At school with Shakespeare

In this post Bianca describes one of the first outreach initiatives of our research team: a primary-school workshop on “Being at school in Shakespeare’s time”. This project has been awarded a Public Engagement Small Grant from the KCL Centre for Doctoral Studies. Designed by Bianca (main grant applicant) and supported by Victoria, the workshop has been developed collaboratively by the whole team and has benefitted greatly from Sharon’s extensive experience in teaching (Latin) in primary schools.

Through interactive discussion, practical activities, and games, our workshop introduces primary-school children in years 5 and 6 to the sixteenth-century classroom, pointing out that children at school in Shakespeare’s time were taught not in English, but in Latin, the international language of the day. During the workshop, children have a chance to look at manuscript Latin poems and school exercises, decipher and translate some Latin words, and *make their own manuscript* writing with a quill pen. We especially encourage children to think about what it means to learn in a second language and how this might be connected to literary creativity. The workshop is particularly suitable for schools with a high proportion of children who do not speak English at home, and are therefore (like Shakespeare!) being educated in their second language.


On the 21st May Sharon, Raffaella, and I delivered our first two workshop sessions at Holy Trinity and St. Silas, a Church of England primary school located in a colourful neighbourhood between Kentish Town and Camden Town.

We met in front of the school at 8:45 a.m., all carrying large bags filled with ink bottles, quills, photocopies and various sorts of paper. After unwrapping our materials and making some final arrangements with the school teachers, by 9:30 a.m. we were ready to start with our first session with Mr. McIntyre’s Year 5 class. This was a wonderful first-time experience!

The first part of our workshop consists in an interactive presentation on school curriculum, Latin-English bilingualism, and Latin verse exercises in Shakespeare’s time, with projected drawings of a sixteenth-century classroom and images of manuscripts from the period. Children were very interested and participated eagerly to the discussion: Sharon, who was in charge of this part, was overwhelmed with answers, guesses, and comments about the sixteenth-century school timetable, writing equipment, and non-technological classroom! Children quickly grasped the meaning of words such as “manu-script” and “bi-lingualism” based on their Latin components. When asked to reflect on ancient and contemporary bilingualism, children came up with very interesting observations and stories concerning the advantages of speaking more than one language as a way to communicate with different kinds of people, see and interpret the world, and better understand one’s own language.

In the second part of our workshop, children are asked to *read some real manuscripts*, looking at printed reproductions of manuscript pages and answering a few questions about some Latin words and their possible meaning. As a facilitator of this part, I was struck by how promptly children were able to decipher the relevant Latin words (e.g. “liber”) and make the connection with their English derivatives (e.g. “library”)! The last workshop activity – writing with quills – was welcomed with even more enthusiasm by children: they both followed our suggestion and copied the Latin words we had been discussing and, in some cases, engaged in very creative compositions:

After a short break, we moved to Ms Law’s Year 6 class and repeated the workshop. These slightly older children participated with similar vivacity and also made stimulating remarks on the creative potential of bilingualism. Before we left, some children stated that they prefer quills over pens and asked where they could buy a quill!

Overall, this was an extremely enriching and rewarding experience. We were able to engage about 60 children and discuss with them the overall context of our research (i.e. sixteenth-century literary culture), as well as such broad and current topics as bilingualism. We are looking forward to further outreach experiences!