Tuesday June 13, 2017

Barring the Bard: Should Shakespeare still be taught in schools?

Some educators are questioning Shakespeare's relevance in the classroom, but his defenders argue his work is at the root of English storytelling.

Some educators are questioning Shakespeare's relevance in the classroom, but his defenders argue his work is at the root of English storytelling. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)

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"Love goes toward love as schoolboys from their books."

William Shakespeare knew as well as anyone that students often don't embrace the books they're assigned in school — as he made clear in his tragedy Romeo and Juliet.

But now some of the mandatory reading that is falling off the list is Shakespeare's works himself.

One high school at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board has taken the Bard of Avon off the reading list in its Grade 11 English course. Instead, the class is focused exclusively on Indigenous authors. 

'It's just accepted as what we do ... and we don't necessarily question it.' - Melissa Campbell Schwartz, English and Indigenous studies teacher

Melissa Campbell Schwartz, who teaches English and Indigenous Studies at the school, says we need more critical thinking about why Shakespeare has such a prominent place in our classrooms.

"It's just accepted as what we do ... and we don't necessarily question it," Campbell Schwartz tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. 

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Teacher Melissa Campbell Schwartz assigns books by Indigenous authors to her Grade 11 students, like Sherman Alexie's The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. (Little, Brown and Company)

"But it's a really exciting time now that we're actually stopping and asking the question, 'Why do we need to cover a Shakespeare play every year?' There are so many other plays that you could do." 

Students at the school continue to read Shakespeare in other grades. Campbell Schwartz says teachers can make the Bard's plays accessible through looking at the universality of the plots and the archetypes that stand the test of time.

But especially for her students who don't have English as a first language, the language often gets in the way of understanding the story and themes.

The Indigenous authors Campbell Schwartz's students read in Grade 11 are an easier sell, like Sherman Alexie and
Richard Wagamese.

"I'm often asking the kids to slow down a little bit because they're actually reading so far ahead [with those novels]," she says.

'Shakespeare's stories are universal.' - Wayne Valleau, retired teacher

Wayne Valleau, a retired teacher in Calgary, worries that today's students will miss out on important cultural lessons if Shakespeare is given a less prominent position.

"Shakespeare offers so much beyond the normal expectation that we have of our daily reading," Valleau tells Anna Maria Tremonti. 

William Shakespeare

The Bard of Avon's works have been performed, analyzed and studied for hundreds of years. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"He looks into life in a much broader way," he says.

Although Valleau also wants to see contemporary authors on the school curriculum, he argues that Shakespeare gives us a link to the past — over 400 years of culture — as well as to other societies around the world where his works are read. 

"I don't want to look past what we've got right in front of us, but we don't know where we're going if we don't know where we've been," he explains.

"Shakespeare's stories are universal."

Listen to this segment at the top of the web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Idella Sturino and Willow Smith.