Rethinking our Core Texts (Yes, I mean Shakespeare)

I don’t think we should be using Shakespeare as a core text for all four years of high school.

A colleague suggested I call this post-Shakespeare is Dead, and He Should Stay that Way, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it (even though it is more creative than my post title!). I already have teachers who send me articles and TED talks about why Shakespeare is important, so I wasn’t brave enough to use his clever title. Plus I don’t believe Shakespeare needs to be removed entirely. One whole class play during high school may be appropriate, and sonnets and famous soliloquies could always be texts for study. I want to rethink the 4-6 week unit on a Shakespearean play that happens every year.

It is important to note that I do not hate Shakespeare. I studied the Bard a lot during my undergraduate and graduate studies (by choice!). So I get it. Shakespeare’s work is fascinating, heartbreaking, hilarious, and entertaining. My reading life is made richer by his art. But that doesn’t mean he should be the only playwright we study during high school. Using the same author for four years sends an unintentional message about the value of storytellers to our students. In addition,  in many cases, the challenging nature of the reading masks the lack of critical thinking that often accompanies a Shakespeare unit.

Reading Teacher Rather than Literature Teacher

I am willing to admit that I became a teacher for the wrong reasons. I wanted a job where I could talk about books all day because I loved reading so much. I thought I was going to be introducing my students to the wonder of literature, and the first few years were a bit rough as  I learned that my students didn’t come to their reading with the same passion as I did. Fortunately, those same students gave me a different reason to teach- them. Instead of “bestowing” my knowledge of great literature on them, I have the privilege of discovering texts with my students. As a result, I consider myself a reformed book snob. I have also become a teacher of reading and writing, rather than a teacher of literature.

If we estimate conservatively, the average student probably spends 16-20 weeks studying Shakespeare throughout high school. That is more time than many of our students spend reading on their own. However, the creation of an independent reader is much more important than any individual Shakespearean play. I can spend these weeks taking my students through a play because… it’s Shakespeare, or I can spend those four weeks nurturing the reading and writing lives of my students by helping them find the books they love and the authors to whom they can build their own allegiances.

Units of study should be designed around reading and writing skills, not around a text itself.  The skills must come first. Reading Shakespeare for Shakespeare’s sake is not enough. So if skills are at the center of my teaching why would I use the same author to teach these skills every year?

The Danger of a Single Story- or Single Author

Years ago someone showed me Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk The Danger of a Single Story.

Her talk forced me to re-evaluate the texts I select for my students. Many teachers I talk to agree that our students should see themselves reflected in the literature they read, BUT we still keep teaching Shakespeare every year. That is my problem: the BUT.  Yes, students should read diverse types of literature, BUT not as a class; as a class, we read Shakespeare. Intentional or not our text selection tells students what types of stories are “worthy” of being read and conversely which stories are not worth intense classroom study.

Obviously, we won’t be able to cover the myriad of stories and voices that exist in literature, but I think we can at least attempt to introduce students to these voices. If you’re anything like me, you probably select one core class novel and one play. For most of my career, that play has been by Shakespeare. Which means half of the core texts I have selected for my students were by one author. One storyteller. One voice. I can no longer do this.

On Rigour and Shakespeare

When I ask teachers why they are using Shakespeare, they tell me that it is to prepare them because students will have to read it in grade 12 .  Teaching Shakespeare to prepare a student for Shakespeare mistakes teaching the play for teaching a skill. This does not prepare a student for studying Shakespeare. Reading stamina does.Resiliency does. Critical thinking does.

What happens when we give our students Shakespeare without building their stamina, resiliency and critical thinking? At best they rely on us to interpret the text; at worst- they cheat.

Of course, cheating is wrong, but I’ve started to reflect on what I can do to change my students’  dependency on “expert” interpretations of Shakespeare. Why don’t I have a plagiarism problem when I ask students to write about Richard Wagemese’s Indian Horse, Khaled Hosseini’s Kite Runner or, more recently, Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give? Maybe it’s because students feel like there is still thinking to do with these texts. I’ve only had the opportunity to read these texts a couple of times, so I  cannot come up with ten essay topics to distribute to my studentsbut I can certainly guide students as they make observations and find patterns as they formulate their own claims about a text.

Yes, teaching students to analyze a text through tracing patterns and designing their own claims takes time. Building readers who will sustain their reading outside of the four walls of my classroom, and beyond their high school experience takes a lot of time.

But I think I may have just freed up a couple of weeks.

Court Tested Plays as Alternatives to Shakespeare (the list is still evolving)

Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

Rez Sisters by Tomson Highway

Kim’s Convenience by Ins Choi

Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

Top Girls by Caryl Churchill

Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose

A Normal Heart by Larry Kramer

Highly Recommended Professional Reading

Beyond Literary Analysis: Teaching Students to Write with Passion and Authority about Any Text     by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell