While recently travelling to speak at an English teacher’s convention on the use of Shakespeare’s works in the elementary school classroom, I spent the day before my trip frantically writing plans for my substitute teacher. My fifth and sixth-grade students had recently been studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream to prepare for an upcoming production they were going to view at a local high school. Assuming that I would have a substitute who might not share my comfort level with Shakespeare, I attempted to make my sub-plans as user-friendly as possible. While I did not want to squelch my young students’ enthusiasm for the play during my absence, I realized I might have to consider an alternative assignment to make it easier on my sub. Students are notorious for not being on their best behaviour for stand-in authority figures, without adding finicky fairies and foolish mortals into the mix.
My frustration with finding alternative reading materials made me realize that there is truly no substitute for Shakespeare, in terms of the value and richness that his works provide to all who are fortunate enough to be exposed to them. My own experiences with my students and Shakespeare have convinced me of this.
While introducing my elementary students to a new story recently, the first thing they asked was “is it Shakespeare?” When I answered “no”, they groaned and I had to convince them that there are other great writers out there, too. My students have already dined on the finest literature and are rather spoiled when it comes to their literary tastes, by my own indulgence in their appetites for more. It is also not unusual for my students to negotiate completing less-preferred assignments in exchange for more Shakespeare time. “Ms. Rodgers, we’ll do this worksheet but please let us do Hamlet for fifteen minutes when we’re done!”
It is an English teacher’s dream to have students with such unbridled enthusiasm for literature, but in a fifteen-year teaching career, I can firmly declare that I have never found any other reading material that my young students have responded to as positively as Shakespeare. I believe this can be attributed to the fact that Shakespeare’s plays are rich with characters, settings, and complex plots that resemble much of what is mirrored in modern-day media.
Today’s children have no problem playing in the complex worlds of Super Mario or Pokémon, or following film and book series such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter. Therefore, their abilities to comprehend intricate plotlines should not be underestimated since Shakespeare’s stories create the same epic world of mythology, fantasy, and adventure as their favourite video games and movies. Because Shakespeare wrote plays and not books, performance-based study of his works allows students to literally step into the text and engage with the characters in Shakespeare’s world through acting and close reading.
While the field of education is constantly looking for the newest innovations to increase student achievement, perhaps the answer lies within one of the oldest literary traditions. A strong foundation in literacy begins with a love of reading that can only be fostered through exposure to quality reading materials. While much of children’s and young adult literature today falls short of providing students with challenging vocabulary, engaging plots, and unique characters, Shakespeare never fails to meet the mark. When it comes to Shakespeare, accept no substitutes.