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Replace Shakespeare? Diversity in literature should be about ‘and’ not ‘or’

Catherine Little is a Toronto-based educator, consultant and writer

As students receive their first reading assignments of the year, the role of culturally responsive texts and giving students opportunities to read about "protagonists who look more like them" returns.

While The Globe reports that students at Jean Augustine Secondary School in Peel District School Board north of Toronto are going to be given a choice of books, Grade 11 students in the Lambton Kent District School Board will find classics replaced. Individual teachers have also made the decision to drop Shakespeare in their own classes. In Ottawa, one English teacher dropped Shakespeare in order to showcase Indigenous authors.

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The debate around whether Shakespeare and other classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies should be replaced in the classroom – because they may not reflect the student population or to free up more time – seems to come up repeatedly.

True diversity – literary and otherwise – needs to be about adding voices, not replacing them, but time constraints often force choices. However, keeping some Shakespeare in high school as a shared reading experience still has value.

Romeo and Juliet was required reading for my own ninth-grader last year. It was his introduction to Shakespeare and he seemed to relate quite well to the protagonists because they were young, ruled by passion and at odds with parental wishes. The sword fights didn't hurt.

It also related to a situation he encountered earlier that year.

High school is a bigger world than elementary school and in the first few weeks, he met many new people. One day, he told me that a girl he had become friendly with asked if he was Indonesian. When he replied no, he didn't get the feeling that his answer was the right one and wanted my take on why she had asked. Over the following few weeks, they didn't talk as much and although we discussed why this might be, I daresay reading Romeo and Juliet may have given him more food for thought. Good literature does that.

The book he was loaned was old, and one day, he pointed out that it had been assigned to a student in the early seventies, so we calculated how old someone who was in Grade 9 over 40 years ago might be now. And that points to another reason to add to classic titles rather than replacing them outright – shared experiences.

The revelation that a student who had read from the very book he was holding would be close to 60 now led to a conversation. And because Romeo and Juliet has been a mainstay of high-school reading lists, everyone around our dinner table had read it. We had no trouble discussing how the themes had resonated with each of us personally.

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Stories that have been retold for 400 years like Romeo and Juliet – presented as shared experience, not merely as one of the choices being offered in a classroom – are valuable because they permeate popular culture. Not reading them is a disservice, because understanding pop-culture references and their original sources is valuable cultural capital. It can help newcomers with belonging and social mobility. It bridges gaps between cultures and generations. It reveals similarities rather than merely emphasizing differences.

Understanding Romeo and Juliet helped me appreciate what my parents saw in West Side Story. Knowing the story would have lent depth to a discussion of Andrzej Bartkowiak's film Romeo Must Die. Being able to draw on all three crosses generations and cultures.

Studying the play wasn't my son's first exposure to the star-crossed lovers. When he was much younger and enamoured with a certain cartoon series based on a popular trading card and video game, we had watched an episode entitled "Wherefore Art Thou, Pokémon?" He understood the reference because he had heard of Gnomeo & Juliet. And when we learned the two key characters were named Tony and Maria, we were able to discuss that, too.

There are a lot of wonderful books beyond what have traditionally been considered the classics, and reading titles that represent a wider range of protagonists is a worthy goal. Taking the time to edit – by choosing classic titles worth keeping and studying them together with contemporary texts – means more learning for everyone. And Shakespeare is still a worthy read.

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