I’m going to make a bold statement for an English teacher – I don’t love Shakespeare. The stereotype is that all of us Englishy types love the Bard, and don’t get me wrong, I enjoy some of his plays, (Hamlet, All’s Well That Ends Well, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night) but I don’t love his work the way I love other literature. I very much have an appreciation for his work and the effect his plays have had on modern day society, but truly, he’s not my favourite author.
I also don’t love that many English teachers seem to look to his work as something that “needs” to be taught. I think it’s important for students to see a variety of texts to read and discuss and to me, he should be in the mix, but I worry that all too often courses are structured around a Shakespearean text. I’m concerned we are doing a disservice to our students by limiting their access to other great authors as well as their voice and choice as many of our students don’t enjoy his work the way we do. And in all honesty, English is a skills based course and the texts shouldn’t matter that much as the skills from the respective strands are what we should be focusing on regardless of what the students are reading.
With all this in mind, I’m so very pleased that Huron’s English department has gone in the direction of only doing Shakespeare in grades 10 and 12 (credit to the former head – Callie Sockett!). I’m one of the grade 12 university teachers and Hamlet is on the course. I really enjoy Hamlet as play, but I also am aware of my strengths and areas for growth and know that there are other people out there who have a much deeper understanding of the play and that is why I asked my dear colleague and hero, Danika Tipping, to join us virtually (Google Hangout) on Tuesday of this past week.
Danika is amazing! She is deep, thoughtful, reflective, and engaging. She has also done some awesome work with students studying Hamlet focusing on the life lessons and human behaviour that comes from the text rather than decoding the language. We talked for the whole class about what we can learn from the play, from the characters, and about life and real life experiences and skills the students can take from the play. We also discussed what Danika thinks is the most important attribute a high school student can leave our buildings with and she thinks that is the ability to be flexible when it comes to life. Things don’t always work out the way we had hoped, and it’s how we assess then react in a situation that is important. Being able to logically see what is happening and act appropriately is an important skill as the rate of societal change is exponential and will continue to be.
On my end, I was also thinking about role modelling. We ask students to engage in deep academic and reflective discussions and thinking, but when there’s only one adult in the room, it’s hard for the students to see and learn from this kind of interaction. I also think we don’t spend enough time encouraging students to ask good questions. We as teachers intuitively ask deep questions to elicit thoughtful responses, but we don’t often ask them to do that as well. In our conversation, I asked Danika a number of deep and challenging questions and then in our post conversation debrief asked the students to reflect on the kinds of questions I was asking her. They had noticed I was asking hard questions, but didn’t necessarily realize why and it made them think about how they engage with others.
Finally, from a life perspective, I was very honest with the students about that Danika is far more of an expert on Hamlet than I am. I can hold my own, I understand the play, I think Hamlet is a fascinating character and love deconstructing him from a social sciences perspective (I have a double major in English and Sociology), but I have limitations too. I am not an actress and never was a drama kid, but Danika is an actress and can speak to the idea of the play on stage and why Shakespeare would have incorporated certain aspects. She has also taught the play many more times than I have and with that comes experience that through this interaction helps me learn too. I wanted to put myself in the role of the learner in front of my students so that they could see that we should ask for help and to access our resources including other people who are experts in the field. I think sometimes adults (especially teachers) feel like we need to be perfect when students need to see us as learners and putting ourselves in situations where we are learning along with them so we debrief after about what and how we learned.
Many of my students commented that they thought from a different perspective after having her virtually visit our class. She brought a different dimension to the learning that wouldn’t have happened with just me and I’m so thankful that my students had that experience as it has deepened their thinking and learning as well as mine.