My sophomores have started reading Macbeth. (Yes, I know the quote in the title of this post is not from this play, but it's relevant, I swear.) It is one of my favorite things to teach (and I've taught it since my student teaching days, so I know it like the back of my hand). I feel like I've been more energetic while teaching it, partly because I'm more comfortable with the material, and it seems as though the kids are enjoying it more too. My level 2's love when we act the scenes out, and the other day, one of them said, "I actually look forward to English now." So great to hear!
Today, when they were saying how difficult Shakespeare is to understand, one of them asked me that age-old question: "Why do we need to read Shakespeare? I'm not going to use this." So I told him two things. The first is that Shakespeare is so influential in other literature and culture even today. The second reason I provided is that it helps us explore things in our own lives--ideas of what determines what happens in our lives (fate, free will, influence of other people), gender roles, etc. I'm here to teach them about ideas more than books. He told me that I was the first teacher to give him a good answer.
I was glad that he liked my answer, but I was also a bit dismayed that other teachers hadn't been able to provide an adequate response. All teachers, myself included, need to think more about what is important about what we're teaching. I remember talking last year with my colleagues about how our purpose isn't to teach books. We need to think of those books more as vehicles for teaching various skills and exploring different ideas, philosophies, cultures, dilemmas, etc. Many high school reading lists see few changes over the years because it is difficult to part with classic beloved texts, but even though it might be hard to imagine kids walking out of high school without being exposed to those books, it's more important to question if these are the most effective in helping kids truly learn the skills they need and in exposing them to the world. If all I had said to my student was, "Shakespeare is important," that wouldn't have been enough. Over the course of the unit, by tying the play to articles about modern-day life, short stories, poetry, and the students' lives, I hope they will see how Shakespeare is still relevant and helpful in examining their world. And hopefully this interest in acting out the play will translate to them being more comfortable with public speaking.