Why aren’t the youths connecting with Shakespeare these days? Young adult novelist Jason Reynolds shared some thoughts on The Daily Show With Trevor Noah recently, plainly stating, “Young people are allergic to boredom.” He doesn’t mean Shakespeare is boring – the guy’s been dead for more than 400 years and yet his plays are still everywhere – but the way it’s being taught can be pretty drab.
Jason Reynolds. Photo by Mireya Acierto/FilmMagic/Getty Images.
He suggests that teachers use hip-hop, something kids already connect with, as an entryway to literature.
Reynolds’ newest book is Long Way Down, and it takes place in an elevator – a young black boy named Will is on his way to take revenge for the murder of his brother. It’s written entirely in verse. The book is long-listed for the 2017 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and John Legend is set to co-produce the film adaptation.
In the interview, which is fantastic and worth watching, Reynolds asks: Why aren’t we expanding what we think of as literature? As as a poet who connects with young people in the real word, Reynolds says hip-hop was “the biggest influence” for him. Growing up, rap music told him that “kids like me existed”. He explains that hip-hop can be brought into modern curriculum to show kids how we’re building upon the past:
I believe that we really have to start assessing what the literary cannon is and whether or not it should remain fossilised and concrete as it is today. It’s stagnant. It’s static. Why not figure out how to expand that cannon to be diverse, to be old, to be young?
Poetry should be Shakespeare sonnets and it should be Queen Latifah. Teach comparative literature where you take Queen Latifah’s “Lady’s First” and Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” and you show young people that nothing is new. This is all a continuum. We are working in tradition. Then they can see their place in the things that they’re reading. … It’s an entryway. … It’s a springboard.
So then they then build relationships not just with literature but with literacy. Then we start fixing violence, we start fixing gangs, all of that, once you realise that your life is dependent on your relationship with words.
Alan Lawrence Sitomer, a Los Angeles teacher and author of Hip-Hop Poetry and the Classics and Hip-Hop High School, shares these examples of how to pair classic poems with hip-hop lyrics when teaching primary school students:
Classic poem: “Ain’t I a Woman,” by Sojourner Truth
Pair it with: “For Women,” by Talib Kweli
Classic poem: “Harlem: A Dream Deferred,” by Langston Hughes
Pair it with: “Juicy,” by Notorious B.I.G.
Classic poem: “If,” by Rudyard Kipling
Pair it with: “How Many,” by Zion I
Classic poem: “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” by Dylan Thomas
Pair it with: “Me Against the World,” by Tupac Shakur
Sure, it’s a clichéd trope – we’re imagining some “cool” teacher sitting backwards on a chair and breaking it down – but the words on the page speak for themselves.