Teacher Juliette McGirr discusses how Digital Theatre Plus helps to teach the new AQA English specification.

With the launch of AQA’s draft literature specification I was relieved to see the inclusion of Much Ado About Nothing and Macbeth amongst their offer of five Shakespeare texts – and not just because we have them in the stock cupboard!

For several years nowI have been using Digital Theatre Plus as a valuable classroom resource to strengthen my students' understanding of a variety of texts in performance, and these are two of the many high quality productions featured in their online library. 

Using online productions has helped students to get to know the texts well. With the changes to AO2, students will now need to write about texts “using relevant subject terminology where appropriate.” Students have commonly struggled to comment on features of structure and form in drama texts, focusing mainly on language and neglecting these important aspects. Having watched a production, the impact of an aside, a soliloquy or characters speaking in disguise is explicitly and memorably revealed to students allowing them to comment on the text with greater range.

This has increased overall marks significantly, with many students moving from band 4 to band 5 through more sophisticated analysis. 

One aspect of the new examination we may be feeling uneasy about is the ‘closed book’ element. However, I have been pleasantly surprised to hear students’ mimicking lines from productions they have seen such as David Tennant’s Benedick exclaiming “There’s double meaning in that!” at the close of Act 2. Using the actor’s rhythm and intonation as cues they are already beginning to memorise quotations without realising what they are doing.

Digital Theatre Plus also provides accompanying Study Guides to support students’ learning.These are printable resources ideal for exploring close readings of sections of the text in a dramatic and also critical way. Key Scenes are accompanied by well-pitched questions which encourage students to consider the playwright’s craft – such has how rhythm can create mood and consideration of why instructions would be included in character’s lines rather than in stage directions.

These questions really broaden the students’ responses to the text and encourage them to offer alternative readings.

The Study Guides are organised into a series of resources with accompanying scenes. One feature I find very effective for exploring the text is the Keywords and Questions sub-section: ‘Can you find any contemporary references to soldiers returning from war who have struggled to settle or find a role for themselves in a domestic setting?’, ‘Why is insomnia so terrifying?’ and calling students to consider ‘When is the last scene that was conclusively in daylight?’ As someone who has taught the play many times I find the prompts and key questions a refreshing way of approaching the text and reminding me to be open to the different interpretations students might bring.  

 The Language section holds a wealth of guidance on Shakespeare’s use of language with a clear focus on the writer’s methods and impact, helpfully moving students away from mere feature spotting and into more perceptive and evaluative interpretations. Explanations of devices such as antithesis, iambic pentameter and half lines are provided alongside examples from the text and concluded with a linked question for students to explore for themselves, such as:  What does this to do the tempo and charge of the scene? Does one character pick up on the end of the other person's line more than the other? Does this change?

The Image Galleries can be used effectively in starter tasks and as revision prompts; I have also used them successfully as ways into creative writing tasks for the language GCSE using a series of prompt questions about the relationship between the characters, what has preceded the image and predictions about what could happen next.

A further benefit of Digital Theatre Plus is the independence it affords students in consolidating their understanding.

They can review key scenes at home using their login – no more lending an absent student your only copy of a film adaptation, hoping it returns unscathed and then the sinking feeling of reading their response to the film adaptation, rather than the play. They also have access to all of the Study Guides’ content – a powerful reassurance having read much of what they could otherwise pick up from a Google search for ‘help with Macbeth’.

One final feature of Digital Theatre Plus I feel I must mention are interviews with actors and creatives that enable students, and teachers, to get an insight into interpretive choice and creative process. This is an illuminating feature that guides viewers to a developed appreciation of the presentation of ideas, themes, and settings in a really engaging way.

I have seen first-hand the impact of streaming live theatre recordings on students’ understanding. The value of reading the texts alongside a top quality production instils students with the confidence to comment on and explore meanings in much greater depth.  Using Digital Theatre Plus has confirmed for me the potential of this kind of approach in the literature classroom. 

It has made, what for many of us seems a daunting prospect, a Shakespeare closed book exam feel like an exciting opportunity.