To Teach or Not To Teach (Shakespeare in 45 minute classes with limited resources and time with readers who need work in a huge range of everyday skills)

Shakespeare makes me a hypocrite.

I’m a big believer (and a big talker) in focusing on independent reading with choice rather than whole class reading of classic literature. Ishakespeare believe that with our limited time in the classrooms today and with the ever-increasing skills to cover (media literacy, nonfiction analysis), classic literature falls to a lower level on the priority list.

My claims: use short stories and poetry  to teach literary skills. They cover everything you need to cover in literary skills and they are more efficient for your time. Then let them choose their own books–for higher engagement, differentiation, and choice–and follow them individually for those skills.

For this opinion I often receive raised eyebrows, crossed arms scorn,  as well as the occasional death threat.  English teachers love their literature. But I always hold to this opinion and even more so now that I am back in the classroom and see such need for choice and engagement.

And then spring comes and so does Shakespeare.

Now, back in the classroom, I am asking myself what I am going to do. When I am really honest with myself it is my desire to teach them Shakespeare, to PROVE the worth of this centuries old text. I want them to feel the accomplishment of understanding and better yet, appreciating, this language. And yet, I wonder if it is worth all that time. I am still undecided though I’m leaning heavy on the bard.

So alas, to appease my own guilt I share this dilemma here today and I ask the English Teacher’s Friend colleagues for your thoughts on this…


  1. Debra Buchan says:

    I want you to go for it so I can read about your experience. I, too, struggle with whether to teach Will, especially after my kids have struggled through our state’s (PA) standardized 11th grade tests in March and April. I think if I were a truly great teacher, I could have them loving the Bard. Good luck!

  2. pamoberembt says:

    I think if we, as English teachers, have not struggled with this dilemma of classics or not, we haven’t been doing enough best practice reading!! Ha! I read something interesting in a blog or something on Twitter. Not sure who said it, but it registered to me. Paraphrased, it read something like Shakespeare should be seen, not read. That was its original purpose. It’s meant for the stage. So, my wonder is if we can have students view great classics like Shakespeare and read perhaps contemporary lit that has similar theme or opens discussion for students to bring the classical drama closer to their reality.

    • I tend to feel the same. I actually found a few places putting on performances and thought that might be an option.
      We are not required to cover the bard, but somehow I a tinge of guilt if I don’t.

  3. So much of what our students read, even in their YA novels, allude to Shakespeare. We MUST teach his plays and sonnets, but we should teach them not silently read, but acted. My students LOVE the master by the time we are finished. Their own books become that much richer, and so does watching The Simpsons and Southpark, once they understand the original pieces.

  4. When I had high school students 90 minute a day, five days a week, I had them reading the play on their feet, as if on stage. Now that I’m at the community college, time is so limited. I am using the 30-minute Shakespeare by Nick Newlin (Teaching Artist at the Folger). By purchasing a downloaded PDF file of the book, I have permission to make a full set to stage. This way, even with the cuts, the students encounter the read language, not the Sparknotes paraphrase. I have them read the full play too, but I really believe that they get so much more out of Shakespeare out loud, on their feet, not in their seat.

  5. Great idea, Nancy!

    I just read Harvey Daniels’s Literature Circles book, and he alluded to classes that have choice with Shakespeare – do a few “into” activities with his sonnets, maybe about the language and paraphrasing and context clues – and then they could read whichever play they wanted in small groups. There’s still choice there. Plus, it’s a good lesson about reading being hard sometimes, but very rewarding. I’ve seen remedial readers at the high school level get into Shakespeare, but only when they’re up on their feet. That’s the key.

  6. Rebekah Lang says:

    This was perfect timing for me. Thank you for the helpful Shakespeare links! I think the 9th graders I have are really struggling with the language of Shakespeare and teaching his work has become an exercise in advanced reading skills more than a chance to appreciate the bard. I find myself summarizing and paragrasing so much that I’m not sure I would choose to teach him to 9th graders again. I’m trying so hard to make the text accessible and think it’s important that students can recognize allusions to his work, but perhaps it should be saved for Junior/Senior years?

  7. I have taught Romeo and Juliet for years and each year is a bit different. last year, we had a new teacher added to our dept. and she ordered a set of the no Fear Shakespeare books as they used that in the school she came from. This year, i and another colleague (the other teacher moved to another school) are using the side-by-side version, but we are still having our students read the Shakespearean language version. Today, I paired kids up and Student A read the Shakespearean side, Student B read the translation after each speaker. Then, they traded so each student got to speak Shakespearean but they could also see what was going on. They had great fun. Oh-0-I made them get on their feet to do this,l too. No sitting. I’m hoping that later on, students will feel more comfortable reading Shakespeare and actually want to act some parts out.; (They will have to do that anyway.)

  8. I like the idea of having lit circles and each circle picking one of the plays to read.

  9. Independent reading takes place outside the classroom. That allows me time to spent in class on complex texts like Shakespeare. My students love it so much I now teach a tragedy in the fall and a comedy in the spring. We discuss style, we read articles about brains on Shakespeare, language development, logical fallacies, text structures. We compare and make connections between leaders, friends, relationships, emotions. We write legal arguments, psychological arguments, sociological essays, comparisons, cause/effect, Most important lines, found poetry, parody… Students have been known to fight for parts, groups, and particular activities (not everyone does the same thing each class). If you’re worried about time…decide which scenes or acts are the most important, summarize some parts for them (I did that with The Scarlet Letter for years) and watch portions, or parodies, or modern takes and use them to teach analysis,etc. even better, many of these are available online–the students can watch clips on their own!… Classics have a valuable place, just look at the influence many have had on the present.


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