Sequencing the curriculum: Shakespeare

Reading Time: 6 minutes In a series of posts I’m going to explore the way our curriculum currently works including the rationales behind it..

Reading Time: 6 minutes

In a series of posts I’m going to explore the way our curriculum currently works including the rationales behind it. Our curriculum model is our progress model.

Context: I work in a high performing, academically selective girls school with a comprehensive sixth form intake. The last four years we’ve seen a significant shift in intake towards an area of high deprivation, higher numbers of ethnic minority students, and higher numbers of students with additional needsThe English department teaches Media and Drama tk GCSE, but we don’t have allocated discrete lessons for these subjects at KS3.

The outline: Year 7: The Tempest; Year 8: Henry V; Year 9: Othello; GCSE; Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet; A-Level Measure for Measure or Hamlet.

Considerations / questions: 

  • We’ve adopted broad themes for our years – Rebellion, Power, Diverse voices. The texts need to reflect those.
  • How can we incorporate Drama and/or Media as well as English to encourage GCSE takeup?
  • We provide students with the broadest possible experience of Shakespeare while remaining meaningful. For us, this has been about covering a range of genres. Over KS3/4 they will read 4 plays.
  • When in the year do the units come? Is there adequate time between one year’s Shakespeare and the next or too much, meaning we have to recap key concepts a lot more when returning?
  • How do the activities and learning outcomes of the units map across to our skills curriculum, in particular the writing curriculum? (We have a work-in-progress writing curriculum delineating what stages of analytical and essay writing students will cover each year)
The content:

Year 7: The Tempest
This is taught as a combined drama and English unit, introducing students to physical theatre – which they come back to when doing Animal farm (the play) in year 8 with a Brechtian focus. We explore primarily from a character driven perspective, using the original text but might gloss some sections to identify the major story arc. It’s not an extract unit as such but we do some ‘directorial editing’. Students will look at theatrical techniques including setting and costume, using physical theatre to present scenes including the opening (inspired by an RSC adaptation from a few years ago). They will look at language and write analysis of the play as well as rationales for the dramatic choices (like the Drama GCSE log, not using these detail and format but to get them into the habit of explaining their rationale). We do discuss elements of comedy/romance within it as well as themes of colonialism, power, family and relationships, and morality, as a way to explore the characterisations they are portraying. It fits the year 7 theme of Rebellious voices’ where they also cover Northern Lights (Lyra), Romantic poets, and a non fiction journalistic unit.

Year 8: Henry V
A more literary unit, because modern drama in year 8 picks up the performance elements. We do close language focus especially on the St Crispin’s Day speech as it provides some interesting cultural capital, but other sections too, particularly looking at imagery. We discuss staging ideas including editing, and the idea of Shakespeare as a live text that directors and actors can work with, not something essentially sacred – though we do emphasise there should be strong reasons for editing these can include length (using BBC adaptations as examples) or modern audiences needs. We explore nationalism and patriotism, and ideas about war, glory and power, what makes a good leader etc as well as drawing on some ideas about the writer’s place as ‘history maker’ and fictionalising history. It fits the year 8 theme of power.

Year 9: Othello
This fits the year 9 theme of diverse voices, which builds from year 8’s ‘power’. Students explore race, culture, jealousy, love, manipulation, power, insecurity, violence. They learn about the role of Venice in the era – important cultural capital about the Renaissance as we discuss contemporary similarities as well as the idea of it being a boundary between empires and continents. We do close thematic and linguistic analysis. It gets much more technical, exploring blank verse, prose and poetry through the different characters, liminality and other deliberately taught micro techniques.

GCSE: Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet
Text choice depending on teacher and class, but these two both build from the tragedy elements in year 9, so there’s already an expectation and understanding of genre as well as more confidence with Shakespeare. We do consider the macro techniques like characterisation, setting and staging (looking at some adaptations including Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth, RSC and Globe productions). We spend a lot of time on the micro techniques of language and structure. We cover a broad range of themes and perspectivies, introducing critical theory including feminism, new historicism and Marxism. We offer students a range of critical quotations to work with – these are usually short paragraphs or single quotations at this stage but could be an article depending on ability. We use a lot of the British Library resources, as well as the York Notes A-Level critical pages which have nice succinct explanations of these approaches.

These texts are probably the most culturally resonance of the AQA choices in that a working knowledge of the play enables students to access a wider range of references in the wider world than, say, Much Ado About Nothing (much as I love teaching it!) We also have a high proportion of new students to A-Level. By teaching one of these two plays, we can be relatively secure (given the experiences of our current intake) that there are similarities in their GCSE experience – most of our sixth form have done one of the same two plays.

A-Level: Measure for Measure / Hamlet

We do OCR, and clearly A-Level develops in terms of techniques and critical interpretations. The OCR course also places more significance on the context of texts, as well as the ‘dramatic function’ of individual scenes which I think is a really great way of phrasing ideas about form.

Hamlet is an option that again develops the genre of tragedy, and provides students with the opportunity to learn about one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays (cultural significance). It has many of the same themes and ideas as Macbeth, so follows on nicely for those students. Measure is lesser known but enables students to consider the ‘problem play’ which brings in more complex ideas about genre. Both enable us to pick up some of the issues and themes of their GCSE experience. Measure works very well for our all-female cohort and the #metoo movement as well as creating opportunity for discussion of issues around sexuality and safeguarding, which makes for very interesting lessons.

What do you think?

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