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Hillsborough schools cut back on Shakespeare, citing new Florida rules

The decision is aimed at better performance on state tests and avoiding sexual content found in some of the Bard’s work.
 
William Shakespeare's works, a staple of high school English classes for generations, will be covered using only excerpts in Hillsborough County schools this year.
William Shakespeare's works, a staple of high school English classes for generations, will be covered using only excerpts in Hillsborough County schools this year. [ LEFTERIS PITARAKIS | AP ]
Published Aug. 7, 2023|Updated Aug. 11, 2023

English teachers in Hillsborough County are preparing lessons for the new school year with only excerpts from William Shakespeare’s works.

Students will be assigned pages from the classics, which might include “Macbeth,” “Hamlet” and the time-honored teen favorite, “Romeo and Juliet.” But if they want to read them in their entirety, they will likely have to do it on their own time.

School district officials said they redesigned their instructional guides for teachers because of revised state teaching standards and a new set of state exams that cover a vast array of books and writing styles.

“It was also in consideration of the law,” said school district spokeswoman Tanya Arja, referring to the newly expanded Parental Rights in Education Act. The measure, promoted and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, tells schools to steer clear of content and class discussion that is sexual in nature unless it is related to a standard, such as health class.

“There’s some raunchiness in Shakespeare,” said Joseph Cool, a reading teacher at Gaither High School. “Because that’s what sold tickets during his time.”

In staying with excerpts, the schools can teach about Shakespeare while avoiding anything racy or sexual.

As the district explained the situation, English classes in the past would require students to read two complete novels or plays, one in the fall and one in the spring.

The new Benchmarks for Excellent Student Thinking include lists of books that might be included on the state competency exam. To give students a better chance of mastering the material, the district switched to one novel and excerpts from five to seven different books, including plays.

“We need to make sure our students are prepared with enough material during the year so they will be prepared for their assessments,” Arja said. That includes a variety of writing styles and time periods.

There are ways that students can read these works in their entirety, district officials said. If a student can obtain a copy of one of the books or plays, perhaps with the help of their parents, they can do so.

But teachers are advised, during class lessons, to stay with the approved guidelines, which call for excerpts. If not, in extreme circumstances, they might have to defend themselves against a parent complaint or a disciplinary case at their school.

School board member Jessica Vaughn took to Facebook on Monday to lament that she and her colleagues are not learning of changes such as these in a timely manner.

She said the board was similarly blindsided with news last week that the district was discontinuing Advanced Placement Psychology because of a rift between the Florida Department of Education and the College Board, which administers the college-level course and exam.

The College Board said the dispute happened because it refused to omit material about gender identity and sexual orientation from the psychology course. The Department of Education later said schools could offer AP Psychology if it were taught in an age and developmentally appropriate manner. But there was no clear direction on how to do that without sacrificing content, so district leaders opted to offer their students a Cambridge International psychology course instead.

Vaughn blamed the Department of Education and the Legislature for these and other dustups.

“Honestly, it feels that much of this is intentional, in order to cause as much chaos in public education as possible, so that the collapse of public education is swift and the agenda of education privatization can move forward with less obstacles,” she wrote on Facebook.

Cool, the Gaither teacher, said it is hard to blame district leaders for taking the safe route.

But he said the changes come at a price.

“I think the rest of the nation — no, the world, is laughing us,” he said. “Taking Shakespeare in its entirety out because the relationship between Romeo and Juliet is somehow exploiting minors is just absurd.”

Cool said he enjoyed teaching “Macbeth” last year to his 10th grade students.

”It gave them a sense of connection between stuff that happened in the past and things that are not necessarily in the past,” he said. “The choices that we make, power struggles, delusions of grandeur. It is so rich in content and things that you can have discussions about, academic and scholarly discussions.”

When asked if students could have that caliber of experience through excerpts, he said, “absolutely not.”