Dear Ms. Dusbiber:
We don’t know each other, but I’ve been in your English teacher shoes. The other day, I read the Washington Post article that mentions how you no longer want to teach Shakespeare because of your “own personal disinterest in reading stories written in an early form of the English language that [you] cannot always easily navigate, but also because there is a WORLD of really exciting literature out there that better speaks to the needs of [your] very ethnically-diverse and wonderfully curious modern-day students.” I have to call foul on your assertion for many reasons. Here’s why.
If you truly believe that your students can’t navigate their way through Shakespeare, then you aren’t giving them enough credit. Your students are young, enthusiastic, intelligent, and idealistic. They trust you. How would they feel to discover that you don’t believe in them enough to think they could handle something challenging? How will your new students in August feel when they read your words and believe that you’ve already written them off as not being able to handle Shakespeare before they even step into your classroom? You’re doing them a complete disservice to eliminate any author or work of literature just because you think it’s too hard.
Whatever you may believe, the standards of curriculum are in place for a reason, primarily so that teachers don’t go off the reservation and begin teaching the latest teen vampire series instead of Romeo and Juliet (although, have you ever seen the direct connections in New Moon from the Twilight series and R&J? My students loved those connections!) In short, you have the very real opportunity to open your students’ academic lives to a million and one cultural references that all derive from Shakespeare.
Depriving your students of this knowledge and the ability to recognize Shakespeare’s themes that continue to resonate today is not acceptable. Depriving them of the ability to discuss canonical Shakespeare plays in mixed company? That action is tantamount to assuring their future coworkers and bosses that your students, who will one day try to get jobs, pay their rent, and feed their families, received a crappy education from you and your institution. But your name will never be on that resume. Your former students will just fight that battle alone, thank you very much. But at least you won’t have had to do something you didn’t want to do.
Ms. Dusbiber, I agree with you that teachers shouldn’t teach certain authors or works of literature just because that’s “the way it’s always been done.” As teachers, we are called to continually question our methods and search for lesson plans and activities that work with our students. The day we stop doing that is the day we can no longer call ourselves teachers. However, if Shakespeare were discovered tomorrow instead of having been popular since the 17th century, his writing conveys a universal understanding of human experience that transcends time and location. In short, if you can’t see that your kids, whose noses are buried in their iPhones, are still just as concerned about the same things that affected Romeo, Juliet, Othello, or Desdemona, then I should question your high school English teachers.
I taught high school English for 11 years in two settings, one urban and one suburban. In my urban school back in 2003, there were 38 nationalities represented and over 50 languages spoken. Over 50% of the students in that school were multilingual, and a large percentage of those students were not native English speakers. Sometimes in the back of the classroom as I was teaching Shakespeare, I had students whispering to each other in other languages. Why? It wasn’t because they weren’t paying attention. Quite the opposite, in fact. They were translating. I taught 9th and 10th graders in those early years, and nothing…nothing resonated with my students who hailed to my little classroom literally from every corner of the Earth like Shakespeare. Even when it was difficult to understand and we were translating into many languages in one hour just to get through a scene, it was worth it. I would do it all over again. I think my students would, too.
My suburban students likewise embraced Shakespeare with the same enthusiasm and fire. They saw the lessons in everyday life. They compared Julius Caesar’s journey to political candidates in an election year. They saw their own mischievous friends in Puck and Iago. How do I know this? I asked them. At the end of each semester, I polled them on their favorite activities, works of literature, and projects. Shakespeare was the overwhelming favorite each and every time, not because I was a great teacher but because he is.
Ms. Dusbiber, I hope that this is a very public, very misguided play to encourage people to defend the Bard instead of a real attempt to remove him from the canon. I hope above hope that you woke in the middle of the night and dashed off this article in the hopes to gain some publicity and not because you really feel this way.
In short, I hope that when your new students enter your classroom in the fall, you’ll be ready for them, enthusiastic, and assuring them that you believe they can do anything at all. Even Shakespeare. They deserve that from you.