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The Issue - Exploring the world with Shakespeare

From love to prejudice, the timeless themes present in the Bard's work can help students to confront these issues in their own lives

From love to prejudice, the timeless themes present in the Bard's work can help students to confront these issues in their own lives

Undoubtedly, one of the best days I've ever had in my job was the one I was nearly mugged. At least, I thought I was going to be mugged ...

I was walking from my office to the station, following a short cut through a local estate. It was a route I had taken many times and it did not initially register that it was quite isolated, with no people passing by - until I saw the group of boys, that is.

About seven of them were riding their bikes towards me. When they reached me they started circling. Adrenalin pumping, I began to realise how the victims of shark attacks felt, even as I tried my hardest to look relaxed and "cool". One boy dismounted and came forward. Heart thumping, I waited for a demand for my phone or wallet. Instead, I got a question. "You're working with us on that Shakespeare project, aren't you? What are we doing next week?"

It has to be one of the best and most humbling moments of my career. The project in question was with a local school that had identified issues of conflict in a group newly formed from other classes. Our job was to explore, and hopefully resolve, some of those issues using a Shakespeare play as a tool.

Perhaps not very imaginatively, we had chosen Romeo and Juliet. In each session, the group looked at a different element and consequence of the conflict between the Montagues and Capulets. The students took different roles, from advisers to family members, and in doing so were able to interrogate what causes conflict and the ways in which such antagonism might be healed and relationships rebuilt.

Schools focus heavily on teaching Shakespeare but, as you can see from this example, the text is only half the story. The plays can be used to explore so many issues, from bullying, friendship and transition to judgements and their consequences - the list is endless. So what are the key factors to consider when learning through the Bard?

Why does it work?

The plays provide a framework for exploring specific issues. Shakespeare depicts worlds that are often alien to students, but the challenges and situations encountered by his characters can resonate strongly with our lives today. They are simultaneously distant from our experience yet relevant to our humanity. It is this combination that is powerful. Students feel "safe" discussing a character's feelings because these belong to the world of the play; however, in doing so they are enabled to reflect on their own response to such a situation.

How to get started

Think about the group dynamic and students' needs when choosing a play and planning the work. List the characteristics of the group; try to pick a play or segment that mirrors these closely. Consider the number of sessions available and give each one a distinct focus so that the group can easily see how their exploration of the subject is progressing.

How to use the play

The play is a catalyst for learning. In-depth textual analysis is not the focus. Use only a small part of the play if this serves the group. For example, you could use Ariel's dilemma at the start of The Tempest to develop empathy and problem-solving. It does not matter if the situations that students go on to explore are not in the play.

Going 'off-piste'

This type of work needs space to breathe so don't overcrowd sessions. The ability to respond to students' suggestions, to wander "off-piste", is crucial. Try to give them space to do so, applying their comments and ideas to the issue as appropriate. If you are not experienced in this approach, check out the videos of pioneering drama teacher Dorothy Heathcote on YouTube. They come from a particular time but will give you an idea of the possibilities.

Regular English teaching

It is possible to build this type of learning into lessons where we are teaching the plays themselves. For example, when covering Macbeth, we can examine the impact of our decisions on future events and how much we should listen to others. This type of connection with a character's situation can deepen learning. If we understand how a character might be feeling, we are more able to understand and analyse how the language they choose helps them to express themselves.

This use of Shakespeare can be a big investment for a teacher but it has produced some of the most powerful responses in students that I've ever seen. It can even make them want to interrupt a bike ride with mates to go and talk about it ...

Fiona Banks is senior adviser on creative programmes at Shakespeare's Globe. Her book Creative Shakespeare: the Globe education guide to practical Shakespeare is published by Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, priced #163;18.99


Cast of thousands: these crowd-sourced solutions to teaching 11- to 14-year-olds Shakespeare should give you plenty of ideas. bit.lyTeachingShakespeare.

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