It fills me with such delight that more and more schools are reading Shakespeare with children in the primary phase. There are many wonderful theatre groups now working with schools on this too. It can be really tricky to get that first encounter right. If we select a play too complicated, too dark or too romantic, we can inadvertently put children off future exploration. There are a few great contenders for KS2 in my opinion. A Midsummer Night’s Dream offers the ‘play within a play’; I have seen children delighting over the antics of Bottom and his motley crew in the classroom. I distinctly recall being utterly swept up with the magic of the forest and the fairies as a child of 10 or 11 – this was my first encounter with Shakespeare and I’ve been hooked ever since. My personal favourite for teaching in upper key stage two though, is Macbeth.
This is Shakespeare’s shortest play so it is possible to explore the entire play over a teaching sequence. The scenes with the three witches are deliciously fun for children to (over)act and we also have murder, betrayal, ghosts and battle to plunder and explore. I have won the hearts and minds over of many a reluctant reader through walking in role across the heath, cackling in role as a witch or descending into madness in role as Macbeth. There ought to be a finely-struck balance between reading - and acting - the original Shakespearean text, and reading extracts from narrative versions to a) get through the entire play and b) assimilate the complicated structure of the plot. When I say acting here, I don’t necessarily mean adorning robes and taking to the stage. Many schools do decide to link a Shakespeare unit of work with a school performance and this is a wonderful and memorable opportunity for children. But for some pupils, this would fill them with dread. I advocate meaning-laden read alouds in class from the text, with plenty of time for peer collaboration and rehearsal. Reader’s Theatre is a brilliant strategy for facilitating repeat re-reading in an inclusive and non-threatening way, whilst allowing plenty of freedom for those keen and able to express themselves dramatically. Other drama pedagogical approaches such as Paired Improvisation and Freeze-framing also work brilliantly – all this can be done in the classroom, in the English lesson.
Not only will a rich and exciting unit on Macbeth satisfy the statutory requirement that children read from a wide range of books, including fiction from our literary heritage, it can also inspire some superb writing outcomes too. Pupils in year 5 at St. John’s Catholic Primary School in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, used HfL’s Detailed Exemplification Planning to explore Macbeth. An overview of the 5-week long plan is available as a free download here. During this lesson towards the start of the unit, pupils enjoyed exploring the heath, acting in role:
This is an example of writing generated at the end of the lesson:
The opportunity afforded to pupils here to enter the world of the text and to experience being on the heath first-hand has greatly enhanced the writing. The reader is drawn in and carefully led through this dramatic setting through controlled use of noun phrases and precise vocabulary choices – all acquired by this pupil during the drama. How delighted I would be by writing of this quality at the start of a unit!
Pupils are asked, as another incidental writing task early on in the unit, to write a letter in role as Lady Macbeth, demonstrating their understanding of the prophecies and their recognition of Lady Macbeth’s murderous intent...
Not only have the children at St John’s absolutely loved reading and acting from Macbeth in class, they have also been producing writing rich with audience and purpose that they are keen to share.
Subscribers to HfL’s PA+ resource website can access the Macbeth Detailed Exemplification Plan in full here, along with detailed plans for other year groups in key stage one and two. A free download of the overview is available on the TES website here. Huge thanks to Nicola O’Brien and year 5 pupils at St John’s Catholic Primary School in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire.