Selling Shakespeare to Key Stage 3 (Begin with Doctor Who ...)

Article excerpt

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Ah ... September ... The season of pristine uniforms, ties at full mast, eager Year 7 faces, the scent of sharpened pencils and ... Shakespeare!! What is it about this name that inspires so much fear and trepidation in the minds of teenagers everywhere? As Trevor Wright points out:

'Shakespeare is the maths of English. He is also the only compulsory author in the English National Curriculum.'

(How to be a Brilliant English Teacher by Trevor Wright, Routledge 2005--available from NATE catalogue.)

Generally the only pupils not afraid of delving into the Bard's work are the ones doing nothing to stifle their obvious yawns and that's before they have even read a word that he penned.

The following is an account of how we spent a year trying to challenge and change the way our pupils viewed Shakespeare. We focused in particular on students at Key Stage Three, believing firmly that we needed to grab their attention early!

Cultural disadvantages

I teach in a comprehensive school in Blaenau Gwent. The borough is one of the poorest and most deprived in Wales but that doesn't stop us from having intelligent, enthusiastic, lively pupils. The majority of them want to learn and want to succeed but culturally the area is disadvantaged. The live performances and theatre workshops that can play such a vital role in encouraging a respect for Shakespeare are few and far between. I knew therefore that steps had to be taken to change the long held view of pupils in our school; that Shakespeare is boring, a waste of time and completely irrelevant to their lives.

I first realized we had to do something positive after having the following conversation with a pupil in Year 7:

Who can tell me one of Shakespeare's great works?

'Oliver Twist' Miss.

Err ... No. Who can tell me who actually wrote 'Oliver Twist'?

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I just told you miss. It was William Shakespeare. The department decided that we had to do something quickly if only to scotch the growing rumour that William Shakespeare had penned the immortal line Please Sir, I want some more.

As Acting Head of English I decided to designate 2007/2008 as Tredegar's very own National Year of Shakespeare. I began by giving a selection of pupils from Key Stages 3, 4 and 5 a questionnaire in order to assess their feelings about studying his plays. Their responses held no surprises. The majority of pupils were just plain scared, others found the whole idea of studying Shakespeare boring and whilst I was relieved that not too many more pupils thought he had written Oliver Twist there was, in their answers, an overwhelming sense of 'Shakespeare? So what?' As a department we were going to have to be as proactive as possible in order to celebrate Shakespeare and his great works.

Background resources

Believe it or not our journey began with Doctor Who. As a way of introducing Shakespeare to our Year 7 and 8 pupils we allowed them to watch the episode entitled The Shakespeare Code. The Doctor's journey back in time to Elizabethan England allowed the pupils to visualize the streets of London, the Globe theatre and the fashions of the day, all in an entertaining, non-threatening way. Pupils are so often hampered in their understanding by their basic lack of knowledge of the period. We have also begun a Shakespeare resource box--a simple idea but one which is proving effective. Students can use the box which contains various books about Shakespeare, his life and times, facsimile memorabilia and a model of the Globe (made by some artistic Year 9 pupils) to deepen their understanding of the playwright and the time in which he wrote. It also enables them to be independent in their own learning. They can find out what they need to know when they need to know it.

Live performances

We were also fortunate in that a Welsh theatre company performed a modern version of Much Ado About Nothing in a local theatre. …

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