I was intrigued by Gill Whitlock’s story, “What Fools!” that I posted last month, and knowing that she has taught drama at a comprehensive school for thirty years I wondered just how she managed to engage some of those teenagers, most of whom would probably never go to a performance of a Shakespeare play. The following is Gill’s recollection of how she managed to engage a particularly challenging year with Macbeth, a required text for the GCSE English literature exam. Having taught adults history and had a wonderful experince doing so, I know I could not teach teenagers. I take my hat off to Gill for her ingenuity in getting the subject across. I hope you enjoy her memory of teaching the class of 9T4 about the murder of Duncan as much as I did.
Over to you Gill.
“It Better Not be Boring, Miss”
This piece is not meant to offer any expert advice (I am certainly no expert) on how to teach Shakespeare to very challenging students. It simply recounts something I tried, as an experiment, when I was Head of Drama at a comprehensive school in the South East of England. I did hesitate as the theme I decided to use was not one that sat comfortably with me, but I had to try to engage this set of students. I had taught them for some six months by the time I tried this lesson so I knew them well both as a group and as individuals. Although there is violence explored within the lesson plan, the concept is not as violent as Shakespeare’s actual play, which is an exam board set text.
At 2pm every Wednesday afternoon you’d hear the sound of class 9T4 screaming and jostling their way over to the drama studio. They’d just had double mathematics and were bouncing off the walls by the end of the hour and a half of equations.
The class of fourteen year olds consisted mainly of disengaged, disinterested boys. They weren’t malicious, they weren’t aggressive, but they found academic work very challenging and in quite a few cases they had already decided that school was not somewhere they wanted to be. It was interest how the numbers in the class dropped when the fishing season got underway!
In short, they were a real handful.
I had been tasked with introducing them to ‘Macbeth’ in preparation for their study of this text at GCSE level the following year, know they would have huge difficulties getting their heads around Shakespearean language and style. However, even dear Kelvin would need a clear understanding of the plot, so I had to take the bull by the horns and come up with a plan.
Kelvin? Who is Kelvin? (I hear you ask yourself)
Kelvin was a tall gangly teenager with a winning smile, who found sitting still virtually impossible and struggled to access the curriculum. He was a specialist maker of canine sounds – barks and growls – and he used these skills in virtually every drama lesson, refusing to take part unless he could add canine sound effects. Heigh ho – a challenging student if ever there was one! So I decided my aim was that, by the end of the topic, 9T4 would understand some of the plot, including Macbeth’s murder of Duncan and subsequent downfall, and be familiar with some of the characters.
‘We’d better be doing something good today – it better not be boring Miss, as I ain’t sitting and writing anything’, thus spoke Dwain, who was a real sweetheart, but didn’t mince his words. He was the lynchpin of this class – what Dwain said or did, the others followed suit. To hook the class, I had to hook Dwain.
I had prepared the studio. The lights were dim and I had focused a red spotlight on a dead body in the centre of the room (various bags covered in a coat, trilby and shoes arranged to look like a corpse). I played ‘Speak Softly Love’ through the speakers so loudly that 9T4 couldn’t talk over it as they entered. The chairs were arranged in a circle round the body and scattered next to it were pieces of A4 paper.
The inspiration for this setting had come some weeks prior to this lesson when I had been in a history class where the focus was the impact of organised crime in 1920s America. The students had been absorbed in a short video about this topic and it gave me the germ of an idea for 9T4.
With ‘Speak Softly’ that had been playing rather ironically very loudly, now playing a little less so, I began to talk. The students seemed excited, but also excitable, so the first minute was crucial if they were to settle.
‘The body was found at just after midnight,’ I began, ‘ it was an organised hit. Cawdor was dead.’ I pressed play on the sound system and gunshots rang out – three of them, echoing round the room. The students jumped and the noise level rose, but they seemed interested. (I heaved an inward sigh of relief).
‘Cawdor has been shot in the knee – why?’ I asked – an open question to see who was listening and could offer ideas. No one responded. I asked for two volunteers to demonstrate and Peter and Jack were up straightaway. I could see Kelvin was getting very restless so I asked him to help out with some sound effects. I organised Peter to shoot Lee using his finger to represent the gun. The signal for aiming at Lee was to be a dog bark (thank you Kelvin).
‘Jack,’ I called. He was trying to get to look at his phone so I needed him to be refocused. “What should Lee do? He is being followed.’
‘Run Miss’, replied Jack, looking at me as though I was totally stupid while still trying to look at his phone screen.
‘Ah, Jack,’ indicating with a raised eyebrow that I was not so stupid as to have missed the phone ploy. ‘but if Peter fires at the knee (I signal to Kelvin and then to Peter who oblige by barking and shooting) what happens to Lee?’
Lisa calls out, ‘He falls over. He can’t run.’ Lots of praise for Lisa who always listens so well.
‘So,’ declares Dwain, rocking back on his chair as if he is chairing a meeting, ‘why doesn’t he just shoot him in the head – get it over? ‘It’s a waste of bullets!’
‘Because Peter wants Lee to suffer.’ I respond as speedily as possible before the class concentration disappears. ‘He shoots him in the knee to stop him running, then shoots him in the stomach to inflict really agonising pain and then, finally, he will shoot him in the head when he is good and ready. It’s brutal. It’s a Mafia hit to punish a traitor.’
This is gory and harsh, but then ‘Macbeth’ is not a play for the faint hearted and I need to get the idea of violence and blood across. They are all listening now.
On the sheets of paper around the body are written the different ranks in the Mafia. Don, Captain, Made man etc. I explain them and read a suitable extract from the book ‘Donny Brasco’. This is a great resource and I found it invaluable to read through prior to starting this topic, but it is an adult book so I cannot recommend it to them. We look at video clips about the Mafia – short bursts to hold their attention, (please not these were all checked and suitable for their age group). We discuss Mafia films. Lisa has recognised the music I have been playing as the Godfather theme and chimes, ‘My dad loves that film.’ Kelvin informs me he has watched it countless times. That is interesting. I am amazed at what some of them have watched!
Now I can introduce the Shakespearean theme. I explain about the opening of ‘Macbeth’ and how it is linked to killings and battle. The little darlings have been settled and and listening for around fifteen minutes, but now they are becoming restless; they need to be up and moving so we do some pairs work. They are instructed that in their pair one is to pretend to hide in an alleyway until they spot the other. They then jump out and fire their three shots. No one is to talk during the scene but sounds of pain can be made. At the end of the scene there is one line spoken by the killer. They must cry out ‘Cawdor – that most disloyal traitor’. I make sure the words are on the classroom screen so that the students know what is expected.
I have a teaching assistant in the room, who is a wonderful support, and he will operate the music for me. I realise that the words in the quote are not going to mean much but we will do the practical work and then talk – they have had more than enough of listening to me.
All the class, save one, takes part in the pairs work. Hassan opts to sit quietly and help with the sound, as he is not feeling well. Kelvin is asked to act as a human but also provides the dog bark and a growl for extra measure! The students rehearse for a maximum of two minutes, I count down and then they all perform together so that no one feels under scrutiny from their peers. Most are successful in their preparation and two pairs are happy to show what they have done, which delights Kelvin as he can perform his sounds again and receives class praise for the realism he brings to their effect.
Using a random name selector – which is like a fruit machine, and which the class always loves using, we look at how the scenes can be improved. A little bit of self and peer analysis that Ofsted Inspectors love to record on their tick list, and which helps me check that the students are accessing their learning. Hassan loves being in charge of operating the selector. It’s a great device ensuing that all the class have to respond to at least one question each lesson so that I can check each individual’s learning. The selector spins like a one armed bandit and a name appears on the screen. The student answers the question. We talk about the meaning of the words ‘traitor’ and ‘disloyal’ and those meanings are displayed on the large screen to help the visual learners. Ways to improve are listed on the screen so that all students can see and select something that is useful to the, for example. ‘I need to show I am scared on my face when the gun is pointed at me.’
Without them realising, the character Cawdor and a quote from the play are in the lesson, as are the keywords ‘traitor’ and ‘disloyal’. I have a little chuckle to myself at the relative ease at getting them to engage.
I tell them that scene two will show Duncan (the Don) learning about Cawdor’s death and praising Macbeth for his bravery over the last few months on behalf of his Mafia family and promoting him within the Mafia family. I declare that Macbeth in our play is to be called Scot the Scorpion Macbeth. The idea of his mind being full of scorpions and quote will be used in a later lesson. I put up various other mafia names mainly taken from ‘Donnie Brasco’ and add some character names from ‘Macbeth’ such as Banquo, Macduff and Lennox. We quickly move to act out this meeting or ‘sit down’ in Mafia terms.
I have some old jackets and trilbies for the actors to help them feel they are in this Mafia gang. Dwain asks to be Macbeth but I persuade him that Duncan is the more powerful and he goes for that. Kelvin is pleased that he can bark at some point in the scene and Hassan runs to the sound desk. Lisa is in charge of the lighting team and sits and sorts out the light filters for the scene. Those who want to act sort out the set, placing chairs etc. to show a meeting and we discuss how the seats must show who is the most important – who has the highest status. 9T4 are eager to run from the room and round the arts block to show off their costumes, but, luckily, the Teaching Assistant stands guard at the door to stop anyone leaving. I inform them he is the security guard to keep the Mafia meeting attendees safe – they don’t want anyone from a rival Mafia family bursting in. Yes, it is crowd control, but they are still in the world of the play.
The technical team are told they have one line that they must all call out together at the end of the scene – ‘All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter.’ I put it up on the screen with a modern meaning next to it. The instruction is met with groans, but they are happier once they realise thay have to say it all together. (Yes! … another quote slipped into the lesson – yippee!)
So our scene 2 is acted out. It is a bit of a shambles but they are up and doing and Hassan is smiling, so all is calm. Jack, as Lennox the Lion Murano, gets one of the Captains to tell Duncan the Don all about the killing and how brave Scot the Scorpion Macbeth is, while Dwain sits looking all powerful in a suit jacket and black trilby and nods his head. I have shown him a picture of the Godfather and Tarnjit has made him a pretend cigar out of paper so Dwain is a very happy bunny. Lisa organises the lights to turn red as Duncan the Don (Ddwain) promotes Macbeth and then the lights turn to steel blue as the tech crew, urged on by Hassan, say their one line in unison (well sort of) at the end of the scene.
Time to clear away…. we are all exhausted. 9T4 are ‘macbethed’ out.
Have we achieved anything?
Well, they have learnt some aspects of the beginning of the play, some character names, some quotes. They have been introduced to the keywords ‘traitor’ and ‘disloyal’. They have all taken part and every one of them has answered a question – courtesy of the random name selector. Homework is set – nothing to write as 9T4 struggle with written English and with meeting any sort of deadline. Instead, they are given spellings to learn linked to the play – traitor, murder, tragedy – about eight spellings with extension ones for the more able.
As the bell goes I dismiss them individually by name asking each of them to tell me one thing they have learned from today’s lesson. They all say something even if it’s only about lighting colours or Mafia names. Hassan even says that he knows about Cawdor.
This is a result.
The studio is quiet, the trilbies stored away for next week. Dwain suddenly bursts back through the door.
‘Miss, what’s that film called. Is it Donnie something?’
‘It’s Donny Brasco Dwain, but you can’t watch it, it’s an 18.’ I reply.
‘Yeah, yeah. I’ll watch it with my dad.’ He smiles.
‘Bye Miss,’ yells Dwain, retreating at speed to his football practice. ‘And Miss, it was alright today. It wasn’t that boring.’
Well that was a result! But was it?
I have visions of Dwain’s irate dad phoning to complain. Will 9T4 remember anything of what we did today? And will they link any of it to the Shakespeare play in the future?
Only time will tell.
Note: The image is a 1785 mezzotint of a painting of the Three Weird Sisters (1783), by Henry Fuseli (1741 – (1825) engraved by John Raphael Smith (1752 – 1812). Courtesy of the Wellcome Library. (MVT)