Sunday, 10 August 2014

How We Should Teach Shakespeare in Schools

Recently, I got in contact with Brendan Kelso, author of successful series Shakespeare for Kids, and got into conversation regarding my little sister and how she was finding studying Shakespeare in school. I could imagine, being in a class of nine and ten year olds, this wasn't as much of a fun experience as I believe it could be. When I was in primary school, we studied no Shakespeare, so when I moved up to secondary school I was thrown into the deep end; baffled with sentences that didn't make sense, characters who moaned endlessly at an empty, starless nights, and story lines that concluded with every character dying at the end. It was worlds apart from anything I had studied before. It took years for me to finally understand, appreciate and admire the work of this great artist; valuing the importance of every word he said, and realising how lucky we were that these great stories, that have been around since the 16th century, are still available for us to enjoy now. 

I was fourteen when I discovered my love for Shakespeare. Luckily, I had English teachers around me who cultivated my interest and helped me to develop my knowledge. With their support, I have been involved in BBC's 21st Century Classroom, where I was lucky enough to take part in a Shakespeare workshop, and I have also performed at Shakespeare for Schools in Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, in an abridged version of Macbeth. The way I was introduced to Shakespeare was not dry, boring or strenuous; I was helped along the way using a variety of methods: from hands-on active engagement, to learning monologues off by heart in one of the world's biggest broadcasting corporations. 

However, I am well aware that there are very few pupils at schools in England and throughout the world who feel this way. For many children and teenagers, Shakespeare still remains an exhausting, gruelling playwright to study, for numerous reasons. It begs the question whether it is merely the age of the works, or the way we are teaching our children Shakespeare, that make it such a demanding effort to teach and be taught. 

Brendan Kelso is one man trying to change this perception.

Kelso's books, 'Playing With Plays', aim to amuse, inspire and actively engage children and adults alike in Shakespeare's most classic works. The books are packed full of humour, drama and even include snippets of language from the original works. I also checked out Kelso's various teaching resources that is on his blog, to help educators in their teaching of Shakespeare, including the ever so popular Shakespeare Insult Generator. Even at 17 years old, calling my mum a 'frothy half-faced maggot-pie' is still hugely satisfying. After hearing about Kelso's books, I decided to investigate the ways teachers and actors from Europe and beyond are using imaginative and creative ways to engage children with Shakespeare. I spoke to Maria Serena Falagiani, an English teacher at the Scuola "San Gaspare del Bufalo", Florence, Italy. She used Kelso's books for her 11 year olds, who were learning 'Julius Caesar', and described it as 'an awesome experience'. When I quizzed her on how she managed to engage her students in a play written in the 16th century, she was very quick to reply with, 

'The language used by Brendan is lively and energetic and very easy to follow. I greatly appreciated the fact that Brendan maintained some of the Shakespeare quotes. The kids appreciated that too. Speaking the "real" Shakespeare language made them feel important!' 

So this got me thinking. Maybe it is not the actual language in Shakespeare's plays that makes it hard for children to be interested in the story. Perhaps it is the way that we teach Shakespeare that causes the confusion, the difficulty, the anxiety. This thought led me to Ian Campbell, who is the Artistic Associate for the Shakespeare by the Sea Festival in St. John's, Toronto, Canada. Having thought that the way children were normally introduced to Shakespeare was in 'a boring or intimidating way', he decided to change this, by putting on a Shakespeare production for kids to watch and engage in, for free. Being told the response they get from the children who regularly attend these productions, it opened my eyes to a completely new way of introducing children to Shakespeare, and something that should happen not only in Canada, but all over the world.

I also had the opportunity to talk to another teacher, Debra Williamson. What she had to say on the subject of incorporating Shakespeare into the 21st century classroom was riveting, and really turned my mind to how we should view the teaching of Shakespeare to our students in schools everywhere.

'I can't imagine why anyone would NOT teach Shakespeare in the classroom. There are so many resources available today to introduce young children to Shakespeare... I think your question to me really is the answer....you have to know your students, and within that group, find material that interests and engages them. My students loved choosing their own plays, creating their costumes, and feeling free to use Brendan's materials to showcase their own talents and newfound love of Shakespeare.'

Brendan Kelso was also kind enough to send my sister a review copy of his 'Macbeth for Kids'. As a ten year old being exposed to her first dosage of Shakespeare, I was very interested in how she would react to this very different way of understanding one of Shakespeare's most famous plays. This is what she had to say:

'I liked how it rhymed when the witches were talking. I love rhymes.  I liked the front cover it was very eye catching and colorful. I really enjoyed the book most of all because in my class we stopped learning about it and so I didn't know how Macbeth ended. I  was glad to finish Macbeth. It was good because it scared me a little bit and made me want to read on. It was bad because it had lots of killing. The three witches were my favorite characters in the book. Thank you for sending me this book, Brendan.'

I think those words can speak for themselves. If only we can eradicate the idioms 'hard', 'confusing' and 'difficult' from the language of students studying Shakespeare, then we can really start to change the way Shakespeare is taught, appreciated and understood by children, teenagers and adults in schools and wider society.

Check out Brendan's website here: PlayingWithPlays.com