Shakespeare, Giftedness and Multiculturalism

Neil Béchervaise

Differentiating curriculum in the mainstream classroom

The purpose of education in a free society is to provide its individual members with the intellectual and physical tools that enable them to make and act upon informed choices in the exercise of their freedom. When society provides permission for the individual to act in accordance with the dictates of his/her choice, then it assumes responsibility for ensuring that the choice is both informed, feasible and within its own greater interests.

In a free society, the responsibility of the compulsory schooling system is to provide the intellectual tools, to encourage development of the physical capacity, and to indicate the scope of the freedom within which the individual has a right to make informed choices (Maker, 1982) and to establish permission for the individual to act (Parnes,1997).

Operation of a comprehensive, compulsory education system presumes that governments accept their responsibility to each individual within the system (Taylor, 1968). However, as Ronvik (1993) observes, this is not always so. In fact, it may be a matter of media-fashioned public taste rather than educationally grounded school reform and civic responsibility (Oakes, 1986). It also presumes that individual ability, ambition and need will be catered for and that support systems will be provided for those whose needs, ambitions and abilities are not met by the assumptions and operation of a linear curriculum (Musgrave, 1973). The opportunity for students to exhibit superior performance across one or a range of endeavours (NSW Department of Education 2,1991:3), the commonly-called 'gifted and talented' students, is necessarily included in this operation (Marland, 1971).

The place of students whose abilities are not met by the bureaucratic demand of what is commonly termed 'teaching to the middle' has always been equivocal (Braggett, 1986). The intention of equity demands have been confused with demands for special provision and the range of conflicting models promoted through government and special interest groups have placed unreasonable demands on the intentions of the system (Van Tassell-Baska, 1992).

In accordance with the purposes of education in a free society, this paper argues that choice is only available to those with the intellectual and physical tools to take advantage of a tacit permission to act. The demand that external criteria for assessment of intellectual prowess be met through literacy and numeracy tests, through submission to state-mandated 'academically rigorous' syllabi and through competitive assessment is an essential denial of this permission (Hannan, 1990; Bull, 1997). Competition across a range of unrelated syllabi against a population whose experiential and cultural backgrounds and whose personal intentions are as various as a multicultural society can offer (Christie, 1996) is a denial of educational choice (Bechervaise, 1996a). Excellence becomes subsumed in the demands of the state for a presumed comparability of outcomes which can never be met because they deny the very freedoms of choice they propose to measure (Oakes, 1990).

The outcome of the compulsory, comprehensive and competitive education system is that it ultimately denies individuality; that it denies permission to act in accordance with the essential tenets of free choice (Mares, 1993). Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrable than in the lack of adequate provision for students whose language is inadequate to the level of instruction provided (Kondekakis, 1995) or whose intellectual ability is beyond or below the level of instruction provided (eg Borland, 1989).

Curriculum Differentiation

The civic responsibility of society to establish an equitable program of education for all of its citizens is beyond dispute in most western countries. Acceptance of the need to differentiate the curriculum through which that education is presented, however, remains problematic (Eltis, 1995). The flexible delivery systems, experience of success and instructional focus on accessibility to all students of higher levels of learning available to the gifted and talented, identified by Spady (1993), remain in the realms of rhetoric and political expedience.

Programs such as those initiated at Pymble Ladies College, Methodist Ladies College (Sydney) and Barker College remain under-researched (or under-reported) and (on the basis of anecdotal evidence), the levels of differentiation achieved remain problematic. Anecdotal evidence from Cranbrook College, on the other hand, suggests a greater degree of effective differention with students accelerated in real terms beyond their age cohort and school timetables being fitted to the needs of these students despite the identified difficulties generated by such action

Curriculum differentiation is necessarily hindered by adherence to conflicting philosophical approaches to education (Van Tassell-Baska, 1985), to the implications of measurement practice (McGaw, 1997) and to a stolid resistance to change in teaching practice which may be reinforced in Universities, themselves demanding excellence but insisting on some inchoate definition of 'academic rigour' (Bechervaise, 1996b).

The use of these 'cross-purposes' to reduce the efficacy of curriculum differentiation is necessarily high and, in practice, changes to classroom practice may be seen as the sole confounding element in assessing efforts to differentiate curriculum (Gold, 1965)

The purpose of the following unit of instruction is to establish that a particular sequence from a single secondary level school-required subject can be taught within a mixed ability and multicultural mainstream class to the advantage of the most gifted/talented while maintaining valuable, accessible and challenging learning experiences for the majority of the class.

The mixed ability, multicultural class

The class includes 25 students (see table below) of whom four are considered, in all likelihood, to be 'gifted and talented' by their teacher. These students have not been tested and the teacher's definition has not been interrogated. One of the students is a recent arrival (4 months) from Hong Kong. The second is a recent arrival from Greece (7 months). One of the 'gifted students has a polish-speaking mother while the fourth is a native English speaker (Australian). Thirteen of the remaining students come from a range of NESB homes including: Greek or Macedonian (4); Lebanese (5); Vietnamese (2) and Turkish (2). The remaining nine students are presumed native English speakers. None of the students is identified as intellectually or physically impaired though a number of the students wear spectacles. The class is co-educational though the only males in the group are the Polish-backgrounded student and seven of the nine native English speakers.

recent arrival from Hong Kong                                            female 1
recent arrival from Greece- Athens                                     female 1
Greek                                                                                  males 4
Polish background                                                              males 1
Lebanese                                                                            females 5
Vietnamese                                                                         females 2
Turkish                                                                                males 2
Australian                                                                            males 7
Australian                                                                            females 2

The students are a year 10 class and they range in age from 14.10 (Hong Kong female) to 17.2 (Lebanese female). The age range does not appear to generate any particular social problems within the classroom.

The policy of this state high school dictates that students should not be ability grouped so the plan is to provide curriculum differentiation in subject English within the established syllabus and using the agreed texts. The teacher does not have specific ESL training though she has discussed the needs of the class with the ESL teacher in the school.

The class is not seen, by the administration, as having sufficient need to maintain an ESL teacher within the classroom and the English level of the recent arrivals has been deemed sufficient for them to bypass the provisions of the adjoining Intensive Language Centre.

The unit of instruction

Romeo and Juliet is the focus for Shakespearian study and the school has access to both the Zeffirelli and Luhrmann versions, and West Side Story on video-tape. The television and VCR are in the classroom and can be used as needed under teacher supervision. CD recordings of the sound-tracks are a teacher resource, as are a number of other music recordings. The play text is available as a class copy which cannot be taken home (as it might not be returned!). Students have become accustomed in previous years to reading around the class until the text has been 'read' by everyone.

Classroom layout

The room is usually arranged with single-person tables on three sides of the almost square room. The blackboard forms the fourth wall and is guarded by the teacher's desk opposite the door.

For this unit, the teacher has negotiated with the students that they will sit in groups of four with the television - usually near the board - at the back of the room facing the blackboard wall.

A set of learning outcomes has been developed on a single sheet and the assessment tasks are typed onto the reverse of this sheet. The two sections are included on the following pages.


Students will be able to:

1. identify a number of the insults used in the play, discuss the way they are used and write modern-day equivalents of the insults. (Reading), (Performance)
2. identify the conversations which lead to conflict and the conversations which try to prevent conflict. (Reading), (Performance)
3. use their developing understanding of relationships to predict events in the play. (Reading)
4. write one of the speeches from Shakespearian text into modern English with attention to the fact that the characters are well educated 'upper-class' people. (Writing), (Performance)
5. write a thoughtful response to one of the arguments used by Tybalt or Mercutio explaining why the family feuds should be stopped using information available from the play. (Writing)
6. select a passage of text from the play, prepare it for dramatic reading and present it to the whole group. (Speaking), (Performance)
7. evaluate the discussion between old Capulet and Paris about why Juliet should not be married immediately. (Speaking), (Performance)
8. rehearse and perform a section from the play and explain why they believe that section is important. (Speaking), (Performance)
9. identify the mood of the play, suggest which characters are involved and what events are occurring by listening to the sound-track from the Zeffirelli film version of the play. (Listening), (Feeling)
10. write identify popular songs which might be used by Romeo, Juliet and Paris at different points in the play. (Listening)
11. suggest ways in which their peers can improve the dramatic effect of their reading in rehearsal for class presentation (Listening), (Performance)
12. identify the relation between characters in the film of West Side Story and those in Romeo and Juliet.(Viewing)
13. discuss Luhrmann's use of the wrecked cinema stage as a parallel with Bernstein's use of the New York West Side drugstore/cafe. (Viewing)
14. discuss the way camera angle and point of view help the viewer to decide which characters are important and/or powerful and which are less so. (Viewing), (Thinking)
15. suggest ways in which the nurse and the priest contribute to the tragedy. (Thinking), (Feeling)
16. suggest ways in which your own family might react to people they disapprove of. (Thinking), (Feeling)
17. discuss how they might feel as Benvolio, Mrs Capulet, the nurse, old Montagu at the close of the play. (Feeling)
18. discuss ways in which the tragedy could have been avoided (Thinking)


Select and complete only one task from each learning area to show how your ability and understanding have developed. Each task has the same assessment value.

1. Recall and Comprehension
• Using the cast list, divide the cast into Montagues, Capulets and Others. Describe the relationship between members of each family and then add the names of other characters who are important to that person.
• Using the stage instructions included in the text, develop a list of personal properties needed by each of the characters in Act 1: Scene 1 and in the final scene. Suggest how the difference in the props from start to finish shows the way the play developed.
2. Analysis
• Romeo is shown to be a dreamer and a romantic but he is a man of action when there is no alternative. Use examples from the play to show that Romeo as a 'man of action'.
• The relationship between Juliet and the nurse is a comic relief but it is this comedy that creates the tragedy. Do you agree?
3. Synthesis
Available film version of the play are set in different countries. If you were a film maker working in Sydney, describe the locations you would use for the opening scene, for the street scenes and for the balcony scene. Draw or make a set model to illustrate one of your choices.
Suggest how the balcony scene could be staged as a comedy sequence. Rewrite the scene with stage directions to support your interpretation.
4. Evaluation
• Films use music to enhance the emotion of the story line. Make a selection of current popular music for an Australian production of the play. Describe where, in the play, you would use three of the pieces you have selected.
• Luhrmann takes Juliet off the balcony to the swimming pool and Romeo falls in several times. Evaluate the impact of this apparent clumsiness in relation to: Romeo's drug-taking and his image as a romantic hero.
5. Performance
• Select a sequence of about one minute (may be longer) from the play which includes at least two characters. Decide on the mood of the scene. Collect props and music to support your decision. Rehearse the scene and present it to whole group.
• Rewrite a sequence from the play into modern English to be staged without music or costume. The sequence should establish the mood at that point in the play, involve at least two characters and last longer than one minute. Rehearse and stage the sequence.
6. Thinking and Feeling
• Some people find Romeo and Juliet very upsetting. Others say that the teenagers over-reacted. Discuss your feelings about the deaths of the 'star-cross'd lovers'.
• It is often simple for people who do not understand the circumstances to say that things should be done differently. Identify some of the points in the play where a different action may have led to a different ending. Using your understanding of the relationships in Romeo and Juliet, discuss reasons why these actions were not taken.

3 Lessons from a twelve lesson plan

Intended outcomes from the unit:

Learning: Students will have:


Work patterns and learning styles: Students will have worked

Lesson 1
Content: The setting, language and action of Shakespearian plays
Orientation: We are going to explore a play called Romeo and Juliet for the next 4 weeks. It is a difficult play to stage because it has large fights, a huge party, balconies and bedrooms, tender love scenes and domestic comedy all in the same play. And it's supposed to be a play, not a film.
Focusing instruction: Before we look at the play script, we are going to watch three film versions of the opening. As you are watching, take notes of what you see, how you feel and the things that make you feel that way for each version.
Viewing: opening sequence of Bernstein, Zeffirelli, Luhrmann versions (approx 5 mins each).
Discussion: In working groups, discuss differences in approach using setting, colour, music, dialogue. Each summarise group views (10 mins)
Predictions: In working groups, predict words, images and characters that might be in the play. Record ALL of the predictions (5 minutes)
Discussion: As a whole group, report the findings of your group about differences in approach and predictions. (10 minutes)
Writing: Summarise ideas and predictions from other groups which were not raised by your group (during discussion)
Closure: Outline principal findings and predictions of the group. Foreshadow: Next period will begin with checking predictions from film by reading parts of the play. No homework.

Lesson 5
Content: The effect of casting on interpretation of character and theme in Shakespearian plays
Orientation: In the play we can only decide the ages of the characters from what they say. We hear that Juliet is not yet 14. We know that her mother has had 8 babies but only Juliet lived. We know that old Capulet does not want Juliet to marry so young.
Focusing instruction: In this class we will be reading, viewing, acting and discussing the effect of casting on interpretation. As you are working, take notes of the decisions the group make about the ages and feelings of the characters about marriage.
Reading: Find the scene in which old Capulet speaks to Paris. Read the scene for yourself and make notes about the arguments and opinions of Capulet and Paris.
Performance: Cast the scene within your working group and act the sequence.
Viewing: Capulet/Paris sequence of Bernstein, Zeffirelli, Luhrmann versions (approx 3 mins each).
Discussion: In working groups, discuss the different interpretations forced by the casting of the characters. Summarise group views and suggest which of the interpretations is fairest for Juliet(10 mins)
Prediction: what will be the next scene in each of the films. Record ALL of the predictions (5 minutes)
Discussion: As a whole group, report the findings of your group about how predictions of action within the play are influenced by casting decisions. (10 minutes)
Writing: Summarise ideas and predictions from other groups which were not raised by your group (during discussion)
Closure: For homework, think of two 'impossible romance' situations you know about and be prepared to discuss why these are 'impossible'. Come prepared to suggest how the impossibilities could be changed:

Lesson 11

Content: The timeless reality of Shakespearian plays
Orientation: Many people believe that Shakespeare's plays are still studied because they deal with themes that are true for all people for all times.
Focusing instruction: Decide whether you agree with this statement while you watch the closing scenes of each of the films.
Viewing: closing sequence of Zeffirelli and Luhrmann versions (approx 8 mins each).
Viewing activity: In working groups. While you are viewing the Zeffirelli and Luhrmann sequences, follow the play script and mark sections which have been left out (Use soft pencil only).
Discussion: In working groups, compare notes to check that you have identified the missing pieces of the script. Identify the sections which are only description of what is shown by the film. Discuss the differences in your expectation as viewers of what was going to happen next (10 mins)
Viewing: closing sequence of West Side Story.
Discussion: As a whole group, discuss the way the change of character and setting changes the possible endings.
Writing and drawing: design a poster or video box using a symbol to explain the play and a still picture from one important scene in the play. The video box will need a brief plot outline and the poster should use one quote from the play. You will need to decide which actors you will cast but you can produce and direct the production from within the class
Closure: The final class for the unit will provide time to discuss a single question: Why would adults walk to the far side of London and then pay money to stand in mud for two hours to watch love struck teenagers commit suicide? Or is there more to the play than this?

Underlying principles for gifted & talented students

Having established the assessment tasks on the basis of Bloom's (1968) taxonomy of educational objectives (and published them to all students prior to the introduction of the unit) , the provision of a supportive yet challenging open-ended environment (Maker, 1982) for all students creates opportunities for Betts' 'autonomous learner' (Betts & Knapp, 1989) to make personal emotional links with the content of the syllabus while creating opportunities for gifted students to sit back occasionally and monitor other's progress (Renzulli, Reis & Smith,1981).

At the same time, the approach can be identified with Feldhusen's 'Purdue model' (Feldhusen & Reilly, 1983) in promoting content enrichment and independent study while acknowledging Clark's (1992) 'Integrative Curriculum Model' through the inclusion of consciously affective activities such as mood identification using music and colour, and intuitive response through the invitation to predict.

Building from students' personal experience through a diversity of film experience towards the play text as a recipe for performance presents expanded product expectations from students at both classroom involvement and assessment levels (Keiroux, 1993), while the guided discovery and recursive nature of the close textual exploration (Bruner, 1971), the repeated confirmation of the wisdom of the group as group and the support of the individual within the group (Illich, 1971; Williams, ) simultaneously remediate student weaknesses without making them explicit and reinforce divergent problem solving skills (Collins, 1984).

The approach reinforces the view that good teaching satisfies the needs of the less able student (American Public Law 94-142. In Davis, 1980:17) while engaging the interest of the less motivated and providing an extensive cognitive, affective and kinaesthetic challenge for the most able in the group (Bloom, 1972). It does not seek to challenge the established regimen of school practice by undertaking a school-wide approach though it foreshadows the desirability of such an approach (Renzulli & Reis, 1985). Similarly, it establishes an implicit curriculum acceleration (Benbow and Stanley,1983: Reis, Burns & Renzulli, 1991) at an intellectual level while remaining within the content-specific confines of the published syllabus for the class.


Far from suggesting a universal panacaea for the support of 'gifted and talented' students within mixed ability classes, the approach developed in this unit has established that a single dedicated teacher can make a difference to her students.

Evaluation of the success of the unit is difficult because the motivation and personality of the teacher, herself, represent an element in the success of her teaching (Arends, 1989). The readiness of her students to accept her challenge suggests their acceptance of the implicit contract she extends them in her approach (Schmuck, 1982). No student is expected to fail, no student is expected to do less than they are able (Johnson & Johnson (1975). The curriculum is transparent and the syllabus is clearly identified. The peer support represented in a careful formulation and rearangement of groups to meet the demands of specific tasks both challenges the more able and affirms the less able in completion of both routine classroom tasks and assessment tasks (Slavin, 1986). The lively debate and challenging journal entries of the students support the view that they each feel 'empowered' by their work and supportive of the approach they experience.


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