Engaging with Macbeth

This year all teachers in the Lanyon Cluster of Schools are participating in an action research project.   There are a whole range of projects which focus on different aspects of learning and teaching, and we share our research through the construction of a cluster wiki.   My team chose to look at student engagement and belonging through the study of Shakespearean texts, as a result of overall student disinterest  and a lack of engagement with the Shakespearean units taught in 2009.   I am working with the year 9 team to specifically look at our Macbeth learning element.   The project involves redesigning the learning element with a specific focus on building familiarity with Shakespearean English, and identification with the themes by developing the students’ appreciation of their perpetual universality.  Through this research I am seeking to witness and record a transformation in my students’ negative attitudes towards the study of Shakespeare.

This is a tall order, as teaching Shakespeare is always tough.  The students struggle to understand the language and relevance of the texts to their own lifeworlds.   We started with a learning element that had been written by  Christian and Prue a few years ago.  When it was first taught, I was impressed by the way they had scaffolded student understanding of theme and plot, and this was clearly demonstrated through the final essays that the students produced.   However,  when it was taught last year, the teachers found that it was difficult to sustain student interest and enthusiasm throughout the unit.

Was this because the teachers teaching the unit hadn’t been involved in the initial design?

Or had they changed the design so that it no longer fitted together as well?

Or is it that our increasing familiarity with the  knowledge processes make us view our designs for learning with a more critical lens?

Due to a combination of these factors, the team decided that it was best to completely rewrite the learning element, retaining only the texts and final essay topic from the original learning element.

So what have we done to get our students to engage with Macbeth?

Our new learning element now has more ‘front-loading’ before the students experience the text.    We spent several lessons exploring the values and beliefs of the world in which the play was written and discussing the way that these intersected with the student’s own values and beliefs.    This seemed to help students relate to the action in the play and start to engage with the ultimate question of  responsibility for the events that occur in it.  Just as Christian and Prue did, we showed the BBC Shakespeare Retold, Macbeth, in order to build familiarity with plot and themes in a modern setting using modern language.    It is a great story with lots of action that occurs in a fast sequence, so it draws the students in.

Of course, just looking at a modern language version of the play cannot give them the  full experience of a Shakespearean text, so we also planned to show them the Polanski version of Macbeth.    However, before doing this we decided that the students should develop a familiarity with Shakespearean English and a reassurance  that  it is not crucial for them to comprehend every single word spoken.    To do this we designed a series of activities that allowed students to experiment with using Shakespearean pronouns and terms of address as well as translating and performing short excerpts of the play before watching it.  I wanted them to learn to enjoy playing with language and develop their appreciation of the strong visual imagery that is used throughout his plays.

As I write this, I am still teaching this unit.  Once I have finished I will collect my final research, which, I hope will show a transformation in my students’ negative attitudes towards Shakespeare.    My class is currently watching the Polanski version of Macbeth and they seem to be enjoying it, without worrying about what they don’t understand.    We moaned at Lady Macbeth’s cruelty, laughed at the psychedelic mirror scene and sat in horror as the Macduffs were murdered.   The students don’t seem to be phased by the language and they seem intrigued by the question of blame.

As I watch this unit unfold, I have been thinking about my research topic engagement.    It is becoming clearer to me that engagement is not just about connecting to the life worlds of our students,  it is something which must occur on many different levels.  Student engagement with learning is also achieved through developing confidence in new content, which happens through conceptual learning and then practice by appropriate application.  However, I think that, underpinning this there needs to be an  ongoing intellectual engagement, which is achieved through analytical learning.    Getting students to engage in moral dilemmas and apply their own values and belief systems to them is engaging.  It makes the learning personal, it makes the learning matter.    So that when a student passionately proclaims that Lady Macbeth is a ‘bitch’  rather than reprimanding them, I can smile secretly and know that they care about and are engaged in the learning.

These are the moments when I think ‘I love teaching English’.