Thursday, July 31, 2008

Twas the night before the last day of TSI...

Tomorrow is the last day of the Teaching Shakespeare Institute at the Folger Library in Washington, DC, an institute funded by an NEH grant. We have had four weeks of intense study of Shakespeare and the best ways to have our students access it.

My senses have been charged and my classroom practice will never be the same.

A lot of our work is on the Teaching Shakespeare Wikispaces page. It's worth checking out if you've enjoyed by - unfortunately too brief - missives about the program over the last four weeks.

I'm going to be writing some summative pieces in the next week or so, as well.

I start back with Baltimore City students on Monday, when the Summer Bridge for 9th graders begins. I'm excited, though wish I had a little bit more time to debrief the institute before then...

The Death of Reading

Online, R U Really Reading?

A debate about online reading, about whether it's "real" reading or not... certainly something that I'll hear more and more about in my career.

The focus on technology at the Teaching Shakespeare Institute is partially a way to be ahead of that curve.

Obama the Educator

Teaching Law, Testing Ideas, Obama Stood Slightly Apart: Good article. For all that we can say about NCLB, at least it put Education on the national agenda. People were talking about it. Unfortunately, it's been largely absent from this year's campaign. Hopefully articles like this will start to highlight some of the candidates' educational philosophies.

Mayor Dixon and the BCPSS

Oh, Sheila. Please keep your hands away from the BCPSS. On one hand, I do understand her point that mayors are blamed or praised for the success of the schools, so perhaps she should have her hands in the school board. However, there is no reason to add more cooks in the kitchen now that the school system has righted itself. Adding Dixon to North Avenue is bringing the old political establishment into a place that seems to have been pretty successful in expunging it.

And, besides, isn't it more than a little bit fishy that Mayor Dixon wants to jump on board with the school system just a couple of weeks after all the positive press of the jump in test scores? If it's not transparent political maneuvering, then it sure appears like it. And... does she feel threatened by the new sherriff in town, Dr. Alonzo? Do we see a battle of wills brewing? I sure hope not.

Stick to bringing down that crime rate, Mayor Dixon, which it seems like you've had some hand in doing so far, impressing even me, one of your biggest detractors at the last election cycle (Go Jill Carter!). Keep that up, and leave the schools along the righted path that they are on.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

TSI Winding Down

The Teaching Shakespeare Institute is winding down. Today, I performed my final monologue from King Lear. I did not flub any lines and felt like it went well. I could have used my body more, but otherwise it felt good. I'm pretty sure I'll remember those 12 lines of text for the rest of my life.

In addition, today I presented my curriculum project, which I got into in a big way last night. I will be revising my lessons and hopefully one or more of them will be published on the Folger website in the coming months. An important part of the NEA grant is producing lessons for teachers around the country, so they'll be posted on the Folger website sometime soon. Maybe I'll post them here sometime.

Two more days left of the most enriching teaching practice of my career so far... hopefully the replenishment and inspiration I'm getting will last for months or years.


Right now, in terms of curriculum, I'm deciding between Richard III and King Lear. Lots of factors go into it - which the kids like more (the former, probably), which links better to the other texts, which I think I'll be able to draw mroe from, which I can convince my colleague to jump on board with. It'll be interesting what comes of it.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Not forgetting the mountain

No time to blog tonight, so you just get a poem.


Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain
in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day,
to reconfirm
that witnessing presence.
- Denise Levertov

Big project due tomorrow. It's done and it's not even midnight yet. I'm happy with it, proud even. I have figured out how to create podcasts and put them online for use by myself or other teachers. I have learned a lot about stage directions - most of them not Shakespeare's, so they are fluid - and performance, and another lesson integrates that. I have learned what scansion is and how Shakespeare used it to disrupt meter, like in that Richard III wooing scene. That's all in it. So is Chinswing.

Need to rest. I'm sicker than a dog. Eyelids hot, throat scratchy. I can't believe I'll be teaching again on Monday.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Accepting applause

"We spend all our lives working our asses off for some sort of recognition for what we accomplish, and instead of accepting it when it comes, we end up just rushing off the stage too quickly," said our wise, charismatic, and inspiring instructor today, just before we performed a practice of our first five lines of our monologues on the Folger Library Stage.

I went sixth, just late enough to get plenty nervous, and just early enough not to get comfortable. I felt really good beforehand. Then, I went onto the stage, and performing front and center and alone was a lot different than performing on the side of the stage under the din of all the other performers rehearsing. Everyone was quiet, and all eyes were one me. I knew who I was - King Lear, heartbroken that his favorite daughter hasn't played his game of flattery, unwilling to listen to reason as he disowns her - but couldn't quite get the focus right before I began. Consequently, I wasn't living in the moment and forgot my lines. I started and stopped twice, but ended up - finally - performing five lines that felt just right. I then grabbed my stuff and rushed off the stage.

Professor Jenkins said calmly, "______, drop your things on that chair right there, walk back to the center of the stage, and bow for us," and I remembered her opening lines and chuckled a little. Yup, she's right.

We do the whole monologue on Wednesday. On Friday, I'll be playing Hortensio in a scene from The Taming of the Shrew.

The Teaching Folger Institute exists on the notion that performance of Shakespeare is interpreation of Shakespeare - it's an inhabitation of the language and a reflection of understanding. I've always used a little bit of performance in my classroom study of Shakespeare. But, next year, I'm going to go a little bit nuts with it.

We have four days left of the institute. Like several participants, I'm wore down and ill; the 19-hour field trip (left house at 5:30am, returned at 12:30am) on Saturday was wonderful in many ways but didn't leave much down time this weekend, and I've been fighting off the fever and some head-cold like symptoms. We have a lot of work to do over the next few days. Still, this feels like good work, and I'm rather excited about my curriculum project, as I play around with a program called Audacity while I make a few podcasts that I plan on using next year in the classroom. Me, creating podcasts... actually rather hard to believe.

In other news, I made a rather ridiculous purchase for my classroom yesterday, the result of a $100-off coupon I received from Dell. I'm still in a state of shock about it, but I think it will really be a boon for my teaching and my students.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Playing and coaching

Besides teaching, I've also coached in the city for the last five years. The job is a huge time commitment and sometimes difficult and political, but I love it. I get to a form a different kind of rapport with students, and, arguably, teach just as many, if not more, life skills than I can just in a classroom.

It's easy to forget, though, that yelling things from the sides is a lot different from doing it on your own between those white lines.

This summer, and today in particular, I was reminded of that. This has been a sporting summer for me, complete with more softball - especially more competitive softball - than I've ever played. My Sunday morning all-male league out in Perry Hall is very competitive: guys slide and get bloody, shout curse words at each other, and meticulously strategize about field placement. It's so much fun and, really, the first time I'd played absolutely competitive sports since high school.

I've had a decent season, but today I ended it badly - a horrible mental mistake on the basepaths, five at-bats without driving the ball once like I wanted to, etc. It was a good reminder that playing and coaching are a lot different. It was also something that I think will inform my coaching. It's good for a coach to get out there on the field as an athlete, and feel everything that a player feels and have to engage in the mental preparation that the players have to engage in. I mean, I live and breathe the games I coach, but it's not the same as actually being out there. And playing like this is something that I'm positive will inform my coaching, reminding me that playing the game well takes lots of very vocal support from the sidelines, support that I'd like to concentrate on providing more.

It's kind of like teaching English. I remember reading in a Jim Burke book once that one of his interview questions for new teachers is what they are reading. He says that if they answer mysteries or magazines, then he just doesn't hire them. We're asking students to engage in the analysis of literature, and we should be doing the same in our own lives. This is one reason that we have a Department Book Club in our English Department (something that has, unfortunately, gone by the wayside a bit, but hopefully will rebuild itself this year... I'm going to do my best), and one reason why it feels so good to spend so much time analyzing Shakespeare this summer. It's really my first formal study of literature since college, and, wow, it sure feels great, and reminds me what it's like to be a student again. Just like playing intense softball reminds me what it's like to be an athlete again. It feels good and makes me a better teacher and coach.

New Jersey King Lear with the butler from The Nanny

Today, we took a bus up to New Jersey to see the butler from The Nanny star in King Lear.

Lots of thoughts swirling, but most of them catching on the spokes of extreme exhaustion. But, what a great day, one of comraderie and scholarship and Shakespeare.

And, oddly enough, seeing King Lear (and it was a decent production) made me less want to teach it. I was gung-ho, and now I'm only ho. More on that later, perhaps.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Acting on the Folger Stage

By the way, today I acted on the famous Folger Library Stage. And did kickboxing. The latter is a lot harder than it looks.

Here it is:

The monologue I drew is below (King Lear speaking in the first scene). It's the first monologue I'll ever act out in my life. Today, we spent time physicalizing every word and puntuation mark. I felt kind of silly at times, but also had some fun. The Acting Professor is really, really good.

Peace, Kent!
Come not between the dragon and his wrath.
I loved her most, and thought to set my rest
On her kind nursery. Hence, and avoid my sight!
So be my grave my peace, as here I give
Her father's heart from her! Call France; who stirs?
Call Burgundy. Cornwall and Albany,
With my two daughters' dowers digest this third:
Let pride, which she calls plainness, marry her.

Finishing up summer reading

For the most part, I detest commuting. This is significant, because this was actually part of the appeal of the TSI to me - living another life, an unfamiliar one, and one that a lot of people live in Baltimore every day - the life of a commuter to Washington D.C. I have a lot of respect for those folks, now. Mostly, my hatred for it involves the trains, and the feeling that my life is dictated by them. In my real life, I'm often a couple of minutes late to places. It's not a big deal. The train, though, is unforgiving. Today, the 7:15 train left at 7:14 (the Penn station clock time, within their 5 minute range), and being a couple minutes late here means I'm getting to Washington about 40-45 minutes later than I wanted to. It's just so unforgiving. I still make it to the Shakespeare Folger Library before anything starts, but it's (quite literally) a sprint the almost-mile or so to the institute, and no breakfast, etc. It's happened already about 3 times, and it makes the morning stressful. (And then whenever I want to rush somewhere, the train is 5 minutes late, or the electricity gets cut off and it stalls for 20 minutes, or some other malady occurs.)

However, the actual train ride is pretty good, when I get a seat, because (here's where I return the blog to teaching), in the last two weeks, I've read four of the five 9th grade summer reading books: Marcus Zusak's The Book Thief (absolutely phenomenal, so exciting and moving, and I can't wait to write about it more), Ron Suskin's A Hope in the Unseen (I've written about this one enough already, probably, but, suffice to say, I think everyone should read this book... and it's the Maryland's State Book this year), Daj Sijie's Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (a bit of a snoozer), and, today, Allan Stratton's Chanda's Secrets (pretty decent, perhaps a bit too preachy, but I was still moved).

Kids have to read Hope, and then get their choice of any of the other ones. I have one more left - Edwidge Dandicat's Breath, Eyes, Memory. I'm sometimes bored by Dandicat - Farming of the Bones was a bit of a snoozer, despite the excellent title and some nice passages - so we'll see how I like it.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

An honest tale speeds best, being plainly told

It was a great day at the TSI!

Professor Stephen Dickey started off with an intriguing lecture about Shakespeare's use of bear and dog imagery in Richard III. We got a little miniature lesson about what bear-baiting was, and then Prof. Dickey took us right through an analysis of the motif in that play plus a couple others (most primarily Twelfth Night). What I'll remember most about the lecture, though, is what came after. In our 8-person seminar with him, someone asked him about the process of finding something like that, and then reading it through that new lens. "It must be very gratifying to figure something like that out, and then read it through that lens, isn't it?" and it struck me that what Prof. Dickey did is exactly what I ask my students to do in the IB Program. I want them to figure out patterns that they see, and then to read it through that lens. It's a hard thing to do with a text, particularly when you're reading it for the first time and don't know all the little tricks about reading literature (one reason I really like Foster's How to Read Literature Like a Professor text for high school students). The IB Program requires that students find an original motif and analyze it, sometimes connecting it with other texts, and it's a challenging skill to teach. We go from the tenth grade, where we tell students to pay attention to the descriptions of Janie's hair or the mentions of the horizon in Their Eyes Were Watching God, and have them mark for them when they come to them, and then analyze it all together at the end for the effect of the motif and its larger implication. But it's a challenge to find those things yourself as a reader when you're a Junior in high school.

The IB students' summer essay is to track a motif through Lahiri's The Namesake and write an essay about its effect on meaning. We'll see how they go. Today's lecture and that subsequent comment sort of made me remember just how challenging that sort of undirected, independent study type of assignment that is. It's a good thing, but I need to do those things a little bit more myself to remember what my students are going through as they blindly flail through a text. After all, it's from that blindly flailing through the text that something new is uncovered. Like Prof. Dickey found in Richard III.

And this blindly flailing through the text is also what I did a little bit for my research project. One of the requirements of the Folger TSI is a research project. I went up and down in my attitude towards this portion of the institute. On the one hand, it gave me a chance to get into the Folger's terrific rare book stacks, and hold in my hand books that are - literally - 500 years old. On the other hand, I'm just not that into research of primary sources. I was much more interested in modern texts and scholarly articles, which is what I assign my students to investigate on occasion and seems much more applicable to both my understanding of Shakespeare and my classroom practice (although I assign the reading of scholarly articles about texts, it's not something I've done since college).

Still, I turned out to be pretty happy with my research, and today we presented on them. I decided to investigate the 16th century attitude towards aging, with King Lear and a bit of Much Ado About Nothing as jumping off points where older characters were treated badly. My research was strongly influenced by Dr. Gail Kern Paster's lecture about the humours in the body, a medical theory that middle English folks had; when a person aged, his/her levels of melancholy (not today's definition of it), or black bile, became higher, and he or she became dry. I got to thinking that perhaps Lear going into the rainstorm was important for this reason, and his constant complaining about being cold was also telling of this. Later, I became very interested in the idea of beards as a symbol of age and wisdom, a symbol that Lear seems to scoff at. I'm not done yet, but I became pretty interested in my topic. I've got to write the paper tomorrow night, so wish me luck finishing up my last few thoughts about it. I do, however, love doing ungraded work. I feel no pressure to BS anything.

Anyhow, today we did our presentations about our research, and I really enjoyed them. They kept us on a 5-minute time limit, which was great, because they seemed to zip by.

The highlight of the day, however, was seeing a teaser of a film that the Folger is producing - perhaps for PBS, perhaps for Showtime - that (a) features a filmed stage performance of their much-lauded Macbeth from spring of 2008; and (b) is also a documentary of the production of the play. The play was partially a big deal because Teller, from Penn and Teller, was the co-director of the play, and he's seen in the 20-minute teaser sayign that Shakespeare wrote a bloody play, and they made a bloody play. It also features some magic tricks and optical illusions, the likes of which are not ever done with Shakespeare plays. He argues that this is the sort of bloody story that could be a late-night horror movie, except that the writing is so beautiful.

The play looked amazing - we see what Lady Macbeth sees during her sleepwalking scene, and she becomes covered in blood; the dagger really appears in front of Macbeth - as an optical illusion that looks real - before he kills Duncan; the killing of the Macduff family is more brutal than the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

They showed us the teaser because the film is eventually going to be marketed to teachers, and they wanted to know what kind of features we would like, and how we would use it in the classroom. However, it also looks like it's going to be a feature film of some sort for the general public, and it. looks. amazing. I can hardly wait for it to come out to see more of it. There was a collective "wow" as the credits rolled from everyone - albeit we were all sort of Shakespeare dorks going in, but still. It looked awesome. I think the kids would be totally into it, as well. Usually filmed plays look to bad onscreen, but this one didn't. It's filmed in High-Definition with a live audience.

After that all, we had an acting workshop, where I acted in A Midsummer Night's Dream, a play I've neither read nor seen (except for a post-eye surgery viewing in 2003, when I was shushing kids and nearly blind). The instructor put all of us who had never studied the play before in the same group, and it was a strange experience. Still, I acted! I can't wait to see what it's like with something I know more about. I wished I knew more about it, but she told us not to look up anything in the days prior to the performance because she wanted us to get the experience our students have.

Lastly, we watched Richard III with Ian McKellen. Just as good as I remembered. I love how he spends the whole movie grinning and winking at the camera. And seeing Maggie Smith act is always a great thing. I love old lady actresses (R.I.P. Estelle Getty).

Long day, though. Very, very tired.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Summer Day

I'm so moved by this poem, and am considering making it a first-day activity. Because, after all, what else is the first day of school about than deciding what to do with your wild and precious life?

First found in Teaching With Fire:

The Summer Day
Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Monday, July 21, 2008

"Now is the winter of our discontent", three versions

One thing we did today was look at ways to compare films in our classroom. We watched five versions of the opening scene of MacBeth - Polanski, McKellen, this cool 2006 Australian version I'd never heard of, and a couple more - and we each took different jobs with analysis for each. The five jobs were Screenwriting, Cinematography, Sounds, Costumes, and Acting. Afterwards, we shared our analyses.

I've done similar things with Romeo and Juliet, but always tended to let the scene go on too long, I think. I also always have wished I'd given them sort of a "how to read and talk about film" lesson beforehand, because they just don't have the vocabulary. But it still has worked well, for the most part.

I really enjoyed watching five very different versions of Macbeth. Afterwards, we were instructed how to rip pieces of film into one file to use in the classroom. I think I'm a bit far off from that, but I sure would like to get to that point.

I was looking around Youtube tonight and found someone had done something similar, with the opening speech of Richard III, which is our play this week. Pretty interesting. I haven't seen the MKellen version since it came out, and really am excited to see it again now that I've re-read the play for the first time in a decade, since that Film & Literature class with Bill Vincent at Michigan State (where we read the play, then watched the Olivier version, the McKellen version, and the Pacino version of the film).

There is so much stuff on Youtube that would really work well in the classroom! If I could show scenes here and there from that site, I'd never have to have a DVD or television in my classroom. Alas, though, even if I ever get an LCD Projector, Youtube is blocked at school... I think there is a way to save them to a disc, though, if it ever comes to be that I might be able to use them. One year, I started a blog for my students to look at at home, with youtube videos I found that I wanted them to look at, but it never really got off the ground after the first few weeks. I could try that again and push it harder. I really enjoyed doing the internet discussion board last year, though it was really hard to assess and the site was pretty ugly.

Here is the clip I found. There's tons there, though:

Next year's IB Curriculum

One of the things that is freaking me out a bit - with now less than a month before teachers report back to school, and with nary a day off until then - is the lack of a curriculum for our IB English III course. The fault is our own; we wanted to change it up a bit, and said we'd read a bunch this summer and email each other, but both of use have been too busy to do it.

Two of us teach the course, and we have to decide the texts together. There are two sections to the Junior year - World Literature and School's Free Choice. For the former section, we have to choose three works from a long (very long) list of books in translation. For the latter section, we pretty much have free reign.

Two years ago, my picks (alone, as I was the only teacher) for the World Literature part were The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh (translated from Vietnamese), The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (translated from Spanish, from Chile), and Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman (translated from Spanish, from Chile). This year, we stuck with Allende's text, and added Haruki Murakami's The Elephant Vanishes (translated from Japanese) and Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman (translated from Spanish, from Argentina).

In 2006-2007, I chose Capote's In Cold Blood, Shelley's Frankenstein, Murakami's The Elephant Vanishes, and Morrison's Song of Solomon as my Free-Choice Books. I wanted a non-fiction piece in there (Capote), a 19th century piece (Shelley), a late 20th century great American novel (Morrison), and another translated text (a requirement, actually, and it was Murakami).

In 2007-2008, we chose Shelley's Frankenstein, Morrison's Song of Solomon, Pamuk's The White Castle (the aforementioned translation requirement), and Shakespeare's Othello as our "Free Choice" texts.

So, what do we want to do this year? I'm not sure. We've decided on two texts: The White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty, the most daring piece of literature I've ever attempted teaching, and The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, which just extends the highly successful Murakami short stories that we've taught at our school for years.

I think Beatty will replace Morrison (Song of Solomon is one of my all-time favorites, but I don't want to get sick of it by teaching it every single year, and just think the kids will really respond to Beatty) and Murakami's novel will replace his short story collection. Otherwise, I don't know much else.

If it were up to me, I think this is what I would do:

Part I: The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, The House of the Spirits, and then a short work, like The Metamorphosis or Death and the Maiden.

Part IV: The White Boy Shuffle, King Lear, Love in the Time of Cholera or Hundred Years of Solitutde (Marquez), and Frankenstein

I think my cohort prefers Othello to Lear, but the more I think about Othello, the less I'm into it. I just find the title character to be too easily manipulated, and Iago's racist language doesn't ever get rectified at the end. I mean, I think it's a more troubling portrayal of a black character than, perhaps, Jim in Huck Finn. Not that I shy away from negative portrayals of race, they sometimes create interesting discussions, but the person I'm discussing this with is a big anti-Huck Finn kind of person, so I'm especially interested in this issue. My primarily African-American students were definitely uncomfortable with all that animal diction used to describe Othello, in ways that I didn't notice about the use of the N-Word in Huck or other texts we've read; I think it's because the kids are desensitized to that word a bit, and probably weren't expecting similar language from Shakespeare.

Another anti-Othello note is that our curriculum is already pretty male (I wish I could find another really good female World Lit text), and Othello's lack of strong female characters is pretty appalling, especially when compared to Lear.

My cohort loves Marquez, and I'd love to give him a shot. She's kind of over Frankenstein, and I'll let her talk me out of that, as long as we get at least something in there 19th century (though I do love Frankenstein, and the kids like it too).

Oh, and the summer reading was Lahiri's The Namesake and Foster's How to Read Literature Like a Professor.

It will be interesting to see what we come up with. This was her email to me today, from England: "don't worry about the curriculum. it always, always gets done. we should probably just try to start with something familiar to the two of us. i'm giving you creative liberty. run with it!"

I think I'm going to take her up on that.

Our goals for the World Literature section generally are to provide exposure to three different cultures, and/or, provide interesting comparisons and contrasts. Students must write an original Link Paper connecting two of the works as their major assessment for IB, so this is also a factor.

Illuminating Texts with Photo Story 3

I'm always leary of calls to integrate technology into my classroom, because our school has so little of it. My classroom computer was purchased out of my own pocket. So was my DVD player and every movie I've ever shown. I was given an old computer for my classroom last year, but it never worked, and just took up space. In an alternate universe, I teach with an LCD Projector and can easily show film clips, text illuminations, and, heck, just edit writing on the overhead, but that alternate universe isn't happening now. I am strongly considering buying an LCD Projector for my classroom next year, but I need to educate myself a great deal about it, and make sure it'll be worth the substantial cost. I don't even have a laptop, but that's something I've been saving up for for a while to get for school and personal use. (I'm actually considering filling out a DonorsChoose site for one, but, flipping through it, it doesn't seem like people want to pay for LCD Projectors for classrooms.)

Anyhow, because of the aforementioned leeriness, I initially wasn't excited about some of the Folger Teaching Institute's emphasis on technology in the classroom. I just didn't think I could ever realistically integrate it into my classroom practice without either purchasing some equipment myself and/or complicating my life a great deal. It really feels like an uphill battle, one that's not. But I do know that a select group of my students are so adept at technology that they are able to film, edit, and post videos on YouTube - while others don't even have a home computer. It's rough. And the school itself cannot really - equipment-wise - help those lagging students catch up.

You probably figured this was coming to a "but", right? And it is. I'm pretty excited about the current project, which is called "Text Illumination." Using a free download called Photo Story 3, we are being asked to "illuminate" (basically, to illustrate and analyze using sound and images) a piece of Shakespearean text of our choice, complete with photos and sound.

The program is easy to use and the only obstacle I'm having is deciding on a piece of text to use. I've spent a lot of time tonight trying to decide on just the right sonnet, and then I'll make my Photo Story. It's an assignment that I think I will be able to assign at school. I think. I'm going to try it, at least.

There are a lot of other possibilities - creating a podcast, creating video, etc - and I'm hoping to learn as much as possible. I'm behind the game because I don't have a laptop (the one I borrowed from the school, from a long ago grant, unsurprisingly, does not work beyond the initial light), but am seriously thinking about getting one in the next few days.

Maybe I'll post my Illuminated Text here. If I can figure the downloading out.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Stolen Shakespeare folio recovered at Folger

I forgot to post anything about this, but we had some excitement at the Folger last week or so, when stolen copy of one of the original Shakespeare folios was recovered at the Folger Shakespeare Library while we studied somewhere downstairs.

Interesting articles here:

A Man Walks Into a Bard...

Missing Shakespeare Knocks on Folger's Door

Saturday, July 19, 2008

New Baltimore Teaching Blog: Inner City Teaching

The blog of a new Baltimore teacher, who is going through the Summer Insititute (ah, those were the days... not really...) for New Teachers and waiting for his placement as a 5th grade teacher:

Inner City Teaching

Friday, July 18, 2008


Today was a pretty amazing day, so full of great conversations about education and really practical applications for my classroom practice.

We are halfway done and I'm already both dreading and anticipating the end of the program. The Monday the Institute ends, I'll be back in front of a room of students. It's sort of unbelievable. I'm going to have to hold myself back from teaching some Shakespeare.

I'll try to get more specific if I have any time to blog this weekend. After all, the Tigers are in town! (Not to mention the piling-up of work I have for the TSI.)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Closing out week 2

I love the curriculum sessions, where everything feels totally practical. I think it's telling that we always seem to run out of time during them, and that everyone wants to talk, because they're really good. The highlight of the afternoon for me - the highlight of many highlights - was meeting Joe Scotese, who runs the A Way To Teach website that I've used often, particularly for ideas for teaching Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, which has a dearth of teaching information on the web (everyone teaches The Bluest Eye or Beloved, but I definitely prefer SoS to them). Mr. Scotese is a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools, so his talk seemed especially real for me, being a teacher in the Baltimore City Public Schools. And, wow, he was engaging and funny and information in his too-short session.

We also spent time today "cutting a scene," which was basically editing down a scene to its bare bones. Asking students to do that forces them to read closely and have real conversations about what is important and what is superfluous. I've never done that before - I simply don't do enough playing with the language of Shakespeare as I'm teaching it, only before (when we do cool things like clap out iambic pentameter and such), and, if the Teaching Folger Institute does one thing for me, it will be that - figuring out more and more things to do while I'm teaching a unit.

My group changed Acting Coaches today, and, wow, that was something else. Our instructor, Caleen Stinnette Jenkins, an award-winning playwright and professor at American University, started off by telling us that there is nothing that cannot be cured by Earth, Wind, and Fire, and we completed a 5-minute workout and warmup that got ready for the assortment of cool activities that followed. She really concentrates on connecting movement with meaning, and, although I felt a little silly at times, it sure was fun.

Stephen Dickey, professor at Berkeley, started with an engrossing lecture that led off with 15 minutes about why he dislikes Much Ado About Nothing, about why it's his least favorite Shakespeare play ever. He was convincing and made me think about the play in a new way, as had every other lecturer this week as well. He's the leader of our Seminar group as well, and we continued to break down the play and figure it out.

As it is, I'm ambivalent. I liked quite a bit of it, but the Dogberry scenes were terrible and it dragged in parts.

We watched a film version last night starring Sam Waterston as Benedict, from 1973. While most of my fellow participants hated it, I thought it made some really interesting decisions, especially making Don Pedro in love with Beatrice. Too bad the directors ruined the film overall with a plodding second half, a second half derailed in the movie by Dogberry much as the play is derailed.

Driving into DC for the movie night only saved about a half hour of time. Wednesdays are going to be late nights, nights that put me home a near-midnight and make Thursday seem long. Luckily we did some great things today.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Days go like this

The days go like this: We start off with a lecture, sometimes by a resident academic, and sometimes by a visiting lecturer. The rest of the morning is generally part of the research component; we have all chosen topics related to the play, and have been scouring the shelves of this huge library as we research. I'm breaking for a moment now, my mind too full of early modern English to continue browsing for the moment, and will return shortly.

I'm researching Perceptions of Old Age during the time of Shakespeare, and it's been an interesting topic. I can't give it the sort of comprehensive study that I would have hoped if I had more time, but I think I'm going to be able to back up a thesis regarding how old age was not venerated during the time of Shakespeare, which at least is partially shown in two of the plays we have studied (Much Ado and Lear).

Our afternoons have been split by acting workshops and curriculum development. My group had a five-day session with Michael Tolaydo, whose name I recognized from the Shakespeare Set Free curriculum guides. There, we a bunch of great things; I'm most excited about incorporating something called a Dumb Show into my classroom. here, student must closely read a scene, then summarize it into a short narration, and then pantomime it while the narrator reads the actions. I like that it forces students to really engage in close reading (for the summarization activity), then makes them connect movement with meaning in the final performance. We also did something called a Box Set, which had us build a small set out of a shoebox, with every student in charge of a different element of putting on the scene (movements, music, lighting, costumes, etc). I've done similar things in my classroom, but it was good to see slightly different ways of doing it. One thing I have to get around, and just figure out in general - I really hate presentations, especially in classes of 35 or more. I just don't feel like it's useful enough for the rest of the students, despite what use the presenters are getting. We'll see.

The curriculum sessions always seem to run out of time too quickly, but so far the biggest revelation has been a website called Chinswing, which allows for oral conversations to occur online. We've done a couple already as a group ourselves, but I'm thinking ahead to the next step - is this something I can have students do? About half of my students are really technologically sound, but then I still have a number without computers. I don't know how to get around this. My classroom has a non-working computer of the school's and my own computer that I bought out of pocket, and the labs always seem to be in use from classes scheduled to be in there, or just not working very well or too small to accomodate. I sometimes wish that I worked in a school with a lot of great technology. As it is, it seems like technology would make my life more complicated.

Maybe this is the year I figure out how to write some grants for equipment in my classroom. Gosh, I'd love an LCD Projector. I even have a friend in the Social Studies wing who bought one for his classroom. Maybe I'll try to figure out the Donors Choose website.

Back to research...

Monday, July 14, 2008

Information about One Maryland, One Book

I've been posting a lot about A Hope in the Unseen lately (so good!), and I realized I should give it some context: It is the state of Maryland's Book of the Year. I've cut and pasted some info below. It's how I was able to secure a few hundred free copies for my students.

Imagine if all five million Marylanders read the same great book at the same time.

The Maryland Center for the Book, a program of the Maryland Humanities Council, is pleased to launch One Maryland, One Book—Maryland’s first-ever statewide, community-centered reading program designed to encourage everyone in the state
to read and discuss one common book.

This year’s selection — A Hope in the Unseen by Ron Suskind — is rich and multilayered. It was selected not only because it offers the opportunity to discuss important and highly relevant topics such as education and socioeconomics, but also because it presents the opportunity to talk about race and race relations
in Maryland and in America—a common theme running through the Maryland Humanities Council’s programming in 2008.

Get the Book.
Pick up a copy of A Hope in the Unseen at your local public library or bookstore and start up a conversation with your family, friends, co-workers or even the person sitting next to you on the bus or train. This is your chance to take a moment to have a great conversation that moves beyond the weather or
what you did today. Join In.

We invite you to join Honorary Chair, Maryland’s First Lady Katie O’Malley, and millions of other Marylanders at one of the many conversations and related programs happening aroun the state in August, September and October.

To find One Maryland One Book programs in your area, go to and click on the Calendar.

Much Ado About the TSI

Today, at the Folger Teaching Institute, we began our discussion and study of Much Ado About Nothing. I first read it a couple of weeks ago, and finished a re-read this morning on the train. While I'm still a bit non-plussed about Shakespearean comedies, I must say that I enjoyed it quite a bit more than Shrew. As someone in our Socratic seminar said today, in this one, at least one couple (Benedict and Beatrice) actually seem like they are in love, and, unlike in Taming, it is the man who is (slightly) tamed, and not the woman.

I also, for some reason, really enjoyed having a villian. I guess because it reminded me of Shakespearean tragedy, which I love. Even though the Bastard John is a pretty minor character, he reminded me a lot of Iago and a bit of Claudius; I love someone to root against. Because I don't know enough Shakespearean comedies, I don't know if having a comedic villian is a common entity, and it's something I hope we explore a bit throughout the week.

The line between tragedy and comedy is something that Jay Halio spoke of in his lecture that opened the week. I was especially intrigued by the connections between Much Ado and Romeo and Juliet - the Friar with that same plan of faking death, the use of masquing as a gateway to love, an important balcony scene, etc. - but Romeo flips from a comedy to a tragedy with the death of Mercutio. But Halio's point that Much Ado could have easily been a tragedy with just a little bit of tweaking (Hero's faked death could have gone wrong, for example) was an intriguing one.

Our discussion afterwards in small groups was really intriguing. Most memorable was the discussion of the title. "Nothing" works on its own, as in, people tend to make too much of a big deal out of nothing. However, "Thing" was pretty much a universal word for a woman's private part, so that adds a new meaning to the title. In addition, "Nothing" is a pun on the word "Knotting," which, during Shakespeare's time, at least in the play Othello, is a euphemism for sex. So, our moderator queried whether the play's title actually meant Much Ado About Fucking. We chuckled about that for a while.

We were also given a lot of time today to research. Because I was shocked in how poorly Lear was treated by his daughters - and partly because my own grandmother passed away a couple of years ago of Alzheimer's Disease, which sprung up from dimentia - I was interested the perceptions of old age by people during the time of Shakespeare. Therefore, I have been searching for primary sources in the Folger Library, and it's been pretty interesting. My research is taking me in the general direction of the four humors that people beleived in during this time, and their belief that growing old caused a buildup of melancholy. I'm not yet sure how I'm going to relate it back to Lear, but the paper isn't do for another week or so.

It was more acting in the afternoon, as our instructor divided the class into two and we banged out how we would play Hastings' death scene in Richard III. I played Hastings. Unfortunately, we ran out of time, but we got out on time at 5pm, meaning I made the 5:20 MARC train back to Baltimore and have had a productive evening with a trip to the gym and the grocery store.

Finishing A Hope in the Unseen

I finished the last chapter of Hope in the Unseen on the MARC train, and the last lines of the text made the tears well up in my eyes, to the point where I was glad the car was mostly empty because I might have been embarassed. I was so into the afterward that I couldn't put it down, and literally walked and read all the way to my car, then sat in my car to finish and savor the last few paragraphs. It's now completed.

I'm not sure how I'm going to handle it with my incoming students. I start meeting with them on August 6th, which is the day after the Teacher Shakespeare Institute ends, so it's something I have to think about right now. Students should, theoretically, have the book and their work completed. But these are not-quite 9th grade students, and I am sure that the level of completion will vary. I want them right then, during Summer Bridge, to see what it feels like to not have reading done. I want to give a check quiz, and, while it cannot actually count for a grade (and this is the point - I want not doing the summer reading to become less punitive, and more of a teaching moment), I want students to realize that if they don't do their reading, then doing well in high school will be impossible. Then, I want to do some activity with the book; I haven't figured out what just yet.

The assignment that I came up with earlier - before I had finished the book - is aligned with MYP curriculum standards (that's the language about "Approaches to Learning" and "Health and Social Education"). I know students are working on them, because I'm getting questions in my e-mail box every day.

As you read, keep a reading journal that addresses the following topics. Make sure to address all the questions and proofread. Each journal entry should be 2-3 pages, typed and double-spaced in Times New Roman font.

Topic #1: Approaches to Learning

Throughout their lives, people learn both in school and out of school. As you read, take notes about how Cedric approaches his education, in terms of strategies, attitudes, and motivations. How must he adjust once he goes to college? How do your own strategies, attitudes, and motivations to learn compare to Cedric’s and how do you think they might change (or have to change) once you begin high school?

Topic #2: The Importance of Sacrifice in a Person’s Health and Social Education

Cedric, as well as his mother, make numerous sacrifices throughout the book. Do you think they were worth it? Would you have done the same things? How do Cedric’s sacrifices compare to the sacrifices made in your life? What sacrifices are you willing to make in high school to achieve your goals later in life?

That's what they'll be coming in with. I have to figure out what to make of it all in the sessions that begin on August 6th. Something that will (a) reward reading of the book; (b) encourage reading of the book if they haven't yet; (c) inspire thinking about the book for those who have read; and (d) inspire thinking about the issues in the book for even those who haven't read.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

A Hope in the Unseen

For summer reading, all of our 9th graders will be reading Ron Suskind's A Hope in the Unseen, a non-fiction account of a black kid from a bad city high school in DC makes it to Brown University through hard work and faith. A big part of choosing the book was the fact that it's the State of Maryland's Book of the Year, meaning that I was able to secure some free copies for my students, as well as can expect visits from Cedric Jennings, the book's non-fictional protagonist, as well as his mother (an important figure in the book) as well as the author, Ron Suskind. I believe they will be speaking in the area throughout the year, as the state encourages everyone to read the book.

I've been reading the book on the train to DC, and have nearly finished it. I don't want to finish it, because the experience of reading it has been so joyful. It's one of those books that I'll probably remember forever, and I can't believe just how moved I've been by it. It's funny, sad, inspiring, and everything else. I see my students in Cedric Jennings, and see my own experience in college (we're exactly the same age, both graduating high school in 1995) as a strange parallel - albeit totally different, I had similar roommate squabbles with my very-different-background roommate, and similar questions about what path my life should follow - to Cedric's. I've also been strangely moved by the fact that the book takes place in Washington, at least most of it. In one intriguing passage, Suskind begins a passage with the description of a building that sounded vaguely familiar. I continued reading, and it turns out he was describing the Supreme Court, which is now a block away from where I'm working/studying, which I walk by every morning. Cedric visits Justice Thomas as a high school Senior and has an especially strange exchange with him.

I'll finish the book tomorrow, then figure out how I'm going to approach the text when the incoming 9th grade students come on August 6th. They should be finished with the text by then, and I'll have 60 minutes to spend with all of them at that point, in a session devoted just to that text, and I need to figure out exactly what I want to do with it. We'll see.

I'm really glad my librarian passed the book onto me.

The book's description (via Publisher's Weekly): YA-Cedric Jennings is the illegitimate son of an off-and-on drug dealer/ex-con and a hardworking, badly paid mother; it is her single-minded vision to have the boy escape the mean ghetto streets unscathed. Cedric has listened to her and is, as the book opens, an A student at a run-down, dispirited Washington, DC, high school, where he treads a thin line between being tagged a nerd and being beaten by gang leaders. Suskind, a Wall Street Journal reporter, follows the African-American youth through his last two years of high school and freshman year at Brown University. Inspirational sermons at a Pentecostal church, guidance from his mother, a love of black music and singing, and a refuge in the logic of math combine with the young man's determination and faith in the future to keep him focused on his goal of a topflight college education. Despite many low moments and setbacks, Jennings's story is one of triumph within both cultures, black and white, which together and separately put tremendous obstacles in his path out of the inner city. It is a privilege and an inspiration for readers to accompany Cedric on part of his long, difficult journey to maturity. His journey continues at this moment, since he is now a senior at Brown this fall. YAs of any background will be introduced to new worlds here.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Taming and Tierra

Today I left the house at 6:40 am and did not return until 12:20am. A long day, and the alarm clock goes off just before 6am tomorrow again. I don't remember getting so little sleep in a long time. Not much time for reflection tonight.

However, I will jot briefly down what I'm thinking about the plays. I actually said something in seminar today, my first comment in two days, and later received one of the more memorable compliments I've ever received in an academic setting. Basically, I'm feeling that in Shrew Kate isn't really "tamed" so much as she just learns duplicity; she gains range, which is a type of strength. She takes on a role, which is something the majority of the characters already can do, most notably the foil character of Bianca, who is able to shift her personality with her intended audience, but more obviously all the characters whose roles transform (Sly, Tranio, Hortensio, etc).

However, this still doesn't change my initial view that the text is pretty sexist and mean, but it does add layers. And, today on the way home, and gazing at the face of Mark Twain sternly staring out from the cover of Time magazine, I'm struck how the text reminds me of Huckleberry Finn. My feelings about that novel vacillate all over the place. I think it's a worthy but risky teach. I don't buy the bullcrap that it's a great anti-Racist novel, nor that it's a racist novel. I find the characterization of Jim to be troubling - yes, racist - at times, and always flinch when I hear, as the Time magazine proclaims, that it's a great rumination on race in this country. I just don't buy it, but I also don't buy the otehr extreme, that it's a flat out racist text that shouldn't be taught, primarily because of the N-word. So I'm somewhere in the middle, ready to argue either side.

It's a text where analysis reveals layers that make the reader think that it might not be the racist text that it appears to be on the outset. Same with Taming of the Shrew, which subsequent reading and analysis reveals can be considered a less troubling and sexist text than it is, and significantly more interesting. The question is, is it possible to get adolescents far enough there for them to get that this further analysis can lead to richer, different meanings? And is it worth it, or can a different text be chosen?

If I were to teach American Literature again this year, I would not have spent any time with Huck. Not because I think it's racist, or because of fear of the N-word in a classroom of nearly 100% African-American students, but because I just don't think it's that good of a book, and certainly not one that will make kids like to read. I wouldn't want to risk a cursory going-over of the text, lest they believe in a knee-jerk fashion that Twain is a racist, and don't particularly think it offers things that other texts don't offer better or richer.

I probably think the same about Shrew. I just don't think I want a piece of literature that is, on its outset, so damn sexist at first. I don't think I do, at least.


I was grabbing some coffee this morning at 7-11 when I felt a hand clasp my shoulder. Last year in the 9th grade, "Tierra" was always like that; one of my most enduring memories of her will be, after a particularly tough period with my horrible 4/5 class, she came over, told me she was sorry the class was so loud, and patted me on the shoulder. The gesture would feel stranger if from a different student, but "Tierra" sort of has this calming aura around her, something that I hope she continues to use, something that, actually, reminds me of myself.

Such a transformation she made this year, from one of my roughest-around-the-edges girls to a grade of an 88 and, often, a complete pleasure to have in the classroom. She lives in my neighborhood and is the most boyish little girl I've ever met, a fact that gets her into trouble sometimes, but the kids are generally very accepting. "Tierra" - who, you should know and get a picture in your head, I used to call "Snoop," as in from The Wire - smiled, told me she was going to work, and groaned when I told her I wasn't teaching English 2. She's a good one.

I actually really miss my students this year this summer more than I have in a long time. I think I liked this last 9th grade class more than any in a while.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Day 2

Today was a long day, despite the fact that it was actually the shortest on the schedule for the week. It started out inauspiciously for me: I missed my train in the morning, despite arriving before the scheduled departure (I missed the note that the train could leave up to 5 minutes early), meaning I had to take the 7:40 train instead. This is supposed to get me into DC at 8:25, but it didn't get me there until 8:45. Therefore, I was a little bit late. Then, the MARC train experience home somehow took nearly two hours, complete with sitting in the train at the station from 5:10 (its scheduled leave time) until 5:40, then not arriving in Baltimore until around 7:00. I'm now home and can barely keep my eyes open.

That being said, I enjoyed things today, starting from and interesting lecture that led things off, which claimed that, in Taming of the Shrew, Kate was not actually tamed, but was rather unmasked by Petruchio to reveal her true self. I'm not sure that I agree, but it did get me thinking about the play in less of the limited way than I was before. I think the play can become palatable if I tell myself that Kate is making a conscious choice of compromise - particularly in that really mean-spirited sun/moon scene in Act IV - in order to let everything go more smoothly in the play. That, in a way, makes the play less about the destruction of a powerful woman, but maybe about Kate realizing different kind of power, setting her frame of mind to do something and accomplishing it for everyone's benefit.

I reminds me a little bit of Chapter 24 of To Kill a Mockingbird, the chapter in which Atticus delivers the news to Alexandra and Calpurnia (and thus Scout) that Tom Robinson has been killed. Calpurnia goes to break the news to Helen Robinson, while Alexandra eventually controls her tears and returns, unfazed, to the missionary circle meeting she was hosting in her living room. Scout, or at least the adult Jean Louise, narrates that, "If Aunt Alexandra could be a lady at a time like this, then so could I," and it seems that Harper Lee is making the argument that a lady doesn't show what she's feeling; she instead does whatever she can to make things go smoothly for everyone else. There's a power in that, and I think Kate might be showing that power here.

I'm not sure, though. I still think it's a pretty brutal play.

Another interesting highlight of the day was touring the actual library within the Folger Library, which houses lots and lots of very rare Shakespeare and early English literature. We got to see one of the original First Folios, and a lot of other interesting and very old books, but my favorite was a 500-year old grammar book from England, which was full of the same sort of doodles from the student that we see today in our classrooms.

Day 1 (for real): Teaching Shakespeare Summer Institute

Ah, the first day of the Teaching Shakespeare Institute.

First off, the Shakespeare Folger Library is beautiful. I'm not sure how I've missed visiting it in my seven years living in the Baltimore/DC area, either, because it's huge, and just steps from the capital. It's really pretty stunning, and I'm sure I'm going to drop a lot of money in the gift shop this summer.

Anyhow, the group is 25 teachers from all around the country, and I feel privileged to be a part of it. Our first full day started at 11am (3 hours later than normal), and went until 11pm, and I just arrived back in Baltimore a little after midnight. Still, it all felt really good today. The opening comments really made me think about my profession and what I hope to get out of my summers every year. Delivered by a woman who did the Teaching Shakespeare Institute first as a 26-year old inexperienced teacher in 1984, and now returning to instruct, she spoke of how the 4-week workshop changed her life, and how we needed to be open to that change. She spoke of the important work that teachers do, and how important our summers are for us to re-charge and revive, and how us giving up a month of our summers to do this institute in a city not known for its pleasant summer weather spoke well of our desires to grow as teachers. I loved hearing it all, and it really made me ready for the sessions.

We began with a lecture delivered by Dr. Gale Kern Foster, one of the leading Shakespearean scholars in the nation. It was my first lecture in several years - education grad school isn't known for lectures - and, as a fellow participant toasted to later, it was like being in college again, but without being so stupid about it. The lecture was intriguing and thought-provoking, and I was just so into hearing such a smart person deliver information that I longed to relive some of the literature courses I had in college. She also stated that Taming of the Shrew is, as a play, a bitter pill to swallow, and that made me happy to hear. I was really disgusted by that sexist and just plain mean play.

The rest of the day was very active, full of performance and improv and trust exercises and such. It was fun, and even though I kind of suck at stuff like that, it was a good reminder what's it like for my students when I ask them to exit their comfort zone and do something they don't want to do.

One very concrete thing I took from today's sessions involves performance during my Romeo and Juliet unit. With my big performance assessment, I wanted to kids to, in groups, take a scene and block it and act it out. For the most part, they went terribly. With us, though, the instructors gave a group of eight of us 25 lines to act out and block. A whole scene is just too cumbersome. Next year, I know exactly how I'm going to modify the assignment and still assess whether the students are understanding the language of Shakespeare.

Another important point was brought up by one of the instructors. "If you focus mostly on theme and plot and character when you teach Romeo and Juliet in the 9th grade, that's great and all, and it's good for kids to know the stories and understand what Shakespeare is saying about the human condition," he said. "But how is that going to help them when they have to approach Macbeth in the 10th grade? If you're not giving them the tools to understand the language, they have nothing transferrable for the next text." And he's so right, and I recognized myself in those comments. I spend so much time making sure my students understand Shakespeare and the plays that we study that I'm not sure if they are understanding how to find these ideas without my help. I think this year, as with most years, I have the students independently read Act IV of Romeo and Juliet and that's about it. Otherwise, it's a lot of reading aloud in class, questions, and then having them revisit the play in their acting companies for their performances. It's ponderous and I was a bit frustrated with it this year.

The same gentleman talked often about his methods course for prospective English teachers, and that also made me think, and wonder when or if I see myself doing something like that. I don't want to leave the classroom ever, or anytime soon, but would savor the chance to start to help new teachers with their craft. I'm not ready yet, but think I've developed some sound practices in the last few years, and I can see me heading possibly in that direction someday.

As a last note, sort of random, the Teaching Institute pays more than teaching actually does. I got my first check today, and it's a tax-free stipend, so, yeah, it's actually quite a bit more than I get for two weeks of teaching. Of course, the extra money will be spent on the commute ($210 for the four weeks, riding the MARC train) and eating lunches and dinners out that I normally wouldn't eat out, but I'll break even, or more than break even. That's pretty neat, and certainly not something I expected (I expected taxes to be taken out of the stipend, leaving me with not nearly as much as I got). Anyhow, thanks National Endowment to the Humanities!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Shakespeare Boot Camp, Day 1

The first day of Shakespeare Boot Camp went just fine. We had an opening introductory session at Georgetown, which turned out to be one of the most beautiful campuses I've ever been on (and that's saying a lot, since I'm an alum of Michigan State University, an agricultural stalwart that pumped a lot of money into landscaping). There, we received our schedules and an assortment of other materials.

From the sounds and looks of it, we're a pretty diverse group. I think we all teach in the U.S., but several people are from other countries. There seemed to be an equal amount of males and females. At 30, I'm probably on the younger edge of the participants, but there seemed to be a few younger than me. We did some standard introduction type activities - they replaced the Shakespearean insult game with a Shakespearean compliment game - and then we paired up, where I introduced a middle school teacher from Brooklyn who seemed to be our only middle school teacher.

Looking at the schedule of activities, it's pretty clear that this will be intense. We go all day every day, and several days last deep into the night (there's a performance tomorrow, for example, that starts at 7pm, and mandatory movie nights on Wednesdays, and social events like a Nationals game on Friday). Tonight, we met several of the visiting scholars and professors who are here for the conference, as well - professors from Colgate, University of Deleware, Cornell, and more - and they'll be lecturing on various Shakespearean topics. I ended up speaking for a long time with a professor from Colgate, and she seems really genuine and interesting. In a way, I feel like I'm getting a second chance at some of my college literature courses. Youth, as they say, is wasted on the young, and I certainly didn't appreciate my professors or my classes as I would now; I spent a lot of my time deciding what I could fake myself through and what I really had to do, especially if I didn't like something. Like John Locke or Tristram Shandy. Not so here. I've done the reading, have my opinions, and am excited to hear more thoughts about the texts.

It starts tomorrow. I'm going to be commuting to Washington everyday, so I'll be getting to know the MARC train a bit. Tomorrow starts at 11, to give the folks living in the dorms time to get settled. Luckily, it'll give me enough time to hit the gym and then figure out the train thing on the first day.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Reading Shakespeare and Getting Ready

I recently returned from a week away, where I spent much of the time reading Shakespare and preparing for my summer institute at the Shakespeare Folger Library. The program focuses on four plays - The Taming of the Shrew, King Lear, Richard III, and Much Ado About Nothing.

I am no Shakespare expert. I know Romeo and Juliet like the back of my hand, and have taught Macbeth and Othello and thus know them pretty well, but otherwise my exposure to him has been college, and too scant at that. My alma mater did not require a Shakespeare course, so I think I just read some other ones as part of other courses - Richard III, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hamlet, Titus Andronicus, Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Tempest. There might have been a couple more, but those are the ones I really remember.

In general, even though I've read less than ten of his plays, I've still formed strong opinions of him. I love his tragedies, like Macbeth, which amazed me as a 10th grader and was just as rich when I taught it a couple of years ago, or Romeo and Juliet, which, despite straining for credibility at times, still manages to give us some fascinating secondary characters and beautiful poetry. Still, I think we over-emphasize him a bit in English education (why do our students, say, read three or more Shakespeare plays throughout their four years, but no Hemingway, no Cather, no Joyce, for example?). And, in general, I've always hated his comedies. Not hate them, no, that's too strong of a word. I just think they're overrated and sitcomish.

Still, despite this, I expected to like Taming of the Shrew, which I've seen at Stratford (years ago, though, before my political mind was formed, and I probably didn't understand it much), and, yes, I admit I liked the movie 10 Things I Hate About You. It seemed like the play would be light and funny and it was - to a point. However, I can't say I much cared for the play overall. In fact, I pretty much hated The Taming of the Shrew. Frankly, I couldn't believe how mean and sexist the play was. Now there were a few chuckles here and there, but, by the end, I felt a little bit dirty for having laughed during it at all. The loss of Kate's spirit and that speech she makes at the end... wow, it's just really sad and mean in spirit. I did a little reading about it afterwards, and it made me feel a little bit better that it was about the first thing that Shakespeare wrote, and that it was criticized by even his contemporary audiences for its sexism. I will be really interested in how the program approaches this text, and will be sure to keep an open mind about it.

But, wow, I sure did love King Lear, which I'd put right alongside Macbeth and Hamlet as amongst my favorites. It was this play where I re-learned some tricks I taught myself in college for reading Shakespeare, and try to tell my students - read it aloud, really picture the stage blocking in my head, view the lines by sentences, use the notes only to clear up questions and not as a starting point. I really, really loved it. I had vague notions of what the play was about - I saw that modernized Jessica Lange movie a few years back, and I have a colleague who references it fairly often - but now know for sure.

I'm going to really push to teach King Lear this year to my IB Juniors. The curriculum is a big negotation between myself and my colleague. So far, we have agreed on two texts: Paul Beatty's The White Boy Shuffle and Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. I think it might be interesting to construct the "Free Choice" section of our curriculum around the idea of descending into madness, with Lear and The White Boy Shuffle as two of the texts.

I've got two more to read before the end of the weekend. The program didn't send Richard III to us as they did the others; there was a note that the shipment didn't come in on time. With no further instructions, I just decided to run out and buy it on my own, though I'm not sure of the right version (the program varies the versions so we learn different editions), so I'll probably do that last just in case we get it in the mail on Saturday.