To Teach Shakespeare or Not to Teach Shakespeare, That Is the Question

A few years back, a childhood friend—Mike—and I reconnected, thanks, if memory serves, to social media. Since we live on opposite coasts, our communications continue via this blog and email. Periodically, Mike crafts well thought out and in-depth commentaries on various subjects that he shares with friends via email. A few days ago, he shared his thoughts — or perhaps his doubts might be more apropos — about the utility of exposing high school students to the works of Shakespeare.

Reading Mike’s email while enjoying a new (to me) and delicious small batch bourbon over ice after having spent the entire day working in our yard, I began tapping a reply into my cellphone. What I intended as a brief reply quickly swelled into a long reply, perhaps due to the bourbon, but it is more likely that his email touched the classroom teacher in me that, like old age (to bastardize Dylan Thomas’ poem) …

Refuses to go gentle into that good night,

Teachers should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the Light.

(Based upon the opening stanza of Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”)

As I am wont to do when I’ve written a long email, I reread and polish it before sending. The next morning, I felt the need to read it again, and when I did, it struck me — as happens to bloggers constantly on the lookout for topics — that the email had the bones for a post, and after editing and polishing that original email, c’est ici!

As an accidental English Major in college that was the result of a clerical error in the Registrar’s Office, I was introduced early and often to the Bard until I made the unfortunate error at the beginning of my junior year in mistaking what should have been an avocational interest in things biological for a vocational interest, with the result that I ultimately began my professional career as a biology teacher. That initial direction evolved into a general interest in curriculum and assessment development, and in the processes involved with designing and implementing effective instruction in all areas, which bore fruit when I served as a district administrator, high school principal, and state bureaucrat and consultant who worked with “failing” schools. As my website will attest, I have returned to my English Major origins, and with my creds in front of you, I offer my insights below into why Shakespeare continues to be a presence in American high schools.

The first thing that came to mind as I considered Mike’s email was that for our Boomer generation and those generations of Americans that preceded us, a college education was one of the few ways that someone could be recognized as having an “elite status” in society without possessing significant wealth or without having come from a notable family. As public education increased in its scope during the 1900s, more and more “average” American kids (many were women) went to college — or at a minimum, Normal Schools — to become school teachers, which meant there were more and more young Americans who began to hold the credentials of a polished and educated member of society.

Today, as college has become de rigueur for America’s high school graduates, the sheer numbers of graduates diminishes the intrinsic, societal value of a college degree unless the sheepskin comes from an elite institution (see: You’re Poking the Wrong Guy). According to my non-scientific sample of one accumulated over my last two decades as an educator, Boomer high school English teachers and their mentees comprise the category of teachers most likely to still value the old school sense of what it means to be properly educated and prepared for entrance into elite society, and a requirement of that society (in their minds) is having something of a working knowledge of the works of William Shakespeare.

College-educated Boomers tend to accept this premise without giving it much thought, but the Joe Six-packs of America seem to believe that the works of Shakespeare “(do) not mean shit to a tree” (from Jefferson Airplane’s Eskimo Blue Days), and this is a case when the Joes’ may be right.

Teaching Shakespeare to high school kids, I believe, is more of a tradition and initiation than it is the result of an analysis of its utilitarian value to citizens of the 21st Century, but most English teachers loved studying and reading Shakespeare when they were in high school and college and want to instill that same reverence in the minds of their students; further, Boomer English teachers revere what they refer to as the English Canon: the long list of pieces of literature written by deceased, almost entirely English-speaking, white men. Younger teachers tend to be more enlightened, less impressed with the Canon, and more inclusive of works from “World Literature,” which I believe is a good thing in the long run for our incredibly provincial country.

Despite my having presented the previous observations that hint the opposite, I can still justify teaching Shakespeare for the following reason: if taught in a way that reflects how humans learn (nothing almost ever is in American high schools):

  • It can stretch the capacity of students’ comprehension skills
  • It can be used as a vehicle to stimulate the research needed for expository writing and for story and character development
  • It can provide a powerful learning experience to students who are blindly naïve about universal truths that have repeatedly arisen during the history of our current civilization

Using Romeo and Juliet, here is a specific example of the pedagogical process I would use IF I was given a list of instructional objectives that included the writing of a short story, and the knowledge and skills needed to analyze a piece of literature to reinforce characteristics of plot and subplots and character development including character arcs.

A character arc is the path a character takes over the course of a story. A character’s arc involves adversity and challenges, as well as some changes to the character, and ultimately leads to resolution. Character arcs generally progress in tandem with traditional three-act story structure.  main character descriptions, identification of underlying motivations of main characters, etc.

From How to Write a Captivating Character Arc

Permit me a digression: teachers who have considered themselves “enlightened” (really cool) over the past 50 years have had their students read Romeo and Juliet, trying as they might, to make the process of reading interesting, and then they show something like West Side Story with the hope that students will appreciate the timelessness of Shakespeare’s story. Yawn. Sometimes a very enlightened teacher will show their students West Side Story before they read the play, thinking that they’re setting up an “ah HA” moment, which becomes anticlimactic because of the time it takes to read the play.

Here’s the way I believe Shakespeare could, should, and sometimes is, taught: in the way that humans learn best. Most high school teachers I have encountered have not been taught that it is important to begin every learning experience by connecting their students with something they are likely to already know. In my experience, those teachers who do this are the most effective teachers at engaging their students, and in almost every case, the teachers do this because they have learned to do it by trial and error. Less effective teachers do NOT do this and instead rely upon teaching the way Mrs. Smith, their favorite English teacher, taught them: traditional to the max.

If I’m an English teacher, I doubtless have an instructional objective related to expository writing: a genre of essay that requires the student to investigate an idea, evaluate evidence, expound on the idea, and set forth an argument concerning that idea in a clear and concise manner. I will have made sure that the kids have mastered this objective before moving on to the writing of short fiction.

Let’s assume I teach 10th graders who live in Wilmington, Delaware, kids who live in what we used to call a ghetto in the 60s, kids who are poor and who have absolutely nothing obvious that a teacher could use to “hook” them into engaging with the Bard. But I know they can write because I’ve been training them to write (the aforementioned expository writing) using the precepts of the writing workshop—in its simplest form, kids write a piece, then read each other’s work in order to make suggestions about how to make it better; I monitor the work, sit in on conversations about their work, identify common problems of grammar and syntax et al so that, as needed, I can have a lesson devoted to enlightening the kids.

My experience has been that high school kids love the method (they actually do, because human learning is often a social experience and while one’s own writing is one’s own writing, the workshop is a social experience), so without telling them that we’re about to read Romeo and Juliet, I tell them I’m giving them a writing prompt that they will use to write a short story. We review the characteristics of expository writing, and then we talk about how it differs from a short story; i.e. we clarify the characteristics of a short story (beginning, middle, and end) while incorporating the qualities of expository writing that will provide details to enhance the story; and we’ll analyze character arcs by reading one or two short stories. When I’m confident they get what it is they need to do, I give them the following prompt, which reflects my understanding of my students’ world that all effective teachers go out of their way to learn

You live in the neighborhood of 26th and Market in Wilmington, and your beautiful, 16-year-old sister falls in love with a handsome, gang-connected 18-year-old who lives in the neighborhood around 20th and Market. Write a story that describes how they meet, how their relationship develops, and how it eventually ends.

The kids write their stories—each one understands the challenges of two kids from different neighborhoods who fall in love because they live that life—and they share their stories with their classmates via the writers workshop. The stories are polished, a few exemplars are read to the whole class, and then I introduce the next unit:

We’re going to read a play that was written over four centuries ago by a very famous playwright named William Shakespeare — you probably have heard so him — and although the English is old-fashioned, the point of reading the story — this very famous story—is to compare the love story of two teenagers in Verona, Italy, to the stories each of you has written.

They’re hooked. We talk about what they may have heard about Romeo and Juliet to provide pieces of information that may or may not be accurate — we’ll find out soon enough — and then we begin to read, and as we do, Romeo, Juliet, Verona, and the Montegues and the Capulets become real and believable because my kids are relating to the story because of what they’ve learned and know and have applied from their own experiences.

Yes, English teachers, teach Shakespeare, but do it effectively. Don’t waste your precious time or that of your students.

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