With Shakespeare at its core, why three headteachers and their staff advocate replacing one type of classroom practice with another.

In partnership with New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme

In 2013 a group of schools in North Staffordshire began on a journey with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle under Lyme to bring Shakespeare’s work into the lives of the youngest of school children.

At the programme’s core was the ambition to transform children’s and young people’s first encounters with Shakespeare, making it vivid, accessible and enjoyable. 

Today, the RSC Associate Schools Programme continues to flourish. The programme works with a growing number of schools and regional theatre partners from across the country to bring the work of Shakespeare to life.

In this study headteachers and teachers from three North Staffordshire schools, Springhead Primary, the lead school, Dove Bank Primary and Star Academy, talk about the effect of the programme on classroom practice and the resulting impact on the language and literacy development of pupils.

A key element of the programme is a commitment to the continuing professional development and learning of teachers. Each lead associate school teacher has a responsibility to lead practice with other teaching staff at their school and in partner schools.

Replacing One Type of Classroom Practice with Another 

At first exploring and learning to use rehearsal room approaches in the classroom felt very different, taking some teachers out of their comfort zone. Through reflecting on their practice and with the ongoing support of the RSC and the New Vic theatre, teachers settled into using the approaches in school. By the end of the second term teachers recognised the value of replacing one type of classroom practice with another.

“Pupils are encouraged to consider different responses to the text. The work has impacted on children’s reading and writing. It frees children to give far more explanation, it makes them braver, more resilient and more confident”. Jan, Year 6 Classroom Teacher, Literacy Lead, Springhead Primary

Kate, a Year 5 classroom teacher at Springhead found benefit in using the approaches to change the order of her classroom practice. By taking children out of the classroom into a different space, children find it easier to use their whole body to instinctively react to show ‘what is royalty’ before they verbalise or write an answer. Children are encouraged to “bring themselves and to feed their own thoughts into a lesson” says Kate. With no pre-determined right or wrong answers, children have become more self-assured to voice an opinion in class.

“Some children almost pigeonhole themselves into believing that they are not a good writer or a good reader, that is broken down through this work”. Kate, Year 5 Classroom Teacher, Springhead Primary

At Dove Bank Primary two classroom teachers, Alicia Year 4 and Greer Year 3, have noticed how year on year the quality of pupil writing has improved.  Both teachers attribute  the improvement in pupil writing to the development of their practice in using RSC rehearsal room approaches in the classroom.

“As teachers we have changed our attitude towards Shakespeare’s language. When children find language that they don’t understand, they’ve learnt that’s okay. Like us, find out the context, look it up, what do you think it might mean – our children have become far more active and confident in tackling Shakespeare’s language”. Alicia, Year 4 Classroom Teacher, Dove Bank Primary

Teachers at the school make Shakespeare lessons “experiential”, to build understanding about the play and empathy with its characters that leads a child to want to write. Pupils are encouraged to work with teachers to shape the direction of their writing: “if you were that character, if you were in that experience, what type of writing could you do?”, and in response “we could write a diary or a newspaper story” (Year 4 pupil).

Greer felt that the programme provides teachers with a toolkit, “a complete bank of creative and imaginative techniques that can be transferred and differentiated to any topic across the curriculum”. 

For the RSC Associate School’s programme to achieve the greatest impact possible on children’s learning, Headteachers at Springhead, Dove Bank and Star Academy advocate a whole school approach to the work.

Nicky Broomhall, Principal of Star Academy recalled how in celebration of the RSC Playmaking Festival in 2016 the school was transformed into the enchanted forest from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Children in Nursery looked at ‘who lives in the magical world of fairyland’. Pupils from Reception knocked on ‘fairy doors’, and called out, “Oberon, Titania, are you in there?”, then leaving gifts for the fairy king and queen. A trail of ‘fairy glitter ‘, sprinkled along school corridors brought gasps of wonder from children in Year 1.

While in Year 6 pupils explored ‘what does it mean to dream’. For children that do not always receive external enrichment, teachers creatively adapted RSC led approaches to develop a theme from the play that was appropriate for each year group. Nicky: “Jill Rezzano from the New Vic came and did some CPD with the early years’ team that was fantastic…Throughout the school every member of staff bought in to the experience”. 

In school and out the conversation continued. A parent had approached Nicky about an argument that had taken place between her two children, over the dinner table on the previous evening. The disagreement centred on Puck, who during the day had been up to mischief in the classroom. The two children, one from Reception and the other from Year 6 had quarrelled about whether Puck was a good or bad character.

“The RSC Associate Schools programme is very much at the epicentre of what we do and everything else evolves around it. I’ve seen a global change in our children. The immersion into drama has raised the confidence of our children. The writing skills of our Year 4 pupils has been transformed, the enrichment of their language and the way they piece it together, has led to them writing in much greater depth.” Nicky Broomhall, Principal, Star Academy

Asked what advice she would give to other schools who may be considering joining the RSC Associate Schools Programme, Eithna Ford, Headteacher at Dove Bank Primary said:
“make it whole school, commit to it, believe in it and it will transform”.