FOR many school children past and present, and I include myself in this, the idea of sitting in a classroom taking turns to each read a paragraph from a Shakespeare play was always something that did not encourage much enthusiasm for his work.
I still have nightmares about sitting with a copy of ‘Macbeth’ in front of me, eyes from around the classroom glaring in my direction as I struggled to make sense of the words, often wondering why we couldn’t just watch the video instead. It would have been much easier, and probably more entertaining.
However, children as young as five are now being given the opportunity to engage in Shakespeare’s work in new ways to make both his plays and life come alive in the classroom.
Shakespeare Week, organised by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, is running from today to March 23 and is designed to keep the spirit of Shakespeare alive in schools while shaking off any underlying assumptions that his work is boring and tedious.
The trust’s outreach and primary learning manager Elizabeth Dollimore told the Mail that it was important to captivate children with Shakespeare’s work from an early age to make it less arduous when they come to study it in their teenage years.
She said: When they’re at a young age it’s when they’re most open to new experiences.
“Like a lot of us, they often start with the pre-conception that Shakespeare is boring. We’re trying to give them the best possible start so that when they get to secondary school and find out that they’re going to be looking at some of his work, they’ll think ‘Oh good, I like Shakespeare!’”
Around 2,300 schools across the UK have signed up to be part of Shakespeare Week, two of which are in South Derbyshire.
Year 4 class teacher Dan Genders also runs the after-school drama club at Coton-in-the-Elms Primary School, where pupils have been acting out Romeo and Juliet in recent weeks. They have already studied A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which proved to be so popular that he decided to choose another Shakespeare play for their next project.
He told the Mail: “It got a good response from the children, so I thought we’d give Shakespeare another go. In the drama club we’ve done things like Dr Who, and you’d be surprised but the children seemed to enjoy Shakespeare more. Romeo and Juliet is a nice familiar story that they can relate to.”
“We’re doing it through the drama group rather than sitting reading it in the classroom because it brings the story to life and I think it helps the children to understand it more easily. They also get more joy out of acting and performing than they do sitting with a book.”
He says that his pupils also enjoy a lot of the quirks found in Shakespeare’s plays, such as the language used by characters when insulting one another and that they have had a go at using some of his more unusual phrases.
Dan added that he was glad the school had chosen to take part in Shakespeare Week, as his work still very much remained part of the British heritage. He said: “We all study his plays when we go to school, so I don’t see why we should stop now. Like Roald Dahl, his work is world renowned to people of all ages.”
“When I went to school I found his work quite challenging, but I hope that giving the children this head start, when they read his work at secondary school then they will have had a positive experience and it won’t be like hitting a brick wall.”
One of his pupils, Jemima Brown, said: “I like the words he uses. They’re hard to understand, but they’re different. The stories are also realistic and really aren’t much different to what it’s like today.”
Year Five and Six pupils at Linton Primary School are also being encouraged to appreciate the work of the Bard, and put together their own performance of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ to proud parents in the school grounds.
Teacher Michelle Dytham said: “The literacy programme tends to focus on ‘talking a text’ and with Shakespeare, we’ve got so many great examples that kids of this age can use. You can get watered-down versions of his work, which we use, but the storyline still remains the same and they seem to really love it.
“In the past we’ve tended to do more drama-based activities after they’ve taken their SATs, but this year we’ve decided to dedicate a whole topic on Shakespeare, finishing with this performance. We’re also going down to Stratford, which is something we’ve done before.”
“They’ve shown so much enthusiasm for it, and everyone has played their part to put the performance together. We’re really proud of what they’ve achieved.”
The pupils were given freedom to produce the play in their own way, only receiving guidance from teachers. They also made their own costumes and props.
One pupil, Ella Downing said: “It’s not just learning about his plays, it’s learning about his life and the past, which has also been really interesting.”
From visiting both schools, it’s clear that Shakespeare’s work is still alive and strong within the curriculum
Most importantly, though, children are being afforded the opportunity to engage with it in a way that will only fuel their enthusiasm.