Shakespeare and Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy

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December 8, 2023
Shakespeare and Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy
Jamie Litton

A Shakespeare play on its own can be intimidating to tackle in your classroom, and when teachers become overwhelmed with the pressure to build exciting lesson plans and foster academic success for their students, cultural relevance can fall through the cracks. But many students have a hard time seeing Shakespeare as relevant to their lives or the modern world—and this can be especially true for students of color who are less than thrilled to be learning about yet another dead white guy.

So, how can we create a culturally sustaining learning experience when teaching Shakespeare? The opportunities for creative engagement with Shakespeare’s work are limitless, and imaginative educators continue to find innovative ways to support their students in connecting with the Bard.

Taking inspiration from a framework for Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy (CSP) outlined by Dr. Django Paris, we offer four ways you can incorporate a CSP practice into your Shakespeare curriculum.


Center Your Students’ Communities, Languages, and Knowledge

Every classroom is different, so you should seek to center your students' cultures when studying Shakespeare by elevating responses, criticisms, and interpretations of Shakespeare’s work created by artists and scholars that share intersections of identity with your unique students. You might


Value Student and Community Agency

In the American educational system, BIPOC students can be made to feel that the wisdom their families and communities possess is a lesser form of knowledge than the Eurocentric curriculum they often encounter in the classroom. Shakespearean CSP affirms the cultural knowledge of the families and communities of our students. To accomplish this in the classroom, consider the following activities:

  • After identifying a major theme in the play you are teaching, ask students to bring in a story, folktale, or even a bit of family lore that they believe shares a similar message or topic.
  • Ask students to develop a thematic thesis about the play they’re reading (the agony of uncertainty in Hamlet, the inevitability of fate in Romeo and Juliet, etc.), and then take their observations to an older family member and interview them about their thoughts on the topic. Invite students to conduct their interviews in whatever language they are most comfortable with and to write a summary of the wisdom they gained to share with the class.


Encourage Positive Relationships with the Land and Community

In addition to the intellectual community built within the classroom, encourage your students to engage outside of class with places and people they may not otherwise encounter. When students study Shakespeare in a way that prompts them to connect with the land and their communities, as well as with each other, the plays tend to take on new significance in their lives. Project ideas might include

  • Performing Shakespeare at a local retirement home
  • Organizing a Shakespearean community garden full of plants mentioned in the plays
  • Creating their own version of Shakespeare in the Park
  • …or anything else your students can dream up that gets them out into their communities and engaging with others


Foster the Development of Critical Consciousness

Historically, there has been a hierarchy of knowledge that tends to devalue or outright ignore the contributions and identities of BIPOC cultures and creators. Support your students in thinking critically about Shakespeare, rather than asking them to take Shakespeare’s profound influence on the world at face value. In this way, and so many more, we can empower students to think about themselves and their communities as valued contributors to the production of culture, rather than passive consumers of canonical works chosen for them by people who know nothing of their lived experiences. Ask your students:

  • Is Shakespeare still relevant? Why or why not?
  • How has his work been used in harmful ways by those who defend white supremacy?
  • What forces have contributed to him becoming such a huge part of our literary canon?
  • Who are some artists and thinkers who you feel deserve more of an educational spotlight when examining the human condition?


For those of us who teach and love Shakespeare, we know that his words offer endless opportunities for social analysis, introspection, human inquiry, and creative engagement with the English language. In addition to these valuable aspects of Shakespearean studies, these timeless works must be placed in conversation with the lived experiences of our diverse students, creating a culturally sustaining learning experience that empowers young Shakespeare readers to connect with the plays on their own terms.