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Leeds Meet Shakespeare: Making a Start

A guest post by Claire Chambers (English) and Sarah Olive (Education), University of York

On 24 November 2017, a group of teachers, academics, council employees, theatre and arts practitioners from Leeds, York and London gathered at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. They proceeded to strut, charge and spin their way around the room, playing out archetypes from Shakespeare and characters from The Tempest. Along the way, they became acquainted with Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud (the Moroccan Ambassador to Elizabeth I), considered other intersections between Shakespeare and South Asian cultures, discovered resources for teaching Shakespeare, and arranged visits to each others’ schools. What was the impetus for this energetic and varied activity, which borrowed from everyday work but offered an unusual amalgam?

Leeds Meets Shakespeare is a project led by Claire Chambers, with Sarah Olive and a team of project partners: Therese O’Sullivan, Learning Improvement Consultant, from  Leeds City Council, Children & Families; Sarah Westaway, Head of Arts Development from Artforms; Amy Lancelot, Creative Education Manager at the West Yorkshire Playhouse; and Georghia Ellinas, Head of Learning from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Therese O’Sullivan says of the collaboration: ‘Leeds City Council Learning Improvement Team are delighted to be a part of this exciting project which will celebrate the cultural capital of Leeds pupils and provide excellent professional development for teachers in Arooj schools’. Amy Lancelot offered her theatre education team’s perspective: ‘West Yorkshire Playhouse is always looking for new ways to support schools with their delivery of a vital and vibrant curriculum. We believe taking part in ground-breaking research is an important part of this, and look forward to potentially expanding the project throughout Leeds in later years.’

The project asks whether teaching Shakespeare can raise the attainment of Year 1 English as an Additional Language (EAL) pupils in literacy, oracy, and self-confidence. (If you’re interested in EAL Shakespeare, see also Teaching Shakespeare magazine issues 1, 3, 6, 7, 9, 10, 12, 13 and forthcoming 14.) It also asks how Continuing Professional Development sessions for teachers around postcolonial, Bollywood and other South Asian Shakespeares might help their effectiveness in the multicultural classroom. Advancing Chambers’ long-standing collaboration with Leeds City Council and Artforms, as well as developing new partnerships, the project will be piloted in six Arooj (‘Ascension’ or ‘Arising’) primary schools.

These schools have a significant numbers of British-Pakistani and -Bangladeshi pupils and an above-average intake of EAL pupils. Resources and skills for teaching Shakespeare will be developed that can be rolled out to other schools after the lifetime of the project by the Arooj schools as well as the West Yorkshire Playhouse in their work with and beyond these schools. The broader project Arooj is an ongoing initiative to improve the attainment of Leeds pupils of Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage. Chambers was involved with Arooj as it went city-wide, encompassed primary and secondary schools, and promoted better understanding of Islamic cultural backgrounds. She then worked as a consultant for the affiliated Kids’ Own Publishing project (2013−2015), in which reception children from Arooj schools worked with an artist to produce simple picture books in dual languages. These picture books were developed to increase the number of books available in which pupils could see positive images of themselves and their languages reflected.

The primary aim of the Leeds Meets Shakespeare project is to engage teachers and their pupils in creative approaches to literacy, oracy, and emotional intelligence. Each of the topics is built using Shakespearean stories (namely The Tempest and A Winter’s Tale), and comprises intensive teacher training, in-class support by a team of Learning Consultants, and a focus on the National Curriculum. Introducing British-Asian pupils to Shakespeare’s language at a young age should prove invaluable to the development of their vocabulary and confidence. The project has three key objectives which will be measured in terms of their success and associated outcomes:

  • To accelerate the progress of EAL learners in their English language development by using drama to increase their skills in using spoken language (oracy) and develop their reading and writing skills (literacy). Our specific related objectives are to introduce EAL pupils to The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare, and to explore the stories (their characters and themes) through participatory drama sessions.
  • To increase teacher confidence in using drama and role-play to support the teaching of oracy and literacy. We will develop and pilot an approach to the teaching of oracy and literacy which can be shared and rolled out to other Arooj schools. Teachers will work alongside a specialist drama practitioner to deliver 12 sessions with their class. The project will conclude with the creation a set of teaching resources which can be shared with schools locally and nationally.
  • To support and encourage parental engagement and increase parent voice. At the end of the project, the team and the schools will organize a celebration event involving parents, teachers, and children at the Carriageworks Theatre, working with West Yorkshire Playhouse (WYP) practitioners. Testimonials from parents, audience feedback, and other forms of engagement will be used to consider the success of the project.

As the project rolls out over the next few months, you can follow its progress on Twitter with the hashtag #LeedsMeetsShakespeare and our accounts @clarachambara and @DrSarahOlive. Additionally, Claire Chambers is a columnist for Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest and most widely-read English language newspaper, and reflections on the project will feature there. We plan to report back to British Shakespeare Association members on the project’s results. In the meantime, please find attached our Powerpoint slide shows on ‘Shakespeare in South Asian cultures’ and ‘Resources for Teaching Shakespeare’. The full article relating to Chambers’ attachment, ‘“To Love the Moor”: Postcolonial Artists Write Back to Shakespeare’s Othello’, was published in 2016 in the journal Postcolonial Interventions. We hope these materials inspire you in your teaching Shakespeare. If you have any questions about the project, or would like to get in touch with questions concerning it, please email claire.chambers@york.ac.uk.

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