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.
From Sarah Olive, Lecturer in English in Education, University of York:
In my last article for Alluvium, I presented a rationale for using Lady Gaga to teach Shakespeare, along with a Powerpoint teaching resource. Sheffield Children’s Festival offered a unique chance to observe the transmission and contestation of cultural values around Shakespeare at an informal and diversely-attended occasion. In the Winter Gardens, on July 7, a group of twenty-four university researchers, from a range of disciplines, gathered to share their research with the general public. For a fuller report visit <http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/news/nr/box-ideas-discover-children-learn-sheffield-1.193656>. I had planned two activities to involve the events’ visitors. Marker pens and post-it notes were handed out to those able to write so that they could record which pop artists they would like to see featured in the classroom and why – an acknowledgement that Gaga’s cultural currency is finite, and that the principle of pairing figures from popular culture with Early Modern drama is more important than the choice of individuals. Additionally, everyone passing by was invited to vote for the figure they would most like to see in the classroom, Gaga or Shakespeare. This was done by casting beads into two ‘ballot boxes’ decorated with their faces.
Any attempt at quantitative analysis of the results would be futile: some people were so enthusiastic that they voted multiple times; so committed that they meddled with the vote of a parent or sibling who shared a different view; or so passionate that they threw fistfuls of beads in at one go. More useful are efforts to characterise the voting patterns by demographic: most (but not all) adults voted for Shakespeare; the children’s votes were reasonably equally split, though with younger children less familiar with either figure, girls overwhelmingly voted for Gaga, boys for Shakespeare – suggesting that gender played a key role in their decision-making. Adults who did not vote for Shakespeare tended to comment on difficult experiences with him at school or university. Children who liked Shakespeare, on further investigation, tended to be involved in drama at or outside of school, so had some knowledge of his works and aspirations to play in them. Alternatively, they commented on the inspirational qualities of a teacher influencing their preference for Shakespeare. These patterns articulate the considerable role institutions have in shaping cultural values for (or against) Shakespeare. Discussion of his phenomenon can be found in existing literature including Graham Holderness’ The Shakespeare Myth, Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield’s Political Shakespeare and, most recently, a dedicated issue of Shakespeare Survey (64) on Shakespeare as a cultural catalyst. Meanwhile, Jerome Bruner, an educational psychologist, offers wide-ranging evidence of the ways in which culture shapes education.
However, like Pierre Bourdieu and his many successors, I want to focus here on the role which family plays in determining the children’s cultural values. Participating in the activity described, often, a parent would take the lead in establishing a family identity or family values, with the aim that the child would adhere to those in making their choice. One woman commented as her teenage son voted (for Shakespeare): ‘We don’t like Lady Gaga in our family’, a thinly-veiled effort to ensure her son, in spite of any individual views he might have held, conformed to the family ‘project’. Others commented in approving retrospect on their child’s choice. For example, after an infant voted for Shakespeare, I commented on her age (or lack thereof) to which her mother replied: ‘that’s having a Mum who’s a teacher’. Her response reveals a conception of the privileged access to cultural and educational capital for children of parents’ in such careers, and an expectation on the parent’s part that her child will reflect and uphold her mother’s professional values. Another permutation in interactions was that a parent would offer a gentle reprimand if their child failed to uphold the family project, of acculturation and education: for instance, saying ‘We’ve got a Shakespeare book, haven’t we. I’d've thought you’d've gone for Shakespeare’.
In other families, there was opportunity for the individual family member’s values and Shakespeare’s worth to be contested as the decision was being made. On each occasion I witnessed this, it took the form of an older/more powerful family member asserting Shakespeare’s greatness: an older sister told her younger sister, ‘He’s written loads and what’s she done except sit on the beach in a bikini’; a grandma explained to her grandson, ‘She’s a pop star, he’s a big author’. In both cases, the younger family member was not conscious of having encountered Shakespeare elsewhere. As such, they were being conditioned into privileging him on a cultural hierarchy over another candidate with whom they were familiar, before ever experiencing a performance or text of his work. This is a common element of much childrearing: children are constantly told what is good or bad for them and are expected to accept this on trust, without empirical experience: ‘eat your carrots, they’re good for your eyes’, ‘don’t touch that, it’s hot’. Such instruction plays a valuable part in children’s health and well-being. What interests me here is the extension of its application to culture, hardly, one might think, a matter of life or death. Yet Shakespeare is seemingly constructed as a player in an aspirational, cultural/educational survival of the fittest: the sooner you know him and acknowledge his superiority, the better your future. Nonetheless, the targets of this instruction frequently contested the assertions they were subject to, gleefully throwing their bead into Gaga’s box. Occasionally, such interference was explicitly resisted as resulting in a kind of cheating, or untruthfulness – one boy commented, ‘Mu-um, you have to go with what you know’. In addition to this, I noticed one child engaging in a struggle with a parent (not to mention the curriculum) over the relative value of different cultural forms: Mum: ‘He wrote all those plays‘, Daughter: ‘She’s a really good singer‘. For this girl, a shelf full of plays did not trump vocal skill.
Adults tended to justify their vote more than children. This might be explained by their generally greater confidence, articulateness, and sense of responsibility (to be a good parent, good citizen, good example). One girl, however, taking her time weighing up the pros and cons of Shakespeare and Gaga voiced her opinion that Shakespeare’s ‘making up lies’ about Richard III’s physique and murder of the princes in the Tower was going against him. She was already having a sophisticated internal dialogue about these artists’ relative merits, and being given space to do so. Interestingly, she eventually voted by placing one bead in each of the boxes, affirming their equal value in her eyes. You could argue that I should have held her to a rule of one vote only, forced her to make a choice – but, out of all the people I encountered that day, she alone had hit on the argument that both their creativities should be celebrated in our culture and education system. She demonstrated a belief that there is room in the classroom for both traditional and emergent icons, plays and popular music.
As anecdotal and ungeneralisable as this data is, the exercise highlighted for me the vital role of the family in shaping the value of Shakespeare, before peers, external institutions and the media play their part. The majority of research on Shakespeare in education and society starts with school-age children, although there is work that looks at ways in which children are engaged with Shakespeare by fiction and theatre. This includes Naomi Miller’s edited collection Reimagining Shakespeare for Children and Young Adults, Joe Winston and Miles Tandy’s Beginning Shakespeare 4-11 and the RSC and Oily Cart’s 2012 production of The Winter’s Tale/In a pickle for toddlers. Elsewhere, the formative influence of the family has been analysed in relation to arenas ranging from literacy (Denny Taylor and Catherine Dorsey-Gaines’s Growing up Literate) to diet (Peter Jackson’s Changing Families, Changing Foods). Sociology, education and childhood studies offer fruitful models for future explorations of the influence of the family on children’s conceptions of Shakespeare. I would certainly consider setting such a topic for an undergraduate dissertation for my programme (the B.A. English in Education) next year.
Bruner, J. The Culture of Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1997.
Dollimore, J. and A. Sinfield (eds). Political Shakespeare: new essays in cultural materialism. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1985.
Holderness, G. (ed). The Shakespeare Myth. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1988.
Holland, P. (ed). Shakespeare Survey 64. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011.
Miller, N. (ed). Reimagining Shakespeare for Children and Young Adults. London: Routledge, 2003.
Jackson, P. (ed). Changing Families, Changing Foods. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
Taylor, D. and C. Dorsey-Gaines. Growing up Literate. London: Heinemann, 1988.
Winston, J. and M. Tandy. Beginning Shakespeare 4-11. London: Routledge, 2012.
‘All our knowledge has its origin in our perceptions’ – Teaching Shakespeare at an all-boys comprehensive, post 1
So, here begins the diary of my experiences teaching Shakespeare in an all-boys secondary school. After studying an MA in Renaissance Literature, completing a dissertation on Shakespeare in education, and researching how Shakespeare is taught around the world for the Royal Shakespeare Company, I was ready to start putting some of my ideas about engaging young people with Shakespeare into practice.
My class are key stage three, aged 12-13, and mixed ability. The school is in a deprived area of Manchester with a large Asian population; I would estimate around 80% of the students are of south Asian origin. It is a secular state school for boys aged 11-16.
The diversity of ethnic origins, religions, and languages are the major challenges faced by the school, along with the often deprived backgrounds of the students. My English class are a drop in this ocean.
What I’ve been testing out with them over the past fortnight, is whether studying Shakespeare through utilising a variety of skills, or ‘intelligences’ as Gardner would put it, will benefit their engagement and understanding of the text. Obviously, all kids, as all people, are talented at different things. In theory, if you can offer ways into a complex text through using their best ‘intelligences’, each student will gain some comprehension and confidence with its meaning. In using the term ‘intelligences’, I do not mean putting the individual in their V/A/K box, but allowing kids to develop as many ‘intelligences’ as they can in order to become literate with the text. The VAK test – to determine whether the student is a visual, auditory, or kinaesthetic learner – focuses, I think, a bit too much on finding the learner’s preference of learning style and developing only that one preference. In doing so, it can potentially cause a barrier to the opportunity for each learning style to influence the other. For instance, a visual learner does not learn only by what they see – what they hear and what they do inevitably informs it. This is what the lessons I have been running aim to do: allow each kid to develop their understanding of literature through using all of these ways of learning together in one project.
I’ve been teaching Macbeth through a series of different projects leading up to the final assessment. The class have made a performance and film of the ‘is this a dagger I see before me’ soliloquy, and will be making a Powerpoint presentation to give the class that demonstrates their choices in adaptation. We have read the text together, watched Rupert Goold’s 2009 adaptation, analysed both, and looked at a variety of other adaptations of Macbeth on TV and film.
The mix of activities draws on those which are typically used English, Drama, and Media Studies classes. Each subject demands a slightly different set of skills, and begets a different way of looking at the text. Using Gardner’s breakdown of intelligences, or ‘ways in which we understand the world’ for clarity, by incorporating Drama and Media within English teaching allows students to learn the text through:
language, spatial representation, […] musical thinking, the use of the body to solve problems or to make things, an understanding of other individuals, and an understanding of [self].
Every intelligence is used except logical mathematical analysis. I would also argue that in a media-centred world young people also form an understanding through images. Below is a table of which intelligences are developed in each subject:
|English||Language, understanding of other individuals, understanding of self|
|Drama||Language, spatial representation, musical thinking, use of the body to solve problems and make things, understanding of other individuals, understanding of self|
|Media||Language, spatial representation, musical thinking, images, use of the body to solve problems and make things, understanding of individuals, understanding of self|
The core these subjects arguably share is the understanding of self and others through various modes of representation. It is to have emotional intelligence, to be literate in feeling and how to represent/ express it. Together, they can be used as different ways of perceiving the same thing, and in this case, the thing is Shakespeare.
Most importantly, using this range of creative media theoretically allows for a range of creative perspectives on the source text. Looking at the text as an adaptation allows students to own the text, and to develop their personal view of it.
Today, we made the film. There were 5 groups, each with a different sentence or two from the ‘is this a dagger I see before me’ soliloquy. Each student had to memorize the line, and perform it in a tone that was different from everyone else in their group. The resulting drama was a range of Macbeths; some angry, some confused, some melancholy, some stressed, some cold, some panicked (because they’d forgotten their lines: ‘is this a dagger I see before me, er… or not?’). They all performed and filmed in front of the class. Later this week, I will show them the footage to edit and then analyse (if I can organise it around school regulations, I will post their film on here). After doing so, the class will have begun to explore and experience a range of ways Shakespeare can be presented and perceived. We will subsequently be closer to gauging if, as Leonardo da Vinci put it, ‘all our knowledge has its origin in our perceptions’.
 Howard Gardner, The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach, (New York, BasicBooks: 1991), p. 12.
Brian Lighthill explores ways of breaking down student resistance to compulsory Shakespeare in the curriculum…
To be honest, breaking down student apathy towards all things Shakespeare doesn’t always come easily. There are always going to be students who just balk at the mere mention of Shakespeare. They might not know much about him – but they are ‘dead sure he is going to be boring, like…’ The teacher’s objective is, in my opinion, very simple – we just have to make the old Bard ‘relevant’. We just have to show that the fictional issues Will was going on about are actually relevant to the students’ real life-world.
After three years of collaborative research with the teachers and students in a ‘challenging’ school in Warwickshire I developed a modus operandi which can be broken down into three stages:
First, using an interactive storytelling method based on Joe Winston and the RSC’s ‘Shakespeare Whoosh’* I tell a Shakespearean ‘story’ – not the text, just the story – and get the students to help enact it, so that freed from the barriers engendered by archaic language the students get a good idea of the journey the characters take. (An aside: Why do I say ‘freed from archaic language?’ In a survey conducted for the RSC Learning department, in answer to the question, ‘do you find Shakespeare difficult to understand’, 49% said ‘yes’, 28% said they found it ‘OK’, and 22% were non-committal. So, a clear majority found ‘the language’ challenging.)
*The RSC Tool Kit for Teachers (Methuen: 2012) defines the ‘Whoosh’ as ‘a quick, physical, participatory telling of a story that uses text and action to establish consensual understanding and invite participants to play.’ (p.300)
In stage two, I set the students conundrums arising from the story. Now, what is interesting about the ‘Whoosh’ is the amount of knowledge the students retain. Recently, weeks after actually telling the ‘Whoosh’ of the whole of Romeo and Juliet, in a school in Oxfordshire, I was discussing with a cohort of Year 7 students (11-12 year old) the following conundrum, ‘Now, who is to blame for the fact that Romeo and Juliet felt the need to marry in secret?’ (Another aside: I was starting to explore the heady philosophical ideas of ‘free-will’ and ‘independent thinking’ with these students – but wanted them to arrive at those concepts themselves.)
What delighted me was that the students were very knowledgeable about the names of the characters they blamed and were able to suggest, ‘the Parents, Tybalt, the Nurse, Romeo, Sampson, Friar Lawrence, Juliet, the Ancestors etc.’ as being ‘to blame’. In further small group, and then whole class sharing, the students were also able to come up with detailed reasons, based on their knowledge of the ‘Whoosh’, as to why they blamed their chosen character which finally boiled down to, ‘because the parents did not let Romeo and Juliet make their own decisions about who they want to marry – it is their decision’.
And finally I turn the conundrums onto the students’ own lives by asking ‘Should you always obey your parents?’ ‘Should we always do what our peers do?’ ‘We’ve discussed the choices Romeo and Juliet had, now – what choices do you have in your lives?’
Shakespeare’s texts are beautiful, exquisite, sublime – but the key to breaking down the students’ resistance to all things Shakespearean is proving relevance. But as Skrebels * wrote, ‘as beautiful and valuable as objects in a glass case may be, they are still detritus of the past. In preserving them we render them fixed and lifeless, and leave to chance the possible impact they may have on people’s lives’. I’m pleased to note that teacher response to my approach to the Bard has been more on the lines of ‘…get that 400 year old object out of the glass case and play with it’: ‘What you did, Brian, was demystify and make Shakespeare accessible, make Shakespeare someone they knew… relevant to their lives – so then doing it in English wasn’t a problem. They all think Shakespeare is their “buddy”.’
*P. Skrebels, ‘Transhistorizing Much Ado About Nothing. Finding a place for Shakespeare’s work in the postmodern world’ in R. E. Salomone and J. E. Davis (eds.) Teaching Shakespeare into the Twenty-First Century (Ohio University Press: 1997)
After initial resistance to anything Shakespearean, one ‘lippy’ 11 year old student smiled at me on her way out of the classroom and said, ‘Thanks Brian, that lesson was fun.’ (Final aside: that was after the fourth lesson with her.)
At the recent World Together conference in London I gave a presentation at the ‘Symposium’. I explored this question, ‘Should Shakespeare studies have a place in the curriculum – or is it just a load of “Bardolatry”?’ My conclusion was, “yes” and (a cautious) “yes”.’
Shakespeare study should continue to have a place in the curriculum because his ‘productions’ (in the ‘Marxist’ sense) provide powerful pedagogic tools for deep and meaningful exploration of issues which are relevant to young learners. And, in response to the second part of my question I answer, ‘yes…but a “cautious yes” ‘because there is a danger that the ‘secular religion’ of Bardolatry might well alienate young learners from his intrinsic worth.
So…let’s take the ‘Bardolatry out of the Bard’ – and ‘Make Will their Buddy’ – not our (we educationalists’) ‘icon’.
Brian Lighthill’s book, Working with Will – 30 Lesson Plans for English and Personal and Social Education Teachers, has just been published by First and Best in Education and is available from Amazon.
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.