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Shakespeare under threat in NZ schools?

This appeared in the New Zealand Herald last week
6:00AM Tuesday Nov 18, 2008
Shakespeare is not about to leave the classroom, the Ministry of Education says.
Media reports last week said there were concerns about "dumbing down" schoolchildren, including the suggestion that Shakespeare's plays, considered too difficult for some students, would be pulled from the curriculum under proposed changes.
However, ministry manager of curriculum teaching and learning Mary Chamberlain said the reports were misleading and she stressed that Shakespeare would continue to play an important part in senior English courses.

‘Too difficult’ is a code word for students who couldn’t be bothered to either look in the glossary at the BACK of the book or to look in a dictionary. And if you don’t understand the word or how it is pronounced, how can you hope to speak it properly and appreciate the rhythm of the words?
I’ve been to school plays where the students gabble the text because they have no idea what they are declaiming about.
Mind you I blame Keri Hulme for the problem in NZ!  
After she won the Booker Prize in 1985 for The Bone People (a book I abandoned after 50 pages) she campaigned for Shakespeare to be dropped from the curriculum and replaced with the study of Polynesian writing.

This is one of those perennial debates, isn't it? - should Shakespeare be taught at schools? My objection to the whole thing is that the plays themselves become merely a political football. People on both sides of the fence take up their positions to make some sort of political point.

Of course, it's better not teaching Shakespeare at all than to teach it badly: if something that should be a joy becomes merely a chore, then what's the point? But then again, just about every worthwhile subject in school is a bit of a chore. Mathematics is a chore as well - and it is "too difficult"! - but no-one ever suggests that we drop mathematics from the curriculum!

I think, on balance, Shakespeare should be taught in English-speaking schools. The argument that kids find it "boring" or "too difficult" isn't relevant: it is not the purpose of education to keep kids entertained. And if we still think it worthwhile to teach literature, then we must introducethem to some of what is considered "the best". And whether Keri Hulme likes it or not, that's Shakespeare. I just wish we stopped treating teh whole thing as a political football.

I think the problem only arises as a result of the ludicrous 'one-size-fits-all' approach to education. It's clear that some kids of 14 or 15 are incapable of getting a handle on Shakespeare. Some of them (for what ever reason) can't read the back of a cereal packet. Teaching Shakespeare to children like that is clearly a waste of time - time that could be better spent helping them with the basics. Yet why should the kids who do have the necessary faculties be deprived the opportunity?

Personally I think we have the teaching of Shakespeare rather back-to-front; at least, in my school we spent ages studying the text before actually seeing a performance. Whilst I agree that much can be gained from reading plays, the entire point of a play is its performance IMO. And when you see a good production of Shakespeare, there is so much that you can immediately comprehend without recourse to endless footnotes. If I were ever teaching Shakespeare (which, you'll be relieved to hear, is distinctly unlikely!) I would begin with a production (or at least a recording of one) before tackling the text, then end with a production - preferably a good live one.

Agreed: there's hardly any point trying to teach Shakespeare to children who have problems with basic literacy, any more than there's much point trying to teaching differential calculus to children who have difficulty with basic numeracy.

As for productions, once again, I'd agree that seeing a good production can help immensely, and should, indeed, be more or less compulsory. It was seeing King Lear when I was 11 (a superb production, as I remember) that switched me on to Shakespeare. I was so excited that night, I remember not being able to get to sleep. And I've been a fan ever since!

When I was teaching Shakespeare I always found time for acting it. We cleared the desks to one side or went on the stage in the school hall and rehearsed scenes with plenty of input from the children as to how it might be done.  I found this a good way of familiarising pupils with the text.  We didn't do all of a play of course, just selected scenes. Usually "A Midsummer Night's Dream". I remember sometimes doing the final scene of Hamlet after telling the class the story.  Some children, of course, will never "get it". We once did the final scene of "Oedipus Rex". I think what was remembered best from that was how to give the impression with make-up that your eyes had been gouged out.  
But, as an English/Drama teacher you have to make the effort and hope it's rub off on some.   Some English teachers, unfortunately, have no liking, ear, or feeling for Shakespeare and should not attempt to teach it.  Taking children to a good production - a GOOD production is a splendid idea.  Although children can get a lot from even an indifferent production.  But I always took my classes to the best available.
I remember taking a gob-smacked class to Peter Brook's famous "Midsummer Night's Dream" in the seventies.  They loved it. But taking classes to the theatre is always a good idea. My classes also saw musicals like "A Chous Line", "42nd Street" "Joseph" (with Jason Donovan), Sondheim's "into The Woods", "Blood Brothers", "Les Miserables", and plays like Coward's "Private Lives" (with Joan Collins), Lope de Vega's "Fuenteovejuna" and Boucicault's "The Shaughraun" at the National. (We did a backstage tour as well).They also saw Alan Bennett's version of "The Wind in the Willows" at the National. And both parts of The RSC's adaptation of "Nicholas Nickelby". And once I took the sixth form to Tom Stoppard's "Jumpers". It needed a lot of explanation afterwards!!

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