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.
Robert Schuetz says
You and David Perkins have me thinking long and hard about learning that matters. His book, “Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World”, is interesting, recommended reading. His premise is “lifeworthy” learning is based on asking big questions and arriving at big understandings. Of course, personal relevance is at the heart of these beliefs.
He states in-depth discussions need to occur in order to assess the current, forced curriculum. He mentions education has always had organizational containers, but the containers need to be updated to support lifelong learning in a modern world. I mention you in this summary of the Perkins book; http://goo.gl/ziaOvq because you both share a similar perspective on reimagining school. Your new website is terrific – thanks for providing this learning forum.
Will Richardson says
Thanks so much for reading and for the comment. I’m a big fan of Perkins, and he’s definitely had an influence on my thinking. Thanks for pointing to that summary, nonetheless. Good stuff.
And thanks for the kind words.
Aaron Davis says
I am glad Will that I am not the only teacher of English that has not necessarily loved studying Shakespeare. One thing that interests me in your discussion is having teachers who are passionate in a particular area. I was speaking with a group of Maths and Science teachers about coding. The curriculum leader claimed to me that he did not know where to start or what was even involved, he therefore said he was unwilling to push it. Does this mean that it is alright for students to simply miss out on something like coding based on the interests of the teacher? Just wondering.
Will Richardson says
Thanks for the comment.
I think the situation you describe is the exact reason why we need to rethink how we go about this schooling thing. If I child has an interest in coding (or anything else), shouldn’t we create opportunities for that child to access a passionate, skilled teacher to help them learn that? And I’m not talking about taking a programming class with an inspired programming teacher. I’m talking about someone who can help that child learn coding in real life, relevant ways, connected to that child’s interests. Messier? Harder to facilitate? Sure. But worth it for the kid? Absolutely.
Dewey once said “Our mission in schools should be to teach everything that anyone is interested in learning.” Given access to the Web, we can do that now. So, why don’t we?
Aaron Davis says
I wonder if something like Code the Future is more akin to this (http://www.codefuture.org/)? A setup where schools are given access to experts who maybe able to help in the student’s particular field of interest.
Is this though a scale-able solution? Would this work for Shakespeare where playwrights and actors come and work in schools?
At a recent session, Gary Stager suggested that makerspaces are better construed as ‘community spaces’. May be this is a different solution again? Fluid connections between school and community. Although moves away from the web-based solutions.
JuliAnne Kline says
Hi Will –
I must agree with you about what is the purpose of teaching Shakespeare. Do we want students to gain a love of reading or a love for Shakespeare? Working in a high-poverty district, it becomes difficult to keep students engaged in books that they cannot make connections too. Would they not be more interested in The Circuit by Francisco Jimenez that describes the life of a child as a migrant worker? Any time a teacher shows passion in a subject, students tend to gravitate to it. This is due to the fact that more than likely the teacher has put more effort in planning and developing the instructional strategies in the content area they are passionate in.
As education is too slowly transforming into the technology age, we can allow our students to explore their interests and items they are passionate about, and we, as teachers, facilitate their learning process.
Alex Quigley says
I’m an English teacher who loves teaching Shakespeare. I think there is a richness of language, character and story that quite uniquely appears to transcend nationality, race, gender and make his plays universal. Hundreds of years have passed and his writing transcends era and changing fashions.
In practical terms, for children of all backgrounds, Shakespeare represents “powerful knowledge” – that is to say, knowledge that proves a gate away to universities and professions that privilege such knowledge. Whether they should privilege contemporary literature instead is to be debated, but there is a reality here. By not teaching Shakespeare, we can create a deficit of such powerful knowledge. By not teaching Shakespeare in high poverty areas, in contrast to the well thy kids who learn the knowledge that gives them further access to the best jobs and qualifications, we risk exacerbating the problem of social inequality.
Interestingly, Shakespeare language is part of the fabric of English – with Shakespeare being crediting for coining over one hundred original words or idioms. So many of our modern metaphors, indeed stories, can be traced back to his amazing plays and poems. That heritage, and questioning what it means to us, should be dynamic and enliven the teaching of Shakespeare.
There is a fascinating difficult in the language of Shakespeare, but I have also observed young children learning Shaksepeare through theatre and practical engagement in a way that has shown me that Shakespeare can be meaningfully taught in an engaging way to anybody.
Of course, deciding the curricula always involves making choices and exclusions. A Shakespeare play may replace a play from another. Our judgement over time ultimately conveys values, with Shakespeare coming out top, given he has endured for centuries in curricula across the globe. We can still initiate coding and develop computer science; we can still study trig etc. Put simply, we can’t teach everything, with some knowledge being more powerful. If we simply left every teacher to teach their ‘passion’ we would see a vast range of learning happen, much of which could deny students their rights to the best of what has been thought and said.
Thanks for blogging and making me think.
Mike Hoffman says
From my perspective, there must be a relevant link going from current curiosity back into classical literature as a thread for each individual. This makes it “life-worthy” at the personal level. A general illustration of this might be (and I date myself) of a student enjoying West Side Story and a teacher linking that back to Shakespeare. Similarly, with such story lines as Star Wars and the Greek archetype of a hero’s journey. Presenting these as a whole class unit would not be as relevant as a teacher being aware of a student’s interest and guiding them in discovery — messier, yes; but far more pertinent to the individual. Unquestionably, this requires a knowledgeable teacher and/or one that is willing to allow exploration. In this vein, as educators we could think of ourselves as fanning the spark that emanates from curiosity. This, I believe, helps students answer the “big” questions from a personal perspective.
Thank you for nurturing the spark…