Shakespeare: A worldwide classroom

Brazil - Part 2

February 25, 2013

Shakespeare e as criancas - Brazil

I first met Aimara Resende at the International Shakespeare Conference in Stratford in August 2010, and again at the Shakespeare World Congress in Prague last July; now here I am staying in her beautiful farm house in the rural interior of Brazil, watching a bright blue humming bird outside my window.

Aimara is a Shakespeare scholar, founder of the Shakespeare Centre in Brazil, and a remarkable woman. When she retired from São Paulo University, she and her husband moved here to São Francisco, a small town of 7000 people, most of whom are dependent on seasonal work from the local coffee plantations.

Recognising the high levels of economic and cultural deprivation in the town and the low levels of aspiration among the children, she set up a social project which teaches citizenship skills to local young people using Shakespeare's plays.

Each year a group of around 30 9 to 14 year-olds join Shakespeare e as crianças (which means 'Shakespeare and the children') and choose a comedy to study - this year's text is Twelfth Night. They explore issues and questions raised in the text which has been edited and translated by Aimara, and discuss how to appropriate the characters, settings and situations to their own culture, leading to a performance. All decisions, including casting, are taken democratically within the group.

Aimara intends to publish her programme of work, and encourage other similar groups, initially through the Gandarela Cultural Centre soon to be opening in Belo Horizonte. This all sounded like an essential project to learn more about on my mission to explore where, how and why Shakespeare is taught around the world.

The project has been so successful that some children did not want to leave Shakespeare e as crianças at 14, so Aimara set up a second group: Caminhando com Shakespeare ('Walking on with Shakespeare') which involves the older students and many of the younger ones keen to work on two plays. This second group are currently creating a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Music is an integral part of the project and my first meeting with the young people to see them rehearse Dream was accompanied by Augusto, a young musician who comes every weekend to work with the band and choir. He has taught many of the children to play their flutes, guitars, clarinets and various brass instruments from scratch.

São Francisco does not receive many foreign visitors and the children were clearly fascinated to hear me speak English, even though they understood very little - and although Spanish helped me a little, we needed Aimara's bilingual skills to take us beyond smiling.

On Monday we spent a whole day together exploring the beginning of Romeo and Juliet. They all knew the story, partly because Aimara had told them, but also because it has seeped into the national consciousness here, as in so many countries - here in Brazil, a popular dessert of guava jam and cheese is called Romeo e Julietta.

Our first hour of warm-ups and context building took place in possibly the most difficult space I have ever worked in (those Omani pillars seemed a fond memory). This was the sports court a local school - a football pitch - open on three sides and with an aluminium roof – way too big and way too echoey. It's testament to the students' enthusiasm that we achieved as much as we did.

We broke for an early lunch and regrouped at the project centre, a small narrow tiled room in the centre of town but nevertheless better than the sports court (although it did have a pillar in the middle of the room). As with many groups of young people, focus and understanding of the text were things to be developed but by the end of the day I felt we were really getting to know each other and through their friendly openness and keen interest, we created a pretty impressive ensemble performance of the prologue and first scene.

The next day I worked with their teachers. Our space this time was the computer room of the town's Secondary school - somewhat cramped for 24 adults to work practically (but at least there were no pillars).

The small, crumbling school caters for 550 11 to 18 year-olds and typically for Brazil, the school day divides into three parts:
07:00 to 11:30 for 16 to 18 year olds
12:00 to 17:30 for 11 to 16s, and
18:00 to 22:30 for a different group of 16 to 18s.

Teachers are not paid well and most do more than one of these three shifts. Rooms are anonymous classrooms, filled with lines of students at desks with the teacher at the chalkboard. On the plus side most students do stay at school until 18, because of the Bolsas de Familias (something like our now defunct EMA) through which families are paid to keep their children in schools rather than send them to work.

The group were a mixture of Primary and Secondary teachers responsible for delivering arts learning in addition to at least one and often several other specialist subjects.

There is more freedom in the curriculum below Grade 9, but from Grade 9 onwards, there is a regime of studying from state textbooks and regurgitating the knowledge in regular exams; several teachers bemoaned their heavily content-driven curriculum.

The Government prescribe 40 hours per year of arts education in Grade 9, rising to 80 hours per year in Grades 10 and 11. They don't prescribe which arts and in their one hour a week, many of these teachers choose visual arts as the 'easiest' option because they have no specialist training. Most had had no further training at all since leaving college and were therefore hungry for ideas and the opportunity to discuss and explore best practices in the classroom.

We talked a little about questioning, thinking skills and learning styles and Santusa commented, 'We know this as teachers but we have forgotten how to put it into practice because we have so little time and so much content to cover.' Many of their questions about the work centred on time, space and behaviour, in much the same way as with UK teachers, but with possibly even more external pressures.

We had a brilliant day: at lunch time, Flavia told me that it was the first time she had seen many of these teachers smile, let alone laugh, and Leandro, one of Aimara's protégés who was filming his own former teachers, found their child-like behaviour hilarious as they threw themselves joyfully into the games and activities. They were so appreciative of the chance to learn again that they all queued up to hug me at the end!

More hugging came when I said goodbye to the children the next afternoon, and many had written thank-you notes and brought small presents. It was all very touching. As Aimara drove me away from the town while the children waved and shouted 'perdemos vocé ja!' ('we miss you already'), I realised I had fallen under the spell of this small sleepy town with Shakespeare at its heart.

Next stop:

Photo © RSC

by Tracy Irish  |  No comments yet

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Teaching Shakespeare