Archives For Shakespeare

theatre-stage-81d434 copyShakespeare’s sonnets are little one-act plays.
I learned this one year when I was teaching drama to grades 9-12 and I discovered Will and WhimsySixteen Dramatically Illustrated Sonnets of Shakespeare by Alan Haehnel. The short comic/poignant skits in the collection are an excellent way for middle school and high school students to be exposed to the Bard’s 154 poems.
Consequently, when I began the study of sonnets with my Advanced Placement English Literature students, I thought they might benefit from a similar technique. In addition, I considered that this could be an opportunity for them to write a narrative as required by the Common Core State Standards:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.11-12.3
Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.

“Imagine a character in each sonnet is talking to you,” I explained, “you need to synthesize the ideas from the poem, and write that character’s story.”

Then, I handed out copies of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29:

sonnet 29

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

On the bottom of the page I restated one simple direction, “Write the narrative.”

The results were unexpected. While my students are good at analyzing poems, I was unaware that a number of them are born storytellers. In their retellings, they captured the spirit, and sometimes the exact language, of the poem. They found ways to expand on the isolation and alienation of the speaker and incorporate the shift in the speaker’s attitude from despair to one of acceptance.

For example, Melissa used a pivotal moment in the lives of high school students…asking someone to go to the prom:

After weeks of preparation and endless nerves the day has come to ask her to come to prom with me!
I wrote her a poem listing all the things I liked about her and read it to her under the starlight sky just at sunset.
I ended the poem with “thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings.”
My nerves ran through my body and I felt like I was going to pass out.
YES! SHE SAID YES!
I take her off to dinner and we planned for the night of prom. My dreams have come true! I am going to my senior prom with the girl of my dreams!

In contrast, Makayla began her narrative from the point of view of a frighteningly depressed teenager who observes others in a community park. The young girl’s attention is eventually drawn to one elderly couple, and their tenderness towards each other brings about an “epiphany,” a realization:

I inhale a summer thriving breathe and release the darkness out of my body. I turn to walk down the once sullen Earth path now as a gateway to sweet heaven’s gate. I take my phone out of the bag and dial my boyfriend’s number to make things right and explain myself to him. I pass the two elderly couple and smile.
In return I get a friendly, “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” and I respond, “Yes, yes ,it truly is, and I won’t beweep it again.”
As I near the running children, I pulled my bag off my shoulder and slipped it into a nearby trashcan. It’s time to change my state with kings.

Emma’s chose to use the point-of-view of an elderly woman suffering from Alzheimer’s in this poignant tale:

He doesn’t know that me is right underneath all of this forgotten memory. I’m right here, but I don’t know who I am. I bury my face in my wrinkled hands and trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries. I can’t change. Curse my fate.
When I look up he’s standing over me. “Your appointment is at four.”
I swear I didn’t know. When I searched his face for recognition, I knew that he did not see me. He doesn’t know who I am and neither do I. He doesn’t understand that I can’t control my fate. But I am not my forgotten memory, I am his wife. That much, I know.

Finally, Jen’s story was humorous, told from the perspective of a jilted bride:

I’m sitting alone on altar steps in my once-worn Vera Wang wedding dress that’s as deflated now as I feel. My supposed-to-be husband left me for some California-toned, bottle-blond chick bustier than Dolly Parton. (Curses her and her awesome figure. I swear she was created by Russian scientists.) I all alone beweep my outcast state….

….That son-of-a-bitch should not be in my thoughts right now. Well, maybe he should considering he was a 10 thousand dollar mistake. Dammit I looked good in that dress.
Sullen Earth, why me?

What started out as an educated guess for an assignment on my part has yielded great results. Moreover, my students have written narratives based on  “this man’s art.”

“We loved writing these,” was their collective response.
Of course they did….hard to go wrong with Shakespeare as their mentor.

Continue Reading…

Shakepeare winkingPlanning on teaching literature in high school? I suggest a brush up on literary pitfalls….and work on developing a sense of humor because sooner or later, a student, (usually a boy) will come upon one of the following words in some great work of literature:

Screw.
Bang
Bosom.
Laid.
Nuts.

In context, these words have been carefully chosen by an author to express some lofty ideal.  Yet, to that student who is looking for any way to make the class more entertaining, these words can mean something else entirely.

No author has been more successful in creating linguistic traps than Shakespeare. There are the overt references, such as Lady Macbeth’s startling announcement to “Unsex me here..!” (I.5) in preparation to assassinate the visiting King Duncan.  There are the more subtle problems with the “hoary-headed frosts” in Midsummer Night’s Dream, but Romeo and Juliet offers the most opportunity for student sniggering.

From the opening scuffle where, “My naked weapon is out”, a teacher must negotiate students through Lord Capulet’s Give me my long sword, ho“,  Mercutio’s  teasing  “Prick love for pricking,” or the Nurse’s explanation that Juliet “shall bear the burden soon at night.

“Is Shakespeare always this dirty?” I see the quizzical looks on their faces.
“Your parents are okay with this,” I reassure them, “Besides, this is required reading.”

The Bard does not have a monopoly on creating awkward moments with language in class. Students are capable of creating discomfort, intentionally or not.

Years ago, I taught an Animal Farm unit and delivered a lesson on George Orwell’s characters and their historical counterparts. I explained that Napoleon was Stalin, the dogs were his secret police, and Snowball was Trotsky. I mentioned in passing that Trotsky was considered an insurrectionist, and I paused to let the information sink in. Instead I heard the distinct sound of giggling from several of the boys in the back of the room.

“What is so funny?”I demanded.
“Nothing,” they stammered.
I should have stopped there, but I moved in to clarify.
“What do you think I said? Do you know what an insurrectionist is?”

There was a pause…
“When… it… goes down?” blurted out one of the offenders.

“No,” I was indignant…not to be stopped. “No, I said’ insurrection’…what did you think I …..”
Then it hit me.
Erection.
I doubled back.
“It’s someone who is trying to start an uprising…..”
That explanation was drowned out with guffaws.
Did I mention that a very good sense of humor is needed in with sophomores?

This past fall, I had posted charts around the rooms with questions associated with Oliver Twist.
As the students moved around the room I noticed students giggling when they got to one of the charts.
“Why would someone lie?” was the heading on the chart.
“To get laid,” was scribbled in small print.
I recognized that print.
That print belonged to Mitch. Mitch who stood all of 4’2″ and was 90 lbs, soaking wet.

Everyone had seen it, so I needed to address the problem quickly.
“Mitch,” I demanded, “is that an appropriate thing to write?”

“Sure, Ms. B,” he replied casually,”I could lie and say I’m dying…Like in the movie 50/50.
I had to admit he was using logic…to say nothing of his confidence.
He still erased the comment.

Next week, I plan to use an Advanced Placement Literature multiple choice prompt from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey as practice for the upcoming AP exam.  I was rereading the passage to check its length and the matching questions when I came upon the line, “She began to curl her hair and long for balls.”

Oh, Jane. That’s going to definitely cause a stir!

 “for we are the only love-gods...”( Much Ado about Nothing: 2.1.386)

Every generation has them, the “love gods”, the cultural icons who capture our minds and our hearts.  They are musicians, actors, playwrights, authors, or poets.  They are artists with a stamp so firm on a culture that the mere mention of their names can call forth an image; artists, for example, like Shakespeare or maybe The Beatles. They are artists whose images need no text to explain who they are, like Shakespeare or maybe The Beatles.

These paperAnd because these artists have messages that transcend time there are educators who are committed to teaching their students how best to discover an artist’s message through a study of an artist’s craft. There are even educators so committed that they would spend an entire Saturday, (January 24, 2014) learning new strategies to help their students understand and respond to the messages of cultural icons. These are educators who spent the day at the Yale Repertory Willpower!Workshop centered on the upcoming production of These! Paper! Bullets!.

These! Paper! Bullets! is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy play Much Ado about Nothing, with the setting transported to London in the turbulent 1960s. The play’s adaptation is by Pulitzer Prize and Emmy Award nominated writer Rolin Jones, and the promotional synopsis states:

Meet the Quartos. Ben, Claude, Balth, and Pedro. Their fans worship them. Scotland Yard fears them. And their former drummer will stop at nothing to destroy them. Can these fab four from Liverpool find true love in London and cut an album in seven nights? These Paper Bullets! is a rocking and rolling version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing with a serious backbeat.

Many of the teachers attending this Saturday’s workshop will be bringing their classes in early April to the daytime productions of These! Paper! Bullets!, a series of performances offered through the WILLPOWER! program. This program is the brainchild of James Bundy, dean of the School of Drama and  artistic director of the Yale Rep. According to a 2013 Yale News article “‘WILL POWER!’ gives city students a ‘visceral’ introduction to theater,” Bundy’s concerns about having students see live theatre was the motivation for beginning the program 10 years ago since, “studies show that people who attend the theater before the age of 18 are much more likely to attend later in life.”  

The WILLPOWER! Workshop for educators is coordinated by Ruth M. Feldman, the Yale School of Drama’s director of education and accessibility services, and is usually offered several weeks before a production in order to improve classroom instruction and prepare student audiences for the play they will see.

Feldman’s jam-packed line up this particular Saturday included a preview of sets and costumes with the production’s director Jackson Gay. The costumes brought “aahs” from the audience who obviously appreciated the retro-look of white go-go boots on Twiggy-eque models. There were also musical snippets from the production’s musical collaborator, Green Day lead singer and guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong.  Listening to clips of these original songs that echoed the sounds of the 60s, composed in tribute to the Fab Four, had all the heads in the room bopping up and down.
“Is there going to be a CD soundtrack?” one enthused teacher asked.

After the question/answer session with the director, Feldman packed off the teachers for a visit to the Yale University Art Gallery, a short brisk walk across the street, to participate in a thematically linked presentation on “adaptations” organized by Museum Educator Elizabeth Manekin and Elizabeth Williams, the John Walsh Fellow at the Yale University Art Gallery.  Teachers were briefed on the Pop Art movement as they studied a series of nine panels of Andy Warhol’s Mao (a screenprint of one similar is available on Amazon). The discussion asked teachers to consider how a cultural icon is adapted for new audiences. Next, teachers gathered around Manet’s Reclining Young Woman in Spanish Costume and continued the discussion on adaptations before heading to the workroom to make collages that were adaptations on Manet’s other reclining female, Olympia.

Andy Warhol Mao 93, 1972 Screenprint sold by RUDOLF BUDJA GALERIE. $200,000.00 + Free Shipping

Andy Warhol
Mao 93, 1972
Screenprint on AMAZON through RUDOLF BUDJA GALERIE.
$200,000.00 + Free Shipping!

Édouard Manet, French, 1832–1883 Reclining Young Woman in Spanish Costume

Édouard Manet, 
Reclining Young Woman in Spanish Costume -Yale University Art Gallery

Returning to Yale Rep, teachers also had the opportunity to try reading and writing strategies aligned with the Common Core using informational texts, short commentaries about social media and cultural icons. Rachel Sexton, an educational specialist at ACES, engaged teachers by having them participate in a reading strategy that asks students to organize an article that had been cut-up. “Don’t look for matching cuts like a puzzle,” she warned, knowing how some students might look for a short-cut. The next strategy involved reading that text and other short commentaries in order to write a personal response incorporating three ideas they found significant. Dutifully, teachers took pencils in hand. The sounds of scribbling were slow at first but became steadier, and Sexton had to interrupt teachers as her session time was drawing to a close,  I overheard teachers:

  • “This is a great way to introduce a topic”
  • “I cannot believe how much I am getting out of this exercise…”
  • “I know how my students have trouble getting started with writing; this [strategy] solves that problem!”

The last session was dedicated to the lyricism in Shakespeare’s play offered by Dr. Matthew Suttor, Director of the Laurie Beechman Center for Theatrical Sound Design and Music at the Yale School of Drama. His session was  titled, “Let Music Sound…”, a presentation designed to have teachers “examine and experience the creative process for drawing both lyrics and music from a play’s text. (full disclosure: Sadly, I could not attend this last session because of impending snow.) 

As she has in the past, Feldman organized seven hours of first-rate (FREE) professional development through the WILLPOWER! program that was both practical for classroom application and powerful enough to encourage educators to explore new possibilities for bringing the messages of adaptation in culture. Exploring the elements of These! Paper! Bullets! before the opening of the show helps educators prepare students for the experience of Shakespeare performed live.

In addition, knowing adaptations can be made from works created by a cultural icon some 400 years ago is an concept that students today, with their ability to create mash-ups and Internet memes coupled with their  fascination with today’s cultural icons, should appreciate or even (hopefully) try themselves.

Continue Reading…

The year 2013 provided one of the best examples of real life detective work as well as real-life application of the Common Core Mathematical Practice Standard #7:

CCSS.Math.Practice.MP7 Look for and make use of structure.

The investigation was initiated because of structures and patterns, specifically the writing patterns of the author J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame. This mathematical practice standard MP#7 calls for students to “look closely to discern a pattern or structure,” and noticing a pattern was exactly what a computer program did in unmasking Rowling as the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling. The mystery novel, had been published under the name Robert Gailbraith, and the novel had begun to generate some critical acclaim. Only there was no Robert Gailbraith; Gailbraith was the pseudonym Rowling had chosen for her new foray into the mystery genre.

The ruse did not last long. In true detective fashion, two university professors, acting on a anonymous tip, wrote a computer code that used algorithms to compare patterns in the writing from The Cuckoo’s Calling with titles from Rowling’s Harry Potter series and the works of other mystery writers. The algorithms targeted several possible mystery writers, but Rowling’s name came up most consistently with language patterns that matched word length, 100 most common words, pairs of words, and the patterns of letters, spaces and grammatical marks known as “four character strings.”

The steps to identifying were outlined in an article in Popular Science, “How Computer Algorithms Uncovered J.K. Rowling’s Pseudonymous Novel.” Writer Francie Diep explained that, “Some of the individual tests found authors other than Rowling were the best match. Nevertheless, Rowling came up the most consistently.” 

The methods of the professors investigating Rowling belong to a practice known as the digital humanities, a field of study that “aims at developing and using the digital resources and tools for solving the research questions in the Humanities.”— Takafumi Suzuki (For other definitions check out whatisdigitalhumanities.com)

As texts become available digitally, they can be deconstructed into parts in order to answer research questions such as word origins (etymology), locating primary sources, and determining authorship. In the journal A Companion to Digital Humanities an article titled “Stylistic Analysis and Authorship Studies” author Hugh Craig points out that,

“There are enough successes to suggest that computational stylistics and non-traditional attribution have become essential tools, the first places one looks to for answers on very large questions of text patterning, and on difficult authorship problems.”

Yet, these patterns can do more than identify authorship. Patterns can be used to support an author’s purpose. For example, in the play Julius Caesar by Shakespeare, the character Marc Anthony, a wily politician, deepens the character Brutus’s involvement with the murder of Julius Caesar through the use of the phrase “honorable.” Here, the actor Marlon Brando plays Marc Anthony and recites the speech (1951 film):

The famous speech begins “Friends, Romans, Countrymen; Lend me your ears..” (3.2.) and Shakespeare employs the rhetorical device, an antistrophe or repetition of the same word phrase at the end of successive clauses, repeating “that Brutus is an honorable man.” In the opening 30 lines of the speech, Marc Anthony also connects “ambition” with the death of Julius Caesar.  Four times, Marc Anthony refers to Brutus “an honorable man,” but links each mention of honor with an “ambitious man”. By the end of his oration, Marc Anthony’s rhetorical accusations have inferred Brutus’s less than honorable behavior was an ambitious grab for power, and an incensed mob storms the streets of Rome seeking revenge. A final analysis reveals that Shakespeare’s use of rhetoric, a textual pattern, provided the tool that Marc Anthony used to attack Brutus very publicly for political gain.

Employing a pattern of repetition can serve an author’s purpose, and understanding this purpose requires the stylistic analysis that is embedded in the English Language Arts Literacy Reading Standard 4 where students “interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.” Patterns reveal the author’s craft; patterns also reveal author’s purpose.

images (1)You can find a textual pattern in any one of seven basic sentence types. You can find a textual pattern on any one of the seven days of the week on any one of the seven continents. Using Mathematical Practice Standard #7, helps find the purpose of a text or find the author of a text…like J.K. Rowling, who wrote seven books in the Harry Potter series. Coincidence? No. Pattern.

The end of each year is always marked by a roundup or ranking of the year’s most memorable stories. 2013 was no exception. For example, CNN.com ran a poll on the top 10 news stories of 2013 which were then ranked by CNN.com readers:

  1. NEW POPE
  2. BOSTON MARATHON ATTACKS
  3. MANDELA DIES
  4. EDWARD SNOWDEN LEAKS NSA
  5. FEDERAL GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN
  6. OBAMACARE ROLLOUT DEBACLE
  7. PHILIPPINES TYPHOON
  8. SYRIA CIVIL WAR
  9. CLEVELAND KIDNAPPINGS
  10. SAME-SEX MARRIAGE

All of these stories showed up on other news websites, perhaps ranked differently, but there was remarkable consistency nationally and internationally on how we will remember the year 2013. Pope Francis, the Boston Marathon, and the conflict in Syria dominated the top of most lists.

Screen Shot 2013-12-29 at 2.46.50 PMMany of these stories will soon be, or are already, the subject of non-fiction books, and some of these stories could be retold with such excellence as to be considered for the Samuel Johnson Prize. This prize is an award given annually for the best writing in current affairs, history, politics, science, sport, travel, biography, autobiography and the arts. This prize, named for the 18th Century English author Samuel Johnson is associated with the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) and awards author(s) of any nationality “whose work is published in the UK in English.” The most striking quality of the Samuel Johnson Prize is its motto that “All the best stories are true.”

There is truth in fiction as well. For example, even 2013’s most outlandish film Sharknado, has a degree of truth. The film detailed a supernatural phenomenon where thousands of sharks, scooped from their watery environment, twisted into another force of nature. The film generated waves of chatter on social media sites, so much so that the website Deepseanews.com speculated about the film’s implausibilities and calculated the physics of tornados holding great white sharks aloft. Researchers concluded in a post titled “Recipe for a Sharknado” that, “Winds in the most intense tornadoes are strong enough to keep a shark airborne.” Unlikely? Yes. Impossible? Physics suggests how.

The year 2013 provided many true stories that also lend themselves to possible re-tellings. The following three true stories of 2013 get my votes as the best potential candidates for future re-tellings, either as fiction or non-fiction:

1. NY TimesDiscovery of Art Looted by the Nazis:
The upcoming film The Monuments Men (February 2014,) where “a World War II platoon is tasked to rescue art masterpieces from Nazi thieves,” is a timely example of the storytelling potential about looted art. This past November, Bavarian authorities arrested an art dealer in his  Munich apartment uncovering a horde of art stolen during WWII. The recovered 1,500 works by Pablo Picasso, Max Liebermann, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Marc Chagall, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Gustave Courbet, Auguste Renoir and Canaletto are estimated to be worth $1.4 billion. Since the discovery was made public, there are suspicions as to when authorities first knew about the stockpile. The intrigue abounds in this latest episode of Nazi treachery that continues to today.

2.Amazon.com:  Commercial Delivery using Drones:
While today’s science fiction writers may scoff at so pedestrian an example of technology, delivery drones could be fictionalized as key characters, featured perhaps in dystopian literature. While Hedwig, Harry Potter’s delivery owl, was a fantasy, a writer may consider that the possibility for pet drones has potential. The CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, demonstrated that drones could be used for delivery purposes, in 30 minutes or less, and what better audience in a consumer culture motivated by immediate gratification than an audience of young adults? Storytelling or story-commercials…or both?

3. NYTimes: Richard III Rediscovered
My favorite story this year was the discovery of the bones of Britain’s medieval monarch, Richard III, paved over in a parking lot. He had been killed in 1485, at the Battle of Bosworth Field, the last king of England killed on a battlefield. This archaeological find, also dubbed the “King in a Car Park” in the video from the British Channel 4, put an end to the search for remains of the former king of York. A shorter version of the discovery is available from the University of Leicester:

Richard III had been characterized as a brutal tyrant by Shakespeare in the historical play Richard III, but an organization known as the Richard III Society  has tried to clear his reputation. The remains found so ingloriously buried were identified by his hunchback and the bones that bore the scars of the battle that killed him, including eight wounds on his skull.

Richard IIIThe subject of Richard III has already been fictionalized by the great writer Josephine Tey in her 1951 detective story The Daughter of Time. In this novel, she directly confronted Richard III’s sordid reputation in an attempt to clear him of any misdeeds. This latest archeological find is also ripe with storytelling possibilities.

In the end, though, how we will remember 2013 will be through the stories that we created ourselves. We will remember the births, deaths, accomplishments, failures, celebrations, and losses we experienced over the past 365 days of 2013. We will remember because we have, individually and collectively, made the stories of 2013, and the best stories are true.

In the spirit of all end of the year reviews, I have condensed the year 2013 by offering month by month posts from this blog that illustrated the best student (and subsequently, teacher) learning:

January 2013: A Freshman’s Modern Odyssey in the Style of Homer

"Dawn spread her rosy fingers..."

“Dawn spread her rosy fingers…”

The Freshmen final project after reading The Odyssey is a narrative that students complete called “The Wamogossey: A Day in the Life of a Freshman at Wamogo High School.” Writing narratives are once again favored in  Common Core State Standards, and this post explained how students made their own attempt at an epic adventure.

February 2013:  Spilling Over the Corners of a Six Word Text

Short Story in 6 words

Short Story in 6 words

This exercise proves that keeping students “within the four corners of the text” is impossible, even when the text, attributed to Ernest Hemingway, is only six words long. This post also serves as evidence that that admonitions on best practices should be limited to those with actual classroom experience, not to the “architects of the Common Core.”

March 2013 If You Want to Watch the Cow Give Birth

Watching the arrival of our latest calf

Watching the arrival of our latest calf

Yes, “If you want to watch the cow give birth, turn on U-stream now!” was an announcement over the PA system. Normally, I am irritated by interruptions to class time, but this announcement cued students about opportunity watch the birth of a calf in the Agricultural Science wing of our high school. The combination of technology in broadcasting and recording the birth of the newest member of the agricultural program with old-fashioned “hands on” physical labor illustrates 21st Century authentic learning.

April 2013 You Never Forget Your First Hamlet

Members of the senior class were fortunate enough to see Paul Giamatti’s “Hamlet” at Yale Repertory Theatre. I’ll let their words speak for the experience:

The performance was a wonderful experience, especially since it was my first time to see Shakespeare.

I wouldn’t mind going to another because it was so enjoyable that I didn’t even realize the 4 hours passing by.

I like the way that a play has a certain kind of vibe. It’s like a live concert, where there’s a certain kind of energy.

It was like seeing a live performance of a film. I would especially like to see another Shakespeare because it is the way that he intended his works to be portrayed.

After seeing Hamlet so well done, it would definitely be worth going to see another one whether it be Shakespeare or a different kind of performance.

May 2013 Kinesthetic Greek and Latin Roots

Spelling "exo"=outside

Spelling “exo”=outside

Understanding Greek and Latin roots is critical to decoding vocabulary, so when the freshman had a long list of roots to memorize, we tried a kinesthetic approach. The students used their fingers to spell out Greek roots: ant (against), tech (skill), exo (outside).  They twisted their bodies into letters and spread out against the wall spelling out xen (foreign), phob (fear). They also scored very well on the quizzes as a result!

June 2013 Superteachers!

Superteacher!

Superteacher!

At the end of the 2012-2013 school year, teachers rose to a “friendship and respect” challenge to make a video. With a little help from a green screen, 27 members of the faculty representing a wide variety of disciplines jumped into the nearby closet wearing the big “W” (for Wamogo). Students in the video production class watched and filmed in amazement as, bearing some artifact from a particular subject area, each teacher donned a flowing red cape.

July 2013 Library Book Sales: Three Bags Full!

The original purpose of this blog was to show how I filled classroom libraries with gently used books. The Friends of the C.H. Booth Library Book Sale in Newtown, Connecticut, is one of the premier books sales in the state: well-organized tables filled with excellent quality used books, lots of attentive check-out staff, and great prices. This year, I added three large bags of books to our classroom libraries for $152.00, a discount of 90% off retail!

August 2013 Picture Books Are not for Kindergarten Any More!Cat in Hat book cover

At used book sales, I am always looking for picture books I can use in high school classrooms. For example, I use The Cat in the Hat to explain Freud’s theory of the Id, Ego and Superego . Thing #1 and Thing #2 represent Id, and that righteous fish? The Superego. Yes, Dr. Seuss is great for psychological literary criticism, but he is not the only picture book in my repertoire of children’s literature used in high school. This post features a few of my favorite picture books to use and why.

September 2013 Close Reading with Saki and the Sophomores

Saki’s short stories open our World Literature course in which our students will be reading complex texts required by the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards (CCSS). After a “close reading” the conversations in the room showed the text’s complexity. Saki’s The Interlopers has all the elements suggested by the CCSS:  figurative language, the ironic wish, and multiple meaning in the revenge sought by man versus the revenge exacted by Nature. Our close reading should have been “textbook”. The evidence proved the characters’ demise…or did it? The ensuing discussion forced the class to consider other positions.

October 2013 Close Reading Art

The Fighting Temeraire

The Fighting Temeraire

After “close reading” short stories, the sophomores were asked to use the same skills to “close read” several paintings that thematically connected to the Industrial Revolution. They studied a Constable pastoral painting, before J.M.W. Turner’s famous painting, The Fighting Temeraire. While some called attention to the the dirty smoke stack, others saw the energetic paddling as a sign of progress. They noticed the ghost-like ship hovering in the background, the light created by the sunset which gave the painting “warmth”or “light extinguishing”. When they were asked to use these elements as evidence to determine the artist’s message, there were some succinct responses to the painting’s “text.”

November 2013 Thanks for the NCTE Conference

Five members of the English Department attended the conference and selected from over 700 sessions at the National Council of Teachers of English and the Conference on English Leadership.  District support for such great professional development is truly appreciated. We are also grateful that four of our proposals were chosen to share as presentations for other educators. The explanations of our presentations with links to these presentations are included in this post.

December 2013 Drama Class Holiday Miracle

Cast photo!

Cast photo!

An ice storm two weeks before performance caused a car pile-up, and the drama club teacher was left with a concussion. She could not be in school; the students were on their own, and I was left to supervise their performances of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves at three local elementary schools.

Their “dress rehearsal” was a disaster, but, as the adage says, “The show must go on!” and once they arrived at the elementary schools, the students were anxious to do well. They naturally changed their staging moving from gym floor to library floor, the Evil Queen tossed her hair with anger, and the Prince strode onto the stage with more confidence. The dwarves were a source of comic relief, intentionally or not. I watched the holiday miracle of 2013 repeated three times that day. The students in drama class at each school were applauded, with congratulatory e-mails from the principals that offered praise.

End of the year note:

I am grateful to be an educator and to have the privilege to work with students that I learn from everyday. In this retrospective, I can state unequivocally that 2013 was a memorable year… as you can see from many of the reasons listed above.

Welcome to 2014! May this coming year be even more productive!

The headline in The New York Times (6/13/2013) was a little misleading, Study Gauges Value of Technology in Schools. The topic of gauging the value of technology is particularly significant given the investment by school districts everywhere in laptops, tablets, computer labs, Smartboards, whiteboards and projectors; but the article only referred to the use of technology in math or science.

The article by Motoko Rich referred to the “student survey data conducted in conjunction with the federal exams known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress,” This data was reviewed by the nonprofit Center for American Progress, which determined that middle school math students were using computers for math drills and other low level exercises. One of the more interesting points in the article noted that “no state was collecting data to evaluate whether technology investments were actually improving student achievement.” One of the problems noted in the report was the “lack of discrete learning goals” set by educators that results in the “use of devices in ways that fail to adequately serve students, schools, or taxpayers.”

When states do begin to collect data on the use of technology in the classroom, their studies should be broadened to include how technology is being used in other disciplines, specifically the language arts/English classrooms to facilitate writing.  In contrast to reports of math and science technology use, language arts teachers are using a multitude of digital platforms to facilitate communication between students; technology offers opportunities for students to engage in formal and informal writing at every grade level.

Multiple digital platforms such as blogs or wikis allow students to post responses to questions posed by teachers. Students can share essays in order to peer edit or collaborate on projects, or students can follow links and create data in surveys and respond to the data created.

Screen Shot 2013-06-23 at 9.38.55 PMFor example, an assignment for 9th grade students as part of a Romeo and Juliet unit to respond to a writing prompt can use multiple digital platforms to generate sophisticated responses. The assignment was posted on EDMODO and contained data from a student/parent survey on arranged marriages that students and their parents had completed on a Google Doc form. The survey results were posted on PBWorks for students to access for homework. Students needed to review the scene where Lord Capulet arranges Juliet’s marriage to the Count Paris before writing a response. Each response that was posted was available for the class to review and to discuss.

The assignment’s directions read:

The worldwide wide divorce rate for arranged marriages is 4%; this could be due to cultural taboos regarding divorce.
Look at the data on the page that you and your parents created.
What differences do you notice in your attitudes towards arranged marriages?
Now, Consider how the Capulet’s choice of Paris for Juliet may have been the better choice.
Was Romeo and Juliet’s choice to follow their passion the right decision?
Should they have followed their parent’s wishes?

Respond in a well developed paragraph that includes:

  • Introductory sentence that gives your opinion;
  • evidence from the survey;
  • evidence from R&J;
  • Why this decision is important for future couples.

This assignment required a sophisticated analysis of data that the students had created, and an general analysis of characters from Shakespeare’s play.

Here are three responses generated by the prompt:

If Romeo and Juliet had listened to their parents almost all of this never would have happened. Even though just letting their parents choose would have solved everything, it was their decision. Romeo and Juliet had every right to choose their lives. Even the data from the survey shows that most children and parents don’t approve and less than 40% of people thought parents should choose. The Capulets didn’t know anything about their daughter and is trying to match her with someone who is completely wrong for her. This is why Eharmony uses Math equations because that is a lot more reliable than your parents.

In my opinion, Romeo and Juliet’s choice to follow their passion was the right choice. In the survey, some parents said that they could pick their child’s spouse. “I think I know my daughter well enough to know what kind of spouse she is looking for.” This parent has the same idea that Juliet’s did when they arranged for her and Paris to be married. Obviously in Juliet’s case, an arranged marriage did not work. She rebelled and went for Romeo. “Where is my Romeo?” was one of the first things Juliet said when she awoke from her sleep. Romeo and Juliet were love drunk and when they died they were both insanely happy. This is an important for future couples because if they’re in an arranged marriage it may end in death because one or both people are miserable.

I think that maybe Romeo and Juliet should have followed what their parents want. In our survey, 1/3 of the parents said they would be ok choosing their kid’s spouse, and 1/4 of us said that they would be ok with that. Romeo would still be in love with Rosaline, and he and Juliet would still be alive, their families would still be fighting but still they might have  been happy. If Juliet haven’t meet Romeo she might have fallen in love with Paris, and who knows that if Romeo and Juliet were married they wouldn’t have divorced?

While there may be some question as to the effectiveness of technology in the classroom, the language arts/English classroom must be included in future studies by NAEP and in each state. There are multiple ways that digital platforms are being used to facilitate discussion and the sharing of ideas in language arts/English is far more sophisticated than the use of technology to “simply drill math problems.”

Spoiler alertEnter the spoiler alert. Because the number of ways people hear about stories is increasing, spoiler alerts for books and films are offered as a “heads-up”, a means to prevent plot details from becoming public.  Knowing the end of a story might mean that the strategy of “predicting” a story has been compromised, however, there are genres of stories that absolutely count on predictability, for example, Nancy Drew will always solve a mystery with her best friend, Bess and George, while on TV, predictability has a time limit; the shipwrecked crew will never leave Gilligan’s Island (30 mins) and House will solve a medical mystery (60 mins).

Predictability means to state, tell about, or make known in advance, especially on the basis of special knowledge, and students are taught at an early age that making predictions can help them to determine what will happen in a story.

I noticed how predictions are important even if the end has already been decided when my six-year-old niece was watching the Disney film Running Brave. This was her favorite film, and she watched the VHS tape every afternoon. On one such afternoon, I noticed she was drifting asleep, so I made a move to turn off the video.

“Wait,” she cried out, “I think….I think he’s going to win again.”

From her perspective, the outcome of the race was still in doubt. The cinematic elements, the tight editing of shots , and a triumphant soundtrack created suspense where the viewer might doubt the inevitable. Krista had seen the movie hundreds of times, but she still was “testing” her prediction.

I admit that I have felt the same way watching Miracle, holding my breath for the final seconds wondering if the US ice hockey team would still win the Olympic medal. Krista’s experience is also mirrored in the classes where students often choose books based on a movie that they have seen.

In the independent reading allowed in our curriculum, the 9th graders can choose contemporary fiction or non-fiction, and many of the titles have movies in circulation, for example:

Some students purposefully choose these books because they know the endings, and in knowing how the book ends allows the reader to pay more attention to the craft of the author in bringing all the plot points together in a conclusion. Take for example, the Harry Potter series. Most readers predicted with certainty that Harry Potter would finally face his nemesis, Voldemort. The how and when, however, were still very much in the air, and J.K.Rowling’s crafting of the series’s magical settings and character development kept readers in a willing suspension of disbelief for the length of seven volumes. The final conclusion was satisfying to her fans who knew all along that Harry would prevail, after all, Good’s triumph over Evil is a predictable plot. Readers and filmgoers were not disappointed in following the story of a boy with the scar on his forehead because in each volume and subsequent film release, they correctly predicted that “I think…I think he will win again.”

So when I teach a whole class novel, I know there are some students who already know the ending. They may have reached the conclusion before others, or been informed by older students who notoriously share their opinions and critical information with younger students. In this case, my role is to impress on students that knowing the outcome will not destroy a well-told story, and to focus their attention on the other elements. This was the case with John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

“I heard this is a sad book,” one student said when I assigned the first chapter, “One guy kills another guy.”
Other students looked up for my confirmation.
“Yes, this is a sad book, but the reason for the sadness is really about caring. We will grow to care for these characters.”
“I already don’t care if I already know what happens,” was his reply.
Four weeks later, this student refused to watch the final scene in the film version.
“I know what happens, and I cannot watch,” he said sadly as he walked out into the hall.

The same sentiments are expressed at the beginning of our study of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
“Guess what? They die,” said a student as I passed out the books.
“Yes, they die,” I kept passing out the copies.
“So why are reading this?” another asked.
“Because this is a great story,” I responded, “and the story’s ending will mean more after we finish because we will have read how Shakespeare writes about these ‘star-cross’d lovers’.”
“But we already know how it ends!” they whined.

Now that we are in Act III, no one cares that they know the end, instead, they are recognizing how Shakespeare creates the tragedy. They notice the “hints”: Juliet seeing Romeo “As one dead in the bottom of a tomb”, Friar Lawrence’s herbs of “Violent delights”, and “Love devouring death”.

This discovery of an author’s details makes students more appreciative of the craft in writing as they still try to predict. They notice Shakespeare’s allusions: “Such a wagoner/As Phaeton would whip you to the west/And bring in cloudy night immediately” (3.2.2-4), because we had studied the Phaeton myth earlier in the year.

“Uh-oh. That’s not good,” I heard one say, “Romeo’s gonna crash and burn like Phaeton.”

That kind of analysis is exactly what the English Language Arts Common Core would like to see in a close reading of a text. How interesting that students who already know “what happens” may be better at picking up on an author’s craft that a close reading generates.

Spoiler alerts do warn those readers or viewers who want to be surprised, but knowing the ending does not necessarily ruin the reading or viewing experience. Want to experiment? Here are 50 plot spoilers for 50 novels. I predict that each novel will not disappoint, even if you already know the ending.

Yes, I make my student memorize Shakespeare’s prologue to Romeo and Juliet.

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend. (I.i.1-14)

To prepare them for the poem, I opened with the 2009 video Darrin Landroché:

We discussed the images and the music choices to communicate a message. Most of the student know that Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy; this was not a “plot spoiler.”

Right now, however, they are baffled by some of the vocabulary contained in the lines of the opening sonnet. (“Mrs. B, What are ‘loins’?”)  On the other hand, there are certain phrases they have already committed to memory. I hear them repeat “where civil blood makes civil hands unclean” and “star-cross’d lovers” under their breath when I ask what they remember.

This morning, I gave them a CLOZE exercise, leaving out words for them to fill in: “_____households both alike in dignity”. They could research the missing words by looking at the small copy of the poem I had them glue into their notebooks.

The best idea, however, has come from my fellow teacher (Ms. S-V) who designed an “annotated prologue” project. We are a BYOT (Bring Your Own Technology) high school, so digital platforms are used regularly, especially the Google Apps.  For this assignment, students illustrate the poem with pictures and links and embed those with the lines of the poem onto a Google Doc.

We did not require a works cited; I would require one if we do this again in the future.

So far, the project is going well. The Google images features are familiarizing students with Verona, Italy. They are also having to  find ways to illustrate “piteous overthrows”. Most all of their responses are literal connections.  Some of the first efforts are heavy with links to songs or movies. All of the annotated prologues have visual elements; some are exclusively visual. Here one example from a student that looks much better that the formatting on this blog. While I love the “two hours traffic”, it’s the “patient ears” that makes me smile. Good work, Molly!

Screen Shot 2013-04-30 at 9.32.33 PM

Two households, both alike in dignity

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,\

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,

From ancient grudge break to new mutin

.
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes

A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;

A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;

Whose misadventured piteous overthrows

Whose misadventured piteous overthrows

Do with their death bury their parents' strife.

Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.

The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,

The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,

And the continuance of their parents' rage,

And the continuance of their parents’ rage,

Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,

Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,

Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;

Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;

The which with patient ear you shall attend

The which if you with patient ears attend

What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

60 of my students met their first Hamlet on stage at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, this past week. Their Hamlet was the actor Paul Giamatti, who after speaking 40% of the play’s 4,042 lines (roughly 1,440), came out onto the stage for an audience talkback to speak a few more words to them.paul giamatti

“He looks tired,” on student remarked to me. The play had begun at 10:15 AM, and we were still sitting three and a half hours later as the actors and crew began to respond to questions.

If we thought they looked tired, the actors seemed surprised to see us still sitting there.
“Wow!” Polonius (Gerry Bamman) said as he sat, “You stayed!”

Students were curious about how the sets moved (“The stage has a large fly space.“). Students wondered how long the cast had rehearsed (“Eight weeks, a real luxury…”). Students wondered who was most like his or her character (“I understand Gertrude much more since I have a son”). Students asked about the creation of set pieces including a large portrait (“That’s an oil painting from a  photograph”).

Of course, there was no stopping the students from calling attention to Giamatti’s role in Big Fat Liar, a film from their youthOne student stood to ask, “Did Hamlet remind you of Marty Wolf?” Giamatti laughed in response, “Well, maybe,…a little… except for the blue crap!”

Hamlet is a 12th grade text, and I asked students to take a survey after they returned to the school to see what they thought of this production. While the survey indicated that the teachers in our English department had done their job, the students indicated that seeing the play performed was very different that studying the play in class:

Shakespeare was meant to be live. Although the “perfection” of a movie is enhancing to the performance, it is unrealistic. I believe that watching a play live is important to seeing the different styles and methods possible.

It was fun and a lot better than just reading it in class, it made it come alive.

I did not think it was going to be as entertaining as it was. I also did not think I would find parts humorous, but I did.

This Hamlet was part of the WILLPOWER! series (funded by the National Endowment of the Arts). The website states:

WILL POWER! is Yale Repertory Theatre’s annual educational initiative in conjunction with one of its productions and features specially-priced tickets and early school-time matinees for middle and high school student groups. The program also includes free professional development for educators, study guides and post-performance discussions with members of the company.

One of the objectives of the WILLPOWER! series is to create new audiences, specifically younger audiences, for Shakespeare. Students who have attended a Shakespeare play may be more willing to attend another play when they are older; in other words, a favorable dramatic experience will yield future audiences for Yale Drama School graduates!

Seniors at intermission watching Hamlet at Yale Rep

Seniors at intermission watching Hamlet at Yale Rep

The survey indicated that this goal is being met with the WILLPOWER! series; my students are certainly willing to try another play:

The performance was a wonderful experience, especially since it was my first time to see Shakespeare.

I wouldnt mind going to another because it was so enjoyable that I didn’t even realize the 4 hours passing by.

I like the way that a play has a certain kind of vibe. It’s like a live concert, where there’s a certain kind of energy. It was like seeing a live performance of a film. I would especially like to see another Shakespeare because it is the way that he intended his works to be portrayed.

After seeing Hamlet so well done, it would definitely be worth going to see another one whether it be Shakespeare or a different kind of performance.

Perhaps the most satisfying moments of the actor’s talkback for teachers is hearing the actors say things that we wish our students would pay attention to in class. When Giammati was asked about how he felt about memorizing all those lines, he explained that he enjoyed learning the lines and playing on the open space of the stage.

When one student asked, “What part of the play did you like best?” Giamatti responded, “I enjoy the end, when Hamlet returns to the graveyard, until the end.” Then, thoughtfully, he added, “Shakespeare’s words begin to come through you if you let them.” (Honestly…you could hear the teachers in the audience swoon!)

But nothing was better than hearing the young Remsen Welsh (Player Prologue) explain how the director, James Bundy, had prepared her for her role. “It’s simple,” the actress gestured enthusiastically from the front of the stage. Facing the crowd of students twice her age, she cheerfully acknowledged, “He told me, ‘Suit the action to the word, the word to the action..’ and I did!”

Exactly.

A first Hamlet they will remember.