A Summer School in Italy to inspire teachers, students and Shakespeare enthusiasts
James Stredder finds a wealth of exciting approaches to teaching the plays and poems in plans for the ‘Shakespeare in Italy Summer School’, which will take place in Urbino from the 12th to the 26th July and which will feature three leading Shakespearian directors and performers, Bill Alexander, Michael Pennington and Martin Best. The careers of each include many years of work with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Bill Alexander and Michael Pennington will lead work on ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’, respectively, and Martin Best will perform his lecture-recital, ‘Shakespeare’s Music Hall’ – and teach a seminar on the Sonnets. The tutor for the third ‘Italian’ play on this year’s programme, Much Ado About Nothing’, will be confirmed in the near future.
Whether as teachers or students, we know how important it is that our subject is alive and active in our imaginations. Whenever we speak Shakespeare ‘aloud’, or read him in the theatre of the mind, our creative imaginations allow us to experience this living quality, but we also experience it in a host of other ways – through performance, for example, whether in the workshop, rehearsal room, theatre, cinema or concert hall, and through contextual knowledge of various kinds. Both performance and contextual knowledge feature in the teaching approaches taken by the Summer School and its tutors. Bill Alexander and Michael Pennington will share their extensive experience of working on a wide range of highly successful productions, and Martin Best will offer a fascinating case-study of the understanding that work on Shakespeare’s music, and the culture and music of the Italian Renaissance, can bring to the texts.
The Summer School brings together practitioners whose working lives have been devoted to performance, especially to realisation of the works of Shakespeare, in the theatre and in the concert hall. Their teaching sessions will focus on lively and creative approaches to Shakespearean texts (with the option for students of participating actively or of observing the ways in which performance evolves), but they will also set out to discover what part Italy and ‘the Italian context’ play in the appreciation and understanding of Shakespeare.
Classical history and civilization, and contemporary Renaissance Italy, had a huge influence on the life and culture of Shakespeare’s England. Shakespeare himself was one of numerous playwrights and poets whose work shows just how extensive this influence was, but perhaps we do not always feel and understand it with our creative imaginations, as we work on texts. What does it mean that Shakespeare is ‘a man of the Renaissance’ and how might ‘the Italian legacy’ come to life in one’s reading of the plays? It’s a brilliant idea to invite outstanding Shakespearean artists to consider these questions, as they share their professional knowledge and personal working methods in a study of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and three of his ‘Italian’ plays. This is what a new theatre company, Shakespeare in Italy, set up early in 2013 by English actors Julian Curry and Mary Chater, in association with Italian theatre manager Sandro Pascucci has planned for its 2014 summer school in the World Heritage Site of Urbino, one of the great Italian cities of the Renaissance. The centrepiece of Urbino is the early 15th Century Palazzo Ducale, the fabulous creation of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino from 1444 to 1482. Watch this short video, about Urbino’s Renaissance origins, to be reminded of the world of the Italian princes, dukes and courtiers imagined so frequently in Early Modern English drama. Summer School classes will be held in the University of Urbino (founded 1506) and there will be plenty of time for art, music, sight-seeing and relaxation in this wonderful place. Mary Chater, who has performed frequently with the RSC and the NT, and is also a teacher and a Blue Badge Guide, will lead a varied programme of cultural events in and around the city. The region’s historic theatres are gems of period design & architecture. There are plans for the Summer School to visit some of them – and to rehearse scenes onstage.
BILL ALEXANDER will be teaching The Merchant of Venice, which he directed at Stratford in 1987, with Anthony Sher as Shylock. Bill Alexander has directed a great number of the plays, to widespread acclaim. He was Resident, and then Associate Director, at the RSC, from 1977 to 1992 and he continued to direct Shakespeare as part of his work as Artistic Director of the Birmingham Rep, from 1992 to 2001. In 2004/5 he returned to the RSC to direct David Bradley in Titus Andronicus and Corin Redgrave in King Lear. His most recent Shakespeare was a production of Othello in 2012, for NWCTC in Portland, Oregon. I asked him to comment on the approach he would be taking at the Summer School. He began by saying that he will work with the class, as if they are ‘the cast, stage management and design team all rolled into one’. Though drawing on his extensive study of the play, and his experience of directing it, he will not set out with fixed ideas, but, as in the theatre, will ‘see where the work takes us’.
BA: I think what I’ll be trying to do over my three days is take the participants through a sort of speeded up version of the rehearsal process. I shall begin by discussing the play – its text, social/historical context, characters, place in the canon, performance history and so on.
He then plans to go on to ‘the table work of the first week or so of production.’
BA: This will involve analysis of character and meaning, gradually leading to movement and the evolution of the physical side of the production. There will be discussion of topics raised, on the relationship of the group to the play, the unique problems the text raises, the question of casting and the relationship of performers to the text and so on – for instance I’d like to explore what happens when modern dress and Renaissance thought meet -also the chemistry between highly poetic language and modern Freudian notions of character and sub-text. Really I suppose, it’s all about that unique Shakespearean meeting place between Naturalism and Magic; or realism and trickery!
To achieve a common experience of the text, he plans ‘a collective slow reading of the play, with scene by scene discussion and constant changing of roles’. This will be followed by close readings and analysis of selected scenes (with discussion of issues of staging, movement and stage formats) – and workshop staging of the scenes. There will be workshops on: ‘Movement and Text’ and ‘Character: Shakespeare to Chekhov, Magic to Method’. Finally, he will illustrate differences of directorial technique, by giving a master-class on Antonio’s first speech, with Summer School Director Julian Curry, who played Antonio in Greg Doran’s 1997 production for the RSC. On one evening during the three-day study, a film version of the play will be screened.
MICHAEL PENNINGTON, who played Mercutio in Trevor Nunn’s production for the RSC back in 1976, will be teaching Romeo and Juliet. Michael has played numerous Shakepearean roles, including Hamlet, Timon of Athens, Angelo and Berowne for the RSC and Coriolanus, Macbeth, Leontes, Prince Hal/Henry V and Richard II for The English Shakespeare Company, which he co-founded with Michael Bogdanov in 1986. Most recently he played Antony at Chichester (2012) and John of Gaunt for the RSC (2013), getting outstanding reviews for both. Michael’s work as a director includes productions of Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as two celebrated one-man shows, Anton Chekhov and Sweet William. If you go to the personal website of Michael Pennington and click on ‘One Man Shows’, you can watch video excerpts from both.
At the moment, Michael is rehearsing in New York. (No sooner had he finished the London run of Richard II at the Barbican, before Christmas, than he turned his mind to playing the title role in King Lear for Theatre for a New Audience –opening in March). Last week he wrote to me to say that he is very much looking forward to Urbino. He plans to spend time with Summer School participants seeking out and clarifying the ‘special ambience’ of Romeo and Juliet. Like Bill Alexander, in his study of The Merchant, this will be a process of discovery. He will work key scenes with the class and then, as a climax to his three days teaching, he plans a ‘showcase’ to celebrate students’ work. Participants can expect special attention to the verse, including personal demonstrations from one of the great contemporary speakers of Shakespeare. They can also expect attention to the fascinating question of the intricate relationship between Shakespeare’s biography and his art, about which Michael Pennington writes with great expertise in Sweet William (Nick Hern Books: 2012). Sweet William is also very much an actor’s book. His seven pages of commentary on the way the narrative of Romeo and Juliet unfolds, for example, is an imaginative telling, pointing up the knowledge and the awareness, the ‘all-round’ vision, actors must have if their playing is to live onstage and captivate their audience. Consider his discussion of the conditions in which the love of Romeo and Juliet attempts to survive:
MP: Since they have no internal faultline, the lovers have eventually to be defeated by a Shakespearian accident – a messenger unable to deliver a letter because of a suspected epidemic. And their rapture has always to compete with a mocking world, its cadences lapping against the ugly outcrops of Capulet and Tybalt, Mercutio’s obsessive debunking of romance and the ‘petit guignol’ Apothecary, ‘in tattered weeds, with overwhelming brows’, who sells Romeo his poison. The figure of the Nurse grounds much of the action in a day-to-day bustle of rope ladders and bad news, not to mention the need to rest her back before delivering her urgent messages. These are the cross-rhythms against which love has to hold its tempo. (Sweet William, p.154)
So how does Michael Pennington plan to work on Romeo and Juliet ? In an interview on acting and directing some years ago, he was asked about his approach to Shakespeare’s texts.
MP: To some extent, it depends on the director or the style I am working with. I was brought up on Shakespeare, so I fortunately have a good working knowledge of all the plays, and that is completely different from someone who might come to the material fresh. It is difficult to generalize how you approach a text. You look for the sense of it. You explore it as you would a contemporary text. Either at the same time or possibly in a secondary stage, you begin to appreciate, as you would a piece in Mozart, the structure and the form from the outside. For example, why he’s placed one word at the end of a line rather than in the middle of the line. But, of course, as with Mozart, you find very quickly that the more you pay attention to Shakespeare’s form, the more certain matters of interpretation become clear to you. The clues are actually all in the sequence of the words on the page and the order Shakespeare has chosen to put them in.
In addition to the meticulous attention to form and craft that this passage implies, Michael Pennington also brings a profoundly philosophical – and political – approach to the text. Summer School participants can expect some lively debate.
MP: The English Shakespeare Company’s work was based on a conviction that everything in Shakespeare, however beautiful, is full of argumentation, and every line a point of view in a transfixing debate. So Romeo and Juliet is not just a beautiful love story but a bold question about whether love can change the world. (Sweet William, p.154)
MARTIN BEST, associated for over 30 years with the Royal Shakespeare Company, as actor-singer, practical musician, composer and devisor of recital programmes, brings musical scholarship and an international reputation, to the Summer School in Urbino. His biography for the RSC’s 2005 revival of John Barton’s The Hollow Crown, for which he compiled and arranged the music, opens: ‘Martin Best is acknowledged as one of the world’s outstanding performers of ancient songs and ballads; for which the International Edison Award Committee dubbed him “the first great contemporary troubadour”.’
Martin’s contribution to the summer school will be threefold: he will perform his lecture-recital, Shakespeare’s Music Hall, he will teach a seminar on the Sonnets and he will contribute to Bill Alexander’s work on The Merchant of Venice. Recently I wrote to Martin, asking him to comment on the connection between his work as a musician, man of the theatre and educationist, and the teaching approaches he plans to take in Urbino.
MB: Well, when I was with the RSC performing the singing/acting parts in the plays and creating the recital programmes and composing for them and for main house productions, I sucked in what was going on around me all the time, from directors, actors (especially. Peggy Ashcroft) and composers like Guy Woolfenden. I did an awful lot of learning by doing and by osmosis, and because I was already a student of literature, it stuck. Working with Peter Brook on A Midsummer Night’s Dream was seminal, in that it showed me the ‘relevance’ of Shakespeare to one’s life. The whole experience opened up my thinking on Imagination. (I will build that into the sonnet workshop). The main thing I bring with me is a real understanding of Renaissance musical theory, by which music is not only something heard, but also something perceived or sensed through what Richard II calls ‘the music of men’s lives’. Baldassare Castiglione, for example, who lived in Urbino, shows how the life of the courtier or gentle-man is essentially a set of behaviours and speech habits that reflect what we might call cosmic harmony, but which he would have just called ‘musica’.
Martin’s mention of Castiglione, who visited England in 1506, and wrote Il Libro del Cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier) between 1508 and 1518, furnishes an example of the kind of way that the Italian Summer School will deepen and enliven the knowledge and experience of those attending the course in Urbino. Castiglione’s book, which was translated into English by Sir Thomas Hoby in 1561, exerted a strong influence on the courtly ideals of Elizabeth’s reign. The ‘merry war’ of Beatrice and Benedick, in Much Ado About Nothing, parallels a similar display of wit in Castiglione’s book.
It is a great bonus for the Summer School that Martin Best, an outstanding performer and scholar of Renaissance music, should place Shakespeare at the centre of his artistic and intellectual life. In fact, his devotion to Shakespeare goes way beyond that:
MB: I can say that if Shakespeare is in my life and I in his, then life is complete. This is partly because of the companionship that was so much part of my life when I was in the RSC from 1964 to about 2006. My wife and I knew Stanley Wells in the early days of his career, before he became a professor and Director of the Shakespeare Institute. When we did productions in the RSC, we worked as a company, often spending whole nights talking about the meaning of lines, living with them, so that we could make up our own blank verse and play with his imagery. When, for example, Shakespeare references come up in ‘Times’ leaders, this means one has a special reference point that makes one’s whole life richer. The (technical) process of creation is something that is always close to the surface with Shakespeare, so that he is never far away from one’s mind and heart. Then there are things that only he can say. Plus there are the things that only he can do : he is so incredibly clever, and he brings off poetic coups, as in Sonnet 18,‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’, which he knows is brilliant and which he knows will endure for all time. He was a mould-breaker. And then, like Bach and Mozart, he had a direct line to what it is to be human. So when you are working with others who really love and know Shakespeare, you are part of a magic circle, which is why the Summer School staff want to come to Urbino, and learn and be happy together, in each other’s company, again – and in his. And we want to invite the participants to join us and share in the greatest gift that you can have – a greater intimacy with the man and his work.
Martin’s lecture-recital is set to be a highlight of the Summer School. I asked him what it will include and if students will have the opportunity to participate in some way.
MB: ‘Shakespeare’s Music Hall’ will comprise key musical moments from the plays and sonnets, strung together with a spoken narrative, with the audience and an onstage group of attendees providing the music of the spheres, the animals and birds and sea nymphs in Ariel’s songs, and the sounds of discord in Troilus and Cressida and Richard II. It will be a journey through these moments, framed by the discovery of harmony, by Pythagoras, and the Platonic universe pre-Galileo. I also might try to work in a breaking lute as well to illustrate the collapse of an old musical order and the beginning of a new one marked, in Twelfth Night, by Malvolio’s call for its destruction (‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you’). The programme is designed to enrich participants’ understanding of what music meant to a Renaissance person, and how that meaning spread into every aspect of life. Participants will be inspired by hearing familiar texts in the arresting ways that Shakespeare intended, and they’ll have the chance to join in and help create the music (this part is not compulsory!) They will discover that the ‘music of the Spheres’ was conveyed not only in music, but in verse, in action and in emotion, and they will experience how Shakespeare depicts the fading of this idea as the modern world encroaches, leaving behind a gap in our understanding of the world, that we still haven’t filled. This is a performance replete with lute, love and song!
In his Sonnets Seminar, Martin will suggest how to interpret and speak some of the most famous, and some of the lesser known sonnets in the canon. Participants will learn about the origins of the sonnets in medieval songs, and how Petrarch, Chaucer and Dante, paved the way for these extraordinary works. They will come away with a new understanding of the musical-poetical structure of the sonnets, of Shakespeare’s virtuosity, and of how to embody the poems in their own speaking, so that they can be experienced more deeply as they are read. They will also learn how to craft the physical techniques of performance – voice, rhythm, clarity and emotion – so as to realise their impact in their own, personal ways. When I asked Martin to elaborate on the way he plans to work on the Sonnets, he commented:
MB: I’d like to introduce participants to the two main themes of the sonnets: erotic love and the music of words. These are held together by Shakespeare’s virtuosity, which of course is contained in the originality of his approach and the way he bends the rules and makes his own. ‘What is he up to?’ we can ask. So we’ll examine some well known, and perhaps lesser known sonnets, and I’m hoping that we can do all our learning and exploring via people being brave and having a go at performing them, by letting the words ‘inhabit’ their own speech. We’ll look at technique – use of voice, breath, tone, emphasis; I hope to help people to read the sonnets in more depth, and to speak them aloud even if they are alone, because this was usual at the time. It’s only recently that we’ve learnt to read silently. We’ll explore where it all began – with Love and the Troubadors (who were prolific in 12th & 13th Century Italy), which I’ll demonstrate by singing; we’ll look into Sidney and Petrarch (there’s clearly a special Italian link here), as Shakespeare’s precursors. So I hope to give a sense of the tradition that Shakespeare felt himself to be part of, and of his place in European prosody – this means touching on the Baiff school in Paris.
How do I hope to work? My picture is of a close and informal circle of enthusiasts in a good room working together to try and speak the sonnets with courage and knowledge. I want to impart some of the learning that I’ve been lucky enough to have been exposed to. We should also examine the ‘Platonic’ nature of Shakespeare’s love for the Young Man, and probably argue about its relation to present day sexual politics. I will use Sonnet 8,‘Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?’ to illustrate the nature of Renaissance thinking about music. I will use the lute to demonstrate, putting that into the context of musical ideas of the time, and will argue that Shakespeare was really wanting to show how words (and probably mainly his words) were a ‘new music’ that replaced the old medieval theories so beloved of academic authority.
It is plain from listening to Martin talk about his approaches to teaching Shakespeare and the music of Shakespeare’s day, that he has the true educator’s passion for sharing his own enthusiasm, knowledge and pleasure with others. He also believes in the usefulness of the Arts. He and his wife, Sue, founded the Corporate Theatre – a unique leadership education project, which brings programmes based on insights from the Performing Arts, Humanities and Psychology into large organisations. This ‘applied’ aspect to Martin’s work with Shakespeare is distinguished by his belief in the importance of philosophy. He also believes that Shakespeare can teach us all we need to know about rhetorical invention:
MB: In fact Shakespeare concentrated on rhetorical invention between about 1597 and 1602. But I think he found, in the end, that the upsurge of individuality and mutuality in love, and political ambition, made rhetoric less important, and I think this is what he lamented in the song at the end of Twelfth Night - that the world was going to be a bleaker place with the loss of a group culture of musical values, and the ascent of a group culture of personal advancement and wealth and power. So nothing changes! But, in the end, we yearn for harmoniousness, which is why the Urbino project holds so much meaning – and promise. People who come will join a group of performer-teachers who have worked together for many years, and who love nothing better than to be with, perform, talk about, teach, and learn about, Shakespeare.
For more on ‘Shakespeare in Italy’ (on both the general topic and on the Summer School) read Sylvia Morris’s recent blog. There is also a nice piece on Urbino in the Telegraph online, where the Summer School’s hotel, the Albergo San Domenico, is described as a ‘special treat’.
‘How did it help me to understand the play? Experiencing it for myself’ – Teaching Shakespeare at an all-boys comprehensive, post 3
Hello again, and happy 2013!
Here is the (very belated) follow-up post to the work on Macbeth my class did at the end of last year.
They answered the questions about the method of teaching, and how they felt the process enabled them to understand the text. Here are the results:
81% said that they felt either a 4 or 5 out 5 for confidence in their understanding of the play.
The scores for which parts of the teaching helped the most, filming, drama, and making the presentation had equal votes (27%). The combination of all exercises scored the highest (40%) and writing, unsurprisingly, trailed behind with just 7% (figures rounded).
In response to the final questions, many compared the active, creative and collaborative approach being a change from their usual English lessons:
‘other lessons are more boring because there will be less drama’
‘we don’t (usually) film’
‘we would learn it from reading from the book’
They also commented on the usefulness of group work:
‘we collaborate ideas’
‘Other’s judgement helped make my work better’
‘[working in groups] encouraged me to do better’
And on the overall process, even though at first a confusing change from their regular lesson, one student concluded that:
‘it was a better approach to teach us’
(This student is now class pet, along with the kid who said ‘our lessons are fun and interesting’).
From all of the comments on drama, film, and making things creatively, one child summed up that they thought the process was helpful because he was:
‘Experiencing it for myself’
I feel this articulates what all of the activities undertaken were aiming to give the students chance to do with the text; experiencing it in multiple ways similar to the way those making productions for the Renaissance stage would have – visually, vocally, bodily, in writing, in film, in drama, in groups, individually… There was a chance for everyone to use their strength in learning to access the play, and to own it – independently and collaboratively. They all got their predicted grades or above for the assessment, which is a sort of by-product of their understanding. I feel this was because they were allowed to explore lots of different ways of seeing and interpreting the same thing, and were helped along in this process by their mates. They were allowed to combine their strengths and to choose the terms on which they learnt. In this sense the process becomes less about Shakespeare, but about teaching kids how to learn – Shakespeare instead becomes a powerful tool in this process because of its adaptability to various media. Through seeing something in lots of different ways, the students made their own way to the meaning of the words through experiencing them.
This term for their reading assessment, they haven’t been allowed so much freedom. I now feel I’ve killed my favourite novel of all time for them with the repetition of ‘don’t forget your P-E-A boys!’ This is the technique of Point-Evidence-Analysis/ Explanation for essay writing, for those blissfully unfamiliar with what it means to pea/pee in English. They’re always complaining about the lack of film and drama, ‘when will this boring book ever end!’, ‘I don’t get the words!’, etc. However, for a written assessment that requires the knowledge of words intensely, it is difficult to justify drama and filming because they don’t directly train in written analysis…
Next week we’re beginning creative writing on Bob Dylan’s ‘Hurricane’, and filming news reports on Rubin Carter’s conviction and trial. Hopefully this will make up for weeks of reading and written analysis.
‘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.
‘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.
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
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.
What actually happened in that ‘Active Reading’ workshop at the Unlearning Shakespeare Symposium at Oxford Brookes ? James Stredder
I began with the claim that ‘active reading’ – reading at least part of the text aloud together in class – is of value for advanced readers studying Shakespeare, as well as for beginners. The argument is that physical experience of the text, through collective reading aloud (sometimes actually speaking together and sometimes reading the same words, but in one’s own time), pulls everyone present into a kind of shared dramatic production, which intensifies readers’ personal experience of the text, and that it is also motivational – its effects carry over into private reading and study. If this is so, I’d call it efficient learning.
Our first piece of text was Claudius’s speech ‘Oh my offence is rank, it smells to heaven…’ (Hamlet 3.3.36-72). All the work on this speech was about intensity, awareness of each other, sharpness of execution, timing, getting together perfectly on the words, feeling the first, visceral outpouring of the lines, their sense and dramatic direction beginning to form from the discipline of ‘first encounter’ reading exercises. I asked the class to make a tightly-packed circle with their toes and they shuffled in together, perhaps amused by the sight of feet, appearing disembodied, adjusting to the position of other feet. Then we were away, reading the first 12 lines of the speech, no leading from me or anyone else, but all together, intensely, under our breath, then ‘chewing the words’, louder, then whispered again, then stopping on a ‘cut’ hand-signal from me, memorising the cue word from which we would re-commence reading, then all looking up, away from the text, while marking the place we’d got to in the speech, making eye contact in the circle, poised to restart on my next hand-signal, hitting the return word together.
For the next section of Claudius’s speech (17 lines), we broke into three smaller circles of 10 or 11 readers, and took a line or two each (each circle working independently of the other 2 circles), ‘chiming’ cue words to keep pace and involvement (Speaker B comes in, speaking aloud in unison with Speaker A, on the last couple of words in Speaker A’s line; Speaker C then comes in, in just the same way, on the last few words of Speaker B’s line, and so on). Throughout, the whole group also accompanied all the speakers, by whispering or quietly muttering all the lines as they were spoken. Then, keeping in our groups, performing the lines, we moved freely around the room, holding onto our own group performance of the lines while the other groups moved amongst us, holding on to theirs.
In the final 9 lines of the speech, Claudius confronts his fear of despair and damnation, ‘What then? What rests?/ Try what repentance can…’ For this intense introspection (‘…oh limèd soul…’) we used Cicely Berry’s famous exercise Punctuation turns, which offers a kinaesthetic way of tracing the processes of thought, a physicalistion, through movement, of language patterns, which allows comprehension to be actually felt and internalised. We all spoke the lines aloud, but in our own time, reading ‘on the move’ amongst the others in the class, as we changed direction on the punctuation marks. We finished with an impromptu performance, repeating the section with ‘staggered starts’ (readers setting off, in turn, a word or two behind the person ahead of them), so there was an echoing diminuendo effect as each reader finished on the final line ‘All may be well.’
For our second set of exercises, all variations of Reading on the move in pairs, we took the delicious play of wit between Jaques and Orlando in Act 3, Scene iii of As You Like It (l.213, ‘I thank you for your company, but, good faith, I had as lief have been myself alone…’ to the end of the scene, ‘I am glad of your departure. Adieu, good Monsieur Melancholy.’). We used different techniques for different sections of the dialogue. First we maintained close contact with our partners as we experimented with sound levels, with one reader ‘rooted’ and the other moving, and with extending and varying the distance between us – this is a particularly interesting exercise when, as here, the room is crowded with participants. Then we took Keith Johnstone’s revelatory status work to explore the dramatic effects on dialogue of low, high, ‘balanced’ and ‘reversed’ status.
To finish, we went outside into the sunshine (it was actually a beautiful day, in this 1594 of a summer !) to work ‘environmentally’ on performance of the dialogue, in groups of six, using lawns, steps, seats and paths – the (invitingly different) levels and spaces near our workshop room. In their sixes, pairs first rehearsed, in any way they liked, and then performed their sections of dialogue, with each pair taking it in turns to perform for the other two pairs, or to be ‘audience’. Albeit on a small-group scale, this provided, for everyone – not just the ‘stars’- the incentive, and the fun, of performance.
Please comment. What do you think? Are such methods useful in your working situation? What are your favourite ways of using ‘active reading’? It would be good to hear what you think.
Note: the workshop was based on techniques I’ve written about in The North Face of Shakespeare (CUP, 2009).
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.
Continuing from the themes and issues raised by the presentations of Sarah Olive, Peter Kirwin, and I at this years BSA conference, I would like to pick up on Olive’s motive to ‘decrease perceptions of Shakespeare’s remoteness’. Listening to all of the research presented, this was evidently a shared aim in every practice for students, as all incorporated entities familiar to young people – namely, new media technology, popular culture, and current affairs – as platforms for understanding Shakespeare in their own contemporary terms.
Considering what makes Shakespeare remote, the most alienating aspect for students experienced by the majority of educators is the language. The demand for clarification of the language is so great that resources such as Sparknotes and many others, offer to ‘translate’ the text into modern English. This view of Early Modern English contributes to the perceptions of Shakespeare’s remoteness, and understandably causes anxiety for students of the plays. However, I would like to draw on a recent experience teaching The Tempest at a primary school in Manchester, where the very foreign quality of the language was the gateway into the text for those with the lowest capabilities and confidence with literacy.
Looking to recent reports by Ofsted, the demographic of students in compulsory education has broadened to include a much wider number of pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds. This is particularly true of inner-city schools such as the one which I am using to draw this experience from, where ‘over 90%’ come from ethnic minority backgrounds, and ‘over 60%’ of these ‘speak English as an additional language’. The challenge posed in literacy lessons to these students is much higher than for those pupils with English as their primary language, and these difficulties can be seen when comparing the assessment scores of these two groups, not only in literacy, but often across the curriculum.
Before beginning teaching, the challenges facing students in literacy was explained to me by their teachers. The expectation of all students, particularly those learning English as a second language, was generally low. Their comprehension of English was limited and their confidence with language and verbal expression was sparse. My expectations of these students therefore, were set up to be minimal.
However, once teaching began on The Tempest, these students showed capabilities with language far beyond what their teachers or I expected of them.
The universal initial reaction to Shakespeare was hostile. Showing a quote on the board, I asked the class ‘Who finds this difficult to understand?’ – every single hand went up. When asked why, one student volunteered: ‘it’s like a different language’, a view which all of the students concurred with. Once this was acknowledged, we set about ‘translating’ the lines as a class. The communal action of translating, which many students were used to doing, put every student in a position of ambiguity with the text. This meant that everyone was guessing, not knowing, the meaning of words. The effect of this was universally confidence-inducing. Those students who were often intimidated in literacy lessons were now on a similar level as those whose first language was English.
After speaking and analysing the lines together as a class, the group were split into pairs with various sections of an exchange between Prospero and Caliban. They were to rehearse these lines and perform them to the rest of the class. Whilst observing their work together, there were many instances where those students learning English as a second language were explaining the lines to those learning English as their first language. Their familiarity with the process of translation, made them more confident guessers, and therefore more successful interpreters of the text, precisely because they were less concerned about being wrong. The confidence this gave these students was evident in their empowered performances of Prospero and Caliban. After these performances, the students explained the meaning of their lines, how they thought the characters felt, and why. Each student’s pride in being able to do so was evident.
In this instance the language, in its remoteness, made Shakespeare universal. Being safe in the knowledge that every student – no matter what their ability – will find the language difficult, puts the class on a level playing field. This attitude means that the class are more confident in venturing opinions, and the lesson begets a wider range of creative analysis with heightened engagement with the text. With the challenges facing students today, coming from such a wide range of cultural backgrounds, language abilities, and economic circumstances, it is arguable that Shakespeare, in its universally alien nature, is something which can be worked extremely effectively to every student’s advantage in literacy learning.