beware the ides of March!

This post is written by Lexi Earl, on her trip to King Ethelbert School in Kent.

During my time at King Ethelbert School, near Margate in Kent, I got to observe a Year 7 English class. The class were studying Julius Caesar. The English Department had chosen Julius Caesar as the Year 7 Shakespeare text because they were also participating in a production of Julius Caesar at the Marlowe Theatre, as part of their work with the RSC.

The class I witnessed was focused on the scene where Caesar is murdered (Act 3, Scene 1). While the class moved their tables and chairs to the edges of the room, Loren Hooker, their class teacher, asked them to think about “what the soothsayer says to Julius Caesar” and “why this is important”. We then arranged ourselves in a circle and Loren asked the class what the soothsayer says. “He says, beware the ides of March”, answered a student. Loren asked when the ides of March are – March 15th and why this is important – because it is a prophecy. It foretells Caesar’s death. We then began a warm-up game.

Everyone gazes at the floor. As Loren counts to 3 we take steps forward. On 3, we all look up, trying to lock eyes with someone opposite and say clearly “beware the ides of March!” If you lock eyes with someone, both of you are out of the game and have to die ‘a dramatic death’. This game was a lot of fun. The children in class were very enthusiastic, belting out the line dramatically, and falling to the floor when they ‘died’. Loren varied the speed at which they said the lines, and the voices they used (there is much laughter when they have to speak as an old woman). Eventually she brings the game to a close and they reflect on the skills they have learnt – coordination, voice projection, eye contact.

The class then moves on to a Woosh! They continue sitting in their circle but now participate in a reenactment of Act 3 Scene 1 while their teacher narrates. Loren tells the class to pay attention to the status of their character – how would they hold themselves, what would their posture be like?

The teacher says there is a huge crowd cheering. She runs around the circle, pointing to a number of students as she does so. The students shout enthusiastically and raise their arms, some with fists clenched, pumping at the air or waving. Another student is chosen as Caesar – he walks past the crowd. The teacher calls freeze and the crowd become silent, frozen in their stance. She chooses a number of senators and a soothsayer (the girl comes to take her coat from the table). The soothsayer joins the crowd and the senators join Caesar in the middle. The soothsayer pulls her coat up over her face, so that it is like a witch’s cloak. The teacher explains that Caesar spots the soothsayer in the crowd and gestures them forward. The boy playing Caesar calls the girl-soothsayer forward with his hand. The teacher tells them the lines and they repeat them: “the ides of March are here” he says scornfully. “Aye Caesar, but not yet gone”, she replies. “What does this mean?” Loren asks the class. She explains that the soothsayer is warning that the day is not yet over.

The class continues in this manner. There is a funny moment when the teacher says to an enthusiastic student, “you’re not stabbing anyone unless you’re sensible!” She continues, “I realize that is an unusual thing for a teacher to say” as the class laugh. Finally, Caesar lies dead on the classroom floor. “Et tu, Brutus”, he whispers.

KES LH class

Once that scene is done, the class rewinds briefly to the beginning of the play and the soothsayer’s initial warning. The students form two rows down the centre of the class and one child volunteers to be Caesar. Loren explains he is going to walk between the lines. The lines are the crowd and will stand and cheer. Loren says she will walk up and down the lines and tap someone on the shoulder – that person is then the soothsayer and must get in front of Caesar and say to him “beware the ides of March”. Caesar begins his regal walk down the lines and the children cheer enthusiastically – they shout and cheer loudly, some jumping up and down saying “It’s Caesar! It’s Caesar!” The Caesar-child shakes hands with people in the crowd as he goes along. The teacher taps a girl and she moves in front of Caesar and says the line but Caesar just dismisses her, doesn’t even really see her. Loren asks the class to freeze and explains what happened – Caesar was so caught up in being Caesar he didn’t even see the soothsayer! They repeat the scene and Loren chooses a different girl who jumps boldly in front of Caesar and says “beware the ides of March”.

After this Loren asks the Caesar-child what it felt like walking up and down. “It’s like I’ve had a birthday or something and everyone is congratulating me on becoming 12 or something!” She then asks the class how they felt, being the crowd – “someone with all the power is in front of me. It’s like oh my god.”

The class clearly understood the status and power held by different characters in these scenes, and how these change over time in the play. The opportunity for reflection also encouraged them to vocalise how it felt to play different characters, further enhancing their understanding of the play.







redeeming Shylock

Gregory Doran 2_001

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.