Is Shakespeare Still Relevant? - Room 213

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Is Shakespeare Still Relevant?

Ok, so the plays are over four hundred years old and the language is difficult.  Kids will let out an audible groan whenever the teacher announces that Shakespeare is next.  So why are his plays still on almost every high school English syllabus?

It’s a question that a colleague of mine asks on a regular basis.  He is a fabulous English teacher who loves to teach poetry. He is also our drama teacher. Not a likely candidate for someone who would like to remove Romeo & Juliet from his to-do list, eh?   His problem with the bard, and his omnipresence in our curriculum, is that there are so many good modern plays out there that are so much more accessible. The kids find Shakespeare difficult and inaccessible, so why not make a change?  I agree with him on most counts–there are other great plays out there. The kids do find it difficult.  But I still think we should teach it.

The fact that the kids find it difficult is a non-starter for me.  We want to give them challenging work so they can reach beyond where they are; if we don’t, there is no growth.  We don’t keep lifting the same five pound weights at the gym if we want to get stronger, and we can’t expect our students to become better critical thinkers if we don’t add some mental weight to their tasks.
However, his point that students find Shakespeare inaccessible is the one I have the biggest problem with.  Every year when I start Macbeth,  I hear the groans.  But I don’t let them throw me off.  I ask my students to give me–and the play– a chance. I think one of the biggest problems with the study of Shakespeare is in the way it is delivered. Pages and pages of scene questions and quotation analysis are not going to do much to help students fall in love with Shakespeare.  Instead, we need to find ways to make the story relevant to their lives.  I mean, really, how many of us have struggled with temptation? How many of us have made a mistake that we regretted later?  And, how many of us have succumbed to outside pressures, doing something that we know we should not?  Poor old Macbeth is definitely someone a modern-day teenager can relate to!

When I teach Shakespeare, I use an inquiry approach, asking a question before we start, one that students will use for their investigation of the play. The question is this: What can we learn about human nature and how can we apply these lessons to our own lives?   We will still do some traditional activities, like looking at quotes, understanding character development, etc., but with everything, we will be looking through this lens: how can we learn from Macbeth?  Then, when we are finished, students will complete writing assignments and projects that illustrate their learning.  They will still read, write and present. They will still need to use quotations from the play.  But they will do so in a way that is much more relevant and interesting.
Now, I can’t say that I win them all over.  However, every semester I hear students tell me that they liked the play a lot more than they thought they would.  What more can a teacher ask for?
So what do you think?  Is Shakespeare still relevant?  If you think so, how do you hook your students?
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  1. I stand firmly on the teach Shakespeare side. 1. He is too important of a figure in literature for students not to have some experience reading him. His influence reaches authors that students will study. 2. He is still part of our culture today, often with verbal expressions. 3. It is good for students to read material they may not understand but are able to figure out. Shakespeare wrote in a language students may struggle to read, but when they overcome that hurdle, they will be better readers and be better at analyzing literature. I'd argue that the bible serves that purpose too and I find that students who can read the bible can understand Shakespeare better. I wonder if there is a component of confidence in that - that students know they will eventually understand the difficult readings and all their effort will be worth it.

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  3. Absolutely but perhaps we should be putting more effort into including contemporary drama As well. If I still taught lit I could see doing 2 plays and 2 novels with one classic and one contemporary of each.

    1. Sara, that's my colleague's point. He wants to do more. It's so hard though when we have limited time. Wouldn't be awesome if we could completely design our own courses?

  4. "It's all in the delivery". Isn't that WHY students love or hate ANYTHING we teach? My enthusiasm is infectious, but so is my disdain for a particular work (insert mythology here). Shakespeare and his works are too important to our entire English 'body of work' to overlook him.

  5. I went to a high school and only learned about two of Shakespeare's plays and a few of his other works... I wish I had learned more. I feel inadequate because I wasn't immersed in more. I believe it should be taught- but here's my caveat- you don't have to teach the ENTIRE play to make it relevant and meaningful. Teach enough for students to dig deeper into it and the students who are interested will read more on their own.

  6. I couldn't possibly imagine not teaching Shakespeare. If we didn't do things because it was difficult... we would never have gone to the moon.

  7. I have to side with Shakespeare. Despite the difficult language and how old his plays are, the lessons and values we can learn from his plays are still relevant today. I love teaching Romeo and Juliet, and I get my students to love it too. They line up before class to sign up for in-class reading parts :)

  8. In response to what Jackie said....we should be able to design our own courses. :)

  9. I think students should continue learning Shakespeare. There are many important lessons that they need to learn, and these classics will do a much better job than anything in present day can offer.


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