Ontario school board tosses Shakespeare for indigenous writers

The headline is written for attention, the story captures the thoughtful considerations behind the change and how it fits in with the curriculum in other grades, where they do have exposure to Shakespeare and others:

When parents in Ontario’s Lambton Kent District School Board learned the mandatory Grade 11 English course was being replaced with an indigenous literature course, their responses often invoked that 500-year-old icon whose shadow still falls over all English writing.

“So my kid doesn’t have to study Shakespeare?” was the common reply, said superintendent of education Mark Sherman.

As of this September, for those in Grade 11 at least, the answer is no. Instead, they will be reading and studying novels such as Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese, Medicine River by Thomas King, My Name is Seepeetza by Shirley Sterling, or As Long as the Rivers Flow by former Ontario Lieutenant-Governor James Bartleman.

This indigenous turn of a high school curriculum is an abrupt departure from the Canadian high school standard of mainly studying literature from the two great cultures against which Canadian-ness is traditionally triangulated — Britain and America.

“Hey, I love Lord of the Flies. I love Shakespeare,” Sherman said. “But really, we’re talking about 15th century Veronese landlords (Romeo and Juliet) or something like that. Does that resonate with Canadian kids? Or the British schoolboy class structure?”

Modern plays in the high school rotation are likewise dominated by New York playwrights like Arthur Miller, to the exclusion of indigenous Canadians like Tomson Highway.

Students will still have the chance to study The Catcher in the Rye and King Lear, for example, in the other four compulsory English courses over their time in high school. “This is just taking a part of it and trying to make it more relevant to the modern Canadian student,” Sherman said.

Until now, the board has offered optional native studies courses in Grade 11, focused on history and culture more than literature. Some schools have also occasionally run native-focused Grade 11 literature courses, including several pilot programs designed to test this new curriculum shift. When it comes into effect in September, it will make an indigenous literature course a constant part of every student’s education.

“It has all the same curriculum expectations as any senior English course would have,” Sherman said. It involves writing, reading, presentation, dialogue, construction of arguments, topic choice, all set up in a way that recognizes and respects the sophistication of the curious teenage mind.

He pointed out two current failings of the traditional Shakespeare and Salinger approach in his board, which serves four First Nations communities as well as the regions of Sarnia and Chatham-Kent. Not only do indigenous students not see their culture reflected in their curriculum, and become disengaged as a result, but non-indigenous students are not made to engage scholastically with First Nations until late in the educational game. As a result, they can lack an important Canadian perspective.

“We should start building perspective earlier,” Sherman said. “In a senior level English course, they have a very high level of moral reasoning and dialogue.”

There is also a financial incentive, in that the board gets more funding for offering courses on indigenous topics, money that Sherman said has been used for professional development for teachers, many of whom are not indigenous themselves, and to hire a special projects teacher for indigenous studies.

As he describes it, parents and students could not be happier.

“It’s really taken off,” Sherman said. “Normally with any big change you expect some discontent. There has been negligible negative feedback. I think today’s students, they see things in the media, they want to know more about it, so now it’s just part of the natural course to say ‘Hey, we have some brilliant indigenous writers out there. This was created in Canada. This wasn’t written 100 years ago in Leeds.’”

Source: Ontario school board tosses Shakespeare for indigenous writers | National Post

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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