How one school is learning `Hamlet'

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The Independent Culture
IT IS only a few days into the autumn term, but already the 10- year-olds at Yerbury Primary School in north London are stuck into Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

They begin this morning's literacy hour sitting together on the carpet looking at the opening scene, sheets pinned up in front of them, when the ghost appears on the Elsinore battlements. "Shakespeare has some weird and wonderful looking words," explains their teacher, Sylvan Naidoo, and the class makes a brave stab at translating some of them - thou, thy, tis, nay, thrice, knowst, illume.

They are already immersed in the story of the play, from watching an animated version on video and when, after 25 minutes or so, they split into groups for further work, the level of interest around the classroom is palpable.

Some read aloud passages from the play and translate them into modern English, with the help of the teacher. Some are matching adjectives with the different characters in the play and others, ambitiously, are beginning character studies of Hamlet.

Although grouped according to ability, each group will have a go at each activity during the week and already every pupil has something to say about Hamlet - his intelligence, his caring side, his "faked devastation", the puzzle of whether you really can be cruel to he kind.

After 25 minutes of pretty concentrated group work - Naidoo only has to ask a couple of times for less noise - the class reassembles for a final 10-minute "plenary" on the carpet, and listens to some of the Hamlet sketches. Naidoo explains there will be more time later in the week to finish these off, and they begin to plan the acting out of some scenes.

This is the second year of the literacy hour for Yerbury school, a mixed, oversubscribed inner-city school, which began the programme as part of the Islington pilot.

"It's a heavy workload, no question, in terms of the planning and training," says Mary Gibson, the head teacher. Resourcing literacy hour with the necessary "big books" and sets of texts also has been costly, she says. But she and Margaret O'Neill, the English co-ordinator, agree the literacy hour is now well established, popular with the staff and successful with the children.

"Before, we didn't really have groups; we just read with the teacher, and everybody else would do handwriting - which gets a bit boring after a while," 10-year-old Zoe says. "Now it's different every week - every day it's different. It's much more exciting."

"I like literacy hour because you can learn more stuff," says 10-year- old Aysu.

Naidoo also is a convert: "I think literacy hour is really good. It works once you have done the planning - because you can break things down for the whole class."

"It's structured and focused, but the flexibility is still there," O'Neill says.

"I quite like knowing what to teach; it takes a lot of work out of it and leaves you to think up the activities. We're ahead of the game now here, and it will get easier. I just hope they don't change it all again."

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