Black Boys and the Old Bard – Why African

I once asked my students to write about the cultural differences between them and the other cultures they see around them. I don’t remember the exact book I was teaching at the time, but I do remember one student’s response. We’ll call him Aaron. Aaron was a 9th grade African-American student, and his response sounded almost exactly like this:

We blacks are just hyphier than the others. I guess Mexicans can get wild too, but not like us. We just hyphier than everybody else.
Aaron was supposed to write a page, and it was obvious he had just written this on his way to my class from lunch. Even so, I think he makes a good point.

I think there are some important cultural aspects we should recognize in all our students so that we can better reach them. But I think that when we think about culture and race in education, we must avoid looking at students of different cultures as deficient – like they are missing something, or need special help because of what they are lacking. It is human nature. We look at what people don’t have, and forget to see what is great. Sometimes we even look at culture in this light. But I don’t look at it like that at all. Instead of focusing on how culture makes students different, I like to focus on how it makes them stronger. Let’s focus on the good stuff, or in Aaron’s words, the hyphiness.

It’s true that when boys are boys a certain amount of horse play is expected but it’s all the good accounting of boyhood. Play Boy Job There is a time, just before a boy becomes a man where he may become a little mischievous, he can’t help it, it’s in his nature. How can you enjoy being a boy if you don’t stir things up a little or at least keep the people around you guessing at what you’re going to do next. And what the heck, why not? How can a boy experience boyhood without being a boy? It’s the nature of the beast!

The girls will tame them in time.

The girls and mothers of the world may attempt to tame the boys but it is to no avail for boys are quite untamable. Their wondering minds seek adventure for the pure excitement in it. It doesn’t mean it has to make sense, it just has to get the adrenaline flowing. Quite frankly boyish things lead to manly accomplishments. Where else are you going to get on-the-job-training for manhood? To the ladies it may seem quite disturbing but deep down they love the wickedness in the boys. It’s a tradition after all, set forth by those adventurous boys of the past, a legacy that must be upheld, you know, king of the hill, leader of the pack and all that sort of thing.

Boys may be wild and smelly but they are always up for the challenge. Believe it or not they are not born to disrupt the whole of society or to aggravate female’s lives, they do have a more challenging part to play. fixguider Boys who cross into men become the pillars of the community, the heads of the family and the captain’s of industry. Make no mistake, the most prominent of men are still little boys . . .

Black culture is pretty cool if you ask me. African-Americans are a bold, fearless people who don’t spend their lives holed up at home crouched over a computer screen. They are social. They are sophisticated communicators, and they take immense pride in being Black. So when I think about how to effectively teach black students, I try to embrace these wonderful characteristics. My favorite way to do this is with Shakespeare.

That’s right. Shakespeare.

Now, I am familiar with the ongoing debate on whether or not we should even teach Shakespeare in middle school and high school. Some claim our low-income, inner-city, overly-hyphenated students can hardly read and write – wouldn’t it be better if we teach them how to use a comma before they start analyzing Shakespeare? I mean, 95% of our adult population doesn’t understand the Old Bard, why do we expect it out of these kids? I’m not going to get into that argument right now, but I will say this: I teach Shakespeare for a variety of reasons, and one of them is because my African-American boys love it.

Let’s talk about another Black student of mine. We’ll call him by a nickname: Nay-Nay. (No I didn’t make that up). I had Nay-Nay in my 9th grade English class two years ago. Nay-Nay was failing my class. He never did homework, and sat uninterested for the first quarter while we made our way through The House on Mango Street. Nay-Nay was also very ghetto. He would come into class wearing the same black beanie every day. For a month I told him to take it off every single day, and some days he wouldn’t do it. He would sit there without moving and pretend like he didn’t hear me. Sometimes he would swear at me when I asked him a second time, saying things like, “Damn man, what the fuck! Why you always talking?” I would have to send him out. I wrote referrals. It finally got to the point where I had to sit down with him and the administration and make a deal where he couldn’t have the beanie in sight in my class, because it was becoming such a sore point. It was like he came into class every day looking for a fight. I talked with his mom over the phone, and she made vague promises that never materialized – she didn’t have time to come talk to me.

Despite all of this, my persistence began to pay off. I’m not going to go into all the ways I tried to work with Nay-Nay, the after-school talks, the calls to his counselor. Let’s just say I was persistent. I didn’t have a problem with Nay-Nay. I thought he was a pretty cool kid. He didn’t like school, and had some serious anger problems, but at my school, that describes almost every male student on campus. After a month of this power struggle, Nay-Nay began to see I wasn’t out to get him – I just couldn’t have him swearing at me in the first 30 seconds of every class. By the time we got to my Romeo and Juliet Unit, Nay-Nay had put the beanie away, and was able to sit through class and get some work done (he still never did homework).

Then we started Shakespeare.

I have this policy with Shakespeare that every student needs to earn a certain amount of participation points while we read as a class. I assign readers to play each role in each scene. I have a clipboard with a list of all their names with two columns – one for positive participation, one for negative. So if they are messing around, chewing gum, texting, or have a grill in their mouth, they get negative points. If they answer correctly, or really just give a thoughtful response and participate in a positive way, they get a positive point. That is how their participation grade is decided for my R&J unit.

As we made our way to Act III and the Balcony Scene, something really cool began to happen to Nay-Nay. He had the highest participation grade in the entire class. Almost every single time I stopped class to ask them what in the heck just came out of Romeo’s mouth, Nay-Nay was the first to raise his hand. Every difficult stanza, every complicated allusion, Nay-Nay’s hand was in the air. And he wasn’t just participating in a positive manner in order to get points (actually, I don’t think he really cared about whether he got points or not). His answers were right on target. He could analyze a passage like the best of my accelerated students. In fact, Nay-Nay was so far ahead of everyone else, I had to start telling him to put his hand down so he could let the rest of the class catch up. I also made it a point to let the rest of the class know Nay-Nay had the highest grade out of anyone. “Why can’t you all be more like Nay-Nay?” I would laugh, and he would laugh too.

What was going on with Nay-Nay wasn’t anything new to me. By then I already had this theory about Black boys and Shakespeare, and every year students like Nay-Nay seem to prove me right. My theory is this: Our African-American boys are so wrapped up in the intricate, rapid lyrics of hip-hop, it helps them decipher Shakespeare. All day long groups of Black students stand around in circles on the quad beat-boxing and free-styling. They spit fast phrases with even faster rhymes, and listen to the professionals do it in their iPods. Yes, a lot of times I don’t agree with what is coming out of the mouths of some of these rapper, but if anything, students who are into hip-hop have a highly developed ear for language, poetry, and meaning, and it always shows when we read Shakespeare.

And it isn’t just Black boys. Any student who is into hip-hop music and fancies himself a freestyle rapper probably has the same advantage. They hear something once, very quickly, and they get used to understanding it the first time. I think it is just more indicative of the African-American community because they are the ones who invented hip-hop, and therefore it is a more integral part of their culture. So when it comes to Shakespeare, I feel like teaching his plays is playing to the strengths of my Black students. Understanding the Old Bard is just like trying to figure out what is coming out of the mouth of Ol’ Dirty Bastard. It might even be easier.

Of course I’m not the only one claiming we need to be aware of the cultural differences in our students of color. I’ve been to teacher in-services where an African-American speaker has told us that because of the emphasis on being social in the African-American community, we have to take that into account when dealing with our Black students. They advise us to let them participate more, because they need to talk and socialize in order to learn – especially African-American boys. I’m not making any of this up, but I am here to remind you there is nothing wrong with any of it. A Black boy needs to ask questions and participate in order to learn; other students would rather sit quietly and take notes, whatever. It’s all the same to me. I actually prefer the former.

So instead of looking at these differences as a model of deficiency, lets embrace it and do some real teaching. Like Aaron said, Black boys in the ghetto are a little bit hyphier. They want to be a part of what’s going on, so I say we let them. Nay-Nay got to be Romeo almost every day for a month, and when he wasn’t speaking Romeo’s lines, he was expounding the meaning of them to the rest of the class. And Nay-Nay wasn’t the only black student who has shined while reading Shakespeare. Whether it is a sophomore as Julius Cesar, a junior as Othello, or a senior reciting Hamlet, I don’t teach too many Black boys who disappear during a Shakespeare Unit. Usually they become the main character.

Nay-Nay still failed my class, or got a D, I don’t remember exactly, but I do know he had to go to summer school. He still didn’t do any homework, and aside from his participation grade, the rest of his work wasn’t done well enough to lift him up very far. This is normal. This is the real world. With a kid like Nay-Nay, sometimes we have to be happy with the fact that he took a vested interest in what was going on in class. He found Shakespeare interesting, and if you asked him about Romeo and Juliet, he would have something to say. Maybe that was the first time he found English class interesting, maybe not. I try to be truthful above anything. There might be some of you out there who scoff when I say I still failed him despite how far he had come. But you have to remember, whether he shows a natural ability and tremendous improvement, he has got to have the willingness to put in the work. He’s got to sit and write. He’s got to study at some point. Nay-Nay failed because he was a horrible student. But he did make strides, no matter how small. He made it to sophomore year, which was not a guarantee at the beginning of the year when he was coming in every day with his beanie, looking for a fight.

Nay-Nay found school interesting, and did a heck of a job reading Romeo and Juliet. And for the rest of the year, he began to take a little bit more interest in the rest of the books we read. That is how it works in the real world – we don’t change them in a day or a week, but if we keep chipping away at it, maybe a year or two later it begins to take effect. Nay-Nay certainly never gave me any more trouble, which made my job easier as a teacher and his job easier as a student. I honestly think I can attribute all this to Shakespeare, and my Romeo and Juliet Unit.

And Nay-Nay did the class and me a favor too. He injected some much-needed hyphiness into what can sometimes be dry reading.

Matthew Amaral is the founder of, a website dedicated to Real Teachers in our Toughest Schools. Matt is a writer and English Teacher from the San Francisco Bay Area. You can read his blog, “Teaching in the Ghetto Ain’t Nufin’ New” at. You can also receive his FREE Romeo and Juliet Starter Unit, which comes complete with a Final Exam. If you teach public, you should hear what Matt has to say.


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