Hail Caesar! – the joy of Go With The Flow Project Based Learning

It was a sudden Skype message in the middle of our day that that sparked a new direction in our home ed project life. Mr S had noticed that the Royal Shakespeare Company were running a First Encounters performance of Julius Caesar at our local theatre – a couple of hurried messages across the seas to Debs and co in Singapore because we know the Beans love Shakespeare, and tickets were booked and spirits were high. I suppose you could say it didn’t really “fit in” with our current history project (the Middle Ages) but hey – what an opportunity!!

As I’ve mentioned before, we always like to do a bit of prep before our trips, just to give background info and set the scene. (I think this might be just me? – perhaps because I was taken to so many music concerts as a child and I always found that if I’d heard the pieces before, I enjoyed the concert more, and even now I like to read the book before I see the film of the book – I just like to do my research!)  As we didn’t have much time before the date of the performance our learning here was a bit ‘dry’ and focused around reading about Julius Caesar, exploring the plot of the play and discussing prominent themes. Often we drop everything else to learn about whatever we have coming up, picking up the threads of our other projects later on, or dove-tailing them together for a bit, such is the wonderful flexibility in the nature of our learning process. In fact the girls spent an entire afternoon immersed in history and it continued over the following few days – learning about the Romans, Shakespeare, the Domesday Book, and the Magna Carta, all in one fell swoop. Far from muddling them, interest in one sparked interest in another and some fascinating discussions were had, they managed to find links hitherto unthought of by me.

Thus equipped with some basic knowledge, excitement was at fever pitch when we set off to collect the Beans who had just that morning flown back from Singapore…

The First Encounter itself was marvelous – set in a studio, it was an intimate, interactive adaptation of the play, with a band of 8 RSC actors, 4 men and 4 women, some of whom played multiple parts,with men playing female characters (well…. just Calpurnia) and females playing males – the former historically accurate, the latter great for the girls to see. Bod7 was particularly inspired by this! We, the audience, played the part of Roman Citizens, required to salute Julius Caesar, provide sound effects for the marching army and be a loud and rambunctious crowd in the necessary scenes. You really did feel like a part of the performance rather than just an onlooker, and Shakespeare was “brought to life” most effectively for the children. I had, I confess wondered about this – in my head, Julius Caesar was perhaps not the most accessible of Shakespeare’s plays to present to children, and no, we didn’t delve deeply into the nuances of the text or the complexities of the themes at play, but following the plot alone left the kids transfixed throughout. Debs and I kept glancing along at the row of them, their jaws dropped, tongues hanging out, eyes glued upon the stage (a most attractive sight indeed 🙂 ). The choreography in the murder and fight scenes was particularly impressive and within 5 minutes of leaving the building they were all charging around like crazed lunatics, having a go at stage fighting of course.

Some wonderful discussions emerged from our brief study of the play. Shakespeare mentions the clock in Julius Caesar (“Peace – count the clock”, “The clock hath stricken three”) –  and yet there were no mechanical clocks in 44BC so why did Shakespeare do this? Then, off at a tangent, they remembered that the word clock comes from the Latin word “clocca” (via the German/Dutch “klokke”, and French “cloche”)  for bell and was probably onomatopoeic, imitating the sound of handbells rattling (this we discovered during a spontaneous afternoon on horology, when we built a working clock and found out about clock makers and the history of clock making – it’s so lovely when these nuggets of learning resurface!).  The fascination continued – was Julius Caesar a good or bad man? was he really ambitious? – after all he did refuse the crown 3 times… Why is the play mainly about Brutus (in fact he has over four times as many lines as Caesar)? Why do we not get to see Caesar’s point of view? How did Shakespeare know what had happened? What’s the difference between a  republic and an empire? Which led us to discuss democracy and dictatorship. And we chatted at length about the principle themes of fate, chaos and order, and friendship, linking these back to plays we had previously explored – A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest.

And thus an obsession with Shakespeare was born…

You see we *were* thinking about studying the Ancient Egyptians as our next history project, but I have to say I wasn’t really feeling terribly inspired – and the girls are interested but not wildly enthusiastic about the ancients. Home ed is so much easier and makes so much more sense when there is real fire behind your learning! So we decided the next morning, over some washing-up, to abandon the Ancient Egyptians (bless you, dear fellows, we shall return to you one day…) and throw ourselves head first into Shakespeare and the Elizabethans (and maybe chuck the Tudors and Stuarts in along the way – we’ve covered this period before, but hey, there’s always soooooo much to learn!). Bod7 immediately announced her intention to join the stage (added to list of other possible careers), and we embarked upon some memorisation using Ken Ludwig’s How to Teach your Children Shakespeare. We dug out our Shakespeare Wallbook to explore all the plays, and registered with the RSC’s education programme for a live link-up broadcast of Macbeth. We booked a drama workshop of Twelfth Night (kindly organised by Debs – ta very much!) and booked tickets to watch a performance of the same at The Globe (as groundlings!!!). And started playing Shakespeare Top Trumps. And a family reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a trip to an open air production of The Tempest and a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon are all on the cards…so that’s the spring/summer sorted 🙂 We’ve discussed poetry and prose, iambic pentameter, rhythm and metre can how this change and be used for different effects. Today Bod10 has disappeared off to learn about sonnet form…

This often happens to us. We’re pottering along one way and I think I’ve got things neatly ‘planned’ out, and suddenly we get gripped by something else and the learning shoots off in another direction. In fact every project we do basically just follows the flow. It would feel practically inhumane to say to someone “no, stop learning that now, we’ve got something else planned for you to know, and anyway you don’t need to know that until you’re x-many years old, so be quiet and hurry up and knuckle down and learn this stuff you’re not really interested in!”  But this is precisely what happens in schools – the National Curriculum ensures that every child is learning exactly the same thing in exactly the same way at exactly the same time. Of course, we know that that sometimes we all have to knuckle down and learn stuff we’re not that really terribly gripped by, often as a means to an end (like working out how to use WordPress 😉 ), but there isn’t much joy in this type of learning, and I suspect that the knowledge gained isn’t always retained, unless it’s actually useful. Now, I’m not suggesting that it’s practical, or even possible to teach 30 different kids 30 different projects at the same time. But I was chatting to an ex-Headteacher friend of mine the other day and she was mourning the changes and lack of flexibility in the current system. A while back, she commented, if a child came in with, say, a robot they’d built over the weekend, and everyone got excited about it, you could throw your weeks planning out of the window (sort of!) and weave your literacy, numeracy, science and what have you, through a class project on robots. Creative teaching  – responding to the interests of the individuals. There’s no space for this anymore in our target-driven cramming system. Of course you can present some not-very-interesting-stuff in an exciting way and hope to hook people in, but surely for truly joyful, meaningful learning, it’s got to be best if the fire is self-fueling??

I worried a bit in the early days about being able to get inspired too, alongside the girls, and whether it would be tricky to juggle different sets of interests simultaneously. What I have discovered over the years is that boundless enthusiasm is a highly contagious bug. The whole family gets swept along, and interests naturally grow and thrive, enjoyed by all at whatever level each individual is able to engage with it.

A couple of years ago Bod10 (then 8) got caught up in the world of Jane Austen – so we read sections, discussed and compared plots, watched lots of dramatisations (fine by me!), visited her house in Chawton, visited the V&A to oggle at dresses and Georgian furnishings, wrote letters to each other (we pretended I was “Lady Catherine” writing to my daughter enjoying the season in Bath – so she had to write back in the style of the time, giving me lots of appropriate detail), we explored the etiquette, customs, music, dance, and architecture of the Georgian period, and touched on the Napoleonic wars. You’d think that Bod7, who was then 4, wouldn’t be that engaged by an 18th Century author…but she threw herself into it with vigour and took from it what she could (namely that one really should endeavor to marry rich 😉 😉 ).

It’s often amazes me what Bod3 picks up, seemingly by a process of osmosis. The other day she was playing busily and I asked up she was up to – “I’m astractin’ my DNA” came the unexpected reply. And after Bod7 had a dream about a volcano popping up on our doormat, Bod3 dashed to me in some confusion – “but there can’t be a volcano on our doormat ‘cos we live in the middle of a tectonic plate”. Just now I was halving an avocado, and she commented “the stone is the inner core, the squishy bit is the mantle and the skin can be the crust!” This certainly isn’t the kind of science she’d be exposed to in pre-school, but she’s absorbed it and assimilated bits of it, in her own little way.

You see is is at our peril that we compartmentalise learning, – that we break it up into portions and assign it to various age groups, that we force it upon people in what someone else deems to be manageable chunks, that we stop listening to what people are interested in and plan their learning for them.  In doing so we overlook the essence of learning – for is is not something that is done to you, but it is a skill that facilitates growth and evolution, and allows you to thrive in a constantly changing and fascinating world.

So, rip up the plan, go with the flow and enjoy it 😉

Cathy xxxxx




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