more on the lines of ‘…get that 400 year old object out of the glass case and play with it’: ‘What you did, Brian, was demystify and make Shakespeare accessible, make Shakespeare someone they knew… relevant to their lives – so then doing it in English wasn’t a problem. They all think Shakespeare is their “buddy”.’
*P. Skrebels, ‘Transhistorizing Much Ado About Nothing. Finding a place for Shakespeare’s work in the postmodern world’ in R. E. Salomone and J. E. Davis (eds.) Teaching Shakespeare into the Twenty-First Century (Ohio University Press: 1997)
After initial resistance to anything Shakespearean, one ‘lippy’ 11 year old student smiled at me on her way out of the classroom and said, ‘Thanks Brian, that lesson was fun.’ (Final aside: that was after the fourth lesson with her.)
At the recent World Together conference in London I gave a presentation at the ‘Symposium’. I explored this question, ‘Should Shakespeare studies have a place in the curriculum – or is it just a load of “Bardolatry”?’ My conclusion was, “yes” and (a cautious) “yes”.’
Shakespeare study should continue to have a place in the curriculum because his ‘productions’ (in the ‘Marxist’ sense) provide powerful pedagogic tools for deep and meaningful exploration of issues which are relevant to young learners. And, in response to the second part of my question I answer, ‘yes…but a “cautious yes” ‘because there is a danger that the ‘secular religion’ of Bardolatry might well alienate young learners from his intrinsic worth.
So…let’s take the ‘Bardolatry out of the Bard’ – and ‘Make Will their Buddy’ – not our (we educationalists’) ‘icon’.
Brian Lighthill’s book, Working with Will – 30 Lesson Plans for English and Personal and Social Education Teachers, has just been published by First and Best in Education and is available from Amazon.