Shakespeare in Context

By Woledge, Elizabeth | NATE Classroom, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview

Shakespeare in Context


Woledge, Elizabeth, NATE Classroom


In February 2006 the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and the English-Speaking Union joined forces to run the first ever Great Shakespeare Debate. This was a competitive debate for AS and A2 level students who came together to debate motions surrounding their set texts as well as more general Shakespearean topics. The event was a memorable two days culminating in a final which stood as testament to the fact that young people can be passionately interested in Shakespeare. The debate ran again in 2007 and 2008 and is to be expanded in 2009. Check out http://www.shakespeare.org.uk/content/vie w/458/468/ for details of how your pupils can take part.

Somewhere in the audience at the final of the first Great Shakespeare Debate sat two representatives from the local education authorities of Sandwell and Dudley--wouldn't it be wonderful, they thought, if something like this could be done for their GSCE pupils? They came to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust with a proposal and buckets of enthusiasm and asked what we could do. We had a few questions for them: Would these pupils have debated before?

No, almost certainly not. Would these pupils be familiar with the texts before the day? Well perhaps, it kind of depended. What kind of focus was desired? Textual analysis and speaking and listening skills. A tall order perhaps and it certainly was a challenge to take 120 pupils from tongue-tied shyness to confidence generated through their own success. So how did we do it?

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Pupils from 12 schools were selected to take part in the project targeting Year 10s operating at a B grade to try and raise them to A*. Each pupil spent two days with us. On the first day, having introduced a simplified form of debating we aimed to build confidence in speaking--on any subject! How long can you talk about purple socks, umbrellas or ice-cream without drying up? We then focused on textual analysis of scenes from Shakespeare, brainstorming points for both sides of a debate, and finally we aimed to bring these two elements, analysis and talking about it, together. On the second day we ran a series of semi-finals and finals which proved a memorable experience, particularly for the way in which they gave every pupil a chance to have his or her point of view taken seriously. The days were supported by student mentors from the Universities of Warwick and Birmingham, who were carefully instructed in the art of giving positive feedback (point out the good, point out the bad and come back to the good--or 'the S*%! Sandwich!'). Not only did the mentors provide moral and intellectual support but they also made real the possibility of progression to university. From our point of view we were impressed with the amount of information that pupils were able to extract from often short sections of text (presented dramatically by the student mentors), but felt that in many cases a sense of historical context was missing--more than one pupil who had watched Baz Luhrmann's film of Romeo and Juliet stated with confidence that the lovers first saw one another through a fish tank!

Keen to build on the enthusiasm which the pilot project had generated, we were asked to design a follow up day of debating for a selected number of students. …

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