Archives For Advanced Placement Literature

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:

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.
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…

Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler was before the Supreme Court arguing on behalf of the Health Care Bill when he stated that the  Supreme Court Justices would need to look at “the structure and the text” of the 2,700-page law. Justice Antonin Scalia cut into his argument asking, “Mr. Kneedler, what happened to the Eighth Amendment?” Scalia asked. “You really want us to go through these 2,700 pages?” (audio-video link).

Artist rendering of Supreme Court listening to arguments about the Health Care Bill- from the Politico Website

Well, yes. Speaking as a citizen of the United States of America, yes, I do. Speaking as a high school English teacher, I want you, Justice Antonin Scalia, to do your homework. I expect no less from my 17-19 year old students enrolled in my Advanced Placement English Literature class. I want them to read at least 2,700 pages of the world’s great literature because I am trying to prepare them for the rigors of college. I know that reading  great literature is also critical to help prepare my student’s brains for real-life social interaction. Similarly, I want you, Justice Scalia, to read 2,700 pages to make a determination about the real-life Health Care Bill that will effect every citizen.

As I listened to the radio broadcast report of the court session, it was the number of pages, 2,700, that caught my attention.  2,700 pages sounded intimidating at first, but I began to mentally check off the number of books I require my Advanced Placement English Literature high school students to read. I decided to check, and determined that this school year, my students have read:

Hamlet, King Lear, Othello (roughly 80 pages each)=320 pages; The Handmaid’s Tale-312 pages; Beloved-275 pages; Paradise Lost (roughly) 200 pages; The Story of Edgar Sawtell-576 pages; The Grapes of Wrath-464 pages; Frankenstein-256 pages; Medea-50 pages; Antigone-46 pages; A Thousand Acres-384. Total? 2803 pages. A full 103 more pages than the legislation for the Health Care Act! My students will have read more pages than the bill that Justice Scalia or the other Supreme Court Justices would have to read, and that does not count the numerous poems, essays, and short stories they have also read in class. They have read more than 2803 pages for only one of their high school classes.

According to the transcripts, Scalia’s interrogation of Kneedler was interrupted several times by laughter from the gallery. “You really want us to go through these 2,700 pages?” Scalia interjected, “And do you really expect the court to do that? (*laughter*)  Or do you expect us to — to give this function to our law clerks? (*laughter*) Is this not totally unrealistic? That we are going to go through this enormous bill item by item and decide each one?”(*laughter*)

His rhetorical questions were met by comments by Supreme Court Jutice Elana Kagan, who chimed in, “For some people, we look only at the text,” she said. “It should be easy for Justice Scalia’s clerks.”

“I don’t care whether it’s easy for my clerks,” Scalia retorted,  channeling the spirit of the demanding Justice William O. Douglas, “I care whether it’s easy for me.”

The use of the law clerks-the youngest, best and the brightest lawyers-to do the bulk of the reading and preparation for each case is widely understood. In many ways, law clerks are to the Supreme Court Justices what Sparknotes are to students.

Sparknotes are written by top students or recent graduates who specialize in the subjects they cover. According to the SparkNotes website, their “writers approach literature with a passion and an enthusiasm that inspires students and has won over parents and teachers worldwide”,  which means they read the novels, poems, and plays they analyze- every single word. What is interesting about the Scalia-Keegan exchange is that many of the writers for Sparknotes have graduated from Harvard, as has Justice Scalia who received his LL.B. from Harvard Law School where he was a Sheldon Fellow of Harvard University from 1960–1961. Justice Elena Kagan is also a Harvard graduate; she earned  a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1986, and was appointed the 11th dean of Harvard Law School in 2003.

How proud Harvard University must be to have six out of the nine current Justices as graduates. What must Harvard University think, however, when a graduate complains that he does not want to read the very legislation that he will rule on because it is too long.  To heap humiliation onto the the graduates of this prestigious university, Chief Justice Roberts, who also received his A.B. from Harvard College in 1976 and a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1979,  acknowledged during the proceedings that he had not read the legislation either, “Where is this line?” he asked Kneedler, “I looked through the whole Act, I didn’t read …”Perhaps the graduates of Harvard who have successfully written for Sparknotes, and helped thousands of high school students in their hours of need,  could be called on to help these jurists in their hour of need.

Frankly, the idea that members of the Supreme Court have come to decide the fate of the Health Care bill  without doing the reading is as frustrating to me as when students arrive unprepared for a reading comprehension quiz. School is their job, their grades are how they are paid, so  students are paid for their lack of preparation with a bad grade. What will be the result of Justice Scalia and Justice Roberts’s lack of preparation, and moreover, what examples are they setting?

Students often complain about the reading they have been assigned. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is “hard to read”; John Milton’s Paradise Lost  has “too many footnotes in the poem”; Toni Morrison’s Beloved  is “confusing”. I push on despite the numerous complaints I hear everytime I bring out a text  forcing students to engage in difficult texts because I know each text will eventually hook the reader-Shakespeare has 400 plus years of success for a reason.  Unfortunately, this is the age of education where a literary work is too often judged by a student by its length, not by its content. How sad to have that thinking reinforced by some of the top minds in our judiciary.

The Health Care Act is certainly drier than Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, but there will be sections that require an expert eye in order to make a fair judicial ruling. The Health Care Act will probably drive a reader into King Lear’s madness, but the fact that the document is too long should not be used as an excuse for completing the assignment.

So, Justice Scalia, and all other justices of the Supreme Court, show students everywhere that doing the assigned work is important before you write the paper. Do not whine or make jokes in public about the length of the assignment in the hopes of gaining sympathy. My students have already read 103 more pages than the 2,700 pages of the Health Care Bill for only one of their classes. Show them that you can read all 2,700 pages because that is your job.