How pupils in East London have become inspired by Shakespeare.
Teachers at Eastbury Community School describe the usual response from pupils when they were told they are to study Shakespeare as similar to that of Sir Lenny Henry before he took on the role of Othello:
“I’m slightly allergic to Shakespeare... at school we didn’t know you were supposed to stand up and act it out... it just felt like some ancient language that we didn’t really understand...”
What a difference a year can make. For after being part of the RSC’s Learning and Performance Network, the teaching of Shakespeare in this East London school has been so transformed that students have been known to willingly stay in class during break time to discuss the character relationships in Othello. The change in attitude can be felt amongst both staff and pupils – as one English teacher puts it, “I have fallen in love with drama and Shakespeare’s plays all over again.”
Through their work with the RSC, teachers from Eastbury and a host of cluster schools enjoyed two INSET days where they learned how to integrate rehearsal room approaches into their teaching of Shakespeare and bring rehearsal room approaches to the classroom. Meanwhile pupils enjoyed a number of theatre trips (including to London’s Barbican to see Henry IV Part II) and several live broadcasts from Stratford-upon-Avon, considered to be highlights of the school year.
This new approach to Shakespeare has invigorated the school, as Anita Ark, Head of English, explains: “Our classrooms have been injected with fresh energy that values active learning as a real tool for progression and development, whilst our lead teachers have been able to develop strong leadership skills and become practitioners who can lead by example. There’s a real sense of excitement about Shakespeare this year, with new vibrant displays popping up in corridors and theatre trips being celebrated in the school newsletter.”
She continues, “As teachers we are often consumed in thinking about progress. The truth is, if we focus on ensuring our staff are equipped to deliver imaginative, creative and enjoyable learning experiences then our students will make the progress we hope for them.”
This progress is best described in breakthrough moments with individual pupils, for example the disengaged Year 10 pupil who was encouraged to engage with the text and then took on the task of memorising a line, allowing the pupil to make progress that had previously been unattainable. When another Year 10 pupil was asked to support his opinion with evidence he surprised himself with a direct quotation from the play, which he had memorised as a by-product of the participatory lessons. A gifted Year 13 student was able to recall quotes for a closed-book examination, an area where previously she had struggled to prove her ability. And those students who stayed behind to discuss Othello during breaktime – they were a low ability group with Special Educational Needs and English as an Additional Language.
Eastbury’s ambitions for years two and three of their time with the RSC is to being a strong cluster of local schools who will work together to create a local festival of Shakespeare. Anita Ark explains, “We want to leave a legacy in Barking and Dagenham... We have put the RSC motto ‘do it on your feet, see it live, start it earlier’ at the heart of our curriculum and hope to strengthen this philosophy over the coming years.”