Wesley College Melbourne Australia
Wesley College Melbourne

All the world's a stage

Posted 21 November 2018

Standing up for Shakespeare

‘How tall is this ghost, John?’ asked actor Richard Burton during rehearsals for Hamlet when John Gielgud was directing the play in 1964. Burton wanted to figure out the height of the ghost of Hamlet’s father because Gielgud would be pre-recording the ghost’s lines – leaving Burton to address a mere shadow on the stage’s backdrop. Depicting the ghost as a shadow wasn’t a dramatic decision: Gielgud (who had also cast himself to play the part of the ghost) simply had another paying gig and would be unavailable during the play’s season.

Burton’s simple question, ‘How tall is this ghost, John?’ is a rehearsal moment that encapsulates the principles underpinning Stand up for Shakespeare – a Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) approach to understanding Shakespeare that operates at Wesley College. It’s a question that also makes obvious the fact that Shakespeare is all about interpretation.

Active learning

Called Standing up for Shakespeare at Wesley, the program takes an active approach to understanding Shakespeare based on the RSC rehearsal room experience. Its three key tenets are to use drama techniques to explore Shakespeare’s plays, expose students to theatrical performances of the plays, and do this as early as possible rather than leaving Shakespeare until the senior years. 

The program was established in 2011 by David Dunn, Head of Student Theatre at Wesley’s Glen Waverley Campus, and Dr Dean Triplett, then Head of English and now Coordinator of Theory of Knowledge at the Glen Waverley Campus. Mr Dunn, who completed the Postgraduate Certificate in the Teaching of Shakespeare, an in-depth course on the approach delivered by the RSC and the University of Warwick, has now been inspiring students to stand up for Shakespeare for seven years. Mr Dunn is the only teacher in Australia qualified as an adviser for the British Arts Award in the Bronze and Silver Award categories. The Arts Award, an initiative developed by the Trinity College London international exam board for the performing arts and English language, is now integral to arts education throughout Britain.

‘Standing up for Shakespeare at Wesley isn’t about acting; it’s about understanding language, and because Shakespeare is such a great user of the English language, his plays are a perfect fit for our approach,’ Mr Dunn said. So what’s the key to the approach? ‘It’s simple: make Shakespeare fun. If students enjoy it, they’re going to learn. The great thing about Shakespeare is that he wrote to engage his audiences. There’s something in every Shakespeare play for everybody.’

Fun and engagement, Mr Dunn is quick to point out, are not antithetical to learning or to rigour. ‘Standing up for Shakespeare is incredibly rigorous. The work the students do is way above Year 8 level. The students know they’ll be given homework and that it must be handed in – on lined A4 paper, in their best writing, in HB grey lead and on time. We make this program a real challenge. The homework is non-negotiable, and every single student has always completed every homework task.

‘The purposeful homework, in grey lead, enables students to correct their work based on feedback from their teachers before word processing, and prepares them for the hand-written external assessments they’ll face in Years 11 and 12.’

Rigorous assessment

Standing Up for Shakespeare fuses the Trinity College Bronze Arts Award with the RSC approach. ‘In essence, this fusion enables us to make the Standing Up for Shakespeare program our “centre” for the moderation of student portfolios. Portfolios are an essential component of the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme we deliver at Wesley,’ Mr Dunn said.

‘The portfolios are clear evidence, not only of students’ learning, but also their commitment; and their learning and commitment comes out in the joy, the fun and the quality of their work.

‘Portfolios enable our students to demonstrate their learning experiences, engagement and growth, and it’s vital that we support them in recording and collecting evidence of their learning. You really need to see the students’ portfolios to grasp the degree to which they buy in to the program. They are very impressive, and every single student in the program has achieved Trinity College Bronze Arts Award.

‘I work closely with Glen Waverley Language and Literature, teachers Jane Pulford and Dianne Motton. The Arts Award approach enables us to assess students’ learning progress in a rigorous way and provide them with feedback in terms of exacting and appropriate assessment criteria and evidence requirements. It enables us to moderate our assessments, but also to receive feedback through the moderation process, so it’s about both our students’ learning and our professional learning as educators.’

According to Dr Triplett, tracking to Year 12 indicates that students in the Standing Up for Shakespeare program demonstrate an average increase in achievement scores above and beyond the average for the cohort as a whole. ‘This suggests that the program not only develops students’ capabilities in language and literature, but also more broadly,’ Dr Triplett said.

Pushing the desks aside

Standing up for Shakespeare

Indigo Saines as Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Malthouse Theatre

‘Embedding an active rehearsal-room-based model of teaching and learning doesn’t come about from attending a one-day workshop here and there,’ Mr Dunn said. ‘It requires a commitment to practice, a programmatic approach to assessment and appropriate classroom resources and facilities. It also requires active modelling of classroom approaches and ongoing professional learning to support the development of other teachers.’

An evaluation of Stand up for Shakespeare by Jonothan Neelands, Sheila Galloway and Geoff Lindsay from the University of Warwick, confirms Mr Dunn’s conclusion, noting that the approach has been successful in developing local ‘communities of practice’. 

‘Teachers and schools report a “Trojan horse” effect where instructional skills and techniques introduced in the context of Shakespeare studies have been transferred and applied in other areas of the curriculum to great effect,’ the University of Warwick evaluation concludes.

Fun, enjoyment and learning

‘The performance-based approach enables students to actively explore Shakespeare’s texts, and have fun,’ Mr Dunn said. ‘The fact that Shakespeare has become canonical has obscured for students the understanding that Romeo and Juliet, says, or A Midsummer Night's Dream, are actually scripts that were written to be interpreted by actors so they could create a performance on stage. Nothing about that is sedentary or passive. 

‘Our approach recognises that Shakespeare’s plays are actually theatre, but it’s important to note that the program is not about acting; acting is a means to an end, which is the development of students’ understanding of language and of their own writing.’

What do students say?

According to a random sample of students by Glen Waverley Campus teacher of Drama and Theatre, Angela Capponi, students identify multiple benefits from participating in the program.

In their words, on language: ‘I’ve learned about writing devices and styles’; ‘My own writing has improved in structure, diction, expressiveness’; ‘I’ve expanded my vocabulary and my understanding about words and where they came from – it’s been cool to see Shakespeare’s inventiveness with words’; ‘Shakespeare seemed scary, but reading Shakespeare’s language now seems easy’; ‘You have to understand the context of the plays if you want to develop a good understanding of the language’; ‘Shakespeare is interesting and fun’.

On organisation: ‘It’s made me manage this and other class work’; ‘You have to juggle the competing demands of sport and study’; ‘Learning lines, rehearsing, acting, completing written tasks – you have to balance the work load’.

On challenges: ‘I thought it would be hard and lots of work, but it felt normal’; ‘Give everything a go’; ‘I’m more open-minded about challenges – I might try rowing’; ‘I’ve learned I can actually act, and don’t need to limit myself – I’m open to trying new things’; ‘It’s a lot of fun and you just have a go, so I’m more confident now, not nervous’.

On performance: ‘I was a bit sceptical about performing, but it was so much fun that I want to audition for the musical now’; ‘Last year I didn’t speak up in class much, but now I’m more confident’; ‘It was great to perform in a professional theatre’; ‘It took me out of my comfort zone’; ‘Hard work pays off – if you want to get somewhere, work hard’.

On learning with and about others: ‘It was fun to interact so much with classmates’; ‘You have a lot of bonding experiences;’ ‘it was good to see a different side of others in class’; ‘I’ve made friends with new people’.

The ultimate test

Taking the Stand Up for Shakespeare tenet to expose students to Shakespeare in performance seriously means, for Mr Dunn, literally getting his students on the public stage. This year, as in previous years, students performed at the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne. According to Year 8 student, Yolanda Sun, this year’s Malthouse performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream was about much more than bright lights, costumes and lots of hairspray. 

‘The performances displayed how we’ve developed our interpretation of the play in a dramatic sense, our advancement in examining the English language, and our teamwork and cooperation,’ Yolanda said.

‘We learned so much and, through acting, began to understand the magical, romantic and humorous elements in the play. Seeing the audience crying with laughter at the Mechanicals’ play made me realise how funny Shakespeare can be in a way I wouldn’t have understood just by studying it as a text.’

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