Ottawa English teacher gives Bard the boot in favour of Indigenous writers

How much attention should Shakespeare get in high school English courses? An Ottawa high school teacher says she stopped teaching the Bard five years ago to showcase Indigenous authors.

Give Indigenous writers a chance to take the stage, argues Ottawa teacher

How much focus should the Bard's work get in high school English classes? (CBC)

To be, or not to be: that is the question. Or in this case, to Bard, or not to Bard?

The debate over how much exposure students should get to the famous playwright's work is brewing after a Lambton Kent District School Board in southwestern Ontario decided to revamp its Grade 11 English curriculum.

The public board covers schools in the Sarnia area and surrounding First Nation communities, where Grade 11 students will now focus less on Shakespeare and more on Indigenous authors in English class.

Ottawa English teacher Kim Bruton said people shouldn't be afraid of change.

"Just because it's always been in our book room, just because it's always been something we expose our students to doesn't mean we should always continue to do it," Bruton told host Hallie Cotnam on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning Monday.

Bruton, who teaches Grade 9 and 10 students at Sir Robert Borden High School in Nepean, said she dropped Shakespeare's work from her classes five years ago because she wanted to showcase Indigenous authors.

"In history classes we hear a lot about the negative experiences Indigenous people have throughout Canadian history," Bruton said.

"That's a good thing, but it's also good to hear the lighter side—the humour, the art, the beauty, that comes with the stories that Indigenous authors tell. Students need to be exposed to that too so there isn't this continuation of the negative stereotype."

Plenty of chances to learn Shakespeare, director says

Eleanor Crowder, who runs the Ottawa theatre group Bear and Co. and who has performed and produced many of Shakespeare's plays, said she completely agrees students need more exposure to Indigenous authors.
Shakespeare's work offers challenging language, but students have more opportunities to engage with it both inside and outside the classroom, Ottawa director Eleanor Crowder said. (Lefteris Pitarakis/Canadian Press)

"Thank goodness kids are getting a really good, in-depth course where First Nation literature is being presented as solid and as much a part of our lives as anything. It should be," Crowder told Cotnam during Monday's Ottawa Morning discussion.

The joy of Shakespeare is in the challenge offered by the language, Crowder said.

The Bard's work is entertaining, she explained, but it's also useful in understanding context and political frameworks.

"But that's exactly what you're doing with anything you're reading," Crowder pointed out, adding students have many more opportunities to be exposed to Shakespeare outside of school than Indigenous literature.

"Shakespeare is a part of our surrounding culture all the time and if [students] don't happen to read it for a year in school they'll certainly come across it in another way," Crowder said.

Bruton's students will still come across Shakespeare in Grades 11 and 12, she said.

"We spend an awful lot of time learning British authors, American authors, and we don't spend a lot of time celebrating Canadian or Indigenous authors," Bruton said. "It's time we do."