Thursday, March 7, 2013

Getting Primary School Children Into Shakespeare

As a child I grew up in a home where books weren't read to or with me, so reading was not a pleasurable pursuit at home. It did hold challenges and pleasures at primary school, but the material that we read was limited. At High School I found English boring and seemingly unrelated to my life.  I can recall being bored by Shakespeare's work. And yet later in life I began to appreciate it and love it.

I was unprepared for Shakespeare as a child, and suspect that there are many children sitting in high school classrooms right now just as bored as I once was. This is a problem. Not because there isn't a world of other literature. There is. My point isn't to argue for a return to an age where a small number of great (mostly male) authors made up a canon of books that all needed to read (mind you we do need to read great books). Instead, I want the children in our schools to have such a love of words, language, and narrative in all its forms, that they will find Shakespeare exciting, challenging and enriching. 

Photo courtesy of the Guardian
In Sydney, a well-known theatre company, Bell Shakespeare has set itself the task of introducing primary aged children to Shakespeare's plays. They plan to teach Shakespeare's plays to children as young as six. Bell Shakespeare will take the plays into the state's primary schools to inspire a new generation to love this great literature. The company sees the program as a form or 'early intervention' where children will be helped to appreciate the complex and rich language of the great epic stories that are the foundation of Shakespeare's work. They hope to overcome the negative reactions of high school by developing an appreciation early. The education head of the theatre company suggests:

''We want to meet them while they're young, so that by the time they reach high school, they aren't disillusioned.''

The company will tour with the primary school program that will have adaptations of well-known plays like 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' and 'Macbeth'. Both have been well received and 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' has been a favourite with test audiences. Teacher who have viewed the plays were not difficult for children as young as 6 and 7 to understand.

Shakespeare in Adapted Prose Forms

But you don't need a theatre company to help you to introduce Shakespeare to young children. One of the easiest ways to get children interested in Shakespeare's work is to read some of his plays in adapted prose form. While there are some pretty awful attempts to do this, the collections written by Leon Garfield are superb. His first collection 'Shakespeare Stories' was illustrated by Michael Foreman and published by Gollancz in 1984. It features 12 of Shakespeare's best-known works, including 'Twelfth Night', 'The Taming of the Shrew', 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' and 'Macbeth'. Garfield is a brilliant writer of children's fiction and so if anyone was to tackle this project, he would surely be the most likely to succeed in presenting the plays with as much complete dialogue as possible but with adaptations that make the works more accessible without detracting from the language, plots and characterisation of each play. This is how Garfield begins 'A Midsummer Night's Dream':
Hermia, who was small, dark and perfect, loved Lysander; and Lysander loved Hermia. What could have been better than that? At the same time, Helena, who was tall, fair and tearful, loved Demetrius.
But Demetrius did not love Helena. Instead he, too, loved Hermia...who did not love him. What could have been worse than that? 
Garfield's adaptations are engaging and faithful to the plays and if read well to children as young as 7 or 8 will capture their attention. I have used them with children or varied ages and they love to hear Garfield's versions of Shakespeare's work and they want to pick them up and read them. My daughter has also found the Garfield collections wonderful to use with her children aged 6-10.  She has written about this on her own blog (HERE).

A shorter collection, 'Six Shakespeare Stories' was published by Heinemann in 1994 and 'Six More Shakespeare Stories' in 1996.

Other resources

There are a number of other helpful resources and sites for teachers who want to try Shakespeare with children aged 6-12 years.

'Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare' was written by Edith Nesbit in 1907 and is still available in more recent editions (HERE)

A good BBC resource that offers children a simple introduction to Shakespeare and his work (HERE)

The 'Shakespeare 4 Kidz' site is worth a look. Their tag is "Bringing the world of Shakespeare to the young people of the world" (HERE)

'Shakespeare is Elementary' is a great little site developed by an elementary school (Crighton Park) in Novia Scotia Canada. It has some great ideas for getting started (HERE)

You can buy some scripts adapted for young children but I haven't personally tested them (HERE)

The 'Shakespeare for Kids' site also has some helpful advice for teachers using Shakespeare with primary/elementary school children (HERE)

Read more about the Bell Shakespeare work in Sydney HERE

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