Three scenarios, three acts.
ACT ONE: A school in a deprived area of Los Angeles.
ACT TWO: A fictional school in England, categorised by Ofsted as “failing”.
ACT THREE: A secondary school in England and the reality of teaching English texts in English schools.
This is a compare and contrast study of the teaching of Shakespeare in three different settings.
Two countries, both alike in dignity,
In fair US and England, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil schooling makes civil hands unclean.
In Sir Ken Robinson’s book “Creative Schools”, he mentions the work of a US teacher Rafe Esquith (Chapter 5) and his work with immigrant Asian and Latino families in Koreatown, Los Angeles – “a low-income area where overall achievement and graduation rates are low.”
“Many do not speak English when they start school. . . . . . Most of Rafe’s students qualify for free breakfast and lunch at the school. But most of the students who have passed through Rafe’s classroom have gone on to graduate from high school, speaking perfect English. Many have gone on to Ivy League and other top-ranked universities and to successful professional careers.”
As Sir Ken says, “All of this would be impressive and surprising enough. But even more remarkably, Rafe does all of this by teaching his students Shakespeare”.
What’s equally impressive is that Rafe isn’t a secondary (or high school) teacher. He teaches 9 and 10 year olds in an elementary school and they opt to do drama lessons after the school day has finished.
Sir Ken watched a “virtuoso” performance of “The Tempest” where the children “not only spoke the text beautifully, they played live music on more than a dozen musical instruments, which they had also learned to play during the year, and sang three and four-part harmonies.”
(Rafe Esquith’s book is called “Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire”.
Sir Ken Robinson’s “Creative Schools: Revolutionising Education from the Ground Up”is full of similar stories of how brilliant teachers inspire children through creative learning.
A “re-branded” failing secondary school is looking to improve and the head teacher and sponsor commission a local actor, Geoff, to come into school to teach the children “Romeo and Juliet” in order for them to enter a national competition.
“Aspiration” – that’s on every blazer
“Roger’s keen for us to get beacon status. (He’s) our sponsor. . . . made a fortune in frozen food.”
On Geoff’s arrival at school, there’s a background of noise coming from telephones, intercoms, children talking loudly, teachers shouting and SMT’s walkie-talkies – sounds that many in schools are all too familiar with.
Meanwhile in the drama department, the children are rehearsing for a performance of “Oliver”.
“They’re out of control” – says the drama teacher.
Geoff, played by the brilliant Tom Hollander, comes into school to recruit young people for the play. He’s asked to speak to the whole school in assembly “after which it’s healthy eating and house-points” says the deputy head for pastoral care.
Whilst the drama teacher is distracted by a telephone call, Geoff starts to teach the children “a bit differently”, employing learning techniques that haven’t been used in years. The drama teacher returns to find the children running around the hall but settling immediately when asked to do so. The children soon begin to enthuse about the play and consider the additional extras such as decent set design and the ingredients required for fake blood.
Geoff, not being a teacher, (which is constantly referred to) is oblivious to some of the health and safety issues and school protocol, culminating in him being alone with children, taking videos of them performing and using real knives and swords in the battle scenes during the rehearsal and a visit from the competition organiser. The drama teacher shouts for abandonment of the rehearsal when she sees blood, not realising it’s fake. It’s a disaster, and the assessor walks out.
The young people are hugely despondent and their “Aspiration” badges on their blazers feel like very hollow words.
In his anguish, Geoff shouts at the teachers.
“I don’t see why this school is so frightened of education. You spend more money on security systems than you do on books. You’re living in fear.
Aspiration. You aspire to nothing really. Just safe mediocrity.”
“The children were having the times of their lives. They were being taken seriously, and pushed, and criticised, and disciplined. But so be it . . . . . What do I need to work here? A degree in jargon? Oh and a health and safety certificate and a bloody lobotomy.”
The reality from which “School Play” is based is horrifyingly accurate. The writer, Andy Mulligan, explained how he too tried to teach “Romeo and Juliet” in school and how he too struggled to locate a copy of the play.
“A few years ago I was hired to direct a Shakespeare play in a school that was inching out of special measures. The project foundered, partly because of internal politics and resentments, but also because the joy of interrogating a provocative play with teenagers didn’t sit well with a school frightened of upsetting parents.
One day I needed a copy of the play, “Romeo and Juliet”. The English Department taught it, but to my amazement, nobody had a full text. Why not? Because the exam would test three particular scenes, so those were the ones photocopied, annotated and taught into the ground. Why waste time reading the rest of it?”
True conversation. Truly shocking.
How can this be right? How can Rafe enthuse nine and ten year olds about Shakespeare and we, in Shakespeare’s own country, can’t afford time to teach the whole text of his plays?
We’re not criticising teachers. We’re criticising a system that forces teaching and learning to little more than preparation for tests.
When the National Literacy strategy was introduced in England, time allowed for a class to enjoy an entire book was somehow no longer a priority in many schools. Children learned “text” from photocopied text books. “Extracts” was the name of the game – and still is.
We hunt for subordinating conjunctions and prepositions, for modal verbs and relative clauses rather than devouring books for their stories or for their commentary on being human.
Shakespeare isn’t celebrated. His work is abused – condemned to be measured, in parts.
We can all “extract” Shakespeare’s writing and place it in an entirely different context.
Is this really what the Bard would have wanted?
Shakespeare and his compatriot “Dead Poets” have an important place in our curriculum but they deserve to be taught in a manner that inspires learning. When we spend more time worrying about the dress code or how many walkie-talkies senior management can carry on their corridor duty rather than the depth of learning and the love of great plays, then we have to question what we are doing.
If young children whose mother tongue isn’t Shakespeare’s English can capture the soul of his characters and know a play inside out, then why can’t we afford time in our schools with our children and young people? As Sir Ian McKellen said of Rafe’s children, “They understand every single word. That couldn’t be said of all actors who do Shakespeare”.
This should be our aspiration – young children understanding and loving every word of Shakespeare.
For anyone who has missed “School Play” – on the radio at a time when most of those interested in education are otherwise occupied, then we would strongly recommend a listen now.