8 tips to engage students with Shakespeare

Teachers often need to encourage people to step outside their comfort zone. Whether it’s peers, students or parents, there are several techniques that can help achieve this.

By Andy McLean

Every teacher faces the challenge of getting their students to engage with new things. Young people can respond in a variety of ways, from apathy to nervousness; from excitement to outright hostility.

Teaching Shakespeare is a perfect example of this. The mere mention of the playwright’s name can strike fear into the hearts of some students.

Teachers Mutual Bank is helping teachers rise to this challenge by sponsoring Bell Shakespeare’s 2020 Regional Teacher Mentorship. ‘It’s important for students to be able to step outside their comfort zone, and we admire the teachers who go above and beyond to provide their students with engaging and enriching education experiences that build resilience and confidence,’ says Alan Waugh, General Manager, Teachers Mutual Bank. ‘Teaching these skills is more important than ever as we face unprecedented challenges. We are so proud of our teacher members who are working hard to educate young Australians both online and in classrooms during these challenging times.”

The Regional Teacher Mentorship sees 30 teachers, from all corners of Australia, take part in an all-expenses-paid learning intensive before returning to their schools for ongoing mentorship and support from Bell Shakespeare. The first 2020 cohort of teachers completed their four-day intensive in March, and the second cohort’s intensive will commence after social distancing restrictions have been lifted.

Teachers Mutual Bank has been a dedicated supporter of the Mentorship since 2017. ‘As a mutual bank for teachers, we are dedicated to investing back into the education community,’ explains Alan Waugh. ‘The Regional Teacher Mentorship is just one example of how we support and foster opportunities for teachers.’

One of Bell Shakespeare’s facilitators, Huw McKinnon, admits ‘there is definitely no magic solution’ to persuade students to give Shakespeare a go but there are several tactics that can help.

1. Get active

When William Shakespeare wrote his plays, his intention was for people to actively perform them for an audience. Today’s educators can take a leaf out of Shakespeare’s book by inviting students to get on their feet and say the lines aloud.

One of the Mentorship participants, Seamus Curtain-Magee from Kalianna School, in North Bendigo in Victoria, explains: ‘Getting students up and saying “Let’s have a go” is a great way to go. Taking part together can be hugely beneficial and it’s where the love of the plays is created.’

Huw adds: ‘When students have been sitting behind rows of desks in regular classrooms for most of the week, the opportunity to stand up and move around is often a refreshing change. Of course, this will be outside of some students’ comfort zones, so it’s important to take small steps and encourage everyone to have a go together first.

‘Most of our exercises break the text down. We often start with something that seems silly or nonsensical, giving students the chance to have some fun. Then we gradually build from there.’

2. Put yourself in the students’ shoes

Another Mentorship facilitator and Bell Shakespeare’s Head of Education, Joanna Erskine, points out that educators themselves might be out of their comfort zone when teaching Shakespeare. ‘It’s as much about the teacher’s inhibitions as the students’ inhibitions,’ she says. ‘In the program, we do exercises where the teachers feel a bit silly to begin with. It really gives them an appreciation for why students might be hesitant.’

Seeing a teacher step out of their comfort zone can help students let go of their own reservations, according to Mentorship participant Helen Henry from Monivae College in Hamilton, Victoria.. ‘If you can model certain exercises in front of students, you can show them that you understand their embarrassment. It is hard, and it’s supposed to be. Overcoming this is part of learning how to become resilient.’

3. Think about the sceptics

Every educator understands the value of preparation, and that certainly applies when taking an active learning approach to teaching Shakespeare. ‘Whether you’re presenting new ideas to fellow teachers, parents or students it can really help if you think beforehand about who the naysayers might be and their possible objections,’ says Joanna. ‘If you think in advance about who might want to pop the balloon – and what your answers might be – you’re giving yourself the best chance of overcoming resistance later on.’

When seeking to engage other teachers, Seamus says that common ground is a good place to start. ‘When objections come up, take a step back and acknowledge that we’re all in it for the good of our students. Resistance isn’t going to be because teachers don’t like their students and don’t want them to enjoy class. It’s more likely because teachers are daunted, tired or overworked.’

4. Jump in

Speed can be your friend when teaching Shakespeare, according to Joanna. ‘We get students on their feet and playing inside a strategy almost before they even realise they’re doing it.’

Huw explains that this takes students’ focus off the product and onto the process. ‘We don’t labour the point of every exercise. We might give the students 10 seconds to do something that they’d usually do in 10 minutes. We have a laugh about it and it shifts their thinking slightly. It’s definitely not easy but it’s about changing the energy in the room a bit.’

5. Assess (and harness) the personalities in the room

When asking students to step outside their comfort zones, peer pressure can be a big obstacle, admits Huw. That’s when reading the room comes in handy. ‘I spend half my time, and maybe most of my energy, trying to juggle personalities to see who we can energise in the room. For example, there’s usually one or two students who are the class clowns. They will get up to do something nuts because that’s what they like to do anyway.

‘Of course, it’s a balancing act – we don’t just want to teach the class clown! But getting them involved early on can set the right energy in the room and offer an example for the others to follow.’

6. Don’t be precious about Shakespeare

Helen admits that, in the past, she felt Shakespeare’s work was a little bit sacred, ‘I thought it was this golden pinnacle that couldn’t be touched and I didn’t want to put my dirty hands all over it.’ However, her perspective has since altered. ‘Now I realise I can put my dirty hands all over Shakespeare whenever I like!’

Joanna adds: ‘Tone is what matters in our teaching strategy. It’s not about telling students that they have to appreciate this classic work. It’s about saying “Let’s have fun with it. Let’s be playful with Shakespeare. We love it but we don’t worship it.”

7. Don’t change overnight

While active learning can achieve great outcomes, it takes time to establish new ways of working for teachers and students alike. ‘Instead of changing everything overnight, we recommend drip feeding a little bit here and a little bit there,’ says Joanna.

Huw concurs, ‘If you’ve been teaching the same way for the past five years, then perhaps try one or two new exercises to begin with. Active learning is a process of trying, failing, learning and gradually succeeding.’

8. Set realistic expectations

Every class in every school is unique, and teaching objectives have to adjust accordingly, says Huw. ‘We talk a lot about “the impact you can make” in whatever environment you walk into. You know in certain classrooms that students will be up for it. And there are other classrooms where kids won’t even look you in the eye.

‘For example, you might have a student who has become conditioned to not have their voice heard. If you get that person standing up, being present and maybe talking about a character, then you’ve done something worthwhile during that class.’

Helen believes that Shakespeare can be rewarding for every student, whatever their academic level. ‘It’s important to remember that just because someone doesn’t have high literacy doesn’t mean they can’t get something out of Shakespeare.’

Seamus agrees. ‘The pay off by the end is when the students are just so proud of themselves. It’s easy to underestimate that and think it’s some ephemeral, abstract thing that doesn’t mean anything but what we’re talking about here is self-worth. It’s about realising that there was something that they couldn’t do before and now they can. And that’s what learning is.’

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