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Love’s Labor’s Not Lost in Earning This Ph.D.

Teacher Proposes New Way to Study Shakespeare

Her love of teaching Shakespeare led high school English teacher Sheridan Steelman to write a doctoral dissertation on a new way to do just that – and, she hopes, to write a book to help fellow teachers.

Steelman planned to formally receive her Ph.D. degree in English literature and language from Western Michigan University in commencement ceremonies Saturday. The event caps her nearly 20-year journey on the way to earning a doctorate, fitting in weeknight classes at WMU and writing over weekends while teaching at Northview.

Steelman’s whiteboard shows some of the plays’ deeper meanings brought forth by her use of historical documents

“The reason I did it to begin with was the process, not the end goal,” said Steelman, who’s taught at Northview for 45 years. “I wanted to learn more about literature. … I really did it just to be better at my job.”

She began her journey by earning a second master’s degree at Grand Valley State University, writing her thesis on the significance of plants in Shakespeare and in Thomas Kyd’s play “The Spanish Tragedy.” WMU officials then allowed her to pursue a Ph.D. part-time, an unusual exception she wishes would be afforded more working teachers.

She did so only after receiving the blessing of her six children and her husband – “Saint Bob,” she calls him with a smile — who picked up a lot of household duties. “You have to have tunnel vision,” she said. “So, give up housecleaning.”

The dissertation, “16th Century Shakespeare and 21st Century Students,” took her about 2 ½ years to write, and she just sent in its final format last week. Her English students, she says, “watched me struggle, they’ve watched me meet deadlines.”

Documents Provide Context

Herdissertation draws on her experience teaching her students with a new approach: using original historical documents from Shakespeare’s time to provide deeper insight into his plays.

“The reason I did it to begin with was the process, not the end goal. … I really did it just to be better at my job.” — Sheridan Steelman, Northview High School English teacher

For instance, in reading “Macbeth,” students also read contemporary accounts of Guy Fawkes’ part in the failed Gunpowder Plot to assassinate King James I and blow up the House of Lords, which happened as Shakespeare was writing of Macbeth’s murder of King Duncan. Reading that and many other documents Steelman collected online gave students a deeper understanding of the context in which the plays were performed, she said.

“They were discussing so much more than the plays,” she said. “They were discussing the themes that were emerging in the plays, and how those were related to the 16th century.”

Steelman shared the document approach with other Northview teachers’ classes, from eighth grade through Advanced Placement. She would like to make it available to many other teachers by publishing a book based on her dissertation, and creating a website that would make the documents easy to download. She is planning to submit a proposal to a publisher soon.

The way Northview students responded to her approach is an integral part of Steelman’s research and resulting dissertation.

“They’re so insightful, they’re so smart,” she said. “It was really fun to watch the light bulbs go off.”

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.

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