‘All our knowledge has its origin in our perceptions’ – Teaching Shakespeare at an all-boys comprehensive, post 1
So, here begins the diary of my experiences teaching Shakespeare in an all-boys secondary school. After studying an MA in Renaissance Literature, completing a dissertation on Shakespeare in education, and researching how Shakespeare is taught around the world for the Royal Shakespeare Company, I was ready to start putting some of my ideas about engaging young people with Shakespeare into practice.
My class are key stage three, aged 12-13, and mixed ability. The school is in a deprived area of Manchester with a large Asian population; I would estimate around 80% of the students are of south Asian origin. It is a secular state school for boys aged 11-16.
The diversity of ethnic origins, religions, and languages are the major challenges faced by the school, along with the often deprived backgrounds of the students. My English class are a drop in this ocean.
What I’ve been testing out with them over the past fortnight, is whether studying Shakespeare through utilising a variety of skills, or ‘intelligences’ as Gardner would put it, will benefit their engagement and understanding of the text. Obviously, all kids, as all people, are talented at different things. In theory, if you can offer ways into a complex text through using their best ‘intelligences’, each student will gain some comprehension and confidence with its meaning. In using the term ‘intelligences’, I do not mean putting the individual in their V/A/K box, but allowing kids to develop as many ‘intelligences’ as they can in order to become literate with the text. The VAK test – to determine whether the student is a visual, auditory, or kinaesthetic learner – focuses, I think, a bit too much on finding the learner’s preference of learning style and developing only that one preference. In doing so, it can potentially cause a barrier to the opportunity for each learning style to influence the other. For instance, a visual learner does not learn only by what they see – what they hear and what they do inevitably informs it. This is what the lessons I have been running aim to do: allow each kid to develop their understanding of literature through using all of these ways of learning together in one project.
I’ve been teaching Macbeth through a series of different projects leading up to the final assessment. The class have made a performance and film of the ‘is this a dagger I see before me’ soliloquy, and will be making a Powerpoint presentation to give the class that demonstrates their choices in adaptation. We have read the text together, watched Rupert Goold’s 2009 adaptation, analysed both, and looked at a variety of other adaptations of Macbeth on TV and film.
The mix of activities draws on those which are typically used English, Drama, and Media Studies classes. Each subject demands a slightly different set of skills, and begets a different way of looking at the text. Using Gardner’s breakdown of intelligences, or ‘ways in which we understand the world’ for clarity, by incorporating Drama and Media within English teaching allows students to learn the text through:
language, spatial representation, […] musical thinking, the use of the body to solve problems or to make things, an understanding of other individuals, and an understanding of [self].
Every intelligence is used except logical mathematical analysis. I would also argue that in a media-centred world young people also form an understanding through images. Below is a table of which intelligences are developed in each subject:
|English||Language, understanding of other individuals, understanding of self|
|Drama||Language, spatial representation, musical thinking, use of the body to solve problems and make things, understanding of other individuals, understanding of self|
|Media||Language, spatial representation, musical thinking, images, use of the body to solve problems and make things, understanding of individuals, understanding of self|
The core these subjects arguably share is the understanding of self and others through various modes of representation. It is to have emotional intelligence, to be literate in feeling and how to represent/ express it. Together, they can be used as different ways of perceiving the same thing, and in this case, the thing is Shakespeare.
Most importantly, using this range of creative media theoretically allows for a range of creative perspectives on the source text. Looking at the text as an adaptation allows students to own the text, and to develop their personal view of it.
Today, we made the film. There were 5 groups, each with a different sentence or two from the ‘is this a dagger I see before me’ soliloquy. Each student had to memorize the line, and perform it in a tone that was different from everyone else in their group. The resulting drama was a range of Macbeths; some angry, some confused, some melancholy, some stressed, some cold, some panicked (because they’d forgotten their lines: ‘is this a dagger I see before me, er… or not?’). They all performed and filmed in front of the class. Later this week, I will show them the footage to edit and then analyse (if I can organise it around school regulations, I will post their film on here). After doing so, the class will have begun to explore and experience a range of ways Shakespeare can be presented and perceived. We will subsequently be closer to gauging if, as Leonardo da Vinci put it, ‘all our knowledge has its origin in our perceptions’.
 Howard Gardner, The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach, (New York, BasicBooks: 1991), p. 12.