I Don’t Believe in Shakespeare

I don’t believe in the prevailing prestige of Shakespeare. I don’t believe that art, literature, music, or poetry can be studied or mulled upon in an ivory tower, isolated from the context of the author or the author’s world. I don’t believe in modern poetry that says everything and means nothing, or says nothing and means everything. I don’t believe in the right answer or the wrong answer. I don’t believe in returning papers to students bleeding with red ink, or in chastising over the improper usage of your and you’re. My goal in teaching is that students first gain self-sufficiency and independence through personal growth and self-awareness. In addition, I want students to develop empathy and an understanding of their contribution to society, to see the world with humanitarian eyes. Finally, students need to build strong writing, reading, and speaking skills in order to represent themselves well in a democratic society. When I consider my definition of an educated individual, those three goals stand out to me as the foundations of education. These three pillars align to three out of the six reasons to teach English outlined in Gere’s “Language and Reflection”: to foster personal growth, to improve morality, and to create good citizens.

Personal Growth & Independence

Students can take other classes to study what other people think: History is full of stories usually written by the winners, science of facts and theories manufactured by others, and math of all the “right” answers. Students in an English class are expected to learn how to write, and how to read what others write. What teachers seem to have forgotten, however, is that in learning how to write, students require self-awareness and personal beliefs to have something to write about. In learning how to read, students must identify how words and writing have an effect on their life. Personal growth is a key aspect of an English classroom, and encouraging students to be responsible and curious is vital to that goal. We must give students enough facts to formulate their own opinions about the world, and teach them how to express those opinions.

I believe students are entitled to the freedom of exploration and experimentation. Providing students with directions to follow does nothing to instill a sense of self-sufficiency. It doesn’t give them any ownership in their work, and it underestimates their ability to perform above a teacher’s expectations. The ability to self-direct and self-manage is an essential skill to build in students, and will be a priority of mine as a teacher. Confident independence is not always built by dropping students into an ocean and allowing them to navigate their way back to shore. Developing self-sufficiency is a scaffolding process for most students. Some students will excel immediately, and will thrive with open-ended projects from the first day of class. Others will need a staircase to climb, one step at a time, and may not fully arrive by the end of one semester.

My lesson plan, “Shakespearean Character Study,” was designed to allow students a certain level of independence and freedom to research and formulate their own opinions about a character from a Shakespeare play. In the lesson, students are expected to guide themselves with minimal assistance, but they still have access to the instructor at all times, and they are working with a partner. As a class, we then hold presentations and cross-examine students’ arguments. Through this lesson, students might defend a character like Richard III, and argue that he is the result of a generation of corruption, and cannot be blamed for his actions. They could argue in accusation of Juliet, calling her a teenager rebelling against her family with a boy she just met, and that the tragic end of the play is ultimately her fault. This project is open-ended, while still providing structure for struggling students. The goal, however, is to empower students to take initiative in their own education and personal growth, and give them control over their classroom and their education.

In his article, “The Banking Concept of Education,” on which I presented with a group during this course, Paolo Freire states that, “Students, as they are increasingly posed with problems relating to themselves in the world and with the world, will feel increasingly challenged and obliged to respond to that challenge.”  In my essay “Can’t you just tell me what to do?” I discuss the positive impact that Project-Based Learning and Problem-Posing Education has on students. It encourages them to get out of the theoretical mindset, and into the real world, and Project-Based Learning will provide much of the structure in my classroom. Friere says, “Their response to the challenge evokes new challenges, followed by new understandings; and gradually the students come to regard themselves as committed. (75)” A key to student engagement is bringing the content outside of the classroom, not just through multicultural study, but also through a direct, hands-on approach. This style of education, I believe, is the first step toward creating self-sufficient students, and lifelong learners.

We must position students in contrast to the classic metaphor of a sponge, wherein they passively allow knowledge and facts to float in and out of their brain. Instead, we must build a bridge that allows students to actively engage their education. We must give them the freedom to discover themselves and explore their interests, and we must educate them to be active, contributing members of our world.

Empathy & Censorship

Empathy is a valuable possession that educated individuals will gain in my class. Multicultural study develops a more balanced perspective, creates understanding, and eliminates fear. Literature creates direct connections between students and other cultures. For this reason, studying literature outside of the authorial reader’s context, as discussed in “Actual Reader and Authorial Reader” by Peter Rabinowitz, does not interest me. Rabinowitz says, “Reading authorial audience therefore involves a kind of distancing from the actual audience, from one’s own immediate needs and interests. (260)” Connecting the concepts studied in the classroom to real-world situations throughout culture and history, not only continues to develop empathy within students, but it also boosts student interest and engagement. When students see real impact from a piece of literature, it gives meaning and purpose to otherwise dry and aimless exercises.

As development of empathy is my primary rationale for teaching historical, multicultural literature, it is natural to include non-print media in my classroom. As Alan Purves states in his essay “Telling our Story About Teaching Literature,” “Literature is a multimedia affair… There is no reason why students should not deal with film, video, audio, [etc]. (215)” The concept of literature must include all forms of communication, in order to fully embrace the culture the student is studying. For example, how can a news article about Syrian refugees compare to video footage on the same subject? Compassion and comprehension being the goal, I think multimedia literature is definitely more effective than strictly studying the English canon, and complements my arguments for multicultural study.

In order to educate students in empathy, it is increasingly important to remember the implied privilege that accompanies education. Students in America are likely to have a limited, first-world perspective. The simple fact that a student has access to education makes them part of an elite class in our global world. To develop empathy, students must know exactly how privileged they are. Dark topics such as sex trafficking, forced labor, drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, homelessness and poverty, etc. are essential to creating a full understanding of the world students will live in as adults. I don’t want to blindside students with depravity and hopelessness, but I do believe that openly discussing topics is the first step to equipping students with societal awareness, and making them active contributors to humanitarian causes. To the level that it is appropriate and possible, I believe students should be exposed to these topics in a safe classroom.

Parents will argue that over-exposure can be damaging to a child, and, in the interest of protecting the innocence of childhood and youth, I agree. As children become independent adults, however, the importance of worldly knowledge becomes a necessity, and censorship must gradually decrease throughout the process of education. The only appropriate way to teach dark or controversial subject matter, I believe, is to include the family in the discussion. Parents are not the enemy, they are a teacher’s partner, and children are raised by both parties in tandem. I would never force a student to choose between their parent and their teacher. At the same time, however, I will continue to press upon parents the fact that education and censorship are at odds with each other, and that understanding and exposure are integral elements to developing empathy.

Skills & Literacy

The final pillar in my classroom is the ability to communicate well. Reading any text fluently, writing in professional English, and confident public speaking are elements possessed by any educated member of society. Good reading, writing, analyzation, and speaking skills allow students to enter any career with confidence and dignity, makes them part of an educated class, helps them to be more competitive in the job market, and it shapes them into good citizens. Citizens who are strong readers can make informed decisions, which is important in our democratic nation. The most recent presidential election, for example, has raised the issue of media literacy in education again. American citizens must navigate propaganda, fake news stories, conspiracy theories, sensationalist pandering, and dishonest or biased reporting (Herold). With the increased necessity for media literacy, critical reading and responsible writing skills are vital to the success of our democracy.

In the interest of creating strong communicators, I will not scribble red ink across a draft and highlight all the mistakes. It under-represents and distracts from a student’s thoughts and ideas, and focusing on grammar and mistakes can shut down a student’s confidence in communicating their viewpoint. I want my feedback to be as positive and supportive as possible, and to be a source of open dialogue with students. To me, critical thinking is more important than perfect spelling. However, I do want to see significant growth in grammatical skills throughout a semester. The objective is for students to leave my class with stronger communication skills than when they began. I don’t believe students need to demonstrate perfection in their essays, but I also can’t afford to leave students ignorant to the concept of standard academic and professional English. For this reason, I would like to develop a multi-tiered draft and grading system, in which the ideas presented and the presentation itself are given equal attention. In addition, my lesson plans would supply familiarity and ongoing review with topics related to grammar and organization, and mechanics-oriented assignments would be kept separate from other projects.

Concluding Thoughts

As a teacher, I don’t believe in the stuffiness of elitism in the canon. I don’t believe in the necessity of absolute correctness and brutal dissections of student work. I don’t believe in placing desks in neat little rows, and having students fill in bubble sheets with multiple choice questions. That may be an easier method or teaching, but to me it seems ineffective. I believe in giving students every possible inch of freedom, without entering complete chaos, and guiding them into society as a mentor. I want students to experience the world, and to see themselves as capable and knowledgeable contributors. I want to see my students graduate with fearlessness, the ability to think for themselves, and with compassionate willingness to improve the world they live in.


Works Cited

  • Friere, Paulo. “The ‘Banking’ Concept of Education.” Falling into Theory [:] Conflicting Views on Reading Literature. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford, 2000. 68-78.
  • Gere, Anne Ruggles, Colleen Fairbanks, Alan Howes, Laura Roop, and David Schaafsma. “Why Teach English.” Language and Reflection: An Integrated Approach to Teaching English. New York: Macmillan, 1992. N. pag. Print.
  • Herold, Benjamin. “‘Fake News,’ Bogus Tweets Raise Stakes for Media Literacy.” Education Week. N.p., 08 Dec. 2016. Web. 09 Dec. 2016.
  • Purves, Alan. “Telling our Story About Teaching Literature.” Falling into Theory [:] Conflicting Views on Reading Literature. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford, 2000. 210-218.
  • Rabinowitz, Peter. “Actual Reader and Authorial Reader.” Falling into Theory [:] Conflicting Views on Reading Literature. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford, 2000. 257-267.

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