Brian Lighthill explores ways of breaking down student resistance to compulsory Shakespeare in the curriculum…

Posted December 4th, 2012 by James Stredder and filed in Pedagogy, Teaching approaches and techniques

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.


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