How is it that Shakespeare has become a byword for boredom among school-children? Teachers blame a curriculum that, in many cases, allows pupils simply to learn, by rote, a few isolated scenes, without appreciating context, the play as a whole or the dramatic power of the Bard's work.
Few could dispute that performance is crucial to the understanding of Shakespeare, and probably the most effective way of teaching it, which is why the Royal Shakespeare Company has devised and launched the UK's first postgraduate diploma in teaching Shakespeare, with the aid of Warwick University's Institute of Education.
Jude Graham, who teaches English and drama at St Robert of Newminster secondary school in Newcastle, is one of the first batch of students, and began the year-long course with a weekend workshop at the RSC's Stratford home in June. "I think the curriculum puts kids off Shakespeare," she says. "A lot of teachers on the RSC course say the same; Shakespeare is just seen as a way of getting an exam grade, something boring you have to get through. I find it frustrating because I love Shakespeare, and it's hard to get that across in this climate."
Performance, agrees Graham, is the most valuable teaching tool at her disposal. "Acting is the best way to teach Shakespeare; they are plays to be performed, not books to be read. It really helps students to take it off the page and bring it to life."
The inaugural group of 21 English teachers has been working on Shakespeare texts using the RSC's tried- and-tested ensemble rehearsal techniques, along with actors, directors and education specialists from the company. "We want to immerse teachers in the creative process," says Jacqui O'Hanlon, the Teachers' Programme manager for RSC Learning, who runs the course. "But we're educationalists, so we're always asking how to make it work in the classroom, for children of different ages or abilities."
The course, which takes a year to complete, is divided into two halves: the Teaching of Shakespeare in Theory and Practice, and Reflective Enquiry into the Teaching of Shakespeare. The RSC's practical theatre techniques are bolstered with direction on classroom work from tutors at Warwick University. "The course will provide an excellent example of how a leading cultural organisation and a top university can work together to provide teachers and their schools with high-quality, creative and innovative professional development opportunities," says Jonathan Neelands, of Warwick's Institute of Education.
O'Hanlon is equally excited by the partnership with Warwick. "It has been very fruitful," she says. "We're trying to get a model where we don't split academic study and performance of Shakespeare. The stereotype is that academics look down on performers as not being rigorous enough, and performers look down on academics for forgetting the real point of the plays. We're bridging the gap between Shakespeare as literary text and performance text. In rehearsal, we would always analyse the text as a matter of course, but we also have to get it up on its feet."
As well as the taught element of the course, each of the teachers studying for the diploma has to complete a related research project. One is looking at ways to assess students from lower sets in Year 9, who aren't entered for SATs, without using written tests. "These students have a rich understanding of text and character, so she's looking at other drama techniques by which to assess them," says O'Hanlon. "It's very interesting to see what that can do for their self-esteem."
Another teacher is researching the effect on boys, in particular, of learning Shakespeare. Jude Graham is examining the effect that the RSC's teaching ideas are having on pupils in her school. "I've written new Key Stage 3 work to incorporate what we've been doing," she says, "and it has definitely had an impact on the pupils. It's giving us many more practical ideas. Shakespeare teaching is mainly geared to exams, and it's hard to incorporate the enjoyment factor. We're trying to get children to enjoy Shakespeare again."
Graham has been co-ordinating training days at the school for her colleagues and other teachers from nearby primary and secondary schools, to further disseminate the techniques that she and others are being taught on the course. The idea, she explains, is to create a network of schools who can learn from each other's experiences.
"RSC Learning is always trying to set up more sustainable teacher-training programmes," says O'Hanlon. As well as working directly with teachers, the organisation is in dialogue with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority about alternative ways to introduce schoolchildren to Shakespeare. "There are other ways to assess learning beyond written assessment, and still be very rigorous," O'Hanlon says. "We want to explore other ways of teaching and assessing Shakespeare. Everyone should have access to Shakespeare, not just clever people. We don't want the learning of Shakespeare to be a label of ability."
The course is currently only available to those teachers from schools that are part of the RSC's Learning Network - a national group that compares notes on best practice in the teaching of Shakespeare - but the plan is to roll the course out both nationally and internationally from the start of the next academic year, in 2007. Those teachers who complete the diploma can also use the accrued points should they wish to go on and complete one of a number of MA degrees at either Warwick or Birmingham Universities.
Pupils are not the only ones who have been finding the teaching of Shakespeare dull and uninspiring. Despite Shakespeare being the only compulsory writer left on the national curriculum, there has been little guidance given to teachers as to the best methods of dealing with his plays in the classroom, until now. The RSC hopes that its course will help teachers, as well as students, to recapture the passion for Shakespeare that may have originally brought them to teaching English in the first place.
Jacqui O'Hanlon certainly thinks it is working: "The teachers on the course are all remembering now why it was that they wanted to teach in the first place."