There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so – according to Hamlet, at least. It may seem counter-intuitive to use the complex language of 17th-century England to introduce the already difficult topics of right and wrong, yet this is exactly what one teacher is advising schools to do.
Writing in the 15 August issue of TES, Karen Kelleher, a teacher at John Donne Primary School in Peckham, South London, advocates using the works of William Shakespeare to help pupils learn about morality.
“These terms are complex, multi-faceted constructs that can be influenced by a number of factors: cultural, historical, social and situational. It can be a minefield for adults, let alone seven-year-olds attempting to navigate the school day,” explains Kelleher. “However, one approach we have found particularly successful was introduced in a Globe Education programme: using Shakespeare’s stories as tools to encourage children to explore and make their own decisions about what right and wrong mean.”
There are a number of ways in which Kelleher says this can be done. One is role play – all the world's a stage, after all. She advises that children take on roles such as Prospero in The Tempest and the teacher present to them the choices that character makes, asking whether these choices were wrong or right.
You could also cast a Hal and a Falstaff from Henry IV: Part One and judge whether Hal really is the itinerant youth, always in the wrong, that his father believes him to be.
A second tactic Kelleher advises is the use of puppets.
“These can create or comment on a scenario and can be used by either the teacher or a child, offering lots of possibilities,” she says. “Hand puppets were provided by Globe Education for the characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and with a Puck puppet we explored his decision to play tricks on other characters. This encouraged lots of discussion about why the character made the choices he did and whether they were right.”
Kelleher suggests plenty more activities in her article.
Of course, these activities could be used just as well with other texts. Why not act out the moment Huck meets Jim on the island in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and discuss the choices Huck had to make in that moment. Or for very young children, you could question the deceptions of the mouse in The Gruffalo.
The key is to take a slightly sideways look at lessons in right and wrong, one that allows the children to form their own opinions in context rather than having the teacher impose parameters to concepts that are much too complicated to be defined so strictly.