Shakespeare in the Classroom

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As an English teacher, I will inevitably have to teach Shakespeare throughout the course of a year. Interestingly enough, I don’t teach it to my juniors (the focus is on American Lit, which excludes the Bard), which have a full year-long course, but I do to my seniors, who are only with me for a semester. And to make matters even more interesting, I have to somehow get two Shakespeare plays in, along with the other literature we have to read. It’s nearly impossible to get it all in within the scope of a semester. But I may have come up with a plan (I think).

I have been trying to figure out how to get my seniors to understand the meaning of the plays (Hamlet and Much Ado about Nothing) and to be able to move through them at a relatively rapid rate. It’s difficult to do. Not only is the language a bit archaic to today’s teenagers, but it’s reading a play at the same time. Reading a play is difficult enough on its own!

Now, I am definitely of the school that Shakespeare is meant to be performed rather than read, and I am in favor of having students do some performing of the script. However, I have found that before I can do that, they have to actually understand what is going on within the scope of the play. And that’s the difficult part.

Last semester, teaching Shakespeare was a complete disaster. I tried to teach MAAN (Much Ado about Nothing) straight off, by having students read along with a recording of the play. As well as doing that, I tried to have them rewrite scenes of the play in groups. That was not a good plan. Not only did they not understand the play by listening, but didn’t understand the language or how to decipher it well enough to be able to recreate the scenes in modern language. It was not my finest teaching moment. I abandoned the play halfway through and chose to have them write about one central theme in it within the context of their own lives. The problem with this, though, is that they didn’t understand enough to be able to make comparisons.

I also tried to teach Macbeth, but ran out of time in the semester and had to resort to showing the film and limping students along to take the exam. Overall, the semester’s teaching was not a winning success. I’m determined to change that this semester.

Which brings me to right now. After reading a lot of literature on teaching Shakespeare, consulting with Patti to see how she is teaching her sophomores, and looking at both of the plays, I have realized a couple of things: first, that I don’t actually┬á have to teach the entire plays to get students to understand what Shakespeare brought to literature (thanks, Patti!); and second, that between performing and discussion, students can relate to Shakespeare using comparison and contrast (skills that usually come easily to students this age).

So, the grand plan at the moment includes teaching some key speeches within each of the two plays, giving context, exploring themes, and performance in groups. The end project will include a paper wherein students explain the validity of learning Shakespeare, using examples from the text. This may be asking for a proverbial Pandora’s box opening.

I’ve also considered creating a mock trial, in which students put Shakespeare in as the accused. Students would put him on trial to cross-examine whether his writings are still vital to high school education today. I’d be interested to see what comes of it. Still considering…

Thoughts, readers? I’d love to know what you think.

Social Responsibility?

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This week, there is a story in the news about Pennsylvania teacher, Natalie Munroe. Munroe, who teaches high school, wrote blogs over the course of several months about her students. While she didn’t use names, she was not particularly flattering in the way she portrayed them. For the story, go here: http://news.blogs.cnn.com/2011/02/16/teacher-natalie-munroe-defends-blog-comments-about-whiny-students/?iref=allsearch

As a result of her blog rantings, Munroe has been suspended and may actually be fired. My thoughts upon finding out about this were several: first, is what she said really grounds for firing her; second, should this even be an issue; and third, is my blog something that might put me in the same position?

To address the first question, I can see both sides of the coin here. On one hand, what she did was highly unprofessional. She spoke ill of her students (whether naming them or not) in a public forum, even if it was blocked. The internet is public. There is no privacy, therefore no one should believe that they have the right to expect it. On the other hand, one could bring into the account her first amendment right to free speech. One might argue that teachers are role models, whether inside the classroom or out, and should portray themselves in public as if they are constantly under the eyes of students. But that also brings into question whether a teacher ever has the right to let down his or her guard. This is quite a conundrum, and one on which I feel unprepared to make a judgment.

Why is this even an issue? I think that, because it was something posted on a public forum, it makes it accessible to students. Now, you could argue that we are far too worried about political correctness in this day and age, and that it is playing a major role in the position the district took against the teacher. I mean, what district wants parents and students speaking out against an action of a teacher? But is this really a hill the district wants to (proverbially) die on? It seems to me that suspending this teacher is more a preemptive measure to avoid backlash from the community than it is to make a point.

This happening does not sit well with me. First, maybe the teacher is in the wrong, morally speaking. Maybe it was not the best decision she could have made, to speak publicly about her students. But she is entitled to say what she thinks in her own personal blog, on her own time, away from her school. It makes me wonder whether this might happen if she worked in any other profession. If she were a plumber and spoke badly about her clients, would she be suspended? Maybe. Maybe not.

This is definitely something that makes me wonder about my own blog. I have gone back to read everything I have written thus far, and it seems to me that, although my blog is geared toward the educational system, overall it is aim at my own self-analysis and not about my students. My focus here is about my own growth, not about complaining about my students.

It seems to me that it is a poor carpenter who blames his tools. Much like it is a poor teacher who blames the lack of learning or poor behavior on her students. Perhaps if her focus had been inward, she may have found a way to be less frustrated with what was going on in her classroom. Maybe she should have reached out for help within her school, rather than rant on the internet. Talking only gets a person so far. At some point, there needs to be some action behind it.

Collaboration and the New Teacher

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I believe that it should be mandatory for every new teacher to collaborate with a more seasoned one. Honestly, I believe that every department should work together and collaborate as a unit. This is not always a feasibility, unfortunately. But this post is not about department learning communities. It’s about collaborating with another teacher successfully.

When I first began the year, I felt overwhelmed, underachieved, and that I was largely failing as a teacher. Often, I didn’t know what to say, how to present it, or what activities might engage students the most with the material. Upon reading this comment, I’m sure you are saying yourself, “Shouldn’t she have learned that in college?” Well, to a certain extent, I did. But teaching is not something you do one time and then you know it.

Like every art, teaching takes practice–and mentoring, modeling, and apprenticeship. Now, this is something that is not necessarily easy to come by. A lot of districts have a first-year mentoring program, but the one I work in cut that last year due to budget shortfalls. At the beginning of the year, I felt that I could have really used that program. I tried to compensate by trying to find help within my department, but nothing seemed to stick. Everyone else is busy with their own classes. They needed work time to work on what they needed to be doing, not hand-holding the new kid.

I floundered for several weeks, trying my best, feeling like I couldn’t ever get the material I was teaching across the way I should be. I did have some help here and there from a couple of other teachers, and also from the curriculum specialist, but I also knew I needed to find a style that felt right to me.

I began to talk to the other teacher in my department who had been hired the same time I had. She had an interesting take on the material we were working with, and did things much the way I knew I wanted to do them but never really knew quite how. So I began watching her. And then emulating. And then we began to work together in our lesson planning. Honestly, I feel for the first time like I have found my stride. I am lucky to have found someone so compatible with me, but compatibility is not the only factor here.

My experience thus far tells me that this is something every new teacher should get. Without the help of this teacher, I would feel like a colossal failure right now, but I don’t. I wouldn’t say I feel completely successful yet, either. But I definitely think I have more of a handle on teaching, classroom management, and just generally being at ease more because of the support I’ve gotten from this one teacher. It’s a feeling every new teacher should have.

What do I mean by collaboration? Well, my new friend (we will call her P, for the sake of anonymity) and I have been planning out our classes together. This saves us more time, because we put our heads together and only have to plan one class instead of two. It also saves money, since we are sharing a lot of materials. Collaborative planning makes it easier as well. Because there are two minds looking at something, mistakes that might have been made by just one of us are avoided because we have a built-in proofreading system! Another important aspect is that we know what our students will have learned across the board when they come to us next year (at least I will, since I also teach seniors). Not to mention the fact that it is so much more enjoyable to work with a friend than by yourself.

Why would you not want to collaborate with your peers? Some find that collaboration takes away the autonomy some teachers like to have in planning. Some feel that having to cultivate a collegial relationship is just too much effort, and some don’t like to have to have regular meetings. Collaboration can be tricky when you don’t have a meeting of the minds. But there are so many benefits that outweigh the negative aspects that it seems silly not to want to work in a collaborative manner with the other teachers in your department.

Being Involved

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This year, I took on several extra-curricular activities. I chose to take on the Key Club as its adviser, and then was asked to co-coach the dance team. Funny enough, about a week after that, I was also asked to help out with the Debate team as the assistant coach. I have really enjoyed being a part of all of the activities this year. It has been interesting to learn about Key Club, and all of the ins and outs of advising a group like this. I’ve learned a lot about community service, the Kiwanis organization (which sponsors the Key Club), and have made some interesting relationships with students.

However, I definitely feel like all of the activities I have taken on (paid or no) have taken a toll on me. And probably on my family, too. While I know myself, and that I am perpetually a member of the over-committed club, I think I might need to scale it back some next year.

I think I really need to stick to doing things I am passionate about. I learned that with Debate this year. I’ve never been particularly passionate about Debate, even in high school. And although getting to know the kids was a lot of fun, I think that my time might be better served working on Key Club more regularly, or doing more for Crimson Haze.

It’s crazy, but I would also dearly love to start a Glee Club! I think with Patti’s choreography skills and my musical knowledge, we could have a blast! She doesn’t seem so excited about the idea, but I think that’s because she actually has some sense, whereas I apparently have none.

Apathy and the American Teenager

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Apathy, the absence (or sometimes suppression) of emotion, passion, or excitement.

Teenagers are an interesting breed. They are drama; raging, fiery balls of hormones. They’re up one minute, down the next. Whoever said that menopause was the most hormonal period of a woman’s life has never been fully acquainted with the mood swings of a teenage girl. Yet, in all of this drama, emotion, and excitement lies a walking contradiction. Though there are exceptions, I have noticed a trend toward the apathetic in my classes.

I work hard to make my lessons interesting, engaging, and fun for my students. It’s a lot of extra work, but it is so much more appealing (to me, anyway) to do something creative and from an interesting point of view than to regurgitate information from a book. Not to mention that when a student engages with the text and has to do something that interacts with the material, they learn more by default. But lately, my students are ASKING for book work! This tells me that there is a fundamental issue here. Why would you want something to be boring? The answer, it seems to me, is that students don’t care. They would rather not be bothered to make the effort.

But this problem goes deeper than that.

Not only do students not care about doing something interesting to engage with the text, they are used to having everything done for them. While speaking with some colleagues about this problem the other day, the matter of concerted cultivation came up. Concerted cultivation can be described as the act on the part of parents of involving their children in so many extra-curricular activities that all other parts of life are overshadowed by these things. For instance, soccer leagues, baseball leagues, figure skating, etc. While extra-curricular activities are important, there needs to be balance in the life of a child. As a teacher, I often hear from parents that students are unable to do their homework because they have some sort of activity after school. Since when did these activities become more important than a child’s education?

I believe that another issue leading to the apathy in American schools is that of discipline. Students come to school with little of it. Parents expect that school is the place where their children should be taught not only how to read, write, and do math, but also where we should teach morality. My question is, what exactly is the parent’s job in this figure?

Now, I’m not a perfect parent. I’m not even close. But I also recognize that it is my job to make sure my children know right from wrong, know how to respect the people around them, and understand that what they do as children can affect the entire rest of their lives. For some reason, though, this is not getting through to kids the way it used to. They have had everything handed to them, have never really had to want for anything, and now want their education handed to them as well.

This is not a blanket statement about every teenager. There are some still engaged, still wanting to learn. But this is an observation I have made about the teenage population at large, and I am not alone in it. There is so much more I could say, but I don’t want to write a pages-long diatribe about the dire state of America’s youth.

What are your thoughts?

Of Journals and Other Things

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This semester might just be awesome.

I love the new class of seniors so far. They seem to be a lot more laid back, and less laden with attitude than the one class who just left me. I know as a teacher I tend to be rather sarcastic, and some classes don’t really respond well to that. These kids seem to. That’s a good thing.

I started a new journaling project with all of my classes today. It’s one that Patti does as well, and was kind of inspired by the Freedom Writers’ Diary. ´╗┐Check out the Freedom Writers at: http://www.amazon.com/Freedom-Writers-Diary-Teacher-Themselves/dp/038549422X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1296509603&sr=1-1

My students get 10 minutes every day. They come in at the beginning of the period, get their journal from the rack, and just write. About anything. It can be nonsensical, it can be lyrics, poetry, even illustrations. So long as they write. No one reads it (except, occasionally, me) and they can use it as their own space to vent/be creative. So far, I’ve not had even one complaint about it. They all seem excited about the idea! However, it’s only day one.

Today, my juniors are beginning a month-long persuasive writing unit. Patti and I planned it together, and it will be awesome. We’re beginning with a crayon activity where they have to persuade the Crayola company to keep their crayon color. So far, it’s gotten a good reception and the kids are enjoying writing about something fun.

The senior classes have begun an introductory activity. They’re making a culture bag. This assignment requires them to think about their own personal cultures and to draw them inside an outline of a bag. I’ve heard from other students that they are excited about this, so that seems to be going well.

I’m excited to see how this semester ends up. I think there is some potential for great things. I’m already fired up!

Teaching Can Be a Cruel Mistress

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I’ve been up since 6am… on a Saturday morning. I’ve trekked over to PLU for a debate tournament and am spending my day with some of my students. I love doing this, and they are so fun to be around. But I think I may have over-committed myself this year.

I don’t think I would change anything about the course the year has taken, but I sometimes feel that I don’t have the proper amount of time to devote to each activity I’ve taken on and the amount of planning it takes to be a first-year teacher that I should. And I also worry that I am not spending nearly the amount of time with my family that I should either. I miss them a lot right now, especially Toby. We go through several days where we barely see each other.

I can honestly say I have learned much about myself these past months. Coming into my teaching position, I had never taught high school. While kids in high school are a bit different than junior high, they essentially need and want the same things: acceptance, understanding, and acknowledgment. I love this age. Sure, there’s the drama that comes with high school, but when you look past that, you find some really interesting people in the making. Coming into my job, I thought that they would all be completely apathetic to me and not give a damn about anything I say. And I also have to confess that I worried incessantly about them laughing at me about my weight. There are some who talk about me behind my back, but overall, they genuinely seem to want to know me. And I would even venture to say that they embrace my quirkiness, my excitement, and my creative ways. For the most part, anyway.

I’m taking this rare opportunity for down time to sit and do some planning today. It’s so hard to do it at home because there are various distractions, and if I do it at work I end up there until 7pm every night. Of course, I end up there that late a lot of the time anyway. I like what I do, though, because I always feel like there is something more to learn or do or figure out. It’s never dull, it’s always a challenge, and I always want to know more. Not everyone can say that about their career, can they?

Anyway, this was one long ramble, but my brain is kind of on autopilot right now.