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PERSPECTIVES: Conversation with Genevieve White

On Shakespeare, Globalisation, and Creativity in the English Language Classroom

A Conversation with Genevieve White

Genevieve White has taught English in places as far flung as Hungary, Romania, and China. She is currently located in Shetland. Genevieve is also a freelance resource writer, having written print and digital materials for Pearson, Richmond, Harper and Collins, the British Council, the Praxis Language Gym, FLTRP, Macmillan, and National Geographic Learning.

On 17th September 2016, we were lucky enough to host Genevieve in beautiful Zug, Switzerland, where she gave the plenary speech at the annual ETAS Professional Development Day. The following interview was conducted in Zug at the ETAS event.

Eva Göksel

Q: Your plenary speech took off with a provocative question: You asked if the words and works of a long-dead, middle-aged, white guy (aka Shakespeare) still have something to teach us. What led you to this particular question, and how have you answered it for yourself?

A:  My premise was based on objections I’ve heard to teaching Shakespeare over the years, either in person or on blog posts. The objections are, in fact, fair enough. However, I feel that is important to explore all the benefits of teaching Shakespeare to all levels of language learners . Maybe teaching with Shakespeare is not for everybody – it does tend to lose its magic if someone is forced to teach in a certain way.  But, I would say, if the debate of teaching Shakespeare is only a matter of self-confidence, then I encourage teachers to go for it. You don’t have to be a Shakespeare expert to use his work in the classroom. I myself am not an expert – I’m just interested in Shakespeare and I love teaching drama in the classroom – so if you combine all that, you can potentially have a good lesson. In fact, you don’t even need to force yourself to read an entire play; there are so many resources available online and elsewhere –plot synopsis, character studies, you name it; it’s there as a resource. It’s perfectly okay to be learning about Shakespeare and his works along with your students.

Q:  You mentioned a particular online resource to me earlier called “No Fear Shakespeare”. Can you tell us a bit about it?

A:  “No Fear Shakespeare” is a site that translates Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary English. The translation is placed side by side with the original text, so that you can see in clear, simple English what the characters are talking about. This facilitates understanding of the text and also allows modern readers to glimpse at the poetry of the original text. In fact, I think that this is one of the issues of working with Shakespeare’s work: So much of what makes his work brilliant is its poetry. If you strip the poetry from his plays, the learners lose so much. Therefore, it’s important for learners to have an understanding of, not only the incredible Shakespearian language as such, but also of the poetry of his work.

Q: Would you personally use a resource such as “No Fear Shakespeare” in your classroom?

A:  Yes, absolutely! For example, a very simple activity, which you can create quickly, is to choose a few excerpts from a key speech such as Hamlet’s soliloquy: Pick a few lines from the original and a few from the “No Fear Shakespeare” version. Get your students to play a mix-and-match game, deciding which lines come from which version of the play. It’s a simple activity to play and to prepare, as well as being a nice, easy way to engage with the text.

Q:  You mentioned a love of using drama in your lessons. Tell us more.

A:  Well, there are many different techniques you can use. One of them is role-play. For example, I was teaching the Merchant of Venice, and we first focused on themes and key issues in the play, after which I distributed character cards to all the students and had them replay the trial scene. It is quite interesting to see the ideas the learners come up with in order to defend the merchant. The students really enjoyed the work, despite not having had prior knowledge of Shakespeare or his works. Although Shakespeare can seem to be a remote cultural figure, whose plays are not accessible to all, through this kind of work in the classroom – using small, manageable “bites” of his stories – everyone can connect with his themes, poetry, and humour.

Q:  In your plenary talk you listed 5 key elements of 21st century teaching and learning – and told us they were also to be found in Shakespeare’s works. Can you elaborate? 

A:  Globalisation is addressed in Shakespeare’s plays, since they have universal themes, which can be adapted to local settings and situations – including your classroom! Over time, theater companies around the world have managed to incorporate local elements in their shows. For example, an Arabic version of Romeo and Juliet set in Bagdad, which explores the conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Thus, the Bard’s plays, to this day, are used to address issues of local and national importance.

Drama is a collaborative medium, so Shakespeare’s work lends itself well to group work in the classroom. Also, the web is awash in Shakespeare resources for teachers and students alike, and this material and technology are ever easier to bring into the classroom, for example by using voice recording tools, such as vocaroo.  This gives students a chance to be active participants in their own learning.

The characters in Shakespeare’s plays can be quite ambiguous. This has the advantage that the Bard’s works are not necessarily didactic and they leave room for discussion and reflection. So you can have all kinds of opinions about a character, such as Shylock (Merchant of Venice), but the important thing is that the discussion is generated by the character’s ambiguity. The character of Shylock is also a wonderful entry point into a discussion of inclusion.

The last key element is creativity. The Bard himself had an extensive imagination: He wrote about far off lands and was able to convincingly portray characters from all walks of life, from kings to beggars and from lovers to murderers. Shakespeare inspired any number of other great men and women, such as Nelson Mandela and the Chartists in Britain. So, I think his work continues to be an instrument for creative change to this day.

Thanks very much for your efforts to make Shakespeare relevant to us today, Genny.

Eva Göksel