Most high school English teachers adore William Shakespeare’s works. Dana Dusbiber does not.
In an essay published this month on a Washington Post education blog, the Luther Burbank High School teacher explained she does not want to teach Shakespeare’s works despite his esteemed place in American education because his perspective does not speak well to her ethnically diverse students.
Dusbiber’s opinion caught fire online and on the airwaves as traditionalists decried her view as academic heresy.
“High school teachers are supposed to love Shakespeare, and I don’t, so I said I didn’t,” Dusbiber said. “I think the reliance on Shakespeare is something I find odd.”
After 25 years teaching in Sacramento, including the last 13 at Luther Burbank High School, she said she has replaced the Bard’s plays in her classroom with works by nonwhite authors. Dusbiber, who is white, said many of her students come from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds than her own.
In the 2013-14 academic year, 96 percent of Burbank students were nonwhites and 81 percent qualified for free or reduced-price lunches based on household income, according to state data.
She has adjusted her teaching style to show nonwhite students successful authors with skin colors similar to theirs. Instead of Shakespeare, Dusbiber assigns texts by authors such as Isabel Allende, Sharon Draper, Francisco Jimenez and Gary Soto.
In her essay, Dusbiber spoke out against teaching Shakespeare because of his outdated view of the world and oft-repeated perspective as a white man.
“What I worry about is that as long as we continue to cling to ONE (white) MAN’S view of life as he lived it so long ago, we (perhaps unwittingly) promote the notion that other cultural perspectives are less important,” she wrote.
A few miles away at Sacramento New Technology High School, Christine Baker, who teaches 11th- and 12th-grade English, modernizes his works and creates interactive lessons for her students. Four out of five students at the south Sacramento campus are nonwhites.
Baker admitted the old style of writing can be tedious when read as a book instead of a play. But she doesn’t believe it should be removed from the high school curriculum.
“I think that’s completely preposterous,” Baker said of Dusbiber’s view.
Baker studied ways to modernize Shakespeare at the UC Davis Mondavi Center’s Globe Education Academy in 2013, and she asked her students to act out the prologue to “Romeo and Juliet” before digging into the text on their own.
“They get the feeling of fighting families, of young love,” she said. “They might make fun of it at first, but then I’ll remind them that they’re doing the same things in the hallways and they’re like, ‘Oh yeah.’”
After Dusbiber’s essay received national attention, Burbank Principal Ted Appel said he contacted her to clarify that her views were personal, not representative of the school as a whole.
If Dusbiber taught 12th grade or International Baccalaureate (IB) English classes at Burbank, she would be required to assign Shakespeare’s works as part of Burbank’s compliance with the California State University Expository Reading and Writing Course requirement, Appel said.
“I think she stated her opinion, and I think it doesn’t reflect the thinking of the whole school or our teachers, or the curriculum we teach within the school,” he said.
Dusbiber is not the first educator to suggest moving away from Shakespeare in the classroom. Mark Powell, the assistant director at Salisbury Playhouse in England, wrote in a similar opinion piece to The Guardian, “(Shakespeare’s) words were chosen to be spoken or heard, not to be read and deadened behind a desk – they wither when performance is removed.”
Sacramento City Unified School District trustees last week voted to require students at Burbank and other district high schools to complete an ethnic studies course before graduation, starting in 2020.
Dusbiber’s view attracted negative reactions from many people across the country, including a response letter to The Washington Post from a South Carolina English teacher. Most of the opposition came from conservative thinkers, though the progressive publication New Republic posted a rebuttal to her argument as well.
Controversy aside, Appel said Dusbiber’s main goal was making sure impressionable teenagers received a full worldview during their time in high school.
“Her real concern is that students have an opportunity to be exposed to a broad array of texts and assignments,” Appel said. “The ultimate goal is to help students (think) about important questions and ideas.”
Ben Egel: (916) 321-1174