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 four leading Shakespearian directors and performers, Josie Lawrence, Bill Alexander, Michael Pennington and Martin Best. All are passionate about Shakespeare and all have worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company – three of them having spent substantial parts of their careers with the RSC. Josie Lawrence will lead work on ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, Bill Alexander on ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and Michael Pennington on ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Martin Best will perform his lecture-recital, ‘Shakespeare’s Music Hall’ – and teach a seminar on the Sonnets.
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. Josie Lawrence, 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.
JOSIE LAWRENCE is particularly well-qualified to be teaching the sessions on Much Ado About Nothing, having played both leading roles, possibly the only actress in the world to have done this. She starred as Beatrice at the Manchester Royal Exchange, for which she won the Manchester Evening News award for Best Actress, and as Benedick in the all-female production at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2004. For the RSC, Josie Lawrence played Katharine in Gail Edwards’s 1995 production of The Taming of the Shrew, receiving a Dame Peggy Ashcroft award for Best Actress. She is also a talented singer (take a look at this clip of her singing Mozart with Lesley Garrett) and a popular comedian and television personality. She is especially well known for her enormously inventive and entertaining work over 18 years with the improvisational troupe, The Comedy Store Players; for her appearances in the Channel Four tv series Whose Line Is It Anyway?; and, more recently, for playing Manda Best in the BBC’s EastEnders. But on a number of occasions she has made her unbounded enthusiasm for Shakespeare very clear. In an interview in 2001 with Terri Paddock, for instance, when she was starring in The King and I at the London Palladium, she named Shakespeare as her favourite playwright and Hamlet as the role she would most like to play. Asked about the highlight of her career, she replied ‘reading a sonnet during Shakespeare’s birthday celebrations at the church in Stratford-upon-Avon.’
Conference participants can be sure that Josie Lawrence will bring a wide and very stimulating range of approaches to her teaching. In a recent email to me, she wrote of her excitement about the Summer School and her special affection for Much Ado:
I adore this play for its great wit, complex relationships and that wonderful dip into darkness. I’ll be exploring all these factors during our three days together in beautiful Italy. We will obviously be concentrating on Shakespeare’s text – but expect a little improvising to!
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’.
Cathleen McKague – ‘The Sonnet Man: Hip Hop Shakespeare Fusion’—Devon Glover’s Interactive and Educative Performance
‘On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me…a Shakespearean rapper from NYC?’ Such was the holiday treat enjoyed by students, staff, graduates, and guests at The Shakespeare Institute’s most recent Christmas party, held in the school’s Hall in Stratford-Upon-Avon on Thursday 12 December, 2013. We were delighted to welcome Devon Glover, ‘The Sonnet Man’, a musical and spoken word performer from New York City who presented his ‘Hip Hop Shakespeare Fusion’ as a part of the evening’s entertainment. Glover’s show, conceived and produced by Broadway playwright Arje Shaw and in association with Jones Street productions, combines a selection of Shakespeare’s sonnets in their original form with music and rap ‘interpretations’ of the lyrics.
Though based in New York, Glover has taken his production to various elementary and middle schools, drama clubs, and colleges and universities (among other venues) across several continents. He has featured his act on The Today Show in the USA and will be performing at the prestigious Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, Canada from 10-12 July 2014. Glover’s website maintains that his production aims are to introduce students and youths to classical literature—namely, Shakespeare’s sonnets, both those found within his plays and those taken from his collection of what Francis Meres deems his ‘sugred Sonnets’, first published in 1609—using methods that will increase creativity and enthusiasm, while also establishing foundations for an ‘appreciation of the arts’.[i]
If his performance on the 12th of December was any indication, Glover is more than capable of meeting these aims. His fresh, engaging perspective on the sonnets and his inclusion of audience members into the production seem potent tools for capturing the hearts and minds of young learners. In using hip hop and r & b to gloss what might at first seem difficult material, Glover immediately makes Shakespeare easily understandable and culturally relevant to today’s youth…and also enjoyable for those of us who are adults! Personally, I would use and recommend his CD without hesitation as a component of poetry units in secondary and later elementary classrooms.
More information on ‘The Sonnet Man’ can be found at the following website:
[i] Francis Meres, Palladis Tamia. Wits Treasvry Being the Second part of Wits Common wealth. By Francis Meres Maister of Artes of both Vniuersities. Viuitur ingenio, cætera mortis erunt (London: Cuthbert Burbie, 1598) Early English Books Online, web, 12 January 2014, Oo1v; The Sonnet Man, Jones Street Productions, n.d., web, 12 January 2014.
Please enjoy the attached free copy of the 4th issue of’Teaching Shakespeare’, published twice a year by the British Shakespeare Association and edited by Dr Sarah Olive. Just click and download the pdf below to read it
Taking ‘Heritage’ as its theme, this issue features an interview with practitioner Ben Crystal, articles by teachers from around the world, discussion of the use of Shakespeare’s contemporaries in the classroom and a feature on Edward’s Boys by teacher/director Perry Mills.
Please share and enjoy this publication with anyone you think may be interested, and the editorial team welcomes feedback and suggestions for contributions so feel free to get in touch!
The British Graduate Shakespeare Conference (also known as BritGrad) drew like-minded students, academics and practitioners from all over the world to the small town of Stratford-upon-Avon and the even smaller Shakespeare Institute. The entirely student run conference took place between the 6th and the 8th of June 2013 with papers on a multitude of Shakespeare and Renaissance related subjects filling up the conference’s busy daily schedule.
During the conference there were a number of panels and plenaries related to Shakespeare and education. Education practitioner and peripatetic facilitator, Brian Lighthill, delivered one such workshop. Lighthill’s practices derive from the premise that ‘the key to breaking down the students’ resistance to all things Shakespearean is proving relevance.’ Lighthill’s workshop mixed Shakespearean subject matter with that of Personal Social Education, hoping to promote the ongoing relevance of Shakespeare’s works and enable students to develop an ownership of the text through the association of Shakespearean themes with those of modern society.
Lighthill began with an interactive story telling exercise called the ‘Whoosh’. This activity used delegates to help retell the story of Romeo and Juliet but removed the play from the Shakespearean language using modern narration. He interspersed this activity with conundrums that compelled participants to think about how the Shakespearean story related to their own lives. The workshop concluded with a discussion on whether the Shakespearean society was the same as ours and concluded that whilst society was different human nature has remained the same. This workshop provided great ideas for using Shakespeare in the classroom and opened up cross-curricular links that most participants had not considered.
 James Stredder, (2012) British Shakespeare Association (online), Available: http://shakespeareineducation.com/2012/12/brian-lighthill-explores-ways-of-breaking-down-student-resistance-to-compulsory-shakespeare-in-the-curriculum/ Accessed: 5/7/2013
In the past year or so the world of education has been buzzing with news of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). There have been a number of factors: the growing open information movement, the wider availability of online resources worldwide, and the increasing costs of traditional education.
Allison Morris has contacted me with a really informative and thoughtful article Studying the long-term effects of online education, highlighting the long-term effects of these courses, and I’m delighted to share it with you. It has a US focus, but the points she raises apply to everyone with an interest in education.
A paper given by Dr. Sarah Olive, The University of York at the ‘We need to talk about teaching conference’ in February 2013, at King’s College London.
Abstract: This paper considers the place of Shakespeare in the policy, speeches and press releases of the Coalition government, ahead of the release of the National Curriculum for English for secondary school level. It posits a contradiction between the pro-Shakespeare, cultural conservatism of key figures in the Department of Education with the diversification of the school system which could lead to the requirements for all students to study Shakespeare being disapplied, and thus, the end of ‘Shakespeare for all’ in reality if not rhetoric.
Although the nation still awaits the publication of the revised National Curriculum for English, timetabled for implementation in 2014, policy decisions taken and documents produced by the Conservative-Liberal coalition so far affirm Shakespeare’s continuing centrality to the subject. He has constantly been name-checked in speeches by the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove and other relevant ministers in relation to the curriculum and the educational experience it will deliver. Shakespeare is figured by Gove as a transformative force, as a magical ‘moment’ or ‘gift’ which teachers can provide that reflects glory on both students and teachers and represents a pinnacle among students’ learning. In his speech at the Conservative party conference in 2010, Gove asked his audience to imagine ‘the moment a pupil who says she’s never seen the point of books – or, for that matter, school – sits enraptured by a performance of Hamlet’ (All Pupils). Ostensibly, this incident, recalled from Gove’s own conversations with teachers and school visits, demonstrates the power of good teaching. The role which Shakespeare’s unmatched writing skills implicitly play in the students’ absorption, in crafting a play whose enactment intrigues her beyond that of any other text or educational experience, is also alluded to. Yet, this paper will argue, for all the government’s championing of Shakespeare, its meta-education policy looks set to jeopardise the provision of Shakespeare for all students.
Speaking to the National College for School Leadership, held in Birmingham during June 2011, Gove put Shakespeare’s works at the top of his list of great achievements, with which all children should be familiarised. He declared that ‘Shakespeare’s dramas, Milton’s verse, Newton’s breakthroughs, Curie’s discoveries, Leibniz’s genius, Turing’s innovation, Beethoven’s music, Turner’s painting, Macmillan’s choreography, Zuckerberg’s brilliance – all the rich achievements of human ingenuity belong to every child – and it should be our enduring mission to spread that inheritance as widely as possible’ (‘The moral purpose’). Shakespeare’s unique place in the National Curriculum, as established by the Thatcher government, is reinforced here in his being prioritised ahead of other significant artistic, musical and scientific prodigies.
There is no explicit acknowledgement that New Labour had maintained his place in the curriculum, only an upbraiding of the Blair and Brown leaderships for allowing standards around Shakespeare to slip. Gove is adamant that, under New Labour, Shakespeare was taught to the test and students’ engagement with the plays dumbed down. Speaking to The Spectator conference in June 2012, Gove argued that under New Labour ‘exam boards competed for custom on the basis that their exams were easier to pass than others. They got round the demand for rigour – for example, the requirement to include questions on Shakespeare’s dramas – by letting schools know which act and which lines would be examined, whole terms in advance of the papers being sat’ (‘How are the children?’). Any suggestion that Brown’s government might have identified flaws in the key stage 3 SATS themselves and acted to address this, leading to the discontinuation of SATS at this level in 2008, is ignored. That ‘teaching to the test’ was a criticism of the consequences of SATS during Major’s leadership also goes unmentioned. In this way, Gove is able to create a narrative of sliding educational standards and warped values under New Labour, in readiness for the sequel of Coalition as saviour. The Coalition, as pictured by Gove in contrast to New Labour, will rescue education not by abandoning testing but by improving the quality of assessment. While there is currently no overtly discernible drive to reinstate the compulsory key stage 3 Shakespeare SATs removed by Labour, Shakespeare was included in documents for the optional testing of students in year 9 posted on the DfE website in September 2012. These involve students working on a passage from Romeo and Juliet or As You Like It in a way that addresses areas of assessment such as ‘text in performance; character and motivation; language of the text; and ideas, themes and issues’ (‘Optional tests in English’). In the documents available so far, Gove and his colleagues figure their reforms to education as offering a high-quality experience of Shakespeare to all students as part of a reformed system of assessment (discussed in detail at the end of this section).
Access for all to an improved experience of Shakespeare promised by the Coalition has been depicted in successive speeches as representing a high point of inclusivity which involves ‘giving every child an equal share in the inheritance of achievement which great minds have passed on to us’ as part of ‘a great progressive cause’ (‘The moral purpose’). This is constructed particularly as an achievement of the academy schools, an initiative introduced by New Labour in 2000 but which the Coalition government has come to ‘own’ through rapid and large-scale expansion of the scheme. In a speech to Cambridge University on liberal education, Gove talked of his experience at one academy, Denbigh High, where ‘the students, overwhelmingly Asian, second and third generation immigrant families, competed to tell me why they preferred Shakespeare to Dickens’ (‘Cambridge University’). Similarly, the Schools Minister Nick Gibb told his audience at an event used to outline the government’s determination to raise expectations of children’s reading that at Thomas Jones Primary School in Ladbroke Grove ‘despite the fact almost two-thirds of the pupils do not have English as a first language, and more than half are on free school meals, the children are reading and enjoying Shakespeare’s sonnets’ (‘Greater expectations’). The policy message is clear: successful schools, exemplified by those which have reformed as academies, teach Shakespeare to all students regardless of racial, social or linguistic background, and their students enjoy it. These schools’ ability to teach Shakespeare is taken as a testament to the achievement of the academy system which the Coalition portrays itself as having championed.
Under Gove’s leadership of the Department for Education, additional pressure has been applied on schools to demonstrate a commitment to and facility with Shakespeare through international comparisons. In an appraisal of the teaching of national language and literature in high-performing jurisdictions globally, England’s requirement that all students study Shakespeare was shown to be unique yet comparable with Denmark’s prescription regarding the teaching of its literary heritage of fifteen Danish authors which all students must encounter at school (DfE ‘What we can learn’ 46). This is just one example in which English schools have been encouraged to be as good as, if not better than, their Scandinavian counterparts who are reified by the minister and those conducting the curriculum review as examples of excellence. Furthermore, on several occasions, teachers of English have been reminded that Poland, whose education system is but ‘fast improving’ ‘has high expectations in their [sic] recommended reading including Homer, Chekov and Shakespeare alongside great works of Polish literature’ (‘Summary Report’ 52). The message which Gove desires schools to extrapolate from these snapshots of other, exemplar countries – whom the audiences of these speeches are frequently reminded are our international competitors – is that if they privilege their national authors, or indeed ‘our’ national author in their teaching, so must the English education system.
The Coalition’s support for Shakespeare as a key figure in English, as well as drama and cultural education (a term which seems to have replaced New Labour’s preferred ‘arts education’) is evident in Gove’s acknowledgement of schemes based outside the school classroom, but which aim to improve experience of Shakespeare in schools. In a speech to the BETT show in January 2012, he referenced the University of Warwick and Royal Shakespeare Company’s Teaching Shakespeare centre, which aims to use the ‘rehearsal room’ –‘an online professional development learning platform to transform the teaching of Shakespeare in schools’ – and offers postgraduate qualifications I the field (Gove ‘BETT show’). The Department for Education also donated a hundred and forty thousand pounds to an educational charity, the Shakespeare Schools Festival, which helps schools stage scenes from Shakespeare in theatres nationwide to expand its programme almost three-fold, from 700 schools to 2000, to include more primary schools. The department’s support for Shakespeare was made additionally tangible by its giving a similar sum to the Royal Shakespeare Company to ‘provide all state secondary schools with a free copy of the RSC Shakespeare Toolkit for Teachers’, which includes lesson plans and active methods exercises for teaching Macbeth¸ Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Burns ‘Shakespeare schools cash’). Apart from making a financial investment in the teaching of Shakespeare, these acts also signal a departure from previous Conservative governments’ scepticism of the efficacy of practical methods for teaching Shakespeare. Indeed, it could be argued that these initiatives indicate a continuity of New Labour’s endorsement of active methods evident in the national strategy Shakespeare for all ages and stages: a document which was incorporated into the DfE’s web pages in 2012, having been archived after the change of government in 2010.
Current indications from instances of Shakespeare in Coalition policy so far are that Shakespeare continues to be a highly valued part of English education. There is no reluctance from the Coalition’s education ministers to espouse his greatness, whereas New Labour’s enthusiasm for Shakespeare arguably felt somewhat undercut by its recognition of his sometime reception as exclusive and elite. He is valued as a testament to the Coalition’s vision of what makes a good teacher; to the success of academies; to its agenda for inclusivity; and to the improvement of standards and performance in international comparisons. Moreover, at a time when discussion of funding cuts dominates the media, at least two Shakespeare organisations have received a boost to their funding from the government. Shakespeare’s value is also reinforced by policy on reforms to subject English more generally as well as the Coalition’s priorities for literary heritage and cultural education. The next section will examine these in detail. It will, however, also problematize Shakespeare’s place in Coalition meta-education policy, its agendas for skills, standards and inclusion, with particular reference to the possibility that the National Curriculum’s requirement to study Shakespeare could be increasingly disapplied.
Early indications from the Coalition government on its plans for subject English suggest that, at the very least, an atmosphere is being fostered in which compulsory Shakespeare would thrive. The draft National Curriculum for key stages 1 and 2 was released in Autumn 2012. Not surprisingly – given previous versions of the document and the age of students it applies to – Shakespeare is not named specifically in the document. In outlining the purpose of English, however, there is a focus on the role of literature in developing students ‘culturally, emotionally, spiritually and socially’ (1). It also articulates under a list of aims that the teaching of English should ‘ensure that all pupils…appreciate our rich and varied literary heritage’ (1). The Programmes of Study are split into writing (subdivided into transcription – e.g. spelling and handwriting – and composition) and reading: word reading and comprehension. The curriculum emphasises the co-dependence of the two skills, arguing that pupils’ enjoyment and understanding of language is essential to supporting their increasingly challenging reading (20). In this way it seeks to negate criticism that an increased attention to punctuation and grammar – among other elements of language learning – will relegate the importance of engaging with literary texts.
At secondary level, the piloting of English as one of three core subjects in the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) – a qualification designed to replace GCSEs and to signal the introduction of what Gove has claimed will be more rigourous assessments while attracting more students to study core academic subjects – marks it out as a gold standard subject, both in terms of status and content. Under the EBacc award students will be required to demonstrate additional facilities and overcome new levels of difficulty to succeed. They will now, for example, consistently and visibly be marked on the accuracy of spelling, punctuation, grammar and their use of specialist terms. This is in response, Gove argued in launching the National Curriculum Review, to universities’ and employers’ decreased trust in the accuracy of the GCSEs’ ability to accurately reflect students’ abilities, after successive years in which the number of A and A* grades awarded has risen (‘Twyford’). Indeed, Shakespeare, whose writing has consistently been figured as difficult since the late nineteenth-century – and used to determine the most able candidates through his place, for example, at the top of the Victorian Standards for reading (Murphy) – seems a likely author to be co-opted into the government’s aim to drive up the quality of assessments at this level.
Gove’s assertion that exam boards and English departments ‘tend to focus on the same texts year after year’ could be applied to the teaching of Shakespeare, since awarding bodies tend to select a group of plays for a number of years, refreshing the list periodically. However, in the context of his other criticisms: that ‘there is very little requirement to study writers from any period or genre’; that ‘as many students only read one novel for GCSE, the curriculum’s impression of wide-ranging study is misleading’; as well as his singling out of 90 per cent of schools teaching Of Mice and Men, instead suggests that it is an apparent over-reliance on a small group of modern novels which is being attacked (‘Twyford’).
Of Mice and Men’s downfall may also be its authorship by an American writer. While the authors of the primary curriculum and other documents which refer to the teaching of English literature, such as the Henley Review of Cultural Education, have stressed the importance of literary traditions from outside England, speeches by senior figures in the Department of Education overwhelmingly construct English as ‘the great tradition of our literature’ (‘All pupils’ my emphasis). Not only is great English literature apparently literally that coming out of England, but it is overwhelmingly nineteenth-century, white, male-authored: ‘Dryden, Pope, Swift, Byron, Keats, Shelley, Austen, Dickens and Hardy should be at the heart of school life’ (‘All pupils’). This is a list which makes Leavis’ great tradition, with its two female authors (Jane Austen and George Eliot), one immigrant to Britain (Joseph Conrad, born Józef Teodor Konrad Nalęcz Korzeniowski in Poland), and one American (Henry James) look progressive. Leavis’ favoured novelists in his canon, purveyors of a then increasingly popular form, where Gove has placed a large emphasis on poets, whose work a diminishing number of students and teachers engage with of their own volition (Xerri). It should also be noted that two of Leavis’ chosen authors wrote into the twentieth-century, only a few decades before his publication seized on them as exemplars of literary art. Gove’s authors have, on average, been dead for 206 years. If Thatcherite policy represented a new Victorianism, Gove’s vision for literary education idealises the long eighteenth century; equating education with (the) enlightenment.
The notion of a world-class English literary heritage constituted by such authors is to a great extent also represented within the Henley Review by paragraphs outlining the internationally-reputed nature of the nation’s ‘creative output’ which is ‘disproportionately large for a country of our relatively small size’ (16). While it recognises the value of newer works this is overwhelmingly presented in relation to literary heritage: ‘By reading and learning about the works of the great authors, poets and playwrights of the past, we can understand the development of literature and drama in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and the place of brand new works as part of the continuous reinvention of these genres’ (19). A few sentences further down this is reiterated as ‘Any rounded Cultural Education should have space to include newer art-forms, which have yet to pass the test of time, alongside the very best creativity from times gone by’ (19). The document conveys a feeling that Henley was impelled to constantly yoke past and present art together to succeed in having his push for the place of contemporary work accepted by the Coalition government; sweetening the bitter pill of modernity with a coating of the more familiar and therefore palatable.
The necessity of doing so might have been suggested to Henley by Gove’s cutting comments about popular cultural in a speech to Cambridge University on liberal education. He unfavourably compared William Gladstone’s penchant for talking Shakespeare, Virgil and Dryden with labourers and miners to Tony Blair’s references in the House of Commons to the soap opera Coronation Street. He then proceeded to criticise Gordon Brown’s declaration to the public that he is a fan of the Sheffield indie-rock band, the Arctic Monkeys: ‘It would have been inconceivable for any member of [Gladstone’s] Cabinet to have sought public approbation by letting the world know they had the critical tastes of a teenager’ (‘Cambridge University’). For Gove, it would seem, to admit to a knowledge, let alone enjoyment, of popular culture, or advocate that it has a role in public life and education, is to confess to ignorance, childishness and general bad taste. Awareness of Gove’s attitudes to popular culture, what he is likely to accept or dismiss, may explain the Henley Review’s overall cultural conservatism.
Beyond the equation of classic texts with quality, with an Arnoldian notion of ‘the best that has been thought and said’, a case is also made in the Henley review for the importance of historical literature in stretching students’ empathetic and imaginative abilities, taking them out of their comfort zones. By sixteen, the review states, children should ‘read a broad range of books both by living authors and by authors who may no longer be alive, but whose books are regarded as literary classics. Some of these books might be about subjects that are directly relevant to the readers’ lives today, but young people should also be reading books that expand horizons and show them the possibilities in the world beyond their own direct experiences’ (26). This latter phrase is particularly redolent of arguments for the extension of literacy to the working classes from the late eighteenth-century on: that reading literature represents the extension of vicarious experiences to this group, from which they are currently excluded but to which they should aspire to attain and which they may even achieve through self-education (Mulhern). The Henley Review therefore pushes but gently at the boundaries of what the Coalition government and, in particular, Conservative ideology, might accept as culture. Its emphasis on the importance of the old, the past, and the classic, strongly makes the case for the place of figures such as Shakespeare in education within and beyond the English classroom. In doing so, it coheres with the Coalition government’s highlighting of the importance of, a rather nationalistic version of, history, as a subject in its own right, and in society more widely e.g. through events and funding to commemorate the start of the Great War in 2014. Yet the review does occasionally challenge the government – sounding the warning that the exclusion of cultural subjects from the EBacc, beyond English and history, and hence denying these subjects their own National Curriculum, may lead to them being neglected by students, teachers and parents as inferior. The knock-on consequence, Henley argues, will be a shrinking of the range and quality of Britain’s cultural industries, their products and services. Were Henley’s ideas on the importance of writing comparable statutory programmes of study for areas of endeavour such as drama, theatre studies, design, dance, music and heritage, taken up, Shakespeare’s place in the National Curriculum might be proliferated beyond that of a literary figure. He might appear across the school curriculum in a way that recognises him as a source for theatrical, filmic and televisual performance; balletic and operatic adaptation; and the tourism industry.
The Henley Review is also a useful starting place for exploring the way in which meta-education policy, in addition to micro policy on the English Curriculum and literary heritage, appears conducive to maintaining Shakespeare’s unique position. The review places a heavy emphasis on improving standards in cultural education through partnerships between schools and other institutions. It advocates for the creation by Ofsted of ‘a guide to working with schools for cultural institutions’ (46), for teachers to be encourage to connect to cultural industries through continuing professional development and by using their own talents as practitioners to perform (47). Building upon models such as Creative Partnerships instituted under New Labour as part of its agenda, discussed previously, the review fosters a climate where the provision of Shakespeare to students could be delivered jointly by schools, theatres and heritage sites. The government has supported such partnerships through funding the Shakespeare School Festival and RSC initiatives. Additionally, the generous amount of air-time given to the need to raise standards of teacher recruitment; teacher training; vocational education; and academic qualifications in all subjects creates an atmosphere receptive to compulsory Shakespeare whose place at the pinnacle of educational achievement in the Victorian standards and continuing popular construction as a ‘difficult’ author to study still confers a sense of cachet on any curriculum, programme of study or assessment. Furthermore, when inclusion remains a key agenda for the Coalition government – with their emphasis on raising up ‘children from poorer families’, on schools as ‘engines of social mobility’ for poor children, rather than those disadvantaged by race or any other factor – to withdraw access to Shakespeare for all would be counter-intuitive (‘The Importance of Teaching’ 6).
The circularity in policy identified by researchers such as Geoff Whitty and Richard Pring between the Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s and New Labour has similarly typified the transition to the Coalition government. This is despite the Coalition theoretically breaking the two-party politics mould and Gove’s publicising his department’s hyperactivism: his promises to go ‘further, faster’ and to set a ‘radical’ ‘pace’ for school reform (‘Twyford’). Giles Coren incisively caricatures the overwhelming maintenance of the status quo in writing about continuing reform to school meals, initiated under New Labour: ‘Gove comes in to the DfE, broadly endorses strategy of Blair Government in general and Lord Adonis [the Conservative Peer and architect of City Academies] in particular, presses on with the Academification of the comprehensives (as well as greenlighting the more controversial Free Schools programme), putting power and money in the hands of head teachers as opposed to local authorities’ (‘Carshalton Boys Sports College’).
There is, however, one substantial area of Coalition meta-policy which may, in practice, undermine compulsory Shakespeare for all school children: the continued proliferation of a multi-partite school system. The Coalition has been vociferous in identifying the burgeoning number of academies, free schools, studio schools and university technical colleges as one of their success stories in improving education nationally. Academies are designed to enable low-performing schools to rebrand, to break entrenched failure through autonomy from local authorities and freedom to seek personal or corporate sponsorship. Free schools operate similarly but are schools newly established with the express aim of filling an identified gap in educational provision in a community. Studio schools offer part-academic, part-vocational education in collaboration with local and national employers, with the intention of closing the gap between knowledge and skills. Meanwhile university technical colleges each specialise in a technical area such as engineering, manufacturing or biomedical science, requiring highly specialised equipment. Access to this is enabled through sponsorship from a university and partnerships with industry. What unites all four is that, while they teach the National Curriculum to varying extents, there are circumstances in which they may depart from it. While, as a bare minimum core, GCSEs such as English and maths are currently taught in university technical colleges alongside technical qualifications, further differentiation of educational pathways could result in the disapplication of the requirement for all children to study Shakespeare. Such a scenario would allow the government to maintain the promise of a liberal education, including literature and culture, for all students while extending to some a utilitarian education designed to boost economic productivity. Furthermore, it would enable the Coalition to maintain the ideal of Shakespeare for all in policy, while allowing for a rather different reality in practice.
Academies Act 2010. 27 July 2010. 4 January 2011. <http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2010/32/contents/data.htm>.
Baker, Mike. ‘Anger grows as diploma support wanes’. BBC News. 25 September 2010. 1 November 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-11407563
Balls, Ed. ‘Ed Ball’s Speech to Labour Conference’. Labour. The Labour Party. 2009. 1 December 2010. <http://www.labour.org.uk/ed-balls-speech-conference,2009-09 30>.
Burns, Judith. ‘Shakespeare schools cash’. BBC News. 5 November 2012. 12 November 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-20206307
Coren, Giles. ‘Carshalton Boys Sports College’. The Times Magazine. 3 November 2012. 85.
DCSF. Shakespeare for all Ages and Stages. Nottingham: DCSF Publications, 2008.
DfE. National Curriculum for English, key stages 1-2 – draft. London: Crown, 2012.
—. ‘Summary report of the call for evidence’. London: DfE, 2011.
—. ‘The Importance of Teaching: The Schools White Paper 2010’. London: TSO, 2010.
—. ‘What can we learn from the English, mathematics and science curricula of high performing jurisdictions?’ London: DfE, 2011.
DfEE/QCA. English: The National Curriculum for England, key stages 1-4. London: TSO, 1999.
Gibb, Nick. ‘Greater expectations’. Speeches. 7 February 2012. 20 November 2012. <http://www.education.gov.uk/inthenews/speeches/a00203219/greatexpectations>
Gove, Michael. ‘Michael Gove speech at the BETT show’. Speeches. 11 January 2012. 20 November 2012. http://www.education.gov.uk/inthenews/speeches/a00201868/michael-gove-speech-at-the-bett-show-2012
—. ‘How are the children?’ Speeches. 26 June 2012. 20 November 2012. http://www.education.gov.uk/inthenews/speeches/a00210738/govespect
—. ‘Michael Gove: All pupils will learn our island story’. Speeches. 5 October 2010. 1 November 2012. http://www.conservatives.com/News/Speeches/2012/10/Michael_Gove_All_pupil will_learn_our_island_story.aspx
—. ‘Michael Gove: failing schools need new leadership’. Conservatives. 7 October 2009. 19 September 2010. <http://www.conservatives.com/News/Speeches/2009/10/Michael_Gove_Failing_s hools_need_new_leadership.aspx>.
—. ‘Michael Gove to Cambridge University’. Speeches. 24 November 2011. 20 November 2012. http://www.education.gov.uk/inthenews/speeches/a00200373/michael-gove to-cambridge-university
—. ‘Michael Gove to Twyford Church of England High School’. Speeches. 23 November 2011. 1 November 2012. http://www.education.gov.uk/inthenews/speeches/a0073212/michael-gove-twyfordxx
—. ‘The moral purpose of school reform’. Speeches. 16 June 2011. 1 November 2012. http://www.education.gov.uk/inthenews/speeches/a0077859/the-moral-purpose-of-school-reform
Henley, Darren. Cultural Education in England. London: DCMS, 2012.
Higgs, Lauren. ‘Royal Shakespeare Company helps develop humanities diploma’. Children and Young People Now. 12 January 2009. 19 November 2012. http://www.cypnow.co.uk/cyp/news/1046169/royal-shakespeare-company-helps-develop humanities-diploma
Mansell, Warwick. ‘Was the government to blame for the Sats marking fiasco?’ Guardian. 15 September 2009. 24 December 2010. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2009/sep/15/sats-marking-fiasco government-blame>.
Murphy, Andrew. Shakespeare for the People: Working-Class Readers, 1800-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.
Royal Shakespeare Company. The RSC Shakespeare Toolkit for Teachers. London: Methuen, 2010.
Xerri, Daniel. ‘The multimodal approach to teaching poetry in ELT’. Ed T. Pattison. IATEFL 2011: Brighton Conference Selections. Canterbury: IATEFL, 2012. 151-52.
Other papers from the event can be accessed at http://www.kcl.ac.uk/sspp/departments/education/news/events/teachingsym.aspx
When I was asked if I wanted to give 24 French children their first experience of learning Shakespeare at Kings Norton Girls School, my first response was a very excited yes! But when the reality sunk in this responsibility is huge, I felt like it had to be perfect or they were at risk of returning to France and maintaining their existence without Shakespeare in their lives (their alternative being Harry Potter…but enough said about that.)
I decided that with only an hour out of their trip to do this, I wanted to use active methods, and as the RSC puts it make them “stand up for Shakespeare.” Inspired by this summer’s “Worlds Together” conference and a recent CPD training session provided through Queensbridge School, I created a workshop which included the basics from iambic pentameter to walking the text, and then focussed on Othello, a play they had barely heard of let alone read. Unfortunately this was the case for the entire canon, where one or two children had heard of Romeo and Juliet but that was virtually the extent of the Shakespeare knowledge of these children.
We stamped out pentameter and walked the text – something that they responded to very well, and also used the RSC inspired story whoosh to teach the basic story to the play, something that with a little persuasion they were very keen to interact with and volunteer to participate in. The beauty of using this was that it virtually removed the language barrier. Through not having to speak or remember large chunks of text they were able to decipher the elements of English that they understood from my reading and acted it out with real enthusiasm enlightening the other children to the events of the play.
Something they really enjoyed was jumping between the text, and situations familiar to them. For this I gave them a section of the text where Othello is demanding the handkerchief from Desdemona. First I gave them the text itself and allowed them to play with it in pairs making their own decisions about how it felt to them, having never read Shakespeare before this was interesting but following the whoosh and the individual activities students were able to get to grips with the text well. Of course having barely read any Shakespeare before, some children understood more quickly than others. To overcome this I got them to put away their scripts and create the scene themselves, where Othello was to maintain his demand for the handkerchief and Desdemona was to create any excuses she could imagine to get out of the situation. Each child got the opportunity to play each role and therefore understand what it felt like to be in that position. I then asked them to return to the text and see if it felt any different. Instantly there was a sea of performances that were far stronger, where through their new found understanding children began to really interact with the texts placing actions and emphasis on certain words or phrases, and even adding movement and emotion.
Overall they all reported that they enjoyed the session, and when quizzed about their learning they were able to give accurate responses from what they had learned. The teacher, Madame Afforti, took away copies of the resources used in the session to replicate this style of learning Shakespeare with other students back at the school in France. She has also expressed an interest in developing projects of this type.
‘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.
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.