Stepping Into Shakespeare

24th November 2000 at 00:00
STEPPING INTO SHAKESPEARE. By Rex Gibson. Cambridge University Press pound;35.

COMIC BOOK SHAKESPEARE: Macbeth. Edited with a modern English translation by Simon Greaves. pound;7.99 + 5 per cent pamp;p (reduced for bulk purchase). Clear and Simple Shakespeare. Teacher's Book: Macbeth. By Simon Greaves. pound;19.99 SLP.

Faced with the unequal charms of paternal authority and Othello's love, Shakespeare's Desdemona observes "I do perceive here a divided duty". So it seems does Rex Gibson, confronted by the dictates of the national literacy strategy and the living presence of Shakespeare's plays.

His solution is much the same as Desdemona's. He takes polite account of the official directives which govern teachers' lives, and then turns with relief to his equivalent of Othello, the dramatic riches of Shakespeare.

These 50 or so photocopiable worksheets give teachers all they need to follow him. Designed for the nine to13 age group, they aim "to help teachers enable their pupils to inhabit the imaginative worlds of Shakespeare's plays and so improve their literacy". Implicitly, if you achieve the first, the second will take care of itself.

In the sample lessons, mainly devoted to A Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth and The Tempest, the pupils get a wittily illustrated page of text and the teacher a matching page of suggestions for whole class, group and independent work. The approach depends on the two tried and tested fundamentals of the Shakespeare in Schools project. The text is broken into small and manageable units, so handled that they brush aside he notorious barrier of Shakespeare's "difficult language". And the activities proposed are highly practical, dramatic and performative.

Gibson concentrates on the activities, and does not spell out the literacy gains they permit. But these will be obvious to teachers using the lesson suggestions with Gibson's own infectious commitment and enthusiasm.

This is first-class material, and children lucky enough to be taught through it will soon find out why Shakespeare is such an icon. In the process they will have fun, gain confidence and - yes - achieve the stipulated literacy targets.

The Comic Book Shakespeare and accompanying teacher's book share almost nothing of Gibson's emphasis on theatre. Only three pages of role play, setting up a modernised "gangland Macbeth", acknowledge the value of performance, and not of the original even then.

The teacher's book is certainly comprehensive and systematic. Aimed at an impossibly wide market from GCSE revision to key stage 2 and special needs, the crowded worksheets undeniably allow for differentiation, but the stressis heavily on tasks which involve ransacking Shakespeare's text for answers to problem-solving exercises - complete the quotation, find more examples, make a list, check who said this or that, and so on.

The work programme is divided into sections - historical background, character, key speeches, comprehension, language, themes - but everything boils down to comprehension in the end. It is hard to imagine students completing this work with any clear idea of its point.

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