Radical makeover planned in the way Shakespeare is taught in the classroom

In the lead up to the 450th anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare, teachers are gaining much support in a change of approach as to how they teach pupils about his plays. They are hoping to adopt techniques that are used by both the directors and the actors at the RSC; Royal Shakespeare Company.

Britain will be celebrating this landmark in 2014, and the RSC are joining forces with the Warwick Business School in this pioneering move that aims to transform the Shakespeare experience in classrooms both in the UK and the rest of the world.

The RSC, based in Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, has teamed up with Warwick Business School, which is part of the University of Warwick, to change that.

Together, they have produced a one-stop shop online professional development programme, called Teaching Shakespeare, that holds a treasure trove of  materials including over 100 films  featuring modelled lessons and interviews, with leading RSC directors and practitioners along with academics from the University of Warwick.

This ground-breaking programme provides teachers with the essential skills and knowledge to develop active, drama-based approaches to teaching Shakespeare in their classrooms.

Encouraging students to get up on their feet and actively explore Shakespeare’s plays has already brought the text to life for thousands of youngsters through the work of the RSC’s education department. This new online learning platform, created by the RSC and Warwick Business School will be able to reach millions more globally.

Warwick Business School Professor Jonothan Neelands believes these teaching methods can not only improve children’s understanding of Shakespeare, but boost their self-confidence and communication skills as well.

“Our humble ambition is to transform how Shakespeare is taught across the world,” said Professor Neelands, who is a National Teaching Fellow and Chair of Creative Education at Warwick Business School.

“We find that the best way to encourage young people to develop a joy in reading Shakespeare is through getting them up on their feet, moving around, speaking the words and making the choices that actors do. The RSC’s research has shown that this approach is more likely to lead to a lifelong love of Shakespeare rather than sitting around in class and reading dusty books.”

“Children are often told what Shakespeare means, but this helps children engage with the plays and the ideas and take away the fear and threat. Because you have to make decisions on how to act it, it becomes part of you. It brings a playfulness and enjoyment to Shakespeare. We are taking the play back to being a play.

“It leads to an improvement in children’s understanding of Shakespeare and in their own development and self-confidence. It has been particularly successful in urban schools and in challenging schools.

“You have to remember 87 per cent of Shakespeare’s audience were illiterate and he made up a lot of the words, so they went off the sound. The understanding of Shakespeare’s language comes when speaking it out loud.

“Ideally teachers would come to Stratford and do a course with us here, but obviously that is difficult when you live in Australia or even in Durham, so our online learning platform site is the next best thing.”

Jacqui O’Hanlon, RSC director of education, said: “We know there is a global community of teachers that are passionate about teaching Shakespeare and who want to explore new ways of teaching in order to unlock language, inspire learning and release imagination in students of all ages.

“We hope to reach thousands of teachers through our new online programme and in doing so transform classroom experiences of Shakespeare for all kinds of learners. We hope that Teaching Shakespeare enables both teachers and their students to enjoy and achieve more together in their Shakespeare work.”

Eight year-old Ben now ranks Shakespeare alongside the most exciting things in the world after taking part in one of the RSC’s classes.

The Stokeinteignhead Primary School pupil said: “My dad said Shakespeare was boring, but he’s got it wrong! I’m gonna tell him about Hamlet. It’s got murders and ghosts and castles and stuff and that’s not boring.”

At Honley High School in Holmfirth in West Yorkshire, UK, teachers said: “Over 93 per cent of students were ambivalent or vehement in their belief that Shakespeare was not fun. After using theatre-based teaching over 79 per cent of students saw the study of Shakespeare as fun.”

And Lillian, a London primary school teacher in the UK, said: “After using practical approaches to Shakespeare we found the writing levels of pupils in a highly disadvantaged class had improved considerably: 86 per cent were now on target to achieve level four in their SATs. Before the Shakespeare teaching unit, only 53 per cent were on target.”