Burns meets Rab C Nesbitt

1st March 1996 at 00:00
A West End theatre on opening night could hardly match the buzz of excitement gripping Govan High School last month when pupils staged their very own 1990s interpretation of Robert Burns's Tam o'Shanter.

Standing less than five feet tall, in a kilt, carrot-coloured wig and tartan cap, Ryan Gillespie, aged 12, who played Tam, was showing no signs of stage fright. "This is the first time I've ever had a lead role and I've had 65 lines to learn," Ryan said. He modelled his character on Rab C Nesbitt. "Tam is just like Rab. He always goes to the pub and he always gets drunk."

Pupils not only acted in the show, they helped to write it, designed and made costumes, masks and stage sets, learnt Scottish country dancing, printed tickets and programmes, and baked shortbread to be sold during the interval.

What started life as a whimsical "what if . . ." in the staffroom had by opening night snowballed into a major production involving five school departments and covering a number of key strands in the 5-14 programme for expressive arts and English language.

June Mitchell, principal teacher in the English department, said: "A few of us were sitting chatting about the good old days, remembering when we used to do things because they were interesting, not because we had been told to. The idea of doing a unit on Burns cropped up, and it just grew from there."

The teachers wanted the project to be truly cross-curricular, emphasising that work in one subject can motivate, support and develop learning in another. Mrs Mitchell said: "A major feature of the project was that secondary subject specialists replicated a primary school topic approach to learning. At primary level, classes take a topic and explore it from all angles. That is what we did, yet every subject worked within its own priorities, while exploiting links."

Work on the project started in November after Mrs Mitchell made some shifts in the curriculum plan (which did not accommodate Burns) to enable her S1 and S2 pupils to begin a dramatisation of Tam o'Shanter as part of their writing skills unit.

The finished scripts were handed to June Alba, the drama teacher, who shaped the best parts into a three-act play. She admits the new version has a few "creative plot diversions". Govan's Tam not only won the National Lottery, he owned a cow called Morag and watched graveyard witches dance to Michael Jackson.

S2 art classes made papier mache masks, costumes and coffin boxes for the graveyard scene. In PE, pupils learnt Scottish country dancing and in music they began their Scots songs unit.

Rehearsals began in January, outwith school hours, three evenings a week for six weeks, with teachers and parents volunteering their time. When one pupil had to drop out a week before opening night there were plenty of stand-ins for the part.

Patsy Prentice, a parent and vice-chairman of the school board, said: "People think Govan kids are bad, but the kids in this school are terrific. The play has shown them that school is not just academic, it can be fun too."

The school's language policy committee has commended Tam as an excellent example of cross-curricular work and hopes such an approach can be adopted again. Mrs Mitchell, whose own experience of the poem was as "a teacher standing at the front of the class and reading it badly", believes there will be other benefits.

"I would like to think the project will inspire an interest in literature, " she said. "But it is more important to me to know that the pupils have gained self-confidence than that they have learnt a Burns poem."

The project has been sent to the Burns Federation and has been entered for the Glasgow Cup, which recognises outstanding artistic and literary work.

Shirley English

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