Teachers at King Ethelbert School, in partnership with the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, are on a mission to raise the aspirations of their coastal community.

A Midsummer Night_s Dream_ A Play for the Nation. The Canterbury Players_ April 2016_2016_Photo by Topher McGrillis _c_ RSC_189864
A student from King Ethelbert School performing in A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Play for the Nation

In an area where social deprivation is the highest in Kent, and personal drive and ambitions are relatively low, they accept that Shakespeare is on the bottom of most people’s 'To Do' list.

Yet the response from pupils when they began their journey on the RSC’s Learning and Performance Network was far more positive than they ever hoped: “It’s become clear that our students have an enthusiasm for experiencing Shakespeare and a general love of learning on a level that we did not at first anticipate”, says Head of English, Carol O’Shea.

The trick lay in introducing the RSC’s rehearsal room approaches throughout the school. Carol explains, “When we first introduce Shakespeare to a class of students, we hold back the knowledge of what play it is, or who it’s written by. We play games linked to themes, or simply put some popular quotations down on the floor and ask them to create still images to show what it is they already understand. By doing this, we have seen students buzz with excitement, ‘Miss? Is it Shakespeare? Are we doing Shakespeare?’, ‘Miss? What play is it? Oh... tell us what the play is!’ Some students, even those who have never completed homework before, go off home and try their best to discover what play it is from the activities we’ve done in class.”

Within the first few terms of working with the RSC, the majority of Key Stage 3 pupils (11-13) had explored Shakespeare’s language in a practical way and experienced live performances. Older students soon followed. The result is that “we encouraged our students to be curious thinkers. They can interpret the plays in their own way which makes them truly engaged with Shakespeare’s work and able to gain much higher results than before.”

Perhaps the pupils explain it best themselves:

"I like the active strategies that our teacher uses because we understand it all a lot more. Before when we did Macbeth we were told what was happening and not working it out for ourselves." Year 9 Student

"I have found the lessons this week very helpful because I find it easier to learn things when I’m active, not stuck at a desk doing book work." Year 9 Student

One Year 13 student burst into tears when told she would be studying Shakespeare, certain that she’d never be able to understand it. After three months of rehearsal room strategies and a trip to Stratford to see Love’s Labour’s Won, she said “I can’t wait to get home and watch the DVD version”, a student truly converted.

It’s been a learning experience for teachers too. One English teacher with ten years experience explains how, “I was always happiest when the students were sitting down and we discussed meaning of language and other things. When we began on our journey to make Shakespeare learning more active, I was probably the one who was most resistant as I lacked confidence. ‘I have now delivered a series of lessons using rehearsal room approaches and am quite happy allowing them to play about with a text and find out for themselves in parts. I have understood that it is not about acting and whether I am good or not... it is about understanding through activity and appreciating language in a different way”.

Shakespeare now features regularly across the King Ethelbert curriculum, becoming the inspiration of lessons from science to maths. The school’s remarkable progress was the focus of a BBC Radio 4 Extra broadcast, when four Year 9 students became BBC School News Reporters for the day.

The legacy of the school’s work with the RSC and The Marlowe Theatre looks set to continue: Carol again, “These strategies have ignited a flame inside of us; because we are enjoying the teaching of Shakespeare, we become passionate about the work and that becomes infectious around the school.”