During my visit to King Ethelbert School in Kent The headteacher, Kate Greig, attended the annual Dimbleby Lecture, this year presented by Gregory Doran, Artistic Director at the RSC. I felt at first hand Kate’s delight at the school being mentioned during this speech because of their commitment to teaching Shakespeare actively. Kate believes the students should recognise that the work belongs to them. Away from the glamour of speeches at The Shard, I was therefore extremely interested to understand how this belief becomes a tangible programme of work in the school.
Led by a team of teachers including Stacy Golding, Carol O’Shea and Amy Humphrys the school’s involvement in the LPN for two years and prioritises training new staff, using the RSC ensemble, active learning approach to teaching Shakespeare. I was delighted to be able to observe a year 8 English class was studying ‘The Merchant of Venice’ with newly qualified English teacher, Liz Channing.
The class began with a starter activity, inviting the students to reflect on their past learning about the characters in the play and their emotions. The activity also encouraged students to think of a wide range of vocabulary to describe those emotions. In the feedback session for this activity it was interesting to see the way the teacher helped the students make connections between the characters and their own experiences. The students drew on their previous learning in this section too, demonstrating rich understanding of the key themes of the play. It was particularly exciting to observe the way Liz prioritised the students’ developing understanding of the relationships in the play and had clearly built a safe space for learning in which students could express ideas even if they could not recall the character’s name or pronounce it with confidence.
The game which was used for warm up, ‘Bang,’ enabled the students to begin to physically react to their peers and also connected nicely with the conflicts being explored in the subsequent activity. Links were again made to the children’s own experiences and to the play in ways that successfully built the students’ anticipation of the next task.
The students were then asked to work in small groups on a short extract of text from the play, reading some sections and representing meaning in physical freeze frames. The groups discussed, planned and rehearsed their sequence and were later joined with another group who had been working on a linked scene so that there were two larger groups who took it in turns to perform a longer scene. In setting up the task Liz emphasised her high expectations of the performance and linked the room layout to an imaginary ‘in the round’ performance space.
The students engaged in lengthy and high stakes discussion with regard to their roles and responsibility. Some groups moved quickly to active rehearsal of movement, others spent longer planning. Some students, having been allocated a fairly small role took to practising this over again and, given that the role involved drunken arguments, they became highly immersed in their roles! This led to frustration from their peers. I was fascinated by this because it is so critical to the process of devising, for the students to have the chance to try out different approaches to group creative and collaboration and to learn from their own mistakes.
At times, this led some students to disagree and feel frustrated whilst a small number of others sat back and let peers take the lead. However, if students are micro-managed to ‘behave well’ in this context, and never experience the challenge of this sort of learning environment, they may not be able to fully engage with the play, the pedagogical approach and conflicting ideas. It was therefore compelling to see this work in a year 8 class with an NQT who had clearly been encouraged by the senior leadership team to use the active approaches to teaching Shakespeare without fearing that the buzz of activity in the room would leave her open to criticism. Indeed the role of the teacher here was to mediate in the groups and redirect their attention onto the important themes they were exploring, allowing them space and time to attempt to work together and begin to learn for themselves the skills involved in resolving differences and working to a deadline.
In one discussion the students suggested that what they had been asked to do was ‘not easy’ and Liz agreed that it was ‘hard’ but suggested that they ‘think about how they individually could make their contribution more effectively,’ supporting them in taking personal responsibility.
The performances were executed with varying levels of success and engagement, and a useful plenary followed where the students were asked to think like film critics about what could have been better, which led to some productive comments and a clear recognition by some students of the performances which had been particularly effective.
Importantly, they were asked if the activity had made them feel any differently about Shylock. Here the discussion became very animated, despite a weather change (to thunder and lightning) and the imminence of the bell. One student found the words he was looking for to help him explain his ideas about Shylock. He had played the famous character and felt he was ‘kind of redeemed.’ There was disagreement which was a highly stimulating end to a rich lesson which demonstrated the way the school draws on the RSC approaches to enable their students to claim Shakespeare’s characters as their own.