Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Shakespeare and the Common Core: An Opportunity to Reboot: Shakespeare's Works Should Continue to Be Prevalent in American Secondary Education, but Teachers Will Have to Improve Their Instructional Methods to Reach 21st-Century Students

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Shakespeare and the Common Core: An Opportunity to Reboot: Shakespeare's Works Should Continue to Be Prevalent in American Secondary Education, but Teachers Will Have to Improve Their Instructional Methods to Reach 21st-Century Students

Article excerpt

Shakespeare is with us in the 21st century. The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy strongly encourages teachers to use "seminal U.S. documents" and offers 38 fiction and nonfiction titles that the writers consider "illustrative texts"--but Shakespeare is the only author specifically named as worth teaching.

The Common Core generally eschews mandating texts in favor of promoting critical analysis and rigor. So it's significant that Shakespeare is the only author invoked in imperatives. His explicit inclusion offers a significant opportunity for educators to rethink how we approach Shakespearean instruction.

We've been studying the teaching of Shakespeare in secondary schools, and the Common Core almost never enters the discussion about teaching Shakespeare. In response to a survey of teachers, one respondent gushed that Shakespeare is good for almost everything:

   OMG, increases vocabulary, increases paraphrase
   ability, increases student confidence about tackling
   difficult material. Opens up universal themes, increases
   cultural appreciation. Allows students access
   to material that challenges their reading/emotional
   maturity/academic rigor. Too much more to specify!

Despite this teacher's enthusiasm for Shakespeare as the answer to every student's needs, we aren't arguing for a Shakespeare-centric curriculum. Rather, like Stanislavsky, we believe less is more. One good act of Shakespeare--read with purpose, spoken, embodied, and made relevant--can be more rigorous and eventful for students than the entire canon taught as something distant, ancient, and solidified. Although Shakespeare's works should continue to be prevalent in American secondary education, typical instructional methods for Shakespeare are inadequate for the 21st century.

Fundamentally, educators must ask themselves what exactly coverage accomplishes for their students. If the educator's primary goal is to expose students to a Shakespeare play with the plots, themes, and characters enumerated, then typical approaches are perfectly adequate--if excruciatingly dull. If, however, the goal is to equip students with the tools to understand, decode, and analyze complex texts (as the Common Core advises), then these older approaches are woefully inadequate. Thus, the first step is for educators to have a frank conversation--and perhaps a debate--about why Shakespeare is in their curriculum. Based on this discussion, educators can create more targeted and intentional frames for using Shakespeare's works in their classrooms.

Our fear is that educators will react by simply adding material to their already crammed curriculum; in contrast, we hope educators will be inspired to reboot their curriculum by starting over and paring down. Students won't meet Common Core goals if teachers continue simply to require plot summaries, character reductions, and recited platitudes about a given play's universal themes. Educators may hope that the Common Core won't threaten their well-established Shakespeare units, yet the Common Core's call for developing 21st century skills demands that Shakespeare's plays are not simply translated, "appreciated," and reduced. Instead, an intentional framing--with clearly articulated goals, outcomes, and assessments--requires a re-examination of these well-established units.

Questions over answers

Given the Common Core's focus on increasing academic demands for textual analysis and argumentative writing, teachers can challenge conventional practices of teaching Shakespeare. Under the "Anchor Standards for Reading," the Common Core offers teachers an opportunity to reframe their approach to Shakespeare. Students (not the teachers) are to "Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development." While many ELA teachers believe the benefit of teaching Shakespeare resides in his treatment of universal themes, the Common Core wants students to discover those themes, not simply regurgitate them. …

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