a wall, a lion and a moon

I have been immersed in Shakespeare for the past few weeks. Many of the schools I have visited as part of our Year 3 research visits have been RSC partnership schools and so I have been watching students learn sword-fighting, talking to young people about their participation in productions of The Tempest, or observing them devise stage directions for particular scenes. This is all fairly usual daily work.

A few weeks ago, while visiting Towers School in Kent, I had the opportunity to watch several groups of students perform scenes from different plays as part of their last English lessons before half-term. Becca Gardner, an English teacher and leader of the RSC work at the school, explained that allowing students to perform was a lovely way to end their 6-week study of a particular play.

The Year 7 classes had been studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is one of my favourite plays, and they were performing one of my favourite scenes – the play within the play, put on by The Mechanicals, that can be a masterful portrayal of comedy. I have seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed on several occasions but watching the Year 7s understand the comical aspects of the scene and master the language was truly enthralling.

The class took place within the school hall, which has a large stage and elevated seating area for the audience. The students were not intimidated by this theatre size nor by performing in front of their peers. They were all given about 15 minutes to rehearse the scene in their groups, and were then invited to share their performance with the class.

During rehearsals, the room was full of movement, laughter, dramatic falling, negotiation, exclamations, pulling, pushing, dashing, lying on the floor… On stage, the students were a joy to watch. In one of the first performances, Wall had to be bodily carried off stage by the other actors, so heavy was his imaginary wall costume. In one group, Moonshine was pulled around the stage by an imaginary dog, interrupting other scenes as he dashed past. Then he stood enthusiastically in front of Pyramus who was trying his best to deliver his final speech as an eager Moonshine held the ‘moonlight’ in his face. Eventually Pyramus grew so frustrated that he shoved Moonshine out of the way so the audience might watch his dramatic death.

In another group, Wall spoke in a high squeaky voice and took ballerina steps off the stage (going the wrong way), much to his audience’s amusement. In this group, Thisby whispered audibly to Pyramus in the final scene, “just die already!” One group had actors wandering around looking lost, even after the Wall had started to speak, as if they weren’t quite sure whether the performance had started or not. Pyramus died, then awoke and died again, then woke again and died once more. Even as they were taking their bows, Pyramus remained in character, collapsing and dying once more. They ended with a forlorn Moonshine on a quest for his lost dog. “Seriously, though,” Moonshine asked the audience, “has anyone seen my dog?”

I laughed so much during these performances that tears ran down my face and the young people in the audience looked at myself and Becca (who was also in tears of laughter) with wide, surprised eyes.

The students use of asides, gazing knowingly at the audience, physical movement, expressions, and complete immersion as The Mechanicals playing Pyramus and Thisby spoke to a deeper understanding of the play, and the power of comedy. They all really understood the humour in the scene. None were intimidated by the language. They were completed immersed in the lesson and fully willing to embrace the ridiculousness of the play.

What a wonderful way to end a six-week block of Shakespeare lessons! If anyone tells you Shakespeare is boring, or serious, or requires a lot of annotated texts to understand, I urge you to send them to Towers School, where the young people will quite happily prove you wrong.

a shared approach to shakespeare

This post originally appeared on the RSC’s News page. We have published it here with kind permission from the RSC. 

This post is written by Becca Wood, an English teacher at Towers School.

Working as the lead teacher at my school, within the Associate Schools’ programme has shown me the power of shared experience. My goal, as an educator, is to ensure that my students leave school with the tools that they need to be confident, engaging and eloquent. Thus, I see the value in the spoken word and importance of performance. As a challenge, I tasked my mixed ability Year 7 class, who had been studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream using an active approach, with learning Sonnet 116 by heart.

Initially, we began by using some of the RSC’s approaches to tackling a new text. Students were asked to provide actions for each line, giving a strong gesture to a significant word or phrase. Repeating this around the circle encouraged the students to recognise the power within the language physically, and gave them an understanding of the need to match this with their voices. Each student was given a line, which then became their line. Taking ownership of this, again, added a passion to their voices. Students were told to walk around the room, making eye contact as they went; as they did this, they would recite their line to someone else in the room. This allowed students to grow in confidence with their line, sharing a group effort to remember the language and rhythm. Before the lesson ended, the class returned to the circle and recited the lines in order, with gestures, one last time. An energy and excitement had already begun to emanate from the students. As they left, they were warned that by the next lesson, they would be expected to remember seven of the fourteen lines.

As I bumped into them around school, I would open the Sonnet with ‘Let me not…’ and pause for them to continue the line. Taking Shakespeare out of the classroom and into the corridors, canteen and school playground was phenomenal. The next lesson arrived and, with the support of our collaborative gestures, all students could recall half of the sonnet. An involuntary round of applause erupted from the class when they realised that they could do it and a wave of pride rippled around the circle. Obviously, the challenge did not stop there.

Students were given one more week to learn all fourteen lines. Within classrooms, their lessons would begin with a ‘fill in the gap’ activity, using the lines from the sonnet. As ever, I would continue to randomly test students; in the lunch queue, in the middle of writing, at the school gate.

As always, empowered by a confidence only possible through an active approach to a text, the students continued to surprise me. They began reciting the sonnet to other members of staff. The Principal, sat eating his lunch in the canteen, was approached by two boys, who asked, “Can we tell you a poem, Sir?” They then recited Sonnet 116, in its entirety, in the middle of a packed canteen. Other members of staff would send me wonderful emails about my passionate Year 7s, who had recited a poem to them with such vigour.

During a packed Open Evening, the Vice Principal gave a welcome speech in which she praised the fact that at Towers School, the students recite poetry at lunch; after which, a tearful parent came up to her and said, “You’re talking about my son, aren’t you?” She had recognised the change in her child and could not believe what he had felt empowered to do.

A collaborative, active and shared approach to Shakespeare allows students to shed themselves of any inhibitions and immerse themselves in a shared exploration of the text. My Year 7 class understood that what they were doing was not easy but by doing it together, as an ensemble, they felt empowered.