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Students don’t need Shakespeare

I love Shakespeare. Even as a student, as my classmates loudly suffered through Othello, Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet, his language to me felt magical and I enjoyed piecing together what was happening from act to act.

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To my delight, as an educator, almost all of my students have been assigned Shakespeare.

To my expectation, all of them have dreaded it.

To my dismay, each has showed palpable relief when it was over. Many found it nearly impossible to get through, a lot relied on Cliffs Notes entirely, and without exception they proclaimed it was a waste of time – it wasn’t relevant and they’d never need to know it in “the real world.”

And you know what? They’re right. They don’t need to know character names or settings, to read Shakespearean text without stumbling or rattle off quotes from different acts in order to have a healthy, meaningful, fulfilling life.

They don’t need to read Shakespeare to develop an appreciation for language and literature and universal themes of the human experience. This can be acquired through other places and spaces.

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Students do not need to be taught Shakespeare. The words of Shakespeare offer no distinct, tangible value for succeeding in the 21st century, let alone when forced on resentful teenagers with no buy-in for how or why it matters.

Exposure to the imagination and logic and the overall astounding intellect that went into conceiving of and producing these works – while worthy of admiration and a testament to human creativity – won’t make or break the quality of life or opportunities available to their readers.

No, students don’t need Shakespeare. What they do need, desperately and immediately, are the skills, attributes and mindsets required to engage with and appreciate Shakespeare.

The intellectual humility to know that not immediately understanding something, or not being able to “get it” on their own, doesn’t make it out of reach.

The perspective that learning can be hard and takes vulnerability and this doesn’t make them stupid.

The resourcefulness and curiosity to lean in to a challenge and expand into their potential instead of contracting into their comfort zone.

The critical thinking and problem-solving to get a practical strategy in place, the tools to navigate complicated material and unpack big themes.

The insight and self-awareness of how to best balance the text itself with external analyses or third-party explanations.

Feeling at home with the push and pull of relying on your own faculties and asking for help when needed.

The motivation to tackle Shakespeare, if not for the sake of the works themselves, for the sake of exploring and pushing their own understanding of what they’re capable of as thinkers and learners.

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How most kids see Shakespeare is a microcosm for their student journey overall: when it’s over, they simply haven’t gotten out of what they were meant to.

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Inasmuch as the widespread (and frankly shocking) failures of our education system are increasingly front and centre, awareness that it doesn’t have to be this way is also spreading. Voices demanding change are getting louder and angrier. That’s a good sign.

I’m inspired by the parents and students and fellow educators who refuse to settle, who know our kids deserve better and who seek solutions to write their own success stories.

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At the end of the day, kids don’t need Shakespeare; they need the skills, attributes and mindsets it takes to do him justice.

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