Sunday, February 15, 2015

Fear the Use of "No-Fear Shakespeare"


As a rule, our English department officially opposes the use of No-Fear Shakespeare, or any other aids that simplify the language in which literature is written. That doesn't mean, of course, that our students honorably and studiously avoid using such aids. But, as an official line, we do not support the use of such crutches, and we certainly don't condone using them in the classroom. No Fear Shakespeare and Book Rags and Grade Saver and all the other aids have no business in the English classroom.

It's not just about the plot and theme, teachers. If that were the case, we would be teaching out of the graphic novel versions of all literature. It's about the language - it's about the text. The goal of education is to expose children to ideas and information they would not otherwise encounter or engage on their own. It's about challenge and struggle. It's not supposed to be easy, though it should certainly be engaging. And, no student I've found actually "enjoys" reading the study guides. They simply do so to find out what they don't understand, so they can pass the quizzes and tests. That is fundamentally the wrong model for the English classroom.

On the other hand, if we are working on the language in class - even if, especially if, we break it down into short passage analysis - students can truly "appreciate" the language. They will laugh and grimace and smile and feel if they learn why they're supposed to be feeling. And, it might mean that a class period covers a single speech or a few lines. And, that's fine. There's no schedule to finish the text - there's only a schedule to understand. Teachers have often underestimated their students ability to access such language and analyze style. However, for our more average level students, such short, focused passage analysis is actually quite accessible precisely because it's concrete and not overwhelming. For example, a single line or two from Julius Caesar can be analyzed for "how language is used to reflect Brutus' troubled mind?" What words reflect confusion or unease. Students can key in on single sentences or words far more easily than entire scenes and acts. 

I strongly urge English teachers to avoid these aids - but have the discussion with your classes about why. The teacher is supposed to be the study-guide. We are No Fear Shakespeare, and it is our job to help students access information.

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