empathising and understanding the character

This post is written by Lexi Earl on her experiences at Minsthorpe Community College.

On my visit to Minsthorpe Community College in west Yorkshire, I was able to observe a Year Seven English lesson on Much Ado about Nothing. The lesson made use of the rehearsal room approaches encouraged by the RSC. The lesson took place in the centre of the class, with students moving around, forming and reforming groups, and sitting on the floor.

ST classroom2

Sal Thompson, the teacher, began the lesson by drawing the students’ attention to the board. This had the phrase ‘dramatic irony’ displayed on it. She asked the class if they knew the phrase. Sal explained that dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows something that the actors on stage do not, and this can lead to conflict or to humour. It is done deliberately by the playwright to achieve a particular effect.

The students then began a warm-up activity called ‘Zip, Zap, Boing!’ They had to pass an invisible ball of energy around a circle, calling either zip, zap or boing depending on where they were sending it. (Zip sends it right or left, zap is across the circle, and boing is a header or tummy throw). The students were soon laughing, looks of panic crossing their faces when they unexpectedly received the energy ball before they had decided what to do with it, and making eye contact with the receiver. They performed the activity in two separate groups. When they were all done, Sal brought them back together and asked them to reflect on the point of the exercise. They realized that by performing the activity in two separate groups, they had to concentrate harder and focus their attention on the game, because they were more likely to receive the ball.

They then participated in an activity called ‘Bomb and Shield’. The students walked around the room and had to find an ally by giving them a wink or a clear stare. They were not allowed to talk or touch each other, simply walk at a normal pace but had to make eye contact with their ally. Then, they had to decide on an enemy but not reveal whom they had chosen. Finally, the students had to continue walking but move so that their ally was between themselves and their enemy. They did this enthusiastically with much jollying and an increased pace in their walking. Soon laughter was breaking out. Sal then asked them to freeze, and resume a neutral position. She asked them to reflect on their activity.

“The end bit was hard trying to keep the enemy and ally cause the enemy didn’t know”, one said. “Is that dramatic irony Miss? Cause they didn’t know”, another asked. “Fantasic X-, that’s a slip for you because you’ve used what you’ve done and applied it to the vocab. Now, how can we apply this to how Beatrice is feeling?”

The class then focused on two extracts from the play. The first was from Act 3, Scene 1, where Beatrice overhears her friends talking about her, and the second from Act 2, Scene 3 where Benedick overhears his friends talking about him. The students were divided into groups. One student had to be Beatrice and stay silent whilst the rest preformed the lines. The students who were Beatrice were asked how they felt about the experience.

“It’s quite hurtful because you thought they were your friends”.

“You really want to speak out for yourself but can’t”.

“It got on my nerves cause if it were me I’d want to shout.”

They performed the reading again but this time Beatrice could respond to the audience. Once they’d all had time to say the lines, the group reformed to talk about the scene.

They then focused on the scene with Benedick and his friends. Once again, one of the students played Benedick and the rest were his friends, with their backs turned towards him. Benedick was allowed to respond whenever he would like and they read the scene through.

They discussed the scene. Sal asked what they thought Benedick thought of his friends. She tells them to think of what is being said – Benedick’s friends are not criticizing him the way Beatrice’s do. Rather, they highlight how Beatrice is secretly in love with Benedick. They make Beatrice sound lovely but also desperate.

“Why does Benedick speak but not Beatrice?” Sal asked the students. “Men are more confident and like the leaders”, a student answers. They go on to talk about the patriarchal nature of the Elizabethan era, how women had to respect men and couldn’t use their voices in the same way.

Molly Morgan, an NQT at the school, also used this approach to teach these scenes. When I spoke to Molly the following day she explained why such an approach is useful when dealing with complex texts.

If we’re doing any reading, I usually do it actively. I just find they engage better with it. Only one pupil can read at a time. So if only one pupil’s reading, everybody else is not listening usually. And in a lower set, most of the time if they can’t blatantly understand the language, if it’s not obvious what somebody is saying then they’re just not going to try and focus on it. Which is understandable. If somebody were reading Shakespeare to me, out loud with no tone or expression it’d be hard to understand, definitely. You need that expression and I think that’s something that the Year Seven’s are getting better at.

She went on to explain: If we were reading that as a whole class, they would probably be saying ‘what does this mean?’ ‘what does this mean?’ ‘what does that word mean?’ continuously throughout the reading. Whereas if you say, because they can’t all shout at you at once, cause you’re not even present within the room as far as they’re concerned, they’re in their own little bubble. So any vocabulary they don’t 100% understand, they just put into context and work out.

MM classroom3

In both classes the students seemed to have grasped the idea of dramatic irony, and the ways in which Beatrice and Benedick were being tricked by their friends. What is more, the students clearly enjoyed being able to perform the lines and participate in the class, making the whole process of learning fun and accessible.

the ensemble approach

Honley Shakespeare Ensemble - Henry V - Poster Design -  March 2016

The final observation during my visit to Minsthorpe School was a rehearsal for ‘Henry V’ by the school Shakespeare ensemble.  The students describe themselves as the ‘Henry’ group and are an extra-curricular group of Years 7, 8  and 11 pupils, launched by English Teacher, Sally Thompson, following her RSC Learning Performance Network (LPN)training. The scene being LPN rehearsed was the Minsthorpe contribution to the Honley Shakespeare Festival in March. The festival developed as a result of Honley High school’s involvement in the 2009. Minsthorpe first became involved in 2015 in order to increase opportunities for their students to further develop their interpretation and performance of Shakespeare’s plays with students from other schools in the area. As I observed, it was clear that the students had collectively arrived at an interpretation of their scene which they were then representing through a combination of tableaux and movement as well as language and even choral recitation. The dialogue throughout this decision-making process reflected a deep involvement with the text but also a firm connection with each otherally commented that that the students grew in confidence and demonstrated exceptional team-work skills in the process:

Working as an ensemble empowered the students to take ownership of the language and artistic decisions, and this mixed age, gender and ability group devised a powerful interpretation of Henry’s famous ‘band of brothers’. Their resilience, resourcefulness and respect for each other are vital skills they can transfer across the whole curriculum.

Edie Ewing, Year 7, added:

I’ve never acted in this way before. I didn’t realise Shakespeare could be so much fun, in the rehearsals and on stage; we could make our own decisions for how to move and speak, and even sing, if we wanted (which we did!) Mrs Thompson supported us with how it would look and feel as an audience member. It was a really exciting project. 

The group are already looking forward to next year’s ensemble scene for ‘The Tempest’.

Minsthorpe has also been keen to disseminate the RSC LPN approaches in the wider region through professional development for trainee teachers. As part of their local SCITT (School Centred Initial Teacher Training) Sally worked with trainee teachers from across the curriculum areas to demonstrate the techniques used and to share ideas about how these sorts of pedagogic approaches might be useful to subjects such as maths or history.