Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Almost A Full-Time Job These Days:  Classroom Conversations About Identity and Difference

Here we are . . . school has started or is starting, and we all find ourselves citizens of #Charlottesville. And if we don’t feel that we are, we should. Recent events there illuminate what as teachers we have seen for a long time:  in this country and the world, we are profoundly, profoundly divided. Some divisions are stark, raving, and raging, as we saw in Charlottesville. In other cases, we are silent but deeply polarized by our lack of knowledge, empathy, and an understanding of one another.

Charlottesville reminds us—if we need reminding—that seeing and knowing about these divisions is also a call to action. Especially if we are teachers.  Students gather, and listening, talking, thinking, questioning, and learning go on in our classes. (Hmmm, OK, in my classes, most days.)  We have the captive audience. So . . . in the midst of diving into literature, paying attention to standards, guiding writing and thinking in a hundred ways, we must be about these kinds of conversations. Conversations about identity and difference.

Now is the time.

Let us help you with this, especially if you feel tentative about taking on these conversations. Check out and download these materials. You will find six stand-alone lessons designed to move you and your students into reflecting and talking about identity and difference, race and religion. The catalysts for conversations are short scenes from two plays: The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare’s brutal and still highly controversial play about prejudice, violence and materialism among Jews and Christians, written in 1596. District Merchants is a retelling of Shakespeare’s play, commissioned by the Folger Theatre and set in post-Civil War Washington with characters who are Jewish, Christian, white, and African-American. It was written in 2016. The packet includes lessons, scripts and video clips of the scenes, and a great resource list. Try these . . . no matter what subject you teach.  The scenes and the topics stand strongly on their own.

The lessons were created collaboratively by 10 great teachers, and are designed to work in all kinds of classes with all kinds of students. Our teachers are themselves people of different races, ethnicities, and religions, and they teach IB and AP, special needs, honors, and “regular” students in urban and suburban (mostly public) high schools in or near Washington, DC. All of this is a product of CrossTalk, a yearlong community engagement project led by Folger Education and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities as part of their Humanities in the Public Square initiative. We had originally planned to release them in mid-September, after you all were a bit into the new school year. But no. We are all #CharlottesvilleCurriculum now because now is the time.

Will you tell us how it is where you are? What’s the talk among your students and faculty colleagues about these realities? And when you give a couple of these lessons a shot, tell us how that goes too. We’ll share all. We’re all in this together . . . and we need to stick together.

Peggy O’Brien