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Sigh no more pupils, sigh no more; Shakespeare breaks down educational barriers | O, What Learning is!

By September 16, 2014 No Comments


New term New Curriculum

A return to school in September is an exciting and anxiety ridden time often for both pupils and teachers. Newly qualified teachers who are looking forward to yet also dreading that first lesson when they have to “teach” Shakespeare to a room of 30 pupils and pupils are looking forward to but also dreading the changes on their timetables – new teachers, new classmates and maybe even a new school.

In the UK a new National Curriculum has been unveiled which means that there is more Shakespeare to be taught in classrooms than ever before.

Hurrah! I hear you cry; a return to more traditional learning! But take a moment to consider how this is going to work – many pupils already struggle with the volume of Shakespeare they have to read and now, they have to do more? That’s not fair, Miss! But thankfully, we have the Royal Shakespeare Company to help us to Stand up for Shakespeare!

Stand up for Shakespeare

Their manifesto to get the bard taught actively (as a play; not just reading around the class) was launched in 2008 and is still going strong. The RSC approach is to treat the play as exactly that; play. Teenagers are encouraged to explore the play in a similar way to how actors explore their text in a rehearsal room. There is little time for sitting down and reading the lines stuck behind a desk as the pupils are more likely to be on their feet trying to explore how Macbeth feels immediately after he has been pronounced the Thane of Cawdor.

Digital Theatre are another company who have come on board to help teachers of Shakespeare make their lessons more active. On their website; an excellent documentary about Shakespeare in your Space gives practical examples of how you can teach the plays in your classroom and really engage the pupils. Teaching in a special school for blind children I have tried some of these techniques out already; finding them immensely useful for inclusion of my particular students. One particular exercise uses ‘ghosting’ to free pupils up from having to hold the text in their hands – perfect for my students who are often dealing with huge Braille copies of Shakespeare! One pupil stands behind another and feeds the line thus freeing up the first pupil to really experience the content of the line. Now, to me these are standard rehearsal room activities that I have seen used by directors time and again, but what companies such as the RSC and Digital Theatre appear to be doing is to making these techniques available to teachers around the globe, making their teaching more engaging and the play more approachable.

Actor Greg Hicks plays one of Kelly Hunter's sensory games with an audience member.

Actor Greg Hicks plays one of Kelly Hunter’s sensory games with an audience member

Live streaming

Added to the RSC resources is now the exciting opportunity that pupils have the opportunity to see live productions streamed into their classrooms from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Most recently, Henry IV (both parts) and Two Gents have both been shown in approximately 1,000 schools. Students get the opportunity to see top class productions during the school day, and the play then becomes lifted off the page for them.

Special Educational Needs and Accessibility

Recently, however, Shakespeare has also been made accessible in the UK and America, not just through live screening but through detailed research into the problems in communication facing those children on the Autistic spectrum. This research, undertaken by Kelly Hunter (actor and director) with the backing of the RSC, has led to her creating her own series of sensory games and activities which open up the stories of some of Shakespeare’s plays to those who are autistic, and help to break down some of the blocks in communication such as eye contact which can cause huge anxiety.

Details on the project can be found here:

Hunter has created an adaptation of The Tempest which has been performed in Stratford – Upon – Avon and, more recently Columbus, Ohio. The audience of autistic youngsters experience the play while sitting alongside the actors, joining in with them to play sensory games using Shakespeare’s language, exaggerated voices and faces as a safe world is created for them. Actors describe this experience as being one of the greatest acting parts that they could be presented with, in the way in which they are exploring the story with their audience and often seeing that very same audience transformed before their eyes. Having been lucky enough to experience a performance of this adaptation of The Tempest I can confirm that it was a truly moving experience. What occurred to me was that Shakespeare is so hugely clever at constructing

Audience and actors seated for Hunter's adaptation of The Tempest.

Audience and actors seated for Hunter’s adaptation of The Tempest.

 stories that anyone can connect with. Maybe that’s the reason why he’s appearing more heavily represented in our education system than ever before. It looks too like he is helping to break down barriers in more ways than one. Some would argue that he has always done this. Particularly if we consider the breadth of roles and scenarios that he presents to us; challenging us not to be able to identify with at least one situation. Hunter uses the iambic rhythm to begin and end her adaptation presented as a heartbeat as the audience and actors join in making the sound with their hand on their chest and greeting or saying goodbye to each other. The play unites actor and audience in a way that I’m sure Shakespeare himself would be proud of.

Stand up for Shakespeare!

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