Blogs and News - St George's School, Edinburgh
Written by Andy Leask, Head of Faculty for English and Drama at St George’s School. The article was published in TES, Monday 22 June.
I have a new mantra: when the coronavirus gives teachers lemons, make pedagogical lemonade.
As we ponder and plan for a return to school in August, teachers are understandably apprehensive about what exactly the "new normal" will look like. While precise details remain unclear – and will likely vary widely from school to school – it is certain that we will have less face-to-face contact time than normal, and that contact time will be socially distanced to boot.
There are many things to consider: the practicalities of desk arrangements; access to ICT equipment; the use of shared physical resources, such as books, pencils, pens – not to mention the logistics of delivering lessons to students who may not all be with you, all of the time.
For English teachers, the choice of literature to teach is one such consideration, and it’s easy to understand why, for many, the first response might be to jettison longer, more challenging texts; just such an argument was made about Shakespeare recently. Easier-to-teach shorter books, with simpler language, might be favoured; safer-to-choose texts that can be covered in half the time.
I get it, I really do. But I disagree.
There’s no doubt we can’t teach longer texts the same way we used to. There won’t be time to painstakingly read every line of Hamlet out loud with a class. But does that make teaching Hamlet impossible? No. Does it make it any less worthy of teaching? No. Might re-evaluating how we teach it make the experience richer and more beneficial for students and teachers alike? Absolutely.
In my former school, I taught the International Baccalaureate literature course. It’s an absolute joy to teach, ranging across genres, time periods and cultures around the world, including works in translation. But there are a lot of texts to cover: 10 at Standard Level, and 13 at Higher Level. That necessitated a different, faster approach to teaching literature. A very quick overview of the entire text, gained through watching a quality production, followed by time spent reading and discussing key moments and extracts in detail, fully cognisant of their significance to the text as a whole, and the characters’ arcs. Now, in a post-pandemic, "blended" world, perhaps this offers a better model for teaching challenging literature?
Flipped learning is hardly a brand-new concept. Nonetheless, it’s one that doesn’t seem to have taken off hugely, especially in English teaching. Now is surely the perfect time to embrace this model. Reading entire plays aloud does let students explore a text together, and allows the teacher to support students, but it also forces them to read aloud (something that can be a stressful experience for weaker readers), a problem that is exacerbated should the language be challenging. If we want students to appreciate the subtlety and beauty of Shakespeare’s verse, then a struggling, self-conscious student who has never encountered the words before may not be the best first exposure. Surely there’s more impact in hearing these words from the likes of Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Paapa Essiedu, Maxine Peake and David Tennant?
There are countless excellent productions of Shakespeare out there, not to mention movie adaptations. These give students an understanding of the plot, themes, characters more quickly, and at a more visceral level. Shakespeare’s plays were, after all, written to be watched, not read. What classroom time we do have, then, can be spent focusing on key incidents: Hamlet’s soliloquies, Lady Macbeth’s manipulation of Macbeth’s emotions, Mercutio’s death and Romeo’s vengeful response.
By making what contact time we have with students more focused, and allowing students the opportunity to engage with Shakespeare more widely on their own terms, in a multimedia format that empowers them, we have a golden opportunity to foster a love for the bard in a new generation. There will be challenges, of course – technological, financial, emotional – but those are surmountable.
Do we believe Shakespeare is worth teaching? If we do, then we owe it to ourselves, and our students, to find a new, better way to do so. Turning our backs on Shakespeare would be a real tragedy.
Andy Leask (Head of Faculty for English and Drama)