Standing up for Shakespeare

“To be, or not to be”, that was the question for 30 school teachers from across Australia who took part in a year long mentorship with Bell Shakespeare in 2016. Journalist Fiona Stutz spoke with two Queensland members about how they have incorporated the practical experiences they learnt into their own classroom.

Bell Shakespeare, Australia’s only national touring theatre company, launched the Regional Teacher Mentorship for the first time in 2016. Thirty regional, rural and remote school teachers were awarded a fully funded mentorship with the company, which included four days of accredited professional learning at Bell Shakespeare headquarters in Sydney. The teachers received specialist training in practical and innovative strategies for teaching Shakespeare as well as being given the opportunity to collaborate and network with other regional education professionals from across the country.

Good Counsel College in Innisfail English teacher, Dr Alison Clifton, said she decided to apply for the mentorship to improve her teaching practice and gain an understanding of how to make learning about Shakespeare’s plays and poetry more engaging for her students.

After being on their feet engaged in their own unfolding of the plot and characters, students are in a much better position to pull apart the layered meaning.

Moving on up

“The mentorship was so practical. We were taught how to use performance based games and physical drama activities in the classroom to provide a kinesthetic learning experience. The games help students to understand aspects of the text ranging from a character’s motivations to the way in which iambic pentameter works.”

Alison believes her teaching has changed since undertaking the mentorship.

“My teaching has become more vibrant and dynamic. No longer am I tied to a static text. Instead, the students are really able to empathise with the motivations of the characters in the plays. The activities are engaging, highly effective and easy to implement, encouraging students to take risks as performers. Even the really shy students participate!”

English teacher Katelyn Wallace at St Anthony’s Catholic College in Deeragun was convinced by her head of department to apply for the mentorship and has always respected the company.

“I have held the company in high regard since seeing Bell performances when I was in high school and wanted to afford our students the same exposure to the wonderful work of Bell. They make Shakespeare so accessible to students without watering down the language, which is an impressive feat considering the language often poses the greatest barrier to students’ engagement with Shakespeare.”

During the four day workshop, Katelyn said she was taught a wide array of games and activities to get kids ‘up on their feet’ engaging with the performance aspect of Shakespeare’s plays.

Insults and compliments

“The activities were super practical and versatile. We even had a session on how to adapt the activities for various learners/student groups. I have been able to teach some of these activities to other English teachers at my school during some rather fun departmental meetings.

“One of the favourite activities in my English classroom is Shakespearean insults and compliments, a great way to engage students at the start of a Shakespeare unit. Students combine two adjectives and a noun from columns to form uniquely Shakespearean insults/compliments which they then bestow upon their peers.

“At 32 seconds, plays are a great way to familiarise students with the plot of Shakespeare’s plays quickly. In rival teams students are assigned lines from the play which represent key events. Each team aims to perform this highly condensed form of the play in under 32 seconds. The results are pretty entertaining.”

Easy learning

She said since the workshop the participants had established a Facebook page, sharing resources, photos, success stories and ideas with each other and with Bell.

“Each teacher has submitted a Shakespeare unit plan replete with resources to Bell Shakespeare for use in their school, on which Bell will provide practical feedback. Bell has aimed to run in school programs with the schools of teachers involved in the mentorship. Teachers are able to contact Bell Shakespeare for advice, ideas or resources.”

For Katelyn, the mentorship helped her realise that when students are engaged the learning comes easy.

“My teaching, particularly of Shakespeare, has become much more centred around student engagement with plays through performance. This has actually facilitated deeper textual analysis of Shakespeare’s plays, rather than detracting from analysis or replacing it. After being on their feet engaged in their own unfolding of the plot and characters, students are in a much better position to pull apart the layered meaning in a dense soliloquy or sonnet and actually enjoy it,” Katelyn said.

To find out more about Bell Shakespeare’s Regional Teacher Mentorship, in-school performances or Artists in Residence programs, visit .