Shakespeare workshops shake up English

18 Jun 2021
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Since 2017, and with support from Birmingham Stories since 2019, Dr Kate Rumbold has led Shakespeare workshops for adult learners completing English courses with Birmingham Adult Education Service (BAES). Taking place at the Library of Birmingham, before moving online due to Covid-19 restrictions, these workshops have offered participants the opportunity to engage with imaginative literature outside of their curriculum.

Dr Kate Rumbold, said: ‘I designed these workshops specifically with adult learners in mind, drawing on my previous experience as an adult literacy classroom volunteer, as well as on my research in English Literature. I knew that some learners would have no experience of Shakespeare, others would have some memories of Shakespeare, positive or negative, from school, and many more might feel intimidated by his work. I felt confident, though, that, if learners left the workshop with a sense of mastery over something they’d initially perceived to be difficult, they would carry that confidence back into their studies.

The aim of the workshops was to approach Shakespeare not analytically, but emotionally, helping learners to connect on a personal level with the quotes and extracts they encountered. My previous research with Karen Simecek (University of Warwick) had suggested that encouraging English Literature students to engage emotionally with poetry deepened their understanding of what they were reading. I was keen to find out if it also boosted adult learners’ engagement and motivation.

The workshops were a joy to lead, with powerful new stories and life experiences shared by the learners every time. The University of Birmingham student Literacy Champions who helped facilitate the discussions left the workshops with new perspectives on Shakespeare than those they’d gained from their peers in the seminar room. And learners talked of their newfound resolve to take bold steps in their studies and in their lives, inspired by such resonant words as “to thine own self be true”.’

To celebrate Adult Learners Week (14 – 19 June 2021) we chatted about the benefits of the workshop with two participants, Hameedah and Raheela. Both agreed that they began the workshops with a basic knowledge of Shakespeare but left with a completely different perspective.

Rather than reading full texts, workshop participants were invited to engage with specific quotes from Shakespeare plays. One participant, Hameedah, said that having the plays broken down into bite-size moments “captured a lot of things for a lot of people in the workshop. I for one was blown away because I hadn’t been able to see Shakespeare in that light before.

When you took those quotes out from the writing it was, like, wow, he really understood people and feelings and how to communicate that […] it sounded to me like he got people, and that opened my eyes to Shakespeare, completely differently.”

By creating a comfortable environment for open conversation, Kate encouraged participants to reflect on what the words meant to them personally. Learners shared their feelings and experiences in response to quotations about grief and courage, love and hope. which opened up a dialogue for the group. This enabled participants to experience and empathise with each other’s varying outlooks, which had a profound impact. “I feel like I’ve recognised myself even more, and others recognise me. I feel I could recognise myself and reflect on the things I can do better.”

However, it’s not just the content of the quotes that impacted the confidence of the learners. Hosting the initial workshops in the Library of Birmingham encouraged learners to engage with this central Birmingham space in a new way. As Raheela said, “That was the cherry on the cake, that was the beautiful moment for me, just going round, just looking […] I have been in that library before, long times before, but never did I feel valuable." The workshops ended with a tour of the beautiful Shakespeare Memorial Room at the top of the Library building, and Raheela volunteered to be the learner who unlocked the Victorian book cabinets so that everyone could have a chance to start to explore the Library’s vast Shakespeare collection.

Throughout the conversations it became clear that perhaps the most exciting benefit to learners who take part in the workshops is their overwhelming increase in confidence, not only regarding Shakespeare but also in their personal lives. Hameedah said:

“If I didn’t do your workshop I don’t think I would have read his books. But because you managed to draw out those quotes, then it made me realise, ok, this is worth reading. It was the way that it related to, I think to us, our group.

Because of your workshop I’ve become much more self-reflective. I find I’m able to take a little bit of moment out of my day and be self-reflective. I’ve got a diary, I’ve got a sketchpad that I write my notes down in, and that’s come about from your workshop.[…]If I didn’t attend your workshop then I wouldn’t be, I wouldn’t have taken those steps to start documenting myself basically and I think that’s what I’ve taken from your workshop, I’ve become very reflective.”

Raheela agreed, stating: “I am so so happy to say that that experience is fuelling me today, in filling those shoes of what I am doing now. That has given me the web, the anchor to move, you know, up, maybe up not one steps but a few steps up. That I thought I could never be prepared for before.”

Hameedah and Raheela both went on to successfully complete their GCSE English studies in a very challenging year. The success of the initial workshops in 2017 led BAES to offer the sessions to all GCSE English learners, including during Covid-19.

“English can be quite scary to a lot of people, especially literature, because it can seem a little boring sometimes, maybe a little bit outdated, but I think the idea that you’ve made it very modern by touching on our feelings and how we feel about what we’re reading, and how the issues relate to modernity -- that in itself just shook up, for me it just shook up English altogether!”

Head to BAES website to find further information about their range of courses for adult learners.