What is the significance of Shakespeare and working with the RSC for schools and their students located 200 miles from Stratford upon Avon?
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“The Buzz Word is Shakespeare”
Over the past ten years the RSC has worked in long term partnership with school communities across the country. With a fundamental ambition to transform young people’s experiences of Shakespeare and live theatre we have prioritised working with schools that do not traditionally access our work. In 2012 the RSC started a programme of work with a cluster of schools in Middlesbrough. The following study highlights the impact of the work for children and young people in three of those schools.
For students at Priory Woods School & Arts College (Special Educational Needs 4 to 19 year olds) the study and performance of Shakespeare has become an anticipated part of the lower and upper school’s curriculum.
Rooted in RSC rehearsal room practice teachers at the school have developed schemes of work to immerse students in the world of Shakespeare and his plays. Key to student attainment and enjoyment of Shakespeare has been the way in which teachers have applied RSC led approaches into their classroom practice. ‘On their feet’ and ‘doing it’ warm up techniques that explore the characters, themes and plots of Shakespeare has developed student’s speaking and listening skills. Performance led strategies have helped students to unpack the storyline and to brainstorm key words; allowing students to create physical actions to remember important characters and plots in the text. Dance work has encouraged students to use freedom of thought to create their own ideas to depict a scene from a play. While script work first of all involves paraphrasing the language (as actors would in a rehearsal room) and then exploring the original text.
“This type of learning is perfect for our students because its hands on and practical. It’s something that everyone can get involved in as part of team, working together to produce something that makes them feel really good about themselves”.
Aimee, Upper School Teacher
Children and young people at the school aspire and rise to the challenge of being involved in a Shakespeare play. Gillian, Upper School Teacher, “using RSC led approaches works so well especially for those who are not very vocal, it just gives them that confidence to believe that ‘I can get up and be that person’”.
Each year the production of a Shakespeare play at Priory Woods is the culmination of work between teachers, students and RSC practitioners. Of equal importance is the learning and sharing of practice that takes place between Priory Woods and other schools in the Middlesbrough cluster. Taking part in a play and also watching other students perform “gives our children get a sense of ownership and a sense of pride that they’ve done it”, Gillian. Young people that had performed in Henry V were asked to choose one word to describe their experience,
“Brill”, “Amazing”, “Smashing”, “Fab”, “Beautiful”, “Breath-taking”, “Excellent” and “Fantastic”
Motivated by performing Shakespeare and working with the RSC older students have been encouraged to think about personal progression. A group of Post 16 students involved in a production of Henry V have accessed and have received accreditation for AQA (Assessment and Qualification Alliance) vocational units in Learning to be Part of a Theatre Production. Rita, a student that had performed on the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in the RSC Regional Schools Celebration, was asked how she might use her new performance based skills Rita replied “…when I go for an interview…” and that she now feels more confident in front of strangers. A life skill that her teacher felt would be invaluable.
“In our school the buzz word is Shakespeare”
Gillian, Upper School Teacher
Teaching staff at Archibald Primary School (3 to 11 year olds) say that using RSC approaches in the teaching of Shakespeare has given children a voice to express their extreme emotions and thoughts. Located in one of the most economically deprived wards in the country some students at Archibald have faced experiences that are at odds with their level of development. For children that have suffered trauma through parental rejection, are from broken families or have been forced to escape their own country because of war, the stories of King Lear and The Tempest have a particular resonance. The rejection of a daughter that loves her father, sibling rivalry, elderly relatives with dementia, being cast out of a community and marooned are topics that have been raised and explored in a safe environment.
“The RSC has given these children the opportunity to respond to the stories and the language of Shakespeare. For some this has been a transformational experience”
The Reverend Glyn Holland, Archibald Primary School, Chair of Governors
By the time a child has reached Year 6 (11 year olds) at Archibald it is likely that they have explored, watched and performed in The Tempest, Henry IV, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Lear and Macbeth. On being asked what they enjoy about Shakespeare students replied, “… intrigued, the twists and turns in the storyline, you never know what is going to happen next…”, “…I like the ghost in Hamlet…”, “…Henry IV, it’s really dramatic, ‘the cold hand of death’, I really liked that one…”. In terms of Shakespeare performance, Year 6 students had a very definite opinion,
“When I’m playing a character, I feel like I am that character, it stays with me”
“I feel excited to be in a Shakespeare play”
Further into the conversation students spoke about the effect of learning and performing Shakespeare on their attitudes in the classroom. One young girl spoke about how she had enjoyed working as part of a group, listening to and sharing good ideas with her classmates and with students from other classes; a boy in the group said that the language of Shakespeare had made him “curious to learn what the words meant” and another student said that it had made his writing easier, “doing it step by step, it helps me to start my sentences”.
One lunchtime during his weekly visit to Archibald, Father Glynn noticed a Year 6 boy in the corner of the school playground by himself. The boy was clearly speaking aloud in a very animated way. Puzzled by the scene Father Glynn asked a student about the boy, “Oh that’s Luke” came the reply “he’s got a part in Henry IV and he wants to learn his lines really well”. Father Glynn was struck by the respect and by the acceptance with which the second boy spoke about his peer.
Teaching staff at Archibald say that working with RSC practitioners and integrating performance led approaches into classroom practice has expanded children’s horizons. In performing Shakespeare at the Acklam Green Centre in Middlesbrough, on the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford or at Number 10 Downing Street, children at Archibald Primary know that they have been given a special opportunity and they have responded to it.
“When I first came to this school I was really shy. Now I feel inspired”
Year 6, student on learning and performing Shakespeare
A group of Year 9 and Year 10 students (13 to 15 year olds) from Macmillan Academy (Secondary 11 to 18 year olds) spoke about the significance of using RSC led approaches in drama and as a part of their learning.
For this group of young people use of rehearsal room approaches “allowed Shakespeare to be tackled from a different perspective”, Year 10 student. Students said that they enjoyed taking part in Shakespeare lessons where the desks are pushed back. RSC approaches help to build a “comfort zone of understanding” in connecting them to the language of Shakespeare. Put concisely by a Year 9 student, “when it’s fun you learn more”. One student, Maria spoke about the way in which drama acted as a release to the pressures of study saying “I’m already stressed, watching and doing drama makes me happy”.
Of importance to this group was the way in which rehearsal room techniques had enabled students across all year groups and from other schools to work together as a ‘company’. For example, recognising the value of students being able to observe and share how different schools have interpreted the same scene from a Shakespeare play. In school and in regional festivals, students from Macmillan have explored and performed in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Henry IV, Henry V and The Tempest.
It was clear that this group of students shared a strong sense of comradery that had been built from their collective journey with Shakespeare and by their involvement with live theatre.
Students also indicated that they were aware and appreciative of the role of teaching staff at the school who had worked in making Shakespeare and drama opportunities accessible to them. Teaching staff said that it has been inspiring to see confidence levels grow from students who are applying RSC led approaches to the exploration of Shakespeare’s text. It is visually clear that they enjoy experimenting and exploring hidden meanings beneath the text. Not only is it exciting for students but members of staff feel empowered by the work introduced by the RSC and find it thoroughly rewarding to see the work of Shakespeare being enjoyed by a new generation.
“Working with the RSC has opened new avenues for our students. One being performing on the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, something that will stay with them forever”.
Lynsey, Drama Teacher