What comes to mind when you think of Shakespeare? Perhaps you remember lessons at school a long time ago, and perhaps you enjoy “Upstart Crow” on the TV? For families visiting New Place, one of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust properties in central Stratford-upon-Avon, a day spent thinking about Shakespeare may also include a picture trail, exploration in the garden, dressing up and singing, all supported by Makaton signs and symbols.
Because of my previous career as an Educational Psychologist, I had experience working with children with special educational needs, so after a house move to Stratford-upon-Avon three years ago, I answered an advertisement to work as an Access Volunteer for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. I became part of the Trust’s Access Panel that included representatives from Mencap, Blue Assist and others with experience in the field of access. One of the ideas discussed by this group was to offer sessions at New Place to encourage Makaton users, or indeed anyone who wants to learn some Makaton signs and symbols, to enjoy themselves at the Shakespeare property.
The development of Makaton sessions and resources at New Place has not been without its challenges. From a personal point of view, improving my own Makaton skills and training to be a Makaton Tutor has been both a lot of fun and also nerve-wracking at times. I appreciate the support offered to me by my mentor, Helene Elia, a very experienced Tutor in Birmingham, who has taught me how rigorous you need to be when learning the signs. I learned that it is so easy to add extra movements or mannerisms when signing, which can hinder the standardization of signs, and so from a Tutor’s point of view making sure that a sign is exactly as it should be does take work. However, Helene has also taught me that a culture of checking continues no matter how long you have been using or teaching Makaton, so there is no need to despair if you find that you have been making an error. Careful practice and devotion to the videos on The Makaton Charity’s Core Vocabulary memory stick is the name of the game!
Another challenge has been to develop and publicise Makaton events at New Place in the right way. Chloe Malendewicz, the Manager at New Place, initiated “Makaton Mondays” so that visitors could follow a Picture Trail at New Place, supported by Makaton symbols and photographs, then learn two or three nursery rhymes using Makaton signs and tactile props. In preparation for this, two “Singing with Makaton” courses were delivered to New Place staff and volunteers by Regional Tutor Amanda Glennon, using songs from a book of rhymes in the New Place exhibition as well as familiar nursery rhymes. Amanda also delivered a fantastic story-telling session at New Place during Shakespeare Week, based on a Shakespeare play, “The Tempest”.
Keeping public interest alive following the initial fanfare of Makaton at New Place proved tricky, however. Visitors from a special school in Coventry evaluated the singing sessions for us and gave really helpful feedback, demonstrating the importance of exploring New Place in a “hands on” way and the need to offer more sessions like this. However, once “Makaton Monday” was launched once a month, very few visitors arrived for the sessions. I took part in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s “Fun Palaces” weekend in October 2018 so that I could spread the word about Makaton to local families, and while this certainly raised awareness, including being interviewed about Makaton on local radio, visits from pre-schoolers and their families did not increase. Chloe has now decided to change “Makaton Monday” at New Place to a weekend slot so the session will be relaunched on 7th April 2019 as “Singalong Sunday”. If you are interested, look out for details on the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust website. The session is aimed at everyone who would like to sing and sign, regardless of age!
Janet Palmer, Access Volunteer for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust