Shakespeare re-entered my life this week, a couple of decades removed from when I used to teach him in a Brit Lit class at my old high school. My shocking English teacher confession is that I never really enjoyed Shakespeare, both as a student or a teacher. I didn’t see the point. My literary heroes were Cheever, Roth, Updyke, Vonnegut and their ilk, both in school and in life. I just found the more contemporary American authors much more engaging and interesting and relevant.
A couple of days ago in a workshop, after I was pressing hard on the idea of the “just in case curriculum,” an English teacher came up to me at the break and asked, “But what about Shakespeare? Don’t all kids need Shakespeare?” It was somewhere around the 589th time I’d gotten that “Don’t all kids need to learn…?” question, and my response was the same as most of the other occasions: “I don’t know, but I doubt it.”
As always, Roger Schank has a bit less nuanced response, referencing The Oddessy rather than Hamlet:
Why do we insist on teaching things that kids don’t care about and have no reason to care about? Is this a very clever way to behave? How do students who don’t care manage to get by? Is their future made more difficult by not caring about such stuff? I argue that it is.”
I tend to agree.
Turns out that some educators in the U.K. do think Shakespeare is a plus for learning. Research out of King Ethelbert’s School showed that after launching into a program of teaching and performing the Bard, proficiency on the school’s exit exams rose from 14 percent to 55 percent. It’s not clear that there is definitive causation between the two events, but apparently other studies show that Shakespeare has helped improve writing skills and heightened brain activity in kids. All good.
I wonder, though, if it’s Shakespeare, or if it’s the passion for Shakespeare on the part of teachers and the school that changed the outcomes. I wonder if the students found a passion for the works because they had a chance to explore them deeply, surrounded by a culture of learning and performing that brought it to life in ways that I couldn’t in my classroom. That happens all the time. It happened to me in my first writing class in college where the T.A. who was teaching it just magically made me fall in love with “The Essay” as a genre. I probably owe much of my current writing life to her willingness to share her joy for it, and her desire to make us love it as well. And I tried to make that happen with my own students when I started teaching exposition a few years later. Just like in my college class, some did, some didn’t.
That was also hammered home by a conversation with Tim Bedley on a podcast I did with him and his brother yesterday.
Again, I was talking about “the curriculum question” when Tim noted that he’d just sent a whole bunch of kids out into the world with a love of the American Revolution, no doubt made possible by his own love of the American Revolution. Our passions, or lack of passions, as teachers have a huge impact on our kids.
So what does all this mean? To be honest, I’m not sure. I don’t know what every single child needs to learn in school in a curriculum context. I do know that it’s not anywhere near as much as we currently think, especially now that curriculum is everywhere online. By forcing every child to take every thing, by forcing them all to read Shakespeare or all to take Trig, I’m sure we’re turning off as many kids to reading and literature and math and the rest as we are turning on, if not more. Teaching and schooling is not an exact science, and just because one school near Shakespeare’s home improves outcomes by making kids read him doesn’t mean that’s going to necessarily happen anywhere else (assuming we wanted to “improve outcomes” in the first place.) Nor is it honest to say that if I child doesn’t read Shakespeare in school she’ll never read it anywhere else.
And nor does it seem possible in the current system that every student can have a teacher who LOVES Shakespeare and can make King Lear come to life for them. That’d be nice, but…
To me, it comes down to this: Do we want our kids to learn to love reading on their own or to love Shakespeare? To love the math that surrounds them in their individual worlds or to all check the Calculus box? To learn to be historians in their own unique ways or to all memorize histories that may serve them well on Jeopardy one day?
I know for some kids, these aren’t either/ors. But a serious cost/benefit analysis about “curriculum for all” is way, way overdue.