Carolyn O'Grady hears about an exchange that brought together students in England and France
To create and perform a bilingual version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, starring an English-speaking Romeo and a French-speaking Juliet, might sound an extraordinary or even bizarre idea, but it proved to be an inspirational one for two very different schools in France and England.
Shakespeare's love story was the main focus of an exchange last year between Oxford Community School, an inner city multicultural school, and Lycee Guillaume Fichet in Bonneville, a small town in the Grenoble region.
The event cemented a friendship between the schools and individual students which is likely to last a long time. The exchange culminated in bilingual performances of Romeo and Juliet in both schools, watched by pupils, parents and governors.
Oxford Community School has organised a range of multicultural links and activities in recent times, including one with Pakistan (the school has a large Pakistani intake) and student and teacher visits to Germany, Italy, France and the United States.
Deciding to strengthen the European dimension further, International Schools co-ordinator Karina Mayer opted for an exchange built around Romeo and Juliet, "because of my own fascination with Shakespeare and the fact I know how much Shakespeare is loved in France". Comenius funding was obtained from the British Council.
The school chose 20 Year 11 students and sixth-formers to take part, all having studied the play in English lessons. Apart from working on their performances, groups of French and English students stayed with each other's families, attended lessons at each other's schools, and went on trips. In England, this included visiting Stratford-upon-Avon and London, and in France going to Grenoble and Annecy.
The two schools made their plans by email and at a series of webcam meetings. Karina says: "Initially, some of the teachers were against mixing languages, but eventually we decided that was the way to do it".
As Romeo and Juliet is a tale of two families, it seemed logical to make one family English (the Montagues) and one French (the Capulets), hence an English-speaking Romeo and a French-speaking Juliet. The schools chose five scenes from the play, and then each translated what they considered were the most important lines from their own language into English or French, depending on whether it was a Montague or Capulet speaking them, and decided how the scenes would be directed.
In Oxford, work on the play was done in an after-school club and began about a year before the Oxford school went to France for 10 days, followed immediately by a return trip from the French school.
During the exchanges the two groups of students worked together, and each school gave separate performances to the same audiences - about 10 in each country.
The cultural differences between the two schools were marked, but were never a problem, says Karina. Guillaume Fichet was the only school in a small town with a strong community spirit. "And the parents all rallied round to help with props and scenery. They built a balcony, for example.
OCS is a school with urban challenges, and we didn't have a balcony, but it didn't seem to dismay the French students, everyone just got on with it."
"The performances were quite brilliant", says English teacher Sarah Lewis.
"Shakespeare is challenging at the best of times. It was great to see them doing it in French. They improved their French and they all grew in confidence. They're much more able to speak in public".
Hivar Zen-Alouch, who is a student at OCS, played Juliet. Her family is French-speaking and she is bi-lingual. "I now have a greater insight into French culture and people," she says. "I think this project has truly changed me. I feel more confident and determined."
Ashton Mills, who played Romeo, says: "For me, being in a play is always good even if you do it down the road, but this was even better. It was a whole new bunch of people and it bridged a gap between us, and provided a focus. I made a lot of friends while I was there, and my French has improved significantly. I would jump at any opportunity to do the project again."
The two schools are, in fact, already arranging another such exchange - this time with a focus on poetry.
* Global Gateway is a new "one-stop shop for international partnerships"
between schools supported by the DfES. Further details at www.globalgateway.org.uk
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* For information about Comenius and other projects that provide opportunities to introduce or strengthen the European dimension in schools and colleges, visit www.britishcouncil.orgsocrates-comenius.htm