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Why I'm Okay with No Longer Teaching William Shakespeare

When I was in high school, I studied a play by Shakespeare every year in English class, just like my parents had done before me. I was one of the lucky ones where the brilliant words of the Bard were comprehensible, fun, and engaging. The playwright told really good stories that made me laugh and made me feel sad, hallmarks of great literature.

This was not the experience for most of my peer group. Shakespeare was a grind. It was usually 6-8 weeks of intense decoding and explanation by the teacher to get a basic understanding of the plot line. The beauty of the imagery created in the language, the complexity of the iambic pentameter, and the poetic nature of the soliloquies and asides were lost on the majority of the class.

As a university student, I signed up for courses that were going to be foundational for me as a classroom teacher. So, naturally, I signed up for a Shakespeare course. For the first time after multiple high school classes of Shakespeare plays, I was surrounded by people who weren’t groaning about having to read these great works. For the first time, we moved past basic comprehension to really celebrate the creativity and insight that Shakespeare had of human nature. It was the first time not everyone was carrying Coles Notes/ Cliff Notes of the play with them. These tutorials were awesome. We had amazing discussions about the decisions being made by the characters, the imagery that was linked to foreshadowing, the brilliance of the rhyming couplets that ended the scenes, and so on. We “nerded” out and I loved it.

When I began teaching, I was told in each of the schools I worked in which Shakespeare plays were being studied each year in our academic pathway. I was handed adaptations of the plays in “modern” English to be given and studied with students in the college and workplace pathways. And, I did what I had experienced when I was a high school student. I became the knower of information to explain the language and significance of the text to the students. I had students totally dependent on me for any ability to create meaning or comprehension.

I tried to have fun with the plays. They’re meant to be performed so I had students volunteer to read aloud the scenes. I assigned scenes to be acted out and presented. I had students modernize parts of the story to contemporary settings and context. I had students cast the contemporary stage production and justify their choice of staging and actors. I tried it all and it was met with varying degrees of success and engagement.

And then I started asking why.

Why do I want to study a text that makes students so dependent on me?

Why do I want to study works that make students feel “dumb” or lesser?

Why do I want essays from students on texts that they barely understand that usually causes them to seek outside explanations leading to cheating?

Why am I teaching the same author for 4 years when I have such limited opportunity to introduce and study texts with students?

And once I invited the first explorations of why, more questions kept coming.

Why am I “selling” this old, dead white guy as the greatest writer in history? Is that something I believe?

Why am I teaching literature that students can’t make connections with in their own lives?

Why am I having students who have just finished their English as a Second Language courses reading works that my native English speaking students don’t understand?

Why am I spending 8 weeks on one text in a 20 week course? Is there something else that time should be spent on?

Why am I using Shakespeare as the measurement of reading skills?

With questions and concerns, I dove back into the curriculum documents for my province. Was there something hidden in there that said I must, as a high school English teacher, utilize Shakespeare annually with my classes?

The new grade 9 destreamed curriculum makes zero mentions of Shakespeare. It does mention Canada and the First Nations, Metis, and Inuit perspectives. It also speaks about the skills that all grade 9s should be expecting in the course.

The older grade 10-12 curriculum does mention Shakespeare. Every single time it is an example and only in the Academic and University pathway. Shakespeare is not mentioned in the skills that are to be taught. Shakespeare is not a requirement.

So now, with a focus on the skills outlined in the provincial documents, I choose to embrace the course descriptions of “Students will analyse a range of challenging literary texts from various periods, countries, and cultures”. I seek out texts to address the variety. I plan, with my department, the big picture of 4 years and ask, “if a student is with us from grade 9 to the end of grade 12, what texts will they be required to read or have the opportunity to read? Have we given various time periods, representation from different countries, and introduced texts of different cultures each year? Have we introduced new concepts and ideas within these offerings or are they repetitive or too similar to other works?"

At no point, should a student be required to read the same author four times. With such limited time and opportunity to have students develop their literacy skills and to explore ideas, worlds, and concepts introduced in literature, I’m not spending it on Shakespeare four times.

Will I teach Shakespeare? Sure. He fits the definition of a challenging text from a different country and a different time period. But I’ll pick a poem or some scenes to explore. I have no interest in teaching a whole Shakespeare play in the original language of the Bard. 

Would I teach an entire play in modernized English, using a resource like No Fear Shakespeare? Maybe. I would have to have a clear understanding of why before I gave a month of time to the text and I'd have to know it is the very best fit. I would also ask, is this my best choice of literature to help students develop and demonstrate the skills that are to be measured in this unit?

Would I offer a play as a choice reading or to use in a book club? Absolutely. There are going to be students who have an affinity for literature who would like the challenge and who would take the time to appreciate the work. There are students who would accept the offering because they think that everyone should have read at least one play by the great William Shakespeare. Would I want a student to pick a Shakespeare play every year when they have choice? No. I still want students to have the variety and introduction to new voices and ideas.

It comes back to understanding what the skills are of the course that is being taught. It is not about having contemporary students with the same experiences of literature as the last two or more generations. Just because it was done, doesn’t mean it needs to continue.

Shakespeare wrote to entertain and we’ve elevated his works to a podium of greatness that I’m not sure he deserves. There isn't a commandment written that says "thou shalt read and appreciate the works of William Shakespeare as a student in Canada".

Would I book a field trip to see a Shakespeare play? Absolutely. It is meant to be seen as performance. One day of preparation, one day of viewing, one day of post discussion; that is time well spent on the works of the most famous playwright in history.

Do I still love Shakespeare. Yes! Just not enough to make him the centre of my English classroom.

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