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30 March 2015

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Using active methods to teach Shakespeare

A guest post by Dawn McKinley, English Teacher, Bournville School

It seems to be the time of year for teaching Shakespeare and, although many teachers aim to incorporate a diverse range of active methods for teaching Shakespeare’s plays, many of us fall by the wayside and revert to ploughing through the text with line by line analysis. Active approaches are by far the most effective method of teaching Shakespeare, and there is a substantial amount of scholastic literature available illuminating the benefits of using such approaches to teach Shakespeare for all students. If this is really the case, why does there remain such strong reluctance and dogged resistance to adopting these approaches in many secondary schools?

There are a million different reasons why less adventurous teachers stick to the tried and tested line by line analysis. It is one way of ensuring that students know what we, as teachers, need them to know – their learning is passive and transient. Some of it will stick in their minds and some of it won’t. However, it all comes down to whether, as practitioners, we want to instil a love of Shakespeare and learning - to develop individual and thereby original ideas - or just give students sufficient knowledge to pass the exams. I would like to believe it is the former.

Despite the best intentions of educationalists and teachers, using active methods in the English classroom to engage and inspire students continues to be a challenging mission. Nonetheless, through performing Shakespeare students can experiment freely with Shakespeare’s language, which to a large extent removes the ‘fear’ factor; indeed, it goes a long way towards eliminating the idea that Shakespeare is elitist and inaccessible. In addition where students are allowed to bring their own interpretations to the text, they gain a greater sense of ownership of the script. Without doubt, student imagination has to be stimulated in order to gain a true insight and a deep engagement with the language in Shakespeare’s plays.

So, how can classroom practitioners incorporate this into their day to day teaching of Shakespeare? Perhaps one of the first steps is to demystify Shakespeare. If we begin by teaching Shakespeare as something that needs to be translated or explained, we are immediately implying that it is too hard for students to understand without some form of translation. If we begin by introducing the characters – perhaps via some well selected props or exploratory scenes – we can build student curiosity before introducing them to the language. Active approaches are, by their very nature, inclusive for students of all abilities. It enables and empowers students. Indeed, often when students are desk-bound it can become almost impossible for them to focus on the combinations of characters – of which there can be many – and the relationships between them, or the complexity of Shakespeare’s language; this can result in student confusion. Where students are performing or actively engaging with script it enables them to learn through physical movement and play, which serves to reinforce who the characters are in their minds as well as helping them to engage with the language more deeply. Where students are allowed to explore the language freely and give their own interpretations of the script, the potential for students to develop a relationship with Shakespeare’s words is significantly increased.

For those teachers who are willing to explore the use of active methods, the benefits are both powerful and influential; it creates a formidable teaching tool.

If you are interesting in further reading on this topic I would recommend Rex Gibson’s Teaching Shakespeare; The RSC Shakespeare Toolkit for Teachers; James Stredder’s The North Face of Shakespeare; and Joe Winston and Miles Tandy’s Beginning Shakespeare 4-11, which has plenty of ideas that can be incorporated into secondary teaching.




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