Thursday, September 24, 2009

Richard 3 letter

I wonder if you can read between the lines in this email that I'm actually kind of seething about some of my students' performance. I wasn't mad until I was going over the quiz answers today and kids were looking out the window, muttering, etc. Grrrr.

Greetings parents and students of IB English IV:

As the 4th week of class comes to a close, I wanted to provide you with a brief update about the course.

Several of you received emails from me today about your student's success or struggles with the first Richard III quiz. I am very happy with the progress of several students, and disappointed with the progress (and efforts) of others. Most of the assessments so far this year up until now have been baselines, but this quiz was definitely an important harbinger of things to come, so I wanted to let parents know right away about how students did.

The reading pace of Richard III has been fairly rapid, but not rapid enough so that students in a college-level English course should not be able to keep up. I have eliminated the time-consuming practice of text-marking as the students read, because we are focusing on different skills this year, and students are completing dialectical journals instead. In class, I have been shifting between group assignments, dramatic activities (re: "acting it out"), and comparison analysis of different film versions of the play, doing whatever I can to make Shakespeare come alive for the students.

Still, Shakespeare can be tough. Students have to struggle with the language for it to start to make sense for them. The quizzes are miniature replicas of the oral assessments students will complete in January, and thus things like Sparknotes or modernized translated versions of the plays are not helpful. We are reading the Shakespeare for the language, not the story. Thus, attitude is important. Students should know that, as they read, they will encounter difficulty, and that they must go slow, and read and re-read, and use the summaries in our version of the book provides, and make sure they understand before they move on. And then read it again (it's not long; to view this onstage, it would take only 2 hours).

For students who are struggling the most, here are some suggestions:

1) Sit in a quiet place in the house and just read, away from the computer, away from the phone. Use the glossary, have a dictionary nearby to look up any other unfamiliar words, and picture what you are seeing on the page. Read sentence by sentence, not line by line. This will get easier as you go, but you have to put in the work for it to happen.

2) Use the list of characters to create a graphical illustration of all the characters and their relationships, and who kills who, and who is on which side. Try this on your own, so you're making sense of the characters by yourself, and then compare it with what I have on the board when you return next week.

3) Visit the website I just made for the course, ______________, and view some of the film clips from Richard III, and make comments underneath the videos. Watch them with your text in front of you. The comments should reflect thought and analysis of the play and how you thought the actors/directors' choices in the films achieved meaning. I would like some conversations to start there, so will be offering some nominal extra credit for students who participate the most on this site.

4) Attend an extra-credit screening of Looking for Richard (starring Al Pacino) on Monday from 3:30-end or Tuesday from 3:30-end. Or, watch the film from 3:30-end on Monday and come to Coach Class on Tuesday, and we will read through some scenes together.

5) Watch various YouTube clips of Richard III, from various stage productions to the 1996 Ian McKellen movie. This is also a great website:

I do not recommend using a translated, modernized text, mostly because I'm finding that most students who have them rely on the modernized text and nothing else. Every student who did this failed the quiz yesterday. If you see one of those "Shakespeare Made Easy" texts at home, they can be dangerous. Students should only use them sparingly, and as a supplement to the actual text; for example, they could read an act, struggle with it as much as possible and figure out what they understand and what they don't, and then, perhaps, read the modernized text and check for any differences. They could then use the modernized text to mark inside the Folger edition, so that understanding is still there.

Additionally, using online sites like Sparknotes do not help students immerse themselves in the language, and thus are not useful in the course.

Thank you for taking the time to read this note, and please let me know if you have any questions or concerns. Students, enjoy your 3-day weekend, but please work hard if you are struggling.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Blocked sites

It kills me how much stuff is blocked at school.

At the Teaching Shakespeare Institute, we learned about a site called Chinswing (now called that let students post their voice on a website and have virtual conversations. I got the idea that it would be a great way to practice IB commentary stuff, and just wrote a grant to get some microphones and such so I could have my students start doing it.

It's blocked. Damn Bess!


I'm going to submit the paperwork to the system to try to get it unblocked tomorrow. But I'm not optimistic. I think it would have been so cool, too!

Monday, September 7, 2009

President Obama's Address to Schoolchildren

President Obama will be addressing school children on the importance of studying hard and taking responsibility for their own education tomorrow. Of course, it's raised one of the more ridiculous political uprisings in recent memory, and that's saying a lot. Conservatives are upset by the proposed speech, and fear President Obama is trying to "indoctrinate" the youth of America. It's just more of the product of the fear-mongering done by the right about the "scary socialist black militant" that Obama supposedly is. Socialist? He's not even liberal.

Anyhow, as ridiculous as it is, and as hypocritical the right wingers are for protesting when Bush I and Reagan both did the same sort of school address with no vociferous protests by the left, the address is still happening. If I've been disappointed by Obama, it's because of something that I knew he would do - compromise. He's compromising too much on health care, and I was afraid he might 'compromise' on the his school address. Glad he's not.

I think a pro-education message from the President would be a great thing for my students to see; unfortunately, I know of no way that my students could see the address tomorrow. There are 15-20 year old TVs up in the rooms, the product of the long-unused (at least in our school, where it hasn't been shown in at least 10 years) Channel One Teen News. However, few of these televisions still work and they're not hooked up to any cable or anything like that. I could try to show it from the Internet, but am also not sure how exactly this could work; I've never tried to use my (personal) LCD Projector for anything from the internet, and my personal laptop that I use with my LCD has never successful hooked up to the internet. So, this whole question of whether to show the address or not seems moot to me, at least in my city school. And, the thing is, I'm pretty happy with facilities this year; teachers have all been given new computers this year, and they're nice. But that's about it in terms of technology; I know of no way to show this Presidential address to my students (other than crowding around my computer monitor, which I might end up doing because it's my small class).

Frankly, I wonder how other schools might be able to show it. Do most schools have cable pumped into their classrooms? If so, why? If not, how else to show it? I can see how a technology class with easy hookup to the internet and an LCD Projector could do it easily, but that's about it.

So, in other words, it's not much of a controversy to me. I don't really have much of a way to show it, anyway. And I doubt this is the exception for many urban school districts, who are full of kids who might need to hear President Obama's pro-education message the most.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

First week thoughts on 'Slumdog Millionaire' and more

One of my colleagues got the idea that we should show Slumdog Millionaire to kick off the year with the 9th graders, because it introduces our course theme of "Coming of Age in an Unjust Society" and focuses on the international issues that our course and school emphasize.

I had my trepidations because (a) I don't like to show full films in my classroom because it simply takes too long, rather I like to show scenes (particularly from Shakespeare) and do some comparison and analysis; (b) I don't like the academic tone that showing a film brings with it, especially to start out the year. However, if it helps emphasize the course theme and teach the students about something from a different culture, then it would work. I'm having them do a lot of analysis of it while they watch it, and hopefully they're not viewing it just as entertainment.

They are, pretty much, enthralled with the film, which we're going to end up spending about 2.5 class periods on. I hope it's worth it. Next week starts our short story unit, and I'm really trying to go a little slower this year with the literary devices and make sure they're learning how to read, not just throwing a bunch of stuff at them.

My 9th grade classes - three of them - are about 30 each. Not too terrible. My senior classes, on the other hand, are the smallest classes I've taught in my career; both are in the low 20s. I'm thoroughly enjoying our study of the IB Oral Commentary so far. I have 43 students and hope to achieve 100% passing for the course at its end, and it will be a challenge with a couple of them. And, I hope I push a few of the brighter students all the way up to a 7, a perfect score. We start Richard III next week and I'm looking forward to it.

Otherwise, I'm just dealing with getting my body and schedule back to the rigors of teaching. Sleep and exercise are precious commodities this time of year. I am commuting on my bike to school about half the time, but find I'm having errands to run after school sometimes that supercede biking. I'm getting used to it, though. Definitely enjoy it, especially the ride home.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

"Helping Hands"

Read this article about my good friend, Kate Hooks, a Baltimore City teacher with MS.

9th grade matchmaker

The 9th grader stayed a moment after class, and looked at me, and shyly asked if he could talk to me after class. I agreed, of course, and when it looked like he was embarrassed by what he had to ask, I brought him over behind my desk and waited for what I was sure was another sob story about summer reading.

But no.

"Um, you know that girl who was sitting across from me? The light-skinned one? Well, um, today we kept looking at each other, and then looking away. Over and over again. You know what I'm sayin'? And, um, I was wondering if there was any way you could... um... help me out?"

Taken aback, I didn't know how to respond. Then he asked me for a seat change.

No, actually. I'm not going to play 9th Grade Matchmaker. But it still made me smile and I said maybe someday they'd be in the same group together for a group work assignment. And that, you know, he could talk to her after class sometime.

He agreed, grabbed his pass, and rushed out. Yup, I still like teaching 9th graders. They're still scared to death and quiet and ask for directions and do completely off-the-wall stuff like described above.