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Lara

Should plays be assigned reading in school?

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I've heard some differing opinions on whether or not plays should be assigned as reading in English classes in school. People who don't think it is a good idea generally seem to be of the mind that plays are meant to be seen, not read, which I don't neccessarily disagree with. Personally, I had to read several different plays in English throughout my high school/primary school years. I found that the times I retained the most and was most engaged was when my class read Hamlet and Death of a Salesman out loud together, with each person being assigned a different part. Hearing the play out loud definitely aided in comprehension. Those two also ended up being some of my favorite pieces of literature I read in school, too.

 

I feel as if there are both pros and cons to it. On the negative side, you are not getting the full picture of what the play was intended to be by just reading it, and trying to make sense of a play by just the written words can be frustrating (shoutout to Shakespeare). I recall a great deal of my peers disliking it. On the positive side, reading plays in school exposes students to a whole area of literature they may not otherwise be exposed to, especially considering that not everybody has the means or interest/motivation to go see live theatre. 

 

Seeing it written out like that, it seems like there's a lot more negatives than positives, but I still feel like there is something really valuable in exposing students to plays as literature. 

 

What do you guys think? Is it a good, bad, or neutral? I'm also only looking at this from my experience with the American school system. Are plays usually part of the English curriculum in U.K. schools? 

Edited by Lara

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I'm not 100% sure where I stand on this issue for English classes (I'm from the Netherlands), but for anyone who's interested, I've typed below about my experiences with the school system in regards to which books we read.

 

For Dutch class, we didn't read any plays. There are some Dutch plays but there aren't that many famous ones. We did discuss the synopses of some plays and such, but we didn't read the actual play. We had to read books (or plays) off a list. You could decide yourself which books. Each book had a point value assigned to it, ie. a short and easy book is 1 point and a bigger and more complicated book would be 4 points. The key was to have so many points in total (I forgot how many). The other rule said you had to read at least three books written before 1880. That was in the upper three years of the 'vwo' (the highest secondary school education). The 'havo' had to do the same but they had to read less points' worth (it's one year shorter than the 'vwo'). I don't know what the 'vmbo' (most common secondary school education, that most people do) have to do. In my first three years of secondary school, we could pick most books to read, even translated ones (as long as the text was in Dutch). For the higher years the book had to be on the list I mentioned, and it had to be originally Dutch (or from the colonies). We were taught about a lot of famous Dutch books, we learned the synopses and also history of many. But we only read those books off the list that we ourselves picked.

 

For English class we read Macbeth by Shakespeare. We also watched a film adaptation (and in an earlier year we also watched a film adaptation of Romeo & Juliet). Everyone had to read most of the same books, with one book being free choice as long as the teacher approves (I read On the Beach by Nevil Shute). We read Macbeth, In Cold Blood, To Kill a Mockingbird, Across the Barricades, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and maybe more that I forgot. Not in that order, obviously. Harry Potter was during my second year, so it was more at our level of English knowledge at the time.

 

As I said, there aren't that many Dutch plays to begin with, and I thought the way my education worked (which is only what ~10% of the population has had, most people do the 'vmbo'.) was quite good to be honest. We were taught about a variety of books (including the few plays that there are) and were given choice (within the list) of what we read. I don't feel there needs to be more focus on plays in Dutch classes. We don't really have the equivalent of Shakespeare, at least nothing that's quite as famous :P. And nothing that you still see anything of nowadays, really.

 

For English class, I find that more difficult. As I said, we did do Macbeth and also other books. I am not as familiar with English literature, compared with Dutch literature (since English is my second language). As far as I know, the books a class reads with English class, differs maybe per year. I have no idea what is read in other years to be honest.

 

For French and German we didn't read any plays. For Greek, well most of their stuff were sort of plays, tragedies and comedies. So yes, in that sense we did read and translated Greek plays. For Latin I think most of it was more written (book) stuff as opposed to plays.

 

So.. after this whole long block of text I have to conclude that I'm not sure where I stand on the issue :blush2:. I don't know enough of English literature, to determine if it's a big or important part of it, or not.

 

Sidenote: I went to see Richard III in the Shakespeare Globe Theatre recently (an actual play). It was great to have seen once. The seats were horribly uncomfortable and I, as a Dutch person, had trouble following the older English language of the play (I've not read it). But it was nice to have seen once.

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It's a long time since I was at school and I'm not sure how things are now, but when I did English Literature it was a mixture of books (the usual classics plus some more recent ones such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Animal Farm), poetry and plays - again as usual Shakespeare dominated but we did Pygmalion and a few other Bernard Shaw plays as well, and we did read them out in class, with us playing the various roles, which did help a little.  We did go to see an occasional production too, which also helps bring the play alive.

 

When I did advanced level French and German, we also studied some of their literature in the original language, such as Goethe, Kafka and Maupassant.

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I think it's a good idea.  I have fond memories of our class reading J.B. Priestley's "An Inspector Calls" aloud, with members of our class taking on the various characters.  I was the Inspector, and loved it!  Reading a play in this way seemed to be a good method of engaging the entire class.   "An Inspector Calls" was one of the more enjoyable works we were given to read as a group.  (I *hated* Shakespeare!  Ugh!)

 

You don't need to dramatise a play to appreciate its worth.  Any Oscar Wilde play, for example, sparkles with wit and wordplay, and can easily stand on its own merit when simply read aloud.

 

The most important thing here, I feel, is that students are given works -- plays, literature, either, both -- that they can *connect* with, that will ignite that spark of creativity.  Otherwise they won't want to read, they won't want to learn; they'll just sit at their desk like a sack of potatoes and gaze out of the window, waiting for the bell to ring.

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The most important thing here, I feel, is that students are given works -- plays, literature, either, both -- that they can *connect* with, that will ignite that spark of creativity.  Otherwise they won't want to read, they won't want to learn; they'll just sit at their desk like a sack of potatoes and gaze out of the window, waiting for the bell to ring.

 

Definitely the most important thing! School should inspire a love of learning. 

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The most important thing here, I feel, is that students are given works -- plays, literature, either, both -- that they can *connect* with, that will ignite that spark of creativity.  Otherwise they won't want to read, they won't want to learn; they'll just sit at their desk like a sack of potatoes and gaze out of the window, waiting for the bell to ring.

Well said!

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I think it is a good idea. The positives outweigh the negatives by a long shot. Sadly when I was at school this was not part of the English curriculum and there was no drama department either, a teacher tried to start one in his own time as an after school activity but it didn't last.

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I'm surprised by that James, as I thought the English curriculum had always included novels, plays and poetry.  Way back when I was at school, we studied three plays - Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw, A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney and our obligatory Shakespeare was The Merchant of Venice.  We watched a video of stage performances of the first one, a film adaptation of the second and had a school trip to London to see a Shakespeare production (although not the one we were studying).

 

I enjoyed studying the plays more than the novels and much more than the poetry, and GBS remains one of my favourite playwrights, and I often dip into a book I have which includes four of his plays.  I've also been lucky enough to see a few performances of some of his plays which I probably would never had done if we hadn't studied plays at school, so I for one am more than happy to see them included in the English curriculum of schools.

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I'm surprised by that James, as I thought the English curriculum had always included novels, plays and poetry.  Way back when I was at school, we studied three plays - Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw, A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney and our obligatory Shakespeare was The Merchant of Venice.  We watched a video of stage performances of the first one, a film adaptation of the second and had a school trip to London to see a Shakespeare production (although not the one we were studying).

 

I enjoyed studying the plays more than the novels and much more than the poetry, and GBS remains one of my favourite playwrights, and I often dip into a book I have which includes four of his plays.  I've also been lucky enough to see a few performances of some of his plays which I probably would never had done if we hadn't studied plays at school, so I for one am more than happy to see them included in the English curriculum of schools.

 

Looking back, I am surprised too.  I did both English and English Literature at O level. After searching my memory banks I recalled that we DID study Romeo and Juliet. But we didn't read the parts aloud in class to each other. We never went on any theatre trips though and I never saw a play performed on stage until years later.  

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I read some English poetry too for English class, they were a collection of love poems written in earlier times. I can't for the live of the remember all the authors, or the author, though.

 

Sorry you never saw a play and such, VF.

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We had a few theatre trips, we saw King Lear somewhere, although I can't remember who played Lear, it was a fairly small theatre so I don't think it was any of the high profile actors; however for German A Level we got taken to the National Theatre to see a production of Galileo with none other than Michael Gambon in the title role.  We did get shown a few film/TV versions of some plays as well, including Hamlet despite the fact that we never studied it. 

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We saw The Taming of the Shrew with Timothy Dalton and Vanessa Redgrave … it was incredible!  It made all the difference at the time, as you could really feel how it should be delivered, making the reading of the play we were studying much easier.

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I read some English poetry too for English class, they were a collection of love poems written in earlier times. I can't for the live of the remember all the authors, or the author, though.

 

Sorry you never saw a play and such, VF.

 

I always had lots of poetry in English class too. There was a unit on it every year (except maybe one, if I remember correctly). It took up a pretty big part of the curriculum, especially my senior year. We read Shakespeare sonnets, Frost, Chaucer, Poe, Wordsworth, Byron....definitely more that I can't remember. 

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