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Shakespeare belongs in classrooms, Florida says, knocking Hillsborough

Education commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. recommends “Romeo and Juliet” as one of his August books of the month.
 
Van Ayres, interim superintendent for Hillsborough County schools, said that, while students will study only excerpts of William Shakespeare's works, copies of the full texts will be in the classrooms and can be checked out of the media center.
Van Ayres, interim superintendent for Hillsborough County schools, said that, while students will study only excerpts of William Shakespeare's works, copies of the full texts will be in the classrooms and can be checked out of the media center. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Aug. 8, 2023|Updated Aug. 11, 2023

Plans in Hillsborough County schools to reduce the works of William Shakespeare to excerpts were met with derision by state education officials on Tuesday.

“The Florida Department of Education in no way believes Shakespeare should be removed from Florida classrooms,” department spokesperson Cassie Palelis told the Tampa Bay Times via email. “In fact, eight works by Shakespeare are included in the sample text list within the (state) Standards for English Language Arts, including ‘Hamlet,’ ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet.’”

Florida education commissioner Manny Diaz Jr.
Florida education commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

To put a finer point on the message, education commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. included “Romeo and Juliet” on his August books of the month list, also released Tuesday. Also on the list for high schoolers was “Up From Slavery” by Booker T. Washington.

“This month’s book recommendations provide a variety of reading materials that students will find uplifting and will spark a love for literacy,” Diaz said in a statement attached to the list.

Hillsborough County officials said Monday they were limiting instruction in Shakespeare’s works in part because of concerns that the sexual content might come under fire as prohibited by new state law. Another reason, they said, was to give teachers time to cover more writing styles so students would perform better on the Florida Assessment of Student Thinking, the state test known as FAST.

“We have to protect our teachers and make sure they are not at risk, and they don’t feel at risk, to be arrested or anything inappropriate happening to them,” Hillsborough School Board chairperson Nadia Combs said Tuesday. “But first, we try to make sure our kids are exposed to a lot of things that will be on FAST. And I think, why create something controversial if we don’t need to?”

Van Ayres, the Hillsborough school superintendent, emphasized at a meeting Tuesday that the district has “not excluded” Shakespeare from the high school curriculum. While students will study only excerpts, he said, copies of the full texts will be in the classrooms and can be checked out of the media center.

During a July 18 workshop, Pinellas School Board member Carol Cook raised concerns that schools might face problems if they teach books on the state list that have content suspect under the law. Superintendent Kevin Hendrick responded that titles on the list were protected as approved.

Palelis said materials on the list should serve as a guide for teachers, schools and districts as they prepare instructional units aligned to the standards. The list refers to Shakespeare and several other materials as “exemplar writing.”

Only one other Florida school district has taken the public step of removing Shakespeare because of concerns in complying with the law on sexual content in books. In early July, the Orange County district pulled four Shakespeare plays, along with dozens of other popular and classic books, saying the move was temporary until the state clarifies what can stay, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

The department published a notice in late June that it is developing rules to explain which materials are subject to removal within five days of a challenge over sexual conduct in the pages. The proposed language has not been released.

Officials from the Leon County school district also had conversations in mid-July about the fate of the classics under the new law, according to the Tallahassee Democrat. However, they did not remove Shakespeare from the curriculum, spokesperson Chris Petley said.

“One of the big messages the superintendent has relayed to staff and teachers over the past three to four weeks is respect the law, follow the law, but you can’t be afraid of the law,” Petley said.

Leaders of other Tampa Bay area school districts said they had no plans to preemptively remove Shakespeare.

“We’ve not drilled down into particular authors or texts as a sweeping move,” said Karen Jordan, spokesperson for Hernando County schools.

Pinellas schools have not restricted any specific authors either, spokesperson Isabel Mascareñas said.

Pasco County Schools superintendent Kurt Browning said he did not consider teaching Shakespeare to be a violation of any law, despite its innuendoes and sometimes racy scenes.

“It is a classic. You have to read Shakespeare in the whole context,” Browning said. “We don’t have any plans to limit access to those materials.”

Times staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report.

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