ARCHIVE - SHAKESPEARE WITH YOUNG LEARNERS REALLY! WHY? HOW? (12-3-14)

This piece reflects on work presented at the AATE conference in Denver, Colorado (2014) where we shared a series of drama-based strategies for introducing Shakespeare in the elementary and middle grades (ages 5-13).  The sample of teacher-friendly approaches below are based on the work of experienced elementary teachers in Vancouver, Canada, who have been exploring Shakespeare with children for nearly a decade.  These activities were developed as part of a five-year nationally funded project on building community through drama in the elementary classroom.  George was the principal investigator on this project, and Sue was one of the key teachers facilitating the work in elementary classrooms. The Canadian-based project compliments the research and pedagogical work at the Royal Shakespeare Company (www.rsc.org.uk/education), and the Folger Institute in Washington, DC (www.folger.edu).

A number of publications have emerged from the Canadian study,[1] yet few of the actual pedagogical practices of teachers have been shared. [2] The activities offered below are informed by research and have proven to be pedagogically effective for introducing young learners to Shakespeare, in particular A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For experienced drama teachers, these activities are familiar, however what is perhaps new is introducing and sequencing them to introduce Shakespeare to children as young as six.  Feedback from the Vancouver classrooms where this work has been developed suggests that young children working with Shakespeare were highly engaged with the rich and playful language, stories, and complex characters (Belliveau, 2012).  As one of the parents of the children who has participated in this process suggests:

If I had to choose one reason why Shakespeare was valuable for my [seven-year-old] daughter I think I would say the worldliness she gained by learning Shakespeare. Why learn about Columbus? Why learn about the Black Plague? Why know a Beatles song when you hear it? You should just know these things, because even if you dont care about them directly, they affect the world around you. (p.170)

The misunderstandings, fears and questions raised in the plays are deeply linked to human nature and these resonate with children.  The work has been a way to also engage new immigrants, second language learners and children with different abilities, as a number of the urban classrooms where this work has been introduced consist of over 50% foreign language learners.

But still, why Shakespeare with young learners?

His language, over 400 years old, is difficult and often a challenge to understand. His stories are richly layered, as are his characters. And that is exactly why I (Sue) like working with his plays with my elementary students. It challenges and pushes them towards new learning.  Plus, the language is rich, lyrical, and often playful, something children enjoy. His characters are complex, just like they are, and people they know.

Shakespeare’s stories have all of the ingredients [of a good story] and plenty more – the common currency of popular stories throughout history and across cultures. What is more they are never simple in terms of their plotting or their moral thrust. There are as many complications, reversals, deceptions and misunderstandings in [his plays] as you will find in a shelf full of the best-loved children’s novels (Winston & Tandy, p. 2).

As an educator I am always trying to find ways for a story to “live” with my students longer. Shakespeare’s plays allow for that.  It gives my students and I permission to hang on to a story longer and to go deeper into one piece of literature. Baldwin & Fleming (2003) say drama allows us to, “hold in time” (p. 20), letting the words/text linger in their minds and settle there. The exploration of words and movement through the body deepens students’ understanding of the text and their response to it.

Saxton & Miller (2006) suggest that, “[b]eing literate is to be able to participate in the multi-literacies of society as readers, observers and communicators, processing and responding to meanings and practice that are personal, local, global and often, all three at the same time” (p. 31). Isn’t this what we want future generations to be able to do? Working with Shakespeare’s plays crosses many of these multiliteracies.

By introducing drama-based strategies to students at a young age they begin to develop an awareness and understanding of themselves and society. Drama strategies invite the child to imagine.  Doona (2012) suggests that “the brain accepts ‘knowledge’ as fact only when verified by emotional experiences; on ‘verification’, information is admitted to a deeper level of ‘knowing’” (p.4). Implementing drama-based pedagogies in the classroom is vital in fostering the development of citizens that are proficient in negotiating the multiliteracies of our ever-changing and complex society.

Studies on using drama with young learners have pointed to benefits in various areas including reading comprehension, writing, motivation, problem solving, empathy and socio-emotional learning (Belliveau, 2014a). Therefore, it is clear to us that the integration of Shakespeare into elementary classrooms will benefit and enrich future generations.

The drama-based activities below offer a sampling of work that can be explored inside elementary classrooms to bring Shakespeare in the mouths and bodies of young leaners.  We begin with three warm-up activities that are lower risks and group-oriented.  We then offer two drama-based strategies that are more challenging in order to explore the world(s) of the play more deeply.  These activities can be done prior to studying the play, although they work better if conducted while exploring the script or a story version of the play.[3]


 

1. Hello game  (5 min.)

Using the entire space of the classroom, ask students to walk freely and try to fill any open area within the classroom with their bodies.

Keep moving and find the empty spaces. No talking. Just walk and be aware of the open spaces.[4] Continue this activity for a minute or so.

Keep walking in the open space, but when you encounter another student, say “hello” with a wink of your eye.  Continue for 30 seconds.

Keep walking and now touch pinkies with other students that you encounter… then touch elbows.   You can suggest variations such as toes, hips, and so on.

… and STOP!

 

2. Group forming and tableau (5 min.)

Have students walk in the open space once again, finding empty spaces. Continue for 10–15 seconds.

Now, without talking, form groups of two and stand still. If there is an uneven number in the class, one group of three is fine.

Release yourself from the group and begin walking in the space again. Now form groups of three and be still. Release and form groups of four. Release and form groups of five. Release.For the final group, form groups of two. Now, in your group of two create a frozen image, a tableau of a king and a queen.

Give students a minute or two to work out their tableau. Then, count them down to their frozen image: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and freeze in your tableau of a king and queen. Stay frozen for a moment. Release the image. With the same partner, create a tableau of a happy father and daughter.

Count down again: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and freeze, and stay frozen in your tableau of a happy father and daughter.

 

3. Mood changes  (5 min.)

Ask half the class to form a line and become group A, and the other half of the class to form a second line to become group B.  Ask groups A and B to face each other and stand approximately three or four metres apart.

Group A you are very happy; all is well with you. Group B you are unhappy; every thing is going wrong, woeful.When I say “begin walking,” both groups walk towards one another very slowly. Now begin walking.

As the happy, group A people and the unhappy, group B walk toward the centre of the space, sound a chime or use another musical sound to illustrate the following:

When you hear this sound, I want you to gradually change to the opposite mood. When the groups meet at the centre, make the sound. Group A you are now unhappy, and group B, happy. Continue to slowly walk in the same direction as when you started walking. Group A should end up where group B began and group B where group A began.

Repeat once, so that group A now begins unhappy and group B, happy. When the groups meet half way, again make the chime or other musical sound. With that sound, students should change moods and walk in their transformed mood to the opposite side, from where they began.

[If time permits, debrief students about the three warm-up activities above by asking students to briefly share their experiences.  You can also discuss with them how these activities relate to events and characters within the play.]                   

 

4. Sculpting an image (10 min.)

If they are not familiar with the play, brief the students about Quince being the director of a small troupe of amateur actors.  Then, group students in pairs so that Quince will be sculpting Bottom to create an image:

In your pairs, one of you will be Quince and the other Bottom. Quince, as the director, must “shape” the actor into “a lover, that kills himself most gallant for love.” In other words, like a sculptor with a lump of clay, Quince must gently shape and refine how Bottom presents himself. Quince, you are to guide your partner gently and with respect for your partner’s body to form a tableau of a young man in love, noble and brave. Bottom, you are to follow your partner’s guidance with care and respecting your partner’s body to create a tableau of Bottom in the role of Pyramus.

Give pairs one or two minutes to sculpt/guide their artwork.

Now, switch roles, so that the first Quince becomes Bottom and vice versa, and begin sculpting.

If time permits, you can walk through an imagined gallery where frozen sculptures (images of students as Bottom in role as Pyramus) are viewed by the sculptors (Quinces) walking around the space. Then, switch to see the second set of frozen sculptures.

 

5. Bringing scenery to life (15 min.)

This activity can be done with any section of the play you and your students have read or explored.  We have selected one of the forests scenes where the lovers are quarreling (Act III, ii).

In this activity, invite students to become part of the forest and speak as animals, trees, or any other object found there. For example, you might begin the action as a tree and prepare some students in advance to become birds or rabbits or other creatures.  As examples,

Tree: I’ve been standing in this wood for nearly 100 years and I have never seen anything like this craziness. Humans usually just come for a walk. They might tug at one of my branches. But those two girls, they were really mad. And so were the boys.

Bird: I’ve been flying around this wood for some time, and I have noticed Puck do some nasty things to people. I think he likes to trick the humans. I saw him put juice on the Athenian youths, and then laugh out loud.

Invite more students (not briefed) to enter into the scene, becoming another part of the wood and commenting on the action from the play. As students enter, the wood comes to life to tell its story, allowing students to extend the story from additional perspectives. Once students enter the scene, they should stay in place to create the wood and its surroundings. For instance, the tree would stay frozen in place as other animals or objects share a narrative.

Once a number of students have entered the action you might clear the scene and start again to give those standing a break and allow new voices in. You might then extend the activity by having the animals, trees, plants, rocks, and so on engage in conversation with one another, sharing what they saw or heard someone else say. You might also include the Athenians in this activity by having two of your students interpret Helena and Hermia who enter the wood and use the brief text below. The speaking wood could then respond to what just happened.

HERMIA angrily towards HELENA

You canker-blossom! You thief of love!

What, have you come by night

And stolen my love’s heart from him?

 

HELENA

Have you no modesty, no maiden shame,

Fie, fie! You counterfeit, you puppet, you!

 

HERMIA

Puppet? Why so? Thou painted maypole!

I am not yet so low that my nails can reach unto thine eyes.[5]

The sequence of activities above is part of a larger set of lessons[6] that explore the entire play, leading the group towards a sharing of the play. Our focus in this piece is on exploring the work for in-class purposes, rather than intended for an outside audience. The activities may lead towards a presentation of the play, however, the goal is to develop group ensemble and removing the witness (or audience) during the process.  This allows for exploration without being judged. The sequencing is also important, as the activities build from one to the other and explore (in)directly tensions and dynamics within the play.  The activities are doable within a one-hour block and can be adapted to various scenes or moments within the play.

 


 

References

Baldwin, P. & Fleming, K. (2003). In Teaching literacy through drama: Creative approaches. London: Routledge/Falmer.

Belliveau, G. (2014a) Stepping into drama: A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the elementary classroom. Vancouver, BC: Pacific Educational Press.

Belliveau, G. (2014b) A Midsummer Night’s Dream (adapted). Vancouver, BC: Pacific Educational Press.

Belliveau, G. (2012). Shakespeare and literacy: A case study in a primary classroom. Journal of Social Sciences, 8(2), 170-177.

Belliveau, G. (2009). Elementary students and Shakespeare: Inspiring community and learning. International Journal of the Arts in Society, 4(2), 1-8.

Burdett, L. (1997). A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Kids. Willowdale, ON: Firefly.

Doona, J. (2012). A Practical Guide to Shakespeare for the primary school. New York: Routledge.

Saxton, J., & Miller, C. (2006). Story drama structures: Building supports for multiple literacies. In Schneider, J. J., Crumpler, T. P., & Rogers, T. (Eds.) Process drama and multiple literacies: Addressing social, cultural, and ethical issues. (pp. 15-34). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Shira, A. & Belliveau, G. (2012). Discovering the role(s) of a drama researcher: Outsider, bystander, mysterious observer. Youth Theatre Journal,26(1), 73-87

Winston, J. & Tandy, M. (2012). Beginning Shakespeare 4-11. New York: Routledge.


 


 

[1] See for instance Belliveau, 2012, 2009; Shira & Belliveau 2012.

[2] Stepping into Drama: A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the elementary classroom (2014a) is the exception as this text does offer pedagogical activities. The drama strategies presented in this article are adaptations of some of that work.

[3] See Burdett (1997) or Belliveau (2014a).

[4] Italicized font represents a possible teacher script.

[5] From A Midsummer Night’s Dream adapted (Belliveau, 2014b).

[6] There are eight full lessons and three complete role dramas in Stepping into drama: A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the elementary classroom (Belliveau, 2014a).

 

 


George Belliveau is Professor of Theatre/Drama Education at the University of British Columbia, Canada. His research interests include research-based theatre, drama and social justice, drama and L2 learning, drama across the curriculum, drama and health research and Canadian theatre.  His scholarly and creative writing can found in various arts-based and theatre education journals, along with chapters in edited books.  His latest book is Stepping into Drama (2014) which explores drama in the elementary classroom.  He frequently leads drama workshops on integrating drama across the curriculum for learners of all ages.

Sue Belliveau has been working with young learners ages 4-12 for the last two decades in various elementary schools across Canada. She has been part of numerous research projects where the arts (in particular drama) are integrated into learning.  She currently teaches a Montessori grade 1-3 class, and frequently leads drama-based workshops for teachers.

 
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