Special educational needs expert, Richard Burbage, publishes on TES as Ricardo65. Find out how his resources can help learners with autism and severe learning difficulties access Shakespeare.
Tell me a bit about your professional background.
I’ve been teaching pupils with learning difficulties for 25 years. In fact, I’m one of the few practicing class teachers who trained specifically in this field.
I have taught children with profound learning difficulties and coordinated the drama and ICT curriculums in my current school. As part of my work as drama coordinator, I have recently been invited to become a teacher ambassador for the Shakespeare Schools Festival.
Where did your passion for Shakespeare come from?
I share the same name as William Shakespeare’s most famous lead actor, Sir Richard Burbage, so there’s a natural connection there. Although, he has a much larger nose than I do!
I studied Shakespeare at A-level, but it wasn’t really until I was an adult that his plays really started to resonate with me. It was a version of The Merchant of Venice set in 1930s Italy at the height of fascism that got me started. It gave me a great grounding. I went back to the play and started both reading and watching more.
I particularly love the way that the language and the complex plots with their universal themes are so beautifully woven together.
Why is it important for Shakespeare’s work to be accessible for all pupils?
Shakespeare’s works are extraordinarily contemporaneous. The basic themes that run through his plays – love, family, politics – are still pertinent to this day, so learners of all abilities can take much from it.
The key is to set it up in a way that they can understand. By making it accessible, we can break down stereotypes and show the world what young people with special needs are capable of.
How do your resources support the study of Shakespeare for learners with autism or severe learning difficulties?
My scripts, made up of words and symbols, outline the bare bones of the play. Take Hamlet, for example. The basic plot is that the king is killed by his brother, the son finds out and wants to kill the usurped king, his uncle. The tricky part is ensuring the key themes and feelings also remain.
I make sure the scripts make use of familiar lines. In Macbeth, we use “Double, double, toil and trouble…” over and over again, but in a different tone of voice to convey meaning. At key crisis moments, it’s sometimes more useful to sing a song to a well-known tune and mime the action. These are also written into the scripts.
My resources are best used as inspiration. They have been developed over time to cater to my individual students’ strengths. The relationship between the teacher and the cast is just as important, if not more so, than the script.
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