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Giving Year 6 a positive start to Shakespeare

12th May 2021

Giving Year 6 a positive start to Shakespeare

Active story-telling is a technique devised by Sarah Gordon and Christopher Geelan with their Young Shakespeare series. Their mission was to introduce Shakespeare to the under 12s through practical drama activities so that their first experience of Shakespeare before secondary school was a positive one. I was lucky enough to be trained by Sarah in the 90s and have seen the incredible programme come to life over the past 24 years.

The premise behind the programme is to get the children excited about Shakespeare’s stories. Through drama the children live and breathe the main parts of the story and the key to the excitement is that, where possible, the children don’t know the story in advance and therefore each week there is a cliffhanger with children desperate to know what will happen next. Plays I have found most popular with this age group have been Macbeth, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet. The goriness of the tragedies, the passion of the fighting and of the romance and the slapstick and silliness of the comedies all make the most disinterested 10 and 11 year olds switch onto Shakespeare.

Year 6 have tackled Macbeth which began online in their bedrooms where we turned off the lights, found blankets which became cloaks and transformed into witches in our very own homes. It’s been a joy to return to school and be together in the same space to create some of the iconic scenes.

The accompanying writing that is produced from this approach to Shakespeare is always of a superb standard; when children truly understand a story from each character’s point of view, the depth of their writing has a maturity and depth. It isn’t uncommon for primary schools to study Macbeth in Year 6 but they often look at one extract or a film clip but rarely experience the whole story - themselves. This is the key to unlocking the love of learning and giving them a head start before secondary school.

I was emailed by a mother of a child I taught 10 years ago. She wanted to tell me that her son had just finished an English exam and he had got his best grade ever on his Shakespeare essay. It had been the play we had studied and he told her that he still remembered the drama from primary school, how it made sense to him and how he had found this essay the easiest to write. What wonderful proof of active learning becoming embedded into a child’s mind.

Many of us remember learning Shakespeare at secondary school, sat at desks analysing mysterious text that didn’t make sense to any of us. Of course it’s important to study the language and the poetry, but it needs to be in manageable chunks for primary aged children. This programme uses short extracts from the play which are either used in role play or by splitting the large soliloquies into sections and letting the whole class perform these.

YIn the photo above, every pupil is Lady Macbeth, about to launch into her famous soliloquy 'Out Damned Spot'.

Miss Jo F