It was in my first year of teaching that I was reprimanded for putting plastics bags over the heads of an entire class of Year 7 pupils. My defence--which even now seems eccentric--was that I was trying to bring Shakespeare alive. But it's true--and had its roots in my childhood.
Some time before the onset of the most sullen depths of my adolescence, my parents would take me a few times a year to Stratford-Upon-Avon where we'd see a play which my dad would dutifully doze through. It was here that I saw The Merchant of Venice for the first time, in a production which set the play within that shimmering city's annual Carnival festival. It emphasized the mystery and menace of the play, and provoked questions about identity and belonging, because many of the characters--at least on the slippery slope that is my memory--wore exotic masks.
At Garforth Comprehensive School in 1985 we didn't have exotic masks. It's not what you would expect to find even in this growing suburb of east Leeds. Which is where the plastic bags came in.
I learnt as a pupil that there's little more tedious in school than grinding through a work of literature, hearing it read around the class, pretending to understand or even be interested in it, whilst secretly awaiting the bell. And yet as a rookie teacher I didn't have the confidence of my colleagues who taught drama. I found chairs, desks and blackboards more reassuring than the empty space of the drama studio or stage. I wanted my drama to be safe and manageable and non-threatening--for me at least.
The plastic bags routine was what we'd now call a starter. At the start of every lesson I'd take the class down to the brightly lit foyer that formed the entrance to the English Department. I'd get out the plastic bags--from Tesco, if I remember--put on a cassette of a Brandenburg concerto and off we'd go. The students had made eyeholes in the bags, so it wasn't as reckless as my critics might suggest, and through these they watched me, standing before them with a bag over my head. From there I'd raise an arm, sway, point and stretch in time to the music. It was like some madcap aerobics routine at a Ku Klux Clan convention. Yet even the most mild mannered, the most nervy and self-conscious student, liberated by the anonymity of the plastic bag, would join in.
After what I would grandly describe as our Venetian masque, we would retreat to the classroom, push the desks aside a bit, and act out the play. Somehow the inhibitions had been shaken away by the little spot of silliness with which each lesson began. Until the reprimand.
That was in the days when Shakespeare didn't have to be done in schools. We forget that now. I started teaching in an era of 100% coursework assessment, when I could choose the texts I thought would best suit the class. Sometimes we'd do Shakespeare; sometimes we wouldn't. Sometimes, if we 'did' him, we'd do him for pleasure, not to write an assignment about. Sometimes we'd read a bit and then watch a film. And, in those days, I used to take a mini-bus of students almost every week to catch productions of anything in the glamorous theatres of Bradford, Leeds, Sheffield, York and, at the never-to-be-overlooked Wakefield Opera House. We were building an interest in Shakespeare and, more broadly, a first experience for many of theatre-going.
And the collective experience of my students and me was that this was all a good thing to do. We were having relaxed, lightweight encounters with Shakespeare, and I'd be surprised if any of those students looked back now on the experience with anything other than a bemused smile and a feeling that there were many worse ways of being taught English.
What then happened is that we began to take our Shakespeare too seriously. …