I’m writing today about Shakespeare, schools, and student wellbeing – or, more precisely, the ways in which Shakespearean performance can be used to promote student wellbeing in education.
Student wellbeing is a subject close to my heart; if you work with young people, how could it not be? My central argument can be summed up as follows: students from GCSE, to A-Level, to undergraduate level and beyond are constrained by an education system in which opportunities for personal or academic liberation are few and far between. Frequent, rigorous assessment policies, along with a whole host of other influences – both in school and out – have combined to foster a deeply unhealthy culture of perfectionism in young people. In this unhealthy environment, the act of performing Shakespeare, I propose, can be a liberating experience for students at any level of their education. In this paper, I present my findings based on two years (and counting!) of me putting that theory to the test through something called the “Shake-in-a-Day” project. Which is, by the way, very much what it says on the tin…
The Kids Aren’t Alright
Before I explain what Shake-in-a-Day is, and how it works, I want to establish the problem that educators are struggling to tackle, and outline some of the difficulties faced by students in secondary, tertiary, and undergraduate education. In March, you may have heard about the reports published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency revealing that in the 2015-16 academic year, undergraduate drop-outs rose again for the third consecutive year. According to these figures, 6.4% of students in England enrolled on full-time courses – that’s 26,000 students – did not continue their course into a second year. This is worrying news.
A number of possible contributing factors have been posited. In an interview with The Guardian, Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute thinktank, suggested causes including “higher fees in England” leading to “lower value for money perceptions among students”, “extra students”, “more students from disadvantaged backgrounds, with non-standard qualifications”, and even the fact that “some universities have lowered their entry standards”.
There may well be some truth to some of these suggestions – although these kinds of remarks risk shifting, even implicitly, the blame for these dropouts onto students concerned. (“Lower standards”, by the way? Yuk. Repugnant wording.) It’s the kind of wording we should resist vehemently – particularly when there is currently little evidence, for example, to suggest that students who entered universities on lower entry standards or even with “non-standard qualifications” were any more or less likely to drop out in their first year.
One other possible significant contributing factor, of course, is student mental health. And although it doesn’t seem to have been mentioned in many of the stories on the most recent dropout statistics, a significant amount of press coverage has been given to the student “mental health crisis” – and it is a crisis – over the last few years. Poor mental health is leading to more and more dropouts each year. This is an undisputed, demonstrable fact.
While it is highly unlikely that mental health issues are involved in the case of every drop out, there certainly seems to be a correlation. In May this year, Dr Hugh Brady, Vice Chancellor of Bristol University called mental health the “single biggest public health issue” affecting universities. If any of you are familiar with the events that have taken place at Bristol over the last 18 months, Brady’s reasons for saying this will come as no surprise. And, as demand for counselling at universities begins to outstrip supply, institutions are being put under increasing pressure to invest in new facilities and services to support students.
One need not look too far down the education totem pole, either, to see that these issues aren’t confined to undergraduates: only last year the BBC reported that nearly 3/4 of sixth form colleges (high school, for US readers) were forced to send students to A&E facilities as a result of increasing diagnoses of mental health problems. On the one hand, it could point to the benefits of greater openness surrounding MH issues, and increased diagnoses could be sign that young people are happier to talk about their feelings. On the other hand, the urgent need for effective provision in schools, colleges and universities suggests that the students who are brave enough to acknowledge their issues are still suffering within a system inadequately prepared for them – or worse, a system actively detrimental to their wellbeing.
It’s a bleak picture.
The Perils of Perfectionism
Let’s be clear – “mental health” is a broad term, every student is a different human being, and mental health problems can arise from a whole range of psychological, biological, socio-economic and environmental factors.
But today, I focus on just one factor: perfectionism. Because of all the contributing factors to poor mental health there are, it’s the one I come across most often in my day-to-day practice. Especially because the establishment within which I work is part of the problem. As academics and professionals, it’s a problem that we may well be attuned to. We all understand what perfectionism is, I’m sure, and how it can – if you’re anything like me – take the form of figurative self-flagellation, wherein you punish yourself not only for getting things wrong, but also for not getting things right enough…
A little reflection is healthy, granted. But while it’s all well and good to look back over your successes, why would anyone want to do that when there are so many delicious mistakes to dwell on and spend sleepless nights worrying about? The funding application that got shut down; the job interview that ended in rejection; that blank word document you’re afraid to start typing on, because you’re worried that what you’re writing won’t be good enough… Perhaps some of you have experienced setbacks like these.
And even though we know that fixating on mistakes is unhealthy, and every bit as joyless as it is self-destructive, it’s tricky to retain objectivity when perfectionism is indoctrinated into students throughout their schooling, particularly from ages 14-18. And, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a real problem.
As hard as students work (and despite the support of their teachers), they nevertheless operate within a system that, for all of its good intentions, tends to promote perfectionism and punish mistakes.
At school, every week brings with it a new “most important thing ever!” I’m talking about subject reports every half term that turn qualitative learning into a number on a page – a number by which the student is measured and categorised. Then there are assessments to complete, coursework that needs to be drafted and redrafted (and redrafted!) for submission, and then there are examinations to pass at the end of the year.
(Exams, by the way, are not getting any easier – despite what you may read in the papers every summer. In fact, they’re getting psychologically tougher. The last academic year saw the introduction of grades 1-9, replacing the old letter-based system. Under new conditions, there are now three variants on an A-Grade, with Grade 9 = A**. Think about that for a second. Students who achieved an A* the year before may now feel as though their grade is not worth as much anymore. Meanwhile, for anyone who earns a Grade 8 this year, the implicit message is, well, “Great! But you could have done even better…” Meanwhile, the students who scratch and claw for a C or B grade – sorry – a Grade 4, 5 or 6 – now feel on the thin end of the wedge despite their hard work.)
Once sixth form begins, there are universities to think about, each with its own set of requirements and expected standards for students to measure themselves against. Then come the Oxbridge applications, interviews, countless rejections. Then they get to university – the promised land! – and submit that first essay, and it only gets 52%? Turns out you’re still not good enough. Turns out you have a lot of improving to do.
“It doesn’t matter what you achieve,” young people are so often told. “You could have always done better.”
To the students in this position, it can feel like every lesson counts. Every essay counts. And every mistake counts. And what is more, counts against them.
Let me be clear here: I do not say any of this to discredit or undermine the incredible work of classroom teachers, learning support assistants, SEN providers or other student support workers operating within schools or local community services. These people are my mentors, role-models, colleagues and friends, and I know firsthand how tirelessly (and often thanklessly) they work to provide young people with the tools – and the motivation! – they need to succeed in the challenging educational circumstances outlined above. None of these people do it for the pay (pay which, by the way, is always far less than they deserve), and they certainly don’t do it for praise (which, again, is probably for the best given how much criticism the teaching profession seems to face on a daily basis).
Instead, the points I raise here reflect widely-acknowledged and deeply-ingrained problems within the British education system as a whole. And even though many schools are taking positive and constructive steps to tackle the issues raised below, under the conditions of the current education system even the best teachers may struggle to promote healthy, reflective attitudes towards learning. It can feel difficult to make a difference to the problem of student perfectionism when working within an environment that reinforces perfectionist tendencies at every turn.
But even the smallest difference matters.
The “Shake-in-a-Day” project
Which brings me to Shake-in-a-Day. As with all the best ideas, this one is stolen. Shake-in-a-Day began life at the University of Exeter. Conceived by a drama MFA student named James Parker around 2007-8 as a way of celebrating original practice, it turned into an annual event for several years. The first Shake-in-a-Day was a simple (if terrifying) concept: one play, a group of willing university students, and 24 hours to rehearse, block, and market the show before performing to a live audience. The end result was always messy, unpolished, and – most importantly – utterly liberating. Shake-in-a-Day encouraged mistakes and flaws, and turned those hiccups into a key selling point of the performance.
Perhaps you see where the strands of this talk are coming together. For students in mainstream education, whose academic and social achievements come all too often at the cost of wellbeing, I suggest that activities such as Shake-in-a-Day may prove to be invaluable. So I took it, and brought it to school and started to work out ways of making it useful – not just to Drama or English students, but to any and all young learners who might benefit.
For the last two years, I have used Shake-in-a-Day – with a couple of tweaks – to combat perfectionism and encourage risk-taking in schools. I’ve worked exclusively with sixth form students so far, because they’re who I consider to be the most “at risk” of perfectionist tendencies.
The logic is thus: engagement with early modern drama, I argue, can provide students with a consequence-free environment to take chances, make mistakes, and even turn those mistakes into opportunities for personal growth. Why Shakespeare in particular, and not modern drama? Because – though it’s easy to forget in an environment like BritGrad – a great many students really struggle to “get” Shakespeare. As an ambassador for early modern drama, one can wax lyrical about universal themes and transcendent human narratives, but the archaic language and historical references that we know and love and can debate for hours can feel all but impenetrable to some. Shakespeare is capable of confusing even the most confident reader.
So, I thought: why not take advantage of that fact?
To defeat perfectionism, we must be willing to make mistakes, remember. That’s the point of this whole exercise. Even professional actors get things wrong. By setting students up with something as tough to crack as Shakespeare, mistakes aren’t just likely – they’re inevitable. Moreover, by limiting the time that participants have to prepare their performances, you end up with a situation in which students have no choice but to communicate the “gist” of their text; to improvise lines; to support one another in learning, reading, and performing; to cock it up and carry on. Better yet, in the spirit of the original Shake-in-a-Day, these students are encouraged to tackle mistakes as they arise – the forgotten lines, the miscues, the shaky dialogue and misunderstandings – and turn them into opportunities for ad-hoc, organic comedy. For many, performing Shakespeare in a limited time frame is the definition of a bad situation. Shake-in-a-Day tells them to make the best of it. It’ll be good enough. When the end result isn’t in doubt – it will be a mess! – all that matters is enjoying the process of getting there.
You can be more than your mistakes.
As long as they understood that, that was all that mattered. So that’s what I told them.
It took some begging and pleading, but I cleared the idea with my then-employer. The 24-hour rehearsal period had to go, of course, because of something called “Child Protection”. (That’s the same reason, incidentally, that I’m unable to share with you pictures from the two Shake-in-a-Days so far. Although, given some of the questionable things that went on during rehearsals, perhaps it’s best I leave it to your imagination!) With the 24-hour time frame out of the window, students were therefore given a week’s notice of their given play, which was time to read the script and assign roles. They still only had one morning to rehearse, though! In order to make sure that everyone had something to do, the year group were divided into 5 teams, with each getting one Act of the play. The Acts would be performed in sequence at the end of the day, combining to produce a single run of the entire play. And for those students who were unable or unwilling to perform? They became prompts, lighting technicians, prop gatherers, musicians, wardrobe technicians… So, things were a little more organised than they had been in my university days, but the principle – the chaotic energy – remained intact…!
There were some hiccups too, of course – particularly in the first go-around. I encountered a lot of resistance from students who “couldn’t see the point”. Parents emailed to ask if this was a joke (my answer was usually a polite, “yes, and a good one”). The south-east was also apparently struck down by a plague in the week before the performance: a frankly worrying number of students fell suddenly ill, and were whisked away for “emergency medical appointments”.
But I persevered. And encouraged. And was supported by a vocal group of sixth form students who believed in the idea. And by the day of the first performance – As You Like It – everyone had a purpose. Everyone knew the end result would be a hot mess. Everyone did their best. And their best was – unequivocally – good enough.
That first Shake-in-a-Day performance in 2016 was the most tonally inconsistent, hilariously improvised, on-the-fly disasterpiece I have ever seen. It turned the Oliver / Charles wrestling match into a WWE spectacle, replete with entrance music and an elbow drop. There was a dance number to accompany the song of the “lusty horn”. There were off-colour jokes made on the spur of the moment that should probably have never seen the light of day…!
But it was beautiful, and mistake-ridden, and completely on-message. Once word spread among student body following the first Shake-in-a-Day (word of mouth is a powerful thing!) and the school community began to understand the relevance of the project, it made things much easier to “sell” to the next sixth form cohort. The following year, I was able to work with an even more receptive year group (and iron out some mistakes of my own!).
Did it work? Did it help? Students were encouraged to offer feedback, and results were encouraging. These students have given permission for their words to be used here. Which is a relief, because, as is often the case, they put things much better than I can:
Fundamentally, learning the language was not prioritised because if it all went wrong, all you needed was the plot and some confident improvisation to keep the play entertaining, and that made it a lot of fun to both perform and watch!
Personally, I hate performing on stage, and the thought of public speaking or acting in front of a large audience feels terrifying, daunting and a literal nightmare. But with this, it felt like such a safe and friendly environment where there was no pressure to be a great actor or perfect your lines, so you could just have fun with it. … It was an opportunity where you weren’t being marked or judged, where you could try something out of your comfort zone, and where your mistakes can be embraced rather than punished. It was a definite confidence booster to see myself having fun with something I’m usually terrified of.
In terms of emotional well-being, drama can give you an entire escape. When you’re in a room full of people expecting you to be a character and being okay with you doing that character to the MAX you can be absolutely loony with no fear. Plus it’s so gratifying hearing feedback on performances or even laughter from an audience.
[The day] encouraged teamwork and confidence and creativity. Playing Borachio is one of the most fun enrichment day memories I have because it’s something that is totally outside of everyday routine & I could lose myself in him.
Play’s the Thing
What’s the message here, then? The truth is, whether you have a teaching qualification or not: if you work with young people and students, or if you want to work with young people and students, or if you want to write research papers to be read by young people and students… you are a teacher. And as teachers, it isn’t simply our responsibility to teach our subjects; we don’t just show students how to write essays and how to research: we teach behaviours as well. We are role models, all of us. And it’s up to us to start teaching, modelling, and promoting positive reflective behaviours that encourage our students not only to be aware of their own mental health, but also to seek out and capitalise on opportunities to take risks, and embrace their mistakes.
Teaching these behaviours doesn’t need to take a week, or a month, or a school holiday. It can begin with just one day – a Shake-in-a-Day.
Because sometimes the play really is the thing.