The Conversation Shakespeare in primary

12th September 2008 at 01:00
Primary headteacher Annie Williams uses Shakespeare to inspire her pupils - even those with English as an additional language. Yojana Sharma finds out how she does it

Q: Ofsted recently judged your inner city school to be "outstanding" and referred particularly to the annual Shakespeare play. How did you begin teaching the Bard at primary level?

A: I was taught Shakespeare very well in school by a fantastic English teacher. When I first started teaching, I always put on a lot of plays, from The Odyssey to Beowulf, and I involved the whole school. About 15 years ago the National Theatre did a primary Shakespeare pilot, and at my previous school we did The Tempest. It was so successful that I carried on doing it when I became head at this school - we have just had our sixth Shakespeare play here. Last year it was The Merchant of Venice, this year Twelfth Night.

Q: How do you make Shakespeare accessible to very young children?

A: We teach Shakespeare from reception to Year 6, and the whole school is involved through performance, music and dance. But first we start with the story. I brought in a professional story-teller for an interactive session. Each class breaks down the story into little parts and uses some of Shakespeare's own language: "Who is thy kinsman?" rather than "What's yer name?" There's lots of bowing and curtseying. The children dress up and interpret the emotions. We don't show any films till the end - how can they compare their performance to that of Lawrence Olivier?

Q: Did Shakespeare's language pose particular problems?

A: The children quickly pick up and understand the different words Shakespeare used. What you are really doing is giving them the rhythm of the speech. We have many problem children and it is challenging to learn that language. But once you've got it, it stays with you.

Q: What about children who speak English as an additional language?

A: More than 60 per cent of our pupils have English as an additional language. What it does to their confidence is quite exceptional. It makes them feel capable of anything. All the parents come to see the play. It is another way to bring many parents into school: they previously came in only to shout and complain. Many have never seen Shakespeare before, so the children are educating their parents through the back door.

Q: Did staff need special training?

A: The staff were anxious at first that it would be too highbrow for primary. When I arrived at this school, it had enormous problems. I realised I could not teach every class, so I rang the National Theatre and brought in a director and Inset trainer. Our English as an additional language teacher, Luke Hollowell-Williams, worked in the education department of the National Theatre and was an actor for 20 years. The staff loved him. They need support, but involving the whole school makes it stimulating. Teacher training is all planning, assessment and initiatives. Where's the fun and enjoyment in that?

Q: What impact did it have on the pupils?

A: It inspired them to be thoughtful and perceptive. It really informs their writing. The standard of work that comes out is alarmingly good. You don't expect Y1 to be writing such sophisticated work - they make parallels between Shakespeare and the present, and between their own stories and Shakespeare's. We have high Sats scores in writing, which is unusual for a school like this. The Merchant of Venice was very powerful. Shylock says: "You spit upon my Jewish gabardine." Children of 10 and 11 are not too young to observe that level of hatred and racism and think about it. You can teach Sats till you're black in the face, but look what the children will have missed - the drama, the richness.

Q: What is the impact on the school?

A: Everyone takes part. Key stage 1 pupils interpret the play through dance, drama and music; Y3 and Y4 illustrate aspects of it; Y5 and Y6 do the whole play. They talk to Y1 about it, and it gives the younger children something to look forward to as they go up the school. I do fundraising. We raise the money for storytellers and choreographers. In the spring term, all the work is around the Shakespeare play. We link it to history, dance, drama, music, and we do lots of poetry. The children turn it into a huge book. I am passionate about the arts; what cannot be taught through the arts is not worth teaching.

Annie Williams is head of Holy Trinity amp; St Silas Primary in Camden Town, north London.

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