Archives For EDsitement

The EDsitement website, funded by the National Endowment on the Humanities, offers lesson plans that are aligned to the Common Core State Standards.  I have modified several of these lessons; other lessons on this site are familiar fare in English classrooms. One example is the lesson on Carl Sandburg’s Chicago  which asks students to pick a location and respond to prompts such as, “If this place were a person, what kind of person would he or she be? What noticeable physical characteristics would this person have? How would he or she act? What would this person wear and do?”  The lesson on Arthur Miller’s Crucible is also familiar, “Have students answer the following questions: What is John Proctor’s dilemma in Act IV? What motivates Proctor’s initial decision to lie?”

While there is always a need for more resources and support for teachers, I have two complaints about theEDsitement site. The featured lesson on the site this month is  Vengeful Verbs  in Hamlet for grades 6-8. The targeted age group and the objectives for this lesson are inappropriate; Hamlet is not for middle school students. That leads me to question the appropriateness of lessons for other students as well.

The second problem is a worksheet filter option on the site where lessons can be identified as offering worksheets or not.  Worksheets?  In the 21st Century, with all the digital possibilities, the National Edmowment for the Humaties is promoting worksheets? Why?

Many educators consider worksheets the “busy work” of education. Worksheets have correct answers; they are prescribed and limiting. Early childhood experts have pointed out that many worksheets do not allow the kind of problem solving that involves an element of risk, saying “if we want children to learn to solve problems we must create safe environments in which they feel confident taking risks, making mistakes, learning from them, and trying again” (Fordham & Anderson, 1992). Activities that require creative problem solving or critical thinking should be the goal of every teacher. The worksheet can limit both.

Additionally, worksheets are expensive. Paper and toner ink are the first expense, but the second expense is time. How familiar are teachers  with the number of hours that are wasted in front of copy machines copying worksheets?  Sadly, very familiar. What happens when the copier breaks down? Frustration. A teacher who relies on worksheets is forced to scramble when an unreachable tiny scrap of paper lodges into one of the copier’s feeders, or when the toner is low, or when code505 appears on the digital screen. In contrast, the increase of digital platforms in education allows teachers the opportunity to spend time more productively setting up documents that can be used by individual students or collaboratively.

Students have so many ways to record responses digitally, for example on Google docs or blogs or wikis, so why waste paper? The worksheet should be relegated to files of emergency backup lesson plans for a substitute.

The National Endowment of the Humanities should lead the way in weaning teachers off the worksheet. The emphasis on filtering lesson plans for worksheets should be eliminated. The availability of lesson plans aligned to the Common Core State Standards is a great resource that is cheapened with the pedestrian 20th Century tool of worksheets. EDSitement should not straddle  a 20th-21st Century divide. With funding support from  Verizon Thinkfinity, a foundation firmly in the 21st century,  EDsitement should lead.

A series of links took me to a lesson plan  on the Edsitement! The Best of the Humanities on the Web site that is associated with the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) . The lesson “Vengeful Verbs in Shakespeare’s Hamlet”  is entirely too disturbing. The opening lines of the lesson plan begin, “Shakespeare’s Hamlet  is an excellent source of instruction for students at the middle school level.”

My thoughts? Sorry. Middle school students, grades 6-8, should not read Hamlet. Teachers, leave that play for high school. Middle schools students need to read. They need to read many, many books.  They need young adult literature. They need to read for pleasure to build up their literary skills.

The lesson plan continues:

It [Hamlet] is a tale full of mystery and suspense and peppered with elements of the supernatural. Everyone loves a good ghost story! The popularity of the ghosts in the Harry Potter series and in The Graveyard Book attests to the appeal of the paranormal for this age group. These ghosts manifest as translucent spirits, yet they impact the physical world and certainly add life to the story line. Figments such as Rowling’s histrionic Moaning Myrtle and Gaiman’s mysterious Silas provide guidance for the young adults in their time of need.

My thoughts? Yes, these are the books they SHOULD be reading! Add the ghost stories Hereafter and Anna Dressed In Blood to the list of well written young adult novels. And yes, Harry Potter and The Graveyard Book are stories that will guide young adults in their time of need. But Hamlet?

Back to the lesson plan:

What better way to expose middle school students to a first taste of Shakespeare than from the angle of the ghost story? The first time Hamlet sees his father’s ghost (Hamlet, act 1, scene 5, lines 13–31) is one of the most dramatic moments in theatre and a prime opportunity to teach the often dry and boring subject of verbs.

My thoughts: Whaa…??? This lesson is turning a critical moment of drama into a lesson on verbs? This idea is dry and boring regardless of the content!

Finishing the description of the lesson plan:

Through the ghost of Hamlet’s father, students receive an introduction to the language of Shakespeare in a context they can understand. In this lesson, they will learn to distinguish generic verbs from vivid verbs by working with selected lines in Hamlet’s Ghost scene. Students will then test their knowledge of verbs through a crossword interactive puzzle.

My thoughts: A crossword puzzle. Yup. That will help them appreciate the play. I can hear the rattling from Stratford on Avon; Shakespeare’s bones are disturbed.

The objectives of the lesson are:

  • Students will be able to identify and define the verbs Shakespeare uses to convey the meaning of the scene
  • Students will exchange the verbs from the scene and replace with more vivid and more generic ones to see how that changes intention of the scene
  • Student will be assess their ability to define vivid and generic verbs used by Shakespeare by solving a crossword puzzle

Yes, readers, in this lesson students will replace Shakespeare’s language with bland or generic verbs using a worksheet.

WHY?

There is little consideration as to how all the language in this scene defines each character. No consideration of motive. No moral or ethical discussion about what the Ghost is asking Hamlet do.   The Harvard scholar Steven Greenblatt wrote an entire book, Hamlet in Purgatory,  wrestling with the central question offered in this scene, is the Ghost from Hell or Purgatory? But no, this lesson is on verbs.

Here are the lines: (Act I.V.13-31)

Father’s Ghost. I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confin’d to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purg’d away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand on end
Like quills upon the fretful porcupine.
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood. List, list, O, list!
If thou didst ever thy dear father love-
Hamlet. O God!
Father’s Ghost. Revenge his foul and most unnatural murther.
Hamlet. Murther?
Father’s Ghost. Murther most foul, as in the best it is;
But this most foul, strange, and unnatural.

In this passage, the Ghost is very cagey about where he is coming from literally and figuratively. The Ghost plays the ultimate guilt card “If thou didst ever thy dear father love-” Hamlet anticipates the request and interjects a prayer “O God”. The Ghost then, you choose: a. asks, b. demands, c. commands the Prince, Hamlet, to revenge.

Another consideration as to the appropriateness of the use of Hamlet is the berating of Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude sixteen lines later:

Father’s Ghost. Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts-
O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power
So to seduce!- won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen.
O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there,
From me, whose love was of that dignity
That it went hand in hand even with the vow
I made to her in marriage, and to decline
Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor
To those of mine!
But virtue, as it never will be mov’d,
Though lewdness court it in a shape of heaven,
So lust, though to a radiant angel link’d,
Will sate itself in a celestial bed
And prey on garbage.

There are accusations of incest (a thought of Hamlet’s given voice by the Ghost), witchcraft, and adultery for Claudius. Gertrude acts with “lewdness” and “sates” herself in Claudius’s bed of figurative garbage. The Ghost cannot contain his fury at being replaced by Claudius; he has lost kingdom and queen and his fury spills over and exploits Hamlet’s depression. There is much here to discuss.

But for grades 6-8?  To replace the language of Shakespeare and make it “bland” to prove a distinction about verbs in Elizabethan English and today’s English? To measure the student understanding of the language with a crossword puzzle? Is it any wonder that with lessons like this one, many students come to a high school classroom “hating” Shakespeare? I have to work very hard to convince them otherwise.

There is something rotten on the Edsitement! site, and NCTE should be ashamed for endorsing this lesson. This lesson about verbs, not motivation or ethical dilemmas, disregards the dramatic tension of the scene and is wrong at any grade level!

What next? A lesson on the comma during Macbeth’s “Is this a dagger I see before me? /Come, let me clutch thee”?

There are  better lessons on heaven and earth for students in this age group then are dreamt of in this lesson plan!

NCTE must be aware that we have a nation of students who are not reading in part because many teachers kill the pleasure of a book. Hamlet is not the material that will bring middle school students a love of reading, and the literary analysis skills for these students in grades 6-8 are not sophisticated enough to bring them to an understanding of The Ghost’s manipulations. A grammar lesson plucked from a dramatic moment with a brilliant seduction by a spirit from beyond the grave is just so wrong.

This lesson is out of joint. O cursed spite
That ever I was born to set it right!