Can pupils be persuaded that the Bard isn't too hard? Performances and podcasts could just do the trick
Chris Arnot and Heather Neill
Tuesday February 6, 2007
Stratford in the early 1960s: a young Michael Wood and his classmates have been brought down from Manchester grammar school by two inspirational English teachers. They've visited the Judith Shakespeare Wimpy Bar. They've sneaked into the Rose and Crown in Sheep Street for an illegal pint and - even better - they've seen Eric Porter and Ian Holm in Henry IV parts one and two on the same day.
Stratford in February 2007 and Michael Wood, now the author of In Search of Shakespeare and a board member at the Royal Shakespeare Company, is standing centre stage at the Courtyard Theatre recalling that "fantastic, life-changing experience". Ranged around him are 100 teachers from all over the UK. They are gathered for a day-long conference organised by the RSC's Teaching Shakespeare: Time for Change campaign.
"Why," Wood asks, "are these 16th-century texts still at the centre of public education? What's the point, when they're acknowledged to be difficult? The vocabulary runs to over 25,000 words at a time when national literacy surveys tell us that you need to know only 600 words to read the Sun or the Highway Code. It would be easier to say 'Let's junk it. Make it an option for posh schools only.'"
Teeming with insights
But it just so happens that Shakespeare lived in turbulent times, when wars were started on the basis of "dodgy dossiers" and terrorists were being hunted down, Wood points out. "What's more, a play like Twelfth Night is teeming with insights into the blurring of sexual identity." Just two examples of what he calls "open-ended discussion material to explore ideas".
Sarah Lewis teaches at Bampton primary school in Devon, where, even at key stage 2, they think the Bard is going to be hard. "They have older brothers and sisters who've filled them with false preconceptions," Lewis says. "If you approach Shakespeare in the right way, he can give special needs children a chance to shine through performing and, at the same time, extend the knowledge and language of the brighter ones. But we primary teachers are jacks-of-all-trades. It helps to have had some specialist drama training."
Jacqui O'Hanlon, the RSC's head of professional development, soon has a group of teachers engaged in warm-up activities. Within half an hour she has begun to dismantle A Midsummer Night's Dream bit by bit. In the course of rebuilding it, she's throwing out questions and posing challenges. At one point Titania is draped over the top of a piano. Then she is part of two human chains between which Hermia must stroll while listening to conflicting advice as she struggles with the choice of running away with Lysander or marrying Demetrius.
Looking on is Maria Evans, the RSC's director of learning, who wants to spread these approaches to many more classrooms as a way of countering the assumption that Shakespeare is "a byword for boredom". Time for Change launched last autumn, at the same time the education department (DfES) and the Globe Theatre in London announced plans for collaboration. If what is missing in Shakespeare teaching is the performance element, theatres are obvious allies.
From next month, students will be able to download a podcast of Much Ado About Nothing recorded live at the Globe. It is the latest development in the battle to make accessible the only author every student has to study at school. But is answering questions on a couple of scenes in one of three set plays, at 14 and again at 16, really still worth doing?
Even asking the question seems like heresy, but the DfES has been obliged to face it. Gerry Swain, director of the English programme in the secondary national strategy, says that studying Shakespeare is worthwhile because "it develops an active approach to human relationships and motivation as well as language".
Shakespeare wrote to be performed, and it is now more than 20 years since Dr Rex Gibson first stood in front of a group of teachers waving a copy of one of the plays and insisting: "This is not a text, it's a script." His methods have been widely available since 1991 through the Cambridge School Shakespeare series, along with his Teaching Shakespeare. Surely the days of mournfully reading from dog-eared photocopies must be long gone?
Apparently not. An Ofsted inspector, who doesn't wish to be named, says Shakespeare classes can be depressing. Sometimes the teacher doesn't even have a copy of the play in the room, relying instead on drumming in the couple of scenes necessary to answer exam questions.
"My team tells me that there are a few beacons of excellence out there," says Evans. "We believe passionately that the Bard's works can be made accessible to all backgrounds and abilities and we have access to a range of easy but effective techniques that work, even with teenagers classified as 'challenging'.
"There's always been polarisation between the literary criticism approach and the drama approach. We're calling for a far greater integration of the two. But there's no doubt that, when first approached, it's better to do it as drama."
Yet, says Ian McNeilly, communications director of the National Association for the Teaching of English: "Teachers are under pressure to deliver data and end up teaching to the test. English teachers like to see Shakespeare as drama, but they are subject to constraints outside their control."
While Swain says it was never the intention that pupils should study only a handful of scenes, he recognises that this is what often happens. Now 260 English consultants are going into classrooms to provide hands-on help. These troubleshooters have been working with Globe education practitioners (GEPs) in nine regions to develop skills to bridge the gap between performance and exam answers.
The GEPs use theatre skills to develop strategies for teaching the language, to explore performance (from simply speaking the text to a presentation of the whole play) and to find ways into understanding character. "Of course," says Fiona Banks, head of learning and teaching practice at the Globe, "these all overlap. Language is not an isolated concept to do merely with the meaning of individual words, but conveys character and emotion."
Alongside this, the Globe is running a project called Playing Shakespeare, aimed at key stage 3. This is where the podcast - funded by the DfES - comes in. A special production of Much Ado will be seen, free, by 6,000 children over five dates in March, supported by resource material on the Globe website and interviews with the director and actors in MP3 format.
Some teachers are already succeeding in making Shakespeare fun while delivering results. Rachel Ray-Choudhuri is a drama teacher in Hackney. She says she is always amazed at "how much young people love Shakespeare". She works closely with Kate Ford, head of English at Haggerston, a comprehensive where 32 languages are spoken. Ford says they start with the advantage that young people know Shakespeare is important - but that doesn't stop them delivering Romeo and Juliet in rap rhythm or interviewing Hamlet in Jerry Springer style.
"There has never been a more exciting time to move forward the teaching of Shakespeare," Banks says. Perhaps the curling photocopies can be binned forthwith.
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