Sarah Mulhern Gross, a National Board-certified English teacher at High Technology High School in Lincroft, N.J., writes in this piece about how she wound up as a character in the latest to-teach-Shakespeare or not-to-teach-Shakespeare drama.
She talks about some of his plays in ways that you may not have heard in your English classes — “Romeo and Juliet” was anything but a love story, for example — and questions whether young people really need to read a Shakespeare play (and sometimes the same one) every school year. And she explains why she does expose her students to Shakespeare’s writings — but one day, she might not.
Gross’s writing has appeared in the New York Times Learning Network, Scientific American, ASCD, the Nerdy Book Club blog, the New Jersey English Journal, and here at The Washington Post’s Answer Sheet. Her most recent writing can be found on Medium. She’s a founder and organizer of NerdcampNJ.
By Sarah Mulhern Gross
There’s no wrath quite like the wrath of non-educators upset about what teachers are teaching (or not teaching). When pedagogical decisions result in not reading canonical books, the wrath seems to increase tenfold. Everyone who sat in a classroom as a student at some point seems to think they deserve a say in what is taught and how it is taught.
When friends started messaging me recently to ask if I was doing okay “with all the controversy,” I was confused. I had no idea what they were talking about until a retired colleague told me to Google my name plus “Shakespeare.”
When the Google search results loaded, I had to laugh:
“Shakespeare ditched by woke teachers over ‘misogyny, racism’ ”
“REVEALED: How ‘woke’ English teachers have cancelled Shakespeare because of his white supremacy, misogyny, racism and classism’ — and are instead using his plays to lecture in ‘toxic masculinity and Marxism’ ”
“Woke teachers want Shakespeare cut from curriculum: ‘This is about White supremacy’ ”
“Teachers want to dump Shakespeare because of ‘whiteness’ ”
There were dozens of similar headlines. All of the articles denounced Amanda MacGregor’s fantastic piece in the School Library Journal: “To Teach or Not To Teach: Is Shakespeare Still Relevant to Today’s Students?” They decried the “woke teachers” refusing to teach Shakespeare and indoctrinating children.
As one of the teachers quoted in the original article, I was accused of being a part of cancel culture, of being a woke teacher indoctrinating students to hate men, and of being unprofessional and unintelligent. A few hours after learning I was quoted (and misquoted), I was also the topic of conversation on a local talk radio station. I do teach Shakespeare and that’s very clear in MacGregor’s article.
The lens I use upset some folks, and they felt the need to misquote me and attach hyperbolic headlines to a story about professional text selections. While I can laugh at the headlines, the radio airtime, and the sudden spate of vitriolic social media messages (all from men), not all teachers can weather such a storm.
I’m lucky that I am a White woman who teaches in a state with tenure. I am National Board-certified and a former teacher of the year. I’m vocal about pedagogy and involved in my professional organization. I have a supportive administration. These things provide a level of privilege that not all teachers have. My friends and colleagues who are women of color, including the incredible educators behind #disrupttexts, are often misquoted, maligned, and misunderstood, often with disturbing results.
Thanks to my privilege, I was able to (mostly) ignore the vitriol while feeling secure in my teaching decisions. I review my text choices every year to make sure they are relevant, rigorous, and compelling; each year, that means deciding if and how I will teach Shakespeare’s works.
For the last few years, I have taught “Romeo and Juliet” through a neuroscience and juvenile justice lens rather than a traditional canonical lens. The students at my STEM-focused high school respond brilliantly and impress me each year with their analysis.
However, I don’t hold Shakespeare up to my students as the most important writer to ever live. He may be one of the greatest writers of all time, but he isn’t the only great writer. When we read Shakespeare with students, we need to read his work deeply and approach it with a critical lens.
We must start by looking at how much Shakespeare we ask students to read; there is an overreliance on Shakespeare in the English curriculum. When I did an informal survey of my honors 12th-grade English class a few years ago, they had read at least one Shakespearean play per year between fifth grade and senior year. Most of the time, they read and reread the same plays from year to year.
Can’t we do better? What are students not reading when their teachers spend six, eight, 10, or even 12 weeks reading “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”? What are they missing out on when they have to read “Macbeth” or “Hamlet” three times between middle school and high school?
I also have news for the pearl-clutchers: Most kids don’t read Shakespeare when it is assigned. They read SparkNotes and Shmoop summaries or watch Crash Course and Thug Notes video summaries. Let’s be honest; I would bet most of the pearl-clutchers fake-read Shakespeare in high school, too.
Judging by the number of people who think “Romeo and Juliet” is a romantic love story, I can tell you a lot of fake reading has been happening for decades (or even centuries). Love story?! Almost everyone dies! There’s no happy ending. And let’s be real — Romeo is more stalker than perfect boyfriend. Yet despite all that fake reading, the world continues to turn on its axis!
While I do read Shakespeare with my students, I don’t believe we must teach Shakespeare. In the 21st century, we have thousands of books and stories to choose from when designing the English curriculum. There are contemporary books that are relevant and rigorous. There are books and stories from cultures and time periods often skipped in the Western Canon.
What would our classes look like if more students read Octavia Butler, August Wilson, Isabel Allende, Kazuo Ishiguro, Louise Erdrich, Jesmyn Ward, Clint Smith, Tommy Orange, Joy Harjo, and Aimee Nezhukumatathil?
What if we made sure students spent time with Rumi, Yasunari Kawabata, the Books of Chilam Balam, José Rizal, Nizami Ganjavi, Audre Lorde, Harriet Jacobs, and Mariama Ba? How would our classes respond if they read more Nic Stone, Cherie Dimaline, Ibi Zoboi, Mark Oshiro, Kacen Callender, Akwaeke Emezi, I.W. Gregorio, and Elizabeth Acevedo?
Thanks to the Internet, we can access more stories and poems than teachers could have imagined even 30 years ago. What will our students learn if we make room for more voices instead of asking them to (fake) read Shakespeare year after year?
If English teachers do choose to read Shakespeare with students, we must allow our students to interrogate Shakespeare and his stories. My students are working with “Romeo and Juliet” this month, alongside “Antigone,” excerpts from “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson, and a variety of texts focused on adolescent brain development, toxic masculinity and violence, and juvenile justice.
I am asking them to wrestle with the question: “Should someone be held responsible for the deaths and violence in Verona?” My students, as always, astound me with their analyses and critiques.
It’s not a binary decision. No one is “canceling” Shakespeare. But we must create a more balanced curriculum that allows students to read relevant literature each year. When we do read Shakespeare with students, we must ask them to dig deep into his words, research the context he was writing in, and ask what we can learn from the voices he includes and the voices he leaves out. What does he value and what does that say about us when we elevate his work without criticism?
The first pages of “Romeo and Juliet” are replete with rape jokes. Multiple characters make misogynistic jokes. Romeo is mocked for being weak and feminine when he admits he is lovesick over Juliet. The characters make rash decisions to marry, to murder, and to take their own lives.
Ignoring all of this and presenting the play as a tragic love story does a disservice to students. They are more than capable of talking about these things and looking at how society reacts in the play and how contemporary audiences react. Moreover, in my classroom, it is vital that students recognize that it’s not okay to make jokes that mock rape and demean women.
It is past time for English teachers to stop worshiping Shakespeare. Teachers who do teach his works must call out the misogyny, antisemitism, violence, and racism present in so much of his work.
For the last few years, I have been lucky enough to learn from incredible educators, including the women who started #disrupttexts, and from my students (who come from many different cultural backgrounds). I work with colleagues who are also passionate about providing students with relevant, rigorous reading material in English class.
While I do use Shakespeare’s work in my curriculum, I may at any point decide not to. Why? Because there are thousands of plays, novels, poems, articles, and other texts that are also important for students to read.