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Perspective

In the classroom, making classic literature matter

Defending Shakespeare in the age of MCAS.

Illustration by James Steinberg

LAST YEAR I TAUGHT AT THE CLARENCE R. EDWARDS MIDDLE SCHOOL in Charlestown as part of the national nonprofit Citizen Schools enrichment program. In afternoon classes, we tried to develop in our students a drive to attend college, in part by focusing on academic skills and goal-setting. But midyear, I had the chance to create a six-week elective. Others taught courses on Italian food, world sports, and art history. I decided to teach Shakespeare. My colleagues were dubious.

My Edwards sixth-graders, who came primarily from housing projects in East Boston and Charlestown, read on average at a fourth-grade level. When I asked students in the cafeteria, “What does William Shakespeare mean to you?” I got blank stares. But to my surprise, 30 students signed up, filling two classes.

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We started with insults. I gave them the best Shakespearean slander, such as “I do desire we may be better strangers,” then asked them to create their own using Shakespeare’s words. “Your face looks like a canker-blossom,” wrote one student. Another: “When you workout, you look like the biggest flap-dragon bouncing up and down.” I had them hooked.

Turning to Macbeth, I had them rewrite in text messages the scene where Lady Macbeth persuades her husband to murder King Duncan (Macbeth: Hey Lady! Wutz up? Lady Macbeth: U Cerealz need 2 kill da king). We discussed how Shakespeare invented thousands of words and spellings — “bump,” “gnarled” — and read some of Beowulf to show how much easier it is to understand 16th-century Shakespeare. “Ms. Lander,” one girl told me, “I think that a long time from now people are going to look at our English and ask, ‘What were they thinking?’”

We analyzed Macbeth’s “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy, where he muses on the insignificance of life. Two boys called me over. “Ms. Lander, when Macbeth says ‘Out, out, brief candle,’ is that like the earlier scene where Lady Macbeth goes crazy and says ‘Out, damned spot?’” The insight would have made a college professor proud.

But my students were not in college; they were sixth-graders. They would not be asked to interpret Shakespeare on their MCAS exams. So why do it? Why not spend the time more practically on basic reading comprehension and the rules of grammar?

The challenge of understanding Shakespeare is exactly why we should be teaching it. My students might not yet grasp the nuances of iambic pentameter, but they do realize that Shakespeare is studied by scholars, not just students. And the knowledge that they can connect with our culture’s greatest literature has proved empowering.

Colleagues reported my students were drawing connections in their other classes. Students in the halls stopped to give them “high-fives for Shakespeare.” And once, on a college tour we attended, a girl pulled me aside to point out that the guide had misidentified 19th-century English words in a mural as Old English.

In my Shakespeare class, I had students with learning disabilities and those for whom English was their second language. But no matter their background, I saw all of them excited and engaged. If we want to inspire our students to value education, we should believe even those who struggle the most can study great literature.

On the last day, I spread a large sheet of paper on the classroom floor. Again I asked, “What does William Shakespeare mean to you?” Fifteen young scholars, 15 markers, 30 seconds. Among the sea of words, one phrase scrawled in blue caught my eye: “Xtreme Swag.”

“Swag” is short for “swagger,” a word Shakespeare invented more than 400 years ago in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Students today, however, have appropriated it to mean style. I think Shakespeare would have approved.

Jessica Lander is a writer and teacher in Cambridge. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.
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