Students and Shakespeare: The Lady Doth Protest, but Too Much?

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When I offer my two cents about Shakespeare being too difficult for my high school students, here’s the standard response: “Are you saying that your students aren’t intelligent, or that you are an ineffective teacher?” There is no career-saving answer to this question. Obviously I don’t think my students are unintelligent because they can’t understand Shakespeare or Elizabethan language. To understand or not understand Shakespeare is not a measure of intelligence, nor should it be. My effectiveness should be measured by realistic expectations that I raise students’ abilities a grade level or two by the time I finish. Raising their comprehension by five or six grade levels in one semester would make me God-like. And I’m not aspiring to omnipotence, just above-average competence.

Many students, including students placed in my honors classes, are below grade level for reading comprehension. I give students a diagnostic test at the beginning of the semester to determine their baseline. Time for administering a diagnostic isn’t always reserved in the pacing guide, the curriculum bible that teachers are required to obey. While I don’t spare time every semester, it is helpful to know what I’m working with. I can be like a chef who prefers to cook without a blindfold that way.

The results shocked me my first year, saddened me the following years. The majority of my county high school students are on fourth- and fifth-grade reading levels. When they read Shakespeare they are at the initial stage of reading called decoding. Decoding is when we see words as letters that we try to transfer into sounds. When we do this, we’re just trying to pronounce the word, we’re nowhere near trying to understand the word’s meaning.  In fact, another reading development stage, fluency, stands between us and comprehension. Yet we’re demanding the final stage of development, critical consciousness, in our Shakespeare agenda. We expect abstract and analytical thinking about words that our students stammer to sound out.

We should (and yes, I do) expect all high school students to be at the critical consciousness stage. And all students, not just the Honors, AP, and IB, can be at the critical consciousness stage — just not with Shakespeare. But one, full-length Shakespeare drama is required each year. A typical schedule is Romeo and Juliet for freshmen, Julius Caesar for sophomores, Macbeth for juniors, and Hamlet for seniors. On paper, this academic arrangement looks rigorous and prestigious. I don’t doubt that there are moments in every teacher’s and student’s life in which appearances aren’t deceiving and studying Shakespeare is productive. However, the return isn’t big enough to justify the day in, day out checking out.

There’s a slogan: Reading is fundamental. Even applying the word “fundamental” takes a cue from Shakespeare’s mastery of word play. Most teachers achieve the fun part of Shakespeare, but I’m not convinced that we can satisfy the mental. I have lesson plans about Shakespeare being a punny man. We plan dinner parties with seat assignments for Shakespeare’s dysfunctional families and predict who will throw potato salad on whom by the end of the evening. I even host International-Talk-like-a-Pirate-Hamlet Day just to captivate their attention. The “arghs” provide a dual benefit of encouraging participation and voicing frustration.

Teachers trudge on when at the end of the day we’re going to sum it all up on their terms — the movie version. Even then the kids nap or pass notes until Romeo’s in Juliet’s virginal bed or Hamlet acts on some Oedipal-rape instinct towards mother Gertrude. The higher order thinking skill we’re going for is synthesizing patterns, but students are merely sensationalizing patsies.

Many faculty woe-is-me stories revolve around Shakespeare. One colleague explained that he usually lets his students, who read the parts aloud, continue reading even when they aren’t pronouncing the words correctly. This colleague, not visually following along, having long-memorized Hamlet, interrupted a student when a line sounded too off base.

“Did you just say Hamlet stepped in Ragu?” he asked.

The student grinned, causing the whole class to chuckle.

“I’m just reading the words,” she said.

I then admitted that I’d forsaken Julius Caesar in Act III. I too had Ragu moments and couldn’t stomach going into another class trying desperately to teach a lesson instead of summarize plot details before a confused, bored audience, like a glorified incarnation of Cliffs Notes. We voted as a class on a replacement. They chose The Pigman, a well-written book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Paul Zindel. Did I tell them that I’d read that book when I was in the sixth grade? No. Would they have cared? Not as long as I didn’t. The point is that I finally had a group of engaged students who were not only happy to read, but were able to freely discuss higher-level thinking concepts they’d be expected to address on standardized tests. Now they were telling me the effect literary devices like figurative language and mood had on the complex relationships between characters.

Feeling that I’d made progress with my students was irrelevant. When I fessed up, my colleagues were concerned that I wasn’t teaching testable material, i.e. multiple choice, plot-based questions. They had every right to be concerned. These tests don’t score student success, they score teacher success. If we coach students sufficiently, we keep our funding and our jobs.

“Don’t worry,” I continued. “I explained what a soothsayer is and the meaning of ‘Et tu, Brute?’”

Educators consider why Shakespeare is essential when they should question why Shakespeare is essential to high school students. True, his dramas are full of, well, drama, and teenagers love drama. But there are expertly written dramas that won’t have teenagers tripping over the words as the significance flies over their heads. Technical reasons for reading Shakespeare include: His phrases are integrated into everyday language, his plots are parodied in pop culture, his word play shows students that language is fun, and he crafts sentences with multiple layers of meaning. No doubt the last justification is significant for educators. Understanding writing as a craft and how that affects plot and characters is at the heart of what English teachers love to teach. But can that be accomplished when students are deciphering foreign words? If we compromise by substituting watered-down translations of Shakespeare that remove puns and artfully-crafted sentences, we resort to reading Shakespeare for plot summaries, not nurturing analytical thinking.

Progress happens in steps. That’s why we’ve structured an educational system by grades. Theoretically, advancement is contingent upon mastering the current rung. For now, I’ll accept that social promotion is as intertwined in the system as standardized tests and doll-size desks. So what does that mean? It means that despite how high school students get there, they are considerably behind when they do get there. Alternating between the paraphrasing teacher and the phonetic decoding student is not the best way to improve critical thinking. Even college literature majors wrestle with Shakespeare’s language.

I’m going to digress just for a moment with an analogy that I hope is insightful. You are in Russia or China and want to eat (you don’t speak Russian or Mandarin and there are no English-version menus, that would be cheating). You have the hunger and they have the food. But you don’t know the word or symbol for steak. After embarrassing gesturing and mooing you think you’ve come to some understanding only to be served brains or calf liver. The worst thing that can happen is that you starve for a few hours until you find a deli or a bakery where you point to something visually appetizing and satiate yourself.

The worst thing that can happen to a young mind starved of stimulation is that it stays at that fourth-grade reading level. That’s too bad, but is it your problem? Maybe the next time you’re in the hospital the physician’s assistant gives you an enema instead of an analgesic because he didn’t understand your chart. The doctor couldn’t hover over his shoulder to tell him what to think. Alas, what’s Greek to some is a pain in your butt.

So am I a bad teacher or do I just think students are stupid because I disagree with spoon-feeding them Shakespeare? I’m not a perfect teacher. Students aren’t always brilliant. But I’d like both teacher and student to have a chance to be as great as they’re willing to be. We can’t satisfy each others’ needs when we aren’t speaking the same language.

Shakespeare doesn’t have to be erased from the curriculum. Shorter extracts from his dramas and select sonnets provide manageable bites for students and free time for appropriately challenging works. When I advise students how to study, I tell them to study smarter, not longer. The amount of time devoted to a subject doesn’t necessarily equate to learning. I can stare at the same page in a book for hours, but all I’ve done is checked off time. Are we just checking Shakespeare off some impressive required reading list? If the goal of education is to look good by showing our students read entire Shakespeare dramas every year, then we’re succeeding. If our goal is to produce critical-thinking students whose brains neither idle nor frantic be, we’re failing.      



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3 COMMENTS

  1. I beg to differ “Through Shakespeare, these students are able to find community; they discover passion, drive, and confidence to pursue their dreams and dictate the course of their lives.” Shakespeare High the documentary.

    “Shakespeare High is a feature-length documentary that tells the story of a group of teenagers in Southern California who find a place to belong within their high-school drama program and are determined to succeed in the 90th Annual DTASC (Drama Teachers Association of Southern California) Shakespeare Competition. Theater has become their inspiration; a reason to strive and overcome adversity. The film features their stories of how the arts enriches their lives amidst personal troubles, including poverty, violence, gangs, drugs, absentee parents, as well as the troubles and hardships of adolescence.

    Through Shakespeare, these students are able to find community; they discover passion, drive, and confidence to pursue their dreams and dictate the course of their lives.

    Tosh and Taco are sophomores from East LA and former gang members. Nicole

  2. Exposure to Shakespeare, of course. The only way to appreciate, love, understand is life lived after the high school years.

  3. It’s not that Shakespeare is too difficult for these students; the problem is that someone put an unprepared student in your Honors class. Their difficulty is not with the comprehension of the Bard’s plot tricks, nor his humor, nor his delicate insight into human emotions. It is primarily reading practice and vocabulary. The latter can be remedied easily enough with some advance warning; the former takes far more practice. When they have not been required to read more than 200 words a week for all of their school tenure, it’s tough to ramp up to three acts a night. Oh, and their math skills are worse, I can tell you.
    I think every teacher after second grade would like to be able to administer an entrance exam, and be able to say, “I will gladly accept the responsibility of instructing this youngster on the topic of so long as they come prepared with the requisite skills to learn it.” Without that proviso, I’d return the student whence they came. So, you show up at my course on Milton [or matrix algebra, or Renaissance art] without the wherewithal to begin, and I say no. Go back; do not pass GO, do not collect two class credits.
    Maybe after Miss Goldfish had enough of her fifth-grade students return, rejected, from the sixth-grade teacher she would demand that the students earn the passing grade instead of just pushing them along to Mr. Turtle’s class.
    There would, of course, be hell to pay for a few years as parents, students and teachers railed about Mr. Rosenkrantz’s entry test or Ms. Guildenstern’s poor success rate. But things would sort out quickly enough.
    Until then, you may just have to be content to bring the darlings along a year and a half worth by, as Malcom X said, “any means necessary”. If they grow under your tutelage by more than the ten months you spend with them, you can be proud.

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