Take a tip from Baz on the Bard
TSB First Act By Peter Reynolds TSB Artsbound Project, in association with Royal National Theatre Teaching pack, including video, free to registering schools
The Graphic Shakespeare Series: Julius Caesar Romeo and Juliet Macbeth Retold by Hilary Burningham Evans Brothers Pack of five student books #163;14. 95 Teacher's book #163;15
Baz Luhrmann's recent violently modern and magnificently visual film of Romeo and Juliet could stand not only as an ideal teaching resource but as a valid goal of Shakespeare teaching in itself. The language is Shakespeare's own, but in Luhrmann's adaptation its difficulty and strangeness simply drain away. Today's teenage film-goers are not too far removed from the "groundlings" who stood in the London weather at the Globe with never a thought of going out to study a quarto afterwards.
Shakespeare is not a book but a stage action, where linguistic complexity,inevitably toughened by four centuries of separation, is easily reduced by experiments in enactment. All Shakespeare teachers can be their own Luhrmann, given the nerve, the keenness and the opportunity. Luhrmann may not be every teacher's model, but the point holds true. It lay behind Rex Gibson's Shakespeare and Schools Project at the Cambridge Institute of Education, and other initiatives of the past decade or so.
Gibson is still at it. In recent years he has been busy with the Cambridge School Shakespeare, an attempt to match modern textual scholarship with modern school needs. Shakespeare's Language is part of the Cambridge enterprise, but the methods derive directly from the project, and take for granted some familiarity with the activities it fostered.
The Cambridge School Shakespeare does not draw an artificial line between GCSE and the sixth form, and nor does Shakespeare's Language. It is "designed for 14 to 18-year-old s of all abilities", a claim it duly justifies. The national curriculum now imposes the study of Shakespeare at key stages 3 and 4, and in practice that means Shakespeare's language.
Gibson's worksheets - divided into two sections, language techniques and language into drama - take on board the key elements of traditional language study. These include "imagery", "personification", "verse", "rhyme", "irony", and theatrical applications such as "character", "themes", "songs", and "stage directions", all linked to extracts from a range of plays.
The approach is strictly "hands-on". No extract is overloaded with a sack-full of forbidding tasks; most have two or three. These are practical experiments in choral and individual speaking, invitations to try out interpretations, trial runs at stage design, and other ways of activating text.
There are plenty of opportunities for writing, ranging across parody, imitation and free creative work. national curriculum requirements for reading, writing and speaking and listening are met, but the collection is a piece of imaginative bridge-building between language and performance.
Teachers wanting a way in to such approaches, especially those anxious about initiating practical work, could not do better than the TSB Artsbound resource pack, First Act. Its author, Peter Reynolds, worked with Rex Gibson on the Shakespeare and Schools Project, and Gibson is the dedicatee of Reynolds's earlier book,
Practical Approaches to Teaching Shakespeare, which fills out many of the ideas outlined in this pack.
It is a well-designed and manageable aid, encouraging and not intimidating for inexperienced teachers, which covers a lot in a little space. The five paired worksheets, one for teachers and one for students, cover topics from "Getting Started" (which includes introductory games and warm-ups, all the indispensable preliminaries that Gibson's new collection takes as read) to "Shakespeare's Stagecraft".
This pack is a gift for the teacher (quite literally for registering schools), and the accompanying video is valuable for teacher and student alike.
The Evans series, Graphic Shakespeare, is a good try at the hardest task of all. Given the mandatory requirement for Shakespeare, what do you do for students on the very edge of competence - either because their ability is low or because English is a second language and a foreign culture?
The student books are like early readers, with a short and simple retold text on the left-hand page and a picture on the right. It is the Beatrix Potter format, with just tiny snippets of original text below the picture.
The photocopiable worksheets in the teacher's book present easy tasks built around key speeches, supported by accompanying paraphrase. This is Shakespeare almost without Shakespeare.
These are competent and useful books, which answer a need. But I hope the students who use Graphic Shakespeare will also be taken to see Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet.
Peter Hollindale is a senior lecturer in English and educational studies at the University of York