Bard's death scenes played out at school

To be or not to be? In a long-running debate about keeping Shakespeare in the high school English curriculum, that seems to be the question.

According to proposed changes, a level three English component which asks students to respond critically to a Shakespearean drama will expire in 2012 and not be replaced.

It is the last Shakespeare-specific unit in the curriculum and losing it would mean studying the great Bard would come down to the call of individual teachers.

The review of the achievement standards began in 2008 and the Ministry of Education reacted to "misleading" media coverage at the time by saying that Shakespeare's works were already optional and would continue to play an important part in senior English courses.

Ministry spokesman Tony Turnock told the Sunday Star-Times the proposed change removed an optional question and students could still study and be examined in Shakespeare.

"No schools have indicated to the ministry that they will drop Shakespeare," Turnock said.

Head of English at Auckland Girls' Grammar, Gavin Morgan, said students have been voting with their feet for a while and not taking the externally assessed unit, so in some ways the move was inevitable.

He said students chasing merits and excellences shied away from choosing Shakespeare as the written text they're assessed on. "Let's be honest, it's pretty difficult to write a King Lear essay in 40 minutes," he said.

Morgan worries that letting the achievement standard expire will be "another nail in the coffin in terms of Shakespeare in schools".

"I suspect that most people won't be encouraging their students to write about it in the exam."

Head of drama at Christchurch's Rangi Ruru Girls, Robert Gilbert, believes New Zealand will fall behind internationally if Shakespeare disappears from the curriculum. "Shakespeare is the height of English literature. It seems crazy to me to drop it out of the English curriculum," he said.

Jo Morris, president of the New Zealand Association for the Teaching of English, said losing the achievement standard would bring level three English into line with level one and two.

"For many students it's absolutely appropriate that they study Shakespeare, and for some it's not. I think that teachers in New Zealand put in place courses that best suit the kids in front of them."

Last week it was revealed NCEA students were getting top grades in English by writing about Twilight, a young adult novel series based on a human girl who falls in love with a vampire.

Actor and director Michael Hurst's response? "Macbeth or Twilight. Come on. I mean, really."

Hurst said it's a cop-out to say that Shakespeare is "too hard" to teach. "To say [the language] is a difficulty and a problem is to cut off at the knees the whole notion of study and the benefits of digging into literature and aiming high."

Shakespeare offered teenagers the universal themes of love, revenge and jealousy. "All of those things that teenagers feel so intensely. Maybe the [students] should just have to step up to the challenge."

Sunday Star Times