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Shakespeare Is for Black Kids, Too

This week I found a box full of old essays and notes from my undergraduate days, and stumbled upon a blue 5-subject notebook. In it, I found my notes from 2015 when I took my undergraduate course dedicated to solely studying Shakespearean plays. Yes. I read, studied, and discussed Shakespeare plays for an entire semester.

Going through my notes, I’m reminded of how brilliant my professor was. He made Shakespeare accessible, interesting, and worthwhile of our study without dumbing down the language, using no-fear Shakespeare or other substitutes. This was especially important to me as someone for whom many would claim that the bard “isn’t relevant” because of a difficult home life, poverty, or other adverse circumstances. 

Conversely, I’m also reminded of how I initially felt going into that class. I was afraid. I felt like a fraud and an impostor. I was the only person in the room that wasn’t white, and, I was fresh off of academic probation (gasp, yes, I almost failed out of college).  

I bring this story up because I’m preparing to teach Shakespeare to almost 150 kids in a Title 1 School. Lost in the debate of culturally relevant texts is the understanding that students are competing with a mainstream America, one which in addition to the great works of Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, finds Shakespeare essential to the English field. I don’t want my students to walk into their university courses after high school and feel the aura of failure that I did.

They don’t have to love Shakespeare after we study the plays as that’s a wholly unattainable, unrealistic, and immeasurable goal. I do, however,  want my students to be able to say, “I’m just as good as you” when they walk into a room with people who don’t represent the same experience as them. We could and should teach the best of what we have. Shakespeare, and Morrison, are both included in that. 

My professor made me feel like I could. I worked hard and never felt like I didn’t deserve to be in that room because he treated all of us as capable. I now have a great respect for Shakespeare and am proud to be part of the literate community who can discuss and appreciate the great work and literary tradition informed by this his work. I’m grateful for the opportunity to instill that same pride in my students that my teachers did with me.

For teachers of English: Whether or not you like Shakespeare or think he’s relevant to your life should not be a deciding factor in whether or not students are exposed to some of the key knowledge of the English field. You can’t decide if you like something if you’ve never been taught it. And frankly, someone who has stuck around for 400 years is someone worth studying, “relevant” or not.

This piece also ran here at Citizen Ed.

What Do You Think?
Jasmine Lane
Jasmine Lane is an early-career High School English teacher in Minnesota. She has a master’s degree in education, is licensed to teach 5-12 English Language Arts, and is an advocate phonics, knowledge, and evidence-informed teaching practices. She blogs at jasmineteaches.wordpress.com

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