Rae Seymour, who develops education resources at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), encourages primary school teachers to use Shakespeare and theatre when teaching young learners.
The general question – why teach Shakespeare to younger learners?
I know there is some doubt within the world of education as to whether or not Shakespeare is still relevant for young learners and how much pupils with English as an additional language can really gain from it. Having taught for several years, I'm familiar with these voices and can, to some extent, understand the reasoning behind them.
However, while working with the RSC, I have seen theatre-based teaching approaches have an effect on learners of all ages and backgrounds. Learning Shakespeare can sometimes feel like learning a new language, and that instantly puts everyone in the same position. Pupils who struggle with literacy are suddenly as capable of succeeding as anyone else, and pupils with less confidence in English quickly discover that no-one else knows all of the words either. The same is also true of younger pupils – so much language is new to them anyway, as they encounter new words every day. In my experience, the younger the learner, the more fearless they tend to be when working with Shakespeare.
Shakespeare works so well with young learners, as it strikes a balance between being relevant to them, and also far enough removed from current life that they can talk freely about what goes on in the plays. I've seen teachers introduce the idea of justice using King Lear or Julius Caesar, for example, to help learners build arguments, and debate. The way learners respond to this is different from how they would respond to something familiar like playground rules, in which they have an emotional stake. It can be freeing for them to step away from reality, and working with Shakespeare grants them that freedom.
I think we often underestimate young people’s resilience and ability to make connections when we write them off as ‘too young’ for Shakespeare. I certainly have in the past, but not anymore.
The practical question – what are theatre-based learning approaches?
When approaching Shakespeare this way, the aim is to create a safe environment where learners can ask questions and work together. As well as being physically safe, this space must allow children to feel comfortable enough to express their opinions, try things out, and, most importantly, have permission to fail without any negative consequences. A primary school head teacher who uses theatre-based approaches and has worked with the RSC for a number of years told me that the children really enjoy the ambiguity in Shakespeare's language. It gives them the sense that their ideas might be right.
Games are always a great way to begin, although this will depend on the group you are working with and the text you are studying. One way to do this is to arrange pupils in a circle and ask them to pass a single clap around the circle as quickly as possible in one direction. Every single person becomes vital, which creates a sense of teamwork.
Similarly, you can improve pupils' observation skills by getting them to move as a unit. First, you must ask your pupils to walk around the room and stop on your command. After trying this a few times, challenge them to continue walking and to stop in unison without your commands, and, more importantly, in total silence. For this to work, they will need to observe each other closely, until they start to move as a group.
When this team sense has been nurtured, you can start to lead activities that allow pupils to work with and access Shakespeare's language and ideas, de-coding it in the way the head teacher described earlier. For example, you could ask pupils to work in small groups to create images using nothing but their bodies. You might ask them to concentrate on small parts of lines like 'a pair of star cross'd lovers' or 'two foes'. By looking at the imagery in the language from the start, they will instantly begin to interpret. You can even do this with single words that might be unfamiliar.
Young learners are often incredibly adept at talking about how words sound and will tend to be able to work out meanings without much help. I once listened to a seven-year-old explaining why they thought 'capricious' sounded sneaky and spiky, and still consider it one of the best definitions I've heard. Shakespeare was writing for people’s ears as well as their eyes, so the ability to gain meaning from sound is often more insightful than any other kind of analysis that the children could be doing.
The necessary question – what happens when you learn this way?
Theatre-based approaches, as a break away from traditional teaching methods, tend to be very effective with young learners who are otherwise disengaged. Young people who don't respond as well to textbook-learning often become more engaged through theatre-based approaches in the classroom. For example, Luke, a school boy from Blackpool, was described by his teacher as 'often in trouble', and was reluctant to write or engage with his classes. However, theatre-based teaching and a trip to see a live performance totally changed his behaviour, and consequently his attainment. He gained confidence when he felt his contributions in class were valued. It improved his reading, writing and spelling by 'three levels', as the teacher told me.
Sometimes, it can be difficult to try these new approaches – lack of room and open space is one challenge. Another is the time it takes before these activities lead to writing work. However, it can be this freedom to experience the text in different ways that really enables young people to produce the kind of written work that seemed impossible before you began.