Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Much Ado About Nothing

The Royal Shakespeare Company wants us to teach Shakespeare to 4 year-olds. Does it get any cookier than this? A bunch of state-subsidised actors telling us that they have the secret of success in the education of our children? Much as I love Shakespeare, this is a recipe for disaster. There's a time and place for Shakespeare - age 4 is not the time, and pre-school is not the place.

Shakespeare was smarter
Last year I saw a wonderful Taming of the Shrew at the Old Vic, a play about life and learning, with stacks of references to learning, teaching, schools and lessons. The play presents different methods of learning by Lucentio, Hortensio and Petruchio. He covers book study, tell & practice and learning by strict instruction. On the whole Shakespeare has a clear distain for an over-scholarly approach to life and learning. Learning Latin is satitrised, the expense of University questioned and learning at one’s own pace praised. Learning from experience is his recommendation.

The play starts with a goal:
Here let us breathe and haply institute
A course of learning and ingenious studies.

On learning:
O this learning, what a thing it is! O this woodcock, what an ass it is!

On scheduled learning:
I am no breeching scholar in the schools;
I'll not be tied to hours nor 'pointed times,
But learn my lessons as I please myself.
And, to cut off all strife, here sit we down:
Take you your instrument, play you the whiles;
His lecture will be done ere you have tuned.

Drama is a wonderful thing in schools but pre-school Shakespeare would kill interest off quicker than Caesar in March. Shakespeare knew this, it’s a shame that his minstrel troop haven’t learnt the lessons of his work.

PS
This announcement was followed up by plans for a ‘Centre for Articulacy’, announced by another luvvie – Peter Hall. Yet another centre for an abstract concept. The said centre is to be in
Surrey of all places!

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16 Comments:

Blogger Karyn Romeis said...

You know, I love Shakespeare. I have appeared in a few of his plays myself. But when are the powers that be going to realise that HE IS NOT THE ONLY PERSON EVER TO HAVE WRITTEN PLAYS IN ENGLISH!!!!

For goodness' sake. There have been one or two others. And outside of these shores, there have even been one or two halfway decent works produced in the English language.

But if they must learn a Shakespeare play, why does it have to be the same one year after year after year? I swear, the kids at my sons' school think he wrote Romeo and Juliet and a few other things.

Mutter mutter grumble rhubarb rhubarb

10:58 AM  
Blogger Mark Frank said...

I disagree.

I think you are confusing teaching Shakespeare as literature with teaching Shakespeare as drama. I don't suppose the RSC is suggesting they should read it; just act out and play with the characters and maybe some of the language. My wife produced a cut down performance of Macbeth with year 6 a couple of years ago and they loved it. Hopefully those kids will have gained an enthusiasm for Shakespeare before Eng. lit. classes at secondary school nips it in the bud. Reception would need even more selected items but there is no reason why not. Something like the witches could work superbly with the very young.

The only reason not to do it is that teachers may not understand what is being suggested.

12:36 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

I'm not confusing the two - indeed I didn't know there was a difference. Year 6 is, perhaps, much more suitable. The problems with teaching 4 year olds are as follows:

1. They should be playing at this age, and playacting with each other, stimulating tehir own imaginations, not stratjacketed into the structures and language of an Elizabethan playright.
2. They, on the whole, can't read, it is therefore difficult to learn the lines.
3. Elizabethan english is not suitable for children at this age - it is difficult and if not handled carefully off-putting.
4. There's loads of other, far more suitable drama for kids at this age. Shoving Shakespeare down their throat is too much too soon.

In short, it's downright dangerous for adults to be playing around with young minds in this 'let's teach them the canon' fashion. It's far too structured. Let them have a childhood before letting teachers knock the stuffing out of them.

3:56 PM  
Blogger Hopeful said...

Before you reject the idea of a centre for articulacy it might be worth finding out a little more about its plans. The base is proposed to be in Kingston in Greater London as I understand with a national programme attached. Quite what you have against Surrey other than irrational prejudice I don't know

5:54 PM  
Blogger bluefluff said...

The Royal Shakespeare Company wants us to teach Shakespeare to 4 year-olds.
Are you sure? There's no link to the source of your blog entry, but the RSC "Stand up for Shakespeare" manifesto, Section 4 actually says:
Introduce Shakespeare's plays no later than 11 years old.
Nothing there that I can see about 4 year olds....

1:30 AM  
Blogger Mark Frank said...

Phrases such as “straightjacketed” and “shoving Shakespeare down their throat” suggest a concept of teaching which would be poor whatever the subject. Think of Shakespeare as an opportunity for playing. It is hard to think of a playwright that is less straightjacketed. They are cracking good stories full of Kings and witches and wizards and fairies. Some of the language is far too complex – I wouldn’t recommend Loves Labours Lost - but how about:

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg and owlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

The words and rhythm are so powerful that you don’t need to understand them all to start enjoying doing a little scene round it. And a good teacher can link it to a bit of natural history.

Children of that age are brilliant learners and have no need to read it to learn a short piece like this. Repeat it a few times and they will have learned it without realising.

“There's loads of other, far more suitable drama for kids at this age.”

More suitable for what? More suitable for helping them to realise Shakespeare is good fun and start enjoying the speaking the verse? No one’s suggesting this is the only drama they do.

8:03 AM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

I know quite a bit about the proposed 'Centre'. I have lived in the SE of England for 25 years but have always resented the London-centric view of language and so-called 'articulacy' broadcast out to what those in the SE call 'the provinces'.

This rot used to be called 'Received Pronunciation', promoted by the BBC. It now masquerades as 'theatre'.

I can think of hundreds of worthier projects in the arts more desrving of funding. It's Hall's peurile, pet project, and Hall must have his petulant way.

10:16 AM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Type in 'RSC+4 year olds' into Google. Full article in The Guardian by their Education Editor titled 'Teach Children Shakespeare at 4, say RSC'. There are direct quotes on the subject from Jacqui O'Hanlon, head of education at the RSC, and Michael Boyd, artistic director of the RSC.

They are lobbying to have the threshold lowered from its curent compulsory at 13 level.

10:25 AM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

They're only 4 for God's sake! Leave them to work their own imagination, not forcing them to learn and 'recite' 10 lines of Shkespeare. Why do people want to 'teach' all of the time?

As for the 'natural history' suggestion. This piece is about killing, filleting and boiling several species (some endangered)for the sake of casting a spell! That's what I call an oblique, and downright dangerous way of teaching science. Stop peddling teaching/preaching as the only way to stimulate the imagination and/or acience.

10:35 AM  
Blogger Mark Frank said...

"Leave them to work their own imagination, not forcing them to learn and 'recite' 10 lines of Shkespeare. Why do people want to 'teach' all of the time?"

You use the word "recite". I wonder if you are visualising them all sitting at desks just parrotting the words? That would be daft. They need to be on their feet acting out the witches - maybe circling the cauldron - doing whatever noises they think cauldrons make, etc (maybe two or three cauldrons if there are too many kids). Then the words become part of scene in a story. Surely you are not against them hearing a story and acting out part of it? That's all it is. It is just the story and the words are rather good and part of our culture.

On Natural History

The piece is about wicked witches cutting up animals to make a spell to trap Macbeth. No more gruesome than your average fairy tale. Four year olds understand that when the wolf eats red riding hood that doesn't mean eating little girls is OK! I imagined a dialogue on the lines of: Who knows what a slow worm is? Does it have a sting? But if the teacher wants to drive home the conservation message, he or she could get the class to talk about what a horrid thing the witches are doing.

1:25 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

This oblique attitude to learning is exactly why drama teachers should be kept clear of teaching science. It's just hopeless.

The story, as you know, is a massively murderous, bloody tale, ending with a head on a pole. It is certainly no fairy tale.

I really do want to keep amateurish teaching away from 4 year olds. It does enough damage in later years. Sorry if I'm being very direct - I just think this is old-fashioned and dangerous.

Curiously, one of my children is literally just back from a great day at The Globe, has acted in Titus Andronicus and really does like Shakespeare. He's 14. Thankfully, he managed to avoid over-zealous drama teaching at age 4.

9:35 PM  
Blogger Mark Frank said...

Donald

As you can see this is also a subject I care about. And I suspect our ideas on education are not so different from each other or from current best practice.

Part of the confusion may be that you are thinking of pre-school four year olds (I notice you talk about playschool in your initial post). I am assuming that the RSC are talking about reception in primary school i.e. four year olds who become five during the academic year.

I imagine you accept that it is OK to tell kids of this age a story and encourage them to act out scenes from it? So it really comes down to whether it is a good idea from time to time to use a story from Shakespeare and some of Shakespeare's words. There are some really good stories. If you think Macbeth is too gruesome use Midsummer Night's Dream or the Winter's Tale. (However, I would stick by my claim that Macbeth is not more gruesome than, for example, Grimm's fairy tales or some of Roald Dahl's stories). Then the first time they see the play for real they will associate it with having fun and get that stimulus of saying - "I remember that bit - we did in such a such a way"

I would summarise my position by saying that teachers are unnecessarily frightened of using Shakespeare in their lessons. They think it is unintelligible and boring when it needn't be. It can be easy and fun. And this gets passed on to the kids.

The whole Nature Study thing is a distraction from the main point. I think that you think the lesson is going to be taught by a specialist drama teacher. If so, I agree it would be wrong and highly embarrassing for them to start covering other subjects. But I saw it as being taught by the regular class teacher. All I am saying is that the variety in Shakespeare's text can provide opportunities to learn about other things. There is nothing oblique about this. It is just using the stimulus to cover another subject. I meant Nature Study, not science. I assume you are not suggesting that they have structured specialist science lessons at that age?

I am delighted that your son enjoys Shakespeare so much. But thousands of kids leave school every year associating Shakespeare with boring, unintelligible interpretation of text. Could it be because they were never given the opportunity to play with it?

8:58 AM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Michael Peddingto says it all in 'You can't force kids to love Shakespeare'

"Reception class kids role-play all the time but I can't think of a single one of Shakespeare's works they could be expected really to grasp, or why they should be troubled with difficult words while they're still trying to sort out their own."

Obsession 1 - The Canon
Karyn got this sussed in the first post. The obsession with Shakespeare, is often just that, an obsession with the 'canon'. There is a wide and deep reservoir of tales to draw on at that age. With Shakespeare the language is difficult and the themes adult. Shakespeare wrote these plays for an adult audience. Some of the plays have pornographic references, many are extremely violent. Plucking out pieces, out of context, smacks of desperation.

Obsession 2 - Early schooling
The idea that 4 year olds have to have structured drama is just extreme schooling. I run a mile when I see pushy parents shove 'drama' down the throats of their litte darlings. Leave them to stage-school, and leave the rest of us alone.

9:33 AM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Michael Peddingto says it all in 'You can't force kids to love Shakespeare'

"Reception class kids role-play all the time but I can't think of a single one of Shakespeare's works they could be expected really to grasp, or why they should be troubled with difficult words while they're still trying to sort out their own."

Obsession 1 - The Canon
Karyn got this sussed in the first post. The obsession with Shakespeare, is often just that, an obsession with the 'canon'. There is a wide and deep reservoir of tales to draw on at that age. With Shakespeare the language is difficult and the themes adult. Shakespeare wrote these plays for an adult audience. Some of the plays have pornographic references, many are extremely violent. Plucking out pieces, out of context, smacks of desperation.

Obsession 2 - Early schooling
The idea that 4 year olds have to have structured drama is just extreme schooling. I run a mile when I see pushy parents shove 'drama' down the throats of their litte darlings. Leave them to stage-school, and leave the rest of us alone.

9:33 AM  
Blogger Mark Frank said...

This disagreement has run its course. I can only add that I agree with every word Michael Billington wrote.

Including:

"It very much depends what you mean by teaching and what you mean by Shakespeare."

"What is good about this latest initiative is that it is something that the RSC's resources should obviously be applied to, and now they will."

"So though the RSC blueprint is good, how is it to be achieved?"

"The kids should choose for themselves, having had a chance to suck it and see."

Thank you for an interesting exchange of views.

2:29 PM  
Blogger Scroley said...

Donald, where have you got your knowledge on the Centre - I am interested to understand more about the suposed plans

7:59 AM  

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