By Laura Turchi and Ayanna Thompson

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.

ELA1309_Turchi_32Shakespeare 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. If teachers want to promote analysis and the use of textual evidence effectively, students need to hear less about an “answer” and have more opportunities to ponder the meaning of a play or passage.

Without careful framing and close reading of key scenes, 14-year-olds aren’t convinced that “Romeo and Juliet,” for example, is speaking to or about them. Despite explicitly teaching the play’s prologue, which summarizes the entire plot, the teacher we observed began instruction of Act V with the comment, “we know they are all going to die,” and the students protested loudly that this had spoiled the ending for them. Students were so used to reading passively that the play’s tragic ending took them by surprise. If students read carefully selected excerpts, and read again, and read aloud, and stand up and attempt to envision not only a character but also how that character moves in a scene, and what he or she says, and why, they will have far more insight and understanding than if they are passive listeners, skimming through the story. Active reading begins the process of giving students the responsibility for making sense of the text.

If the Bard is universal, the ways we teach him don’t have to be antique and predictable. Educators should teach the plays through deliberate and focused explorations. We endorse performance-based Shakespeare pedagogies, like those promoted by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Folger Shakespeare Library, but they’re not employed widely. We hope that such embodied approaches, coupled with consistent demands that students engage in the kinds of tasks described in the Common Core, will lead to meaningfully different 21st-century classrooms. Because of the emphasis on digital literacy in the Common Core, students should be accessing and analyzing what is available on film and the Internet (including Shakespearean movies directed by Baz Luhrmann and Franco Zeffirelli) and participating in dialogues about — and creating their own — performances, interpretations, and adaptations.

The Folger Library’s Shakespeare Set Free includes multiple activities and discussion prompts for finding nuanced meanings in particular scenes and then suggests open-book assignments that focus on decoding vocabulary in the context of the play. A student who can successfully deconstruct individual lines after extended engagement with them will have a richer understanding of the play and will have reinforced the importance of context clues. Furthermore, active Shakespeare pedagogy has students enact Capulet family dynamics (e.g. the fight about Juliet’s proposed marriage in Act III, Scene 5). A teacher can use the debate between Juliet and her parents as an entry point to the drama of the text itself and into the real lives of the students, but framing is everything. A teacher who rushes to universalize the play, for example by noting that Juliet doesn’t get along with her parents either, glosses over historical and contextual evidence that students could tease out about Renaissance families, gender roles, parental authority, class dynamics, and more.

The Common Core provides ample justification to promote student analysis and engagement — ideally through performances — of Shakespeare’s plays over passive translation and explanation and that too-easy claim of universality. Teachers should not feel beholden to treat Shakespeare’s words and speeches as if they are sacred and unimpeachable. For example, countless adolescents are told that Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech in “Romeo and Juliet” (Act I, Scene IV), is famous and reveals Mercutio’s wit. While Mercutio’s rhetorical flourishes are witty, the Queen Mab speech is also an excellent example of rhetorical diarrhea: Mercutio runs at the mouth in a seemingly uncontrollable way. Educators should encourage and enable students to approach that text with a critical eye. In other words, the Queen Mab speech provides an opportunity to be critical of the work, to wonder about the purpose of the speech, the intention of the speaker, and his role in the play.

Aesthetically, the Queen Mab speech is beautiful, and, like the sonnets, which many teachers teach well, is rich in the figurative language and meaning that we want students to analyze, understand and appreciate. But frames for teaching Shakespeare that are bounded by an expectation of understanding every word and allusion and rationalized by a claim of universal significance are destined to fail because they imply there is one set of correct answers. The teacher we observed created an extensive worksheet that forced students to regurgitate “answers” about the play, including “Who is Queen Mab? What purpose does she serve in Mercutio’s monologue?” The worksheet format itself reinforces the idea that there is one clear and correct answer to the question. Shakespeare was, after all, a playwright, and his texts are scripts, not scripture, despite the heft of the typical survey-course textbook.

Instead, teachers should enable students to explore textual ambiguities, and they should present the exploration process as the desired outcome, instead of a canned answer that must be repeated on a test or a worksheet. The teacher should identify key passages, dialogues, or scenes, which are rich in complexity beyond the vocabulary and plot, but should not frame the discussion through a translation of plots or themes. All too often in the rush for coverage — one teacher we observed repeatedly said to the students “we have to get through this” — there is too much teacher talk providing translation and explanation. There is not enough opportunity for students to wrestle, grapple, analyze, and, therefore, own interpretations of the text.

As 300+ years of Shakespeare scholarship reveals, there is no single answer to any Shakespeare play; there are always competing readings, divergent opinions, and contested evidence. Thus, we aren’t advocating for any particular answer, reading, or ideology. Instead, educators should teach the plays through deliberate and focused explorations (instead of answers). Perhaps an educator of 3rd graders will aim to create Shakespeare enthusiasts — students who aren’t afraid of Shakespeare and who will look to his plays for pleasure. Perhaps for the 12th-grade AP, the teacher’s one goal will be to create students who find pleasure in wrangling a complex text — students who may not necessarily be enthusiastic about Shakespeare but who enjoy working through a difficult (and perhaps distant) text. By privileging Shakespeare in the U.S. curriculum, the Common Core has created space for both and raised the expectation that more students can and should work with and through Shakespeare. For us, the Common Core is empowering educators to throw out the study guides that try to be all encompassing and to replace them with evocative questions based on limited performances, selected scenes, and competing interpretations.

LAURA TURCHI ( is an assistant professor of education at the University of Houston, Houston, Texas. AYANNA THOMPSON ( is a professor of English at George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

Tennis balls, my liege

What might a Common Core-based focus or frame for Shakespeare look like in a secondary classroom? Fundamentally, it is one where teachers suggest themes to be explored, rather than announcing topics that will be “proven.”

Act I, Scene 2 of “Henry V” offers close reading opportunities. The new King of England receives an emissary from France. Shakespeare portrayed Henry V in his early days as a wild youth in the Henry IV plays. The question raised by this scene is: Will Henry V now be a good king? In this lesson, students think critically about the selected text through enacting the scene, examining the extended metaphor, and considering a thematic frame of maturity and authority.

Here is a suggested sequence:

  1. An opening freewrite provides a foundation for the ideas: “Write about a time in your life when your maturity was being tested.”
  1. A “metaphor machine” activity asks each student to create and portray a brief action depicting maturity through simile or analogy.
  1. The teacher sets the scene. A new king receives a gift from another king (a cousin): The ambassador calls it a treasure, but it is a box of tennis balls. It is a test in front of all the powerful people of his new realm. Will Henry treat the tennis balls as a joke or an insult?
  1. Students listen to an audio recording of the scene and in small groups use a tennis ball to create a tableau to embody the moment.
  1. Students use the text as a script, and, remembering the ways that they portrayed maturity earlier, indicate how they would direct the scene. Where are these men? Are there women in this scene? Would Henry stand? What does Henry look at? What does he touch or point to? With whom might he make eye contact? If Henry were a woman, and thus a new Queen, how might the scene change? What does it mean to “act mature”?
  1. Because visual literacy matters, students should now observe at least two short clips from productions. Compare the student interpretations (in #5) with the professional productions. Where are they similar, different, and what does that tell you about the different interpretations of Henry’s kingship?
  1. Concluding questions: What do we know about Henry V? What type of king will he be? What evidence are you using to prove your argument?

There are potential extensions beyond this activity that could include the extended metaphors in Shakespeare sonnets or, more thematically, contemporary portrayals of men and women assuming power.

Originally published in the September 2013 Phi Delta Kappan, 95 (1), 32-37.

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