Friday, December 12, 2014

Building Buy In: Movement is Not Just for Kinesthetic Learners

by Dan Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT

"Jab." "Jab." "Jab." "Jab." (Sung) Dance...Boogie Wonderland. Sounds like the weirdest location for a boxing match ever or the most aggressive disco in history. It was neither. This was my C Block today, learning what I learned this past July at the 2014 Teaching Shakespeare Institute. As we learned in one of our acting sessions, Shakespeare's language is meant to tasted, touched, heard, smelled, and seen. This full bodied experience of the language helps to internalize meaning. But my third block class wasn't studying Shakespeare. So what was I doing? Why was I doing it? Who is the mysterious author with whose works I was engaging?

The English 11 class I am currently teaching is just starting their work on A Streetcar Named Desire. Getting Williams's work on its feet is no different than putting Shakespeare's work on its feet, so I decided to engage the students in some warm-ups that would teach them some of the basics of acting.

I feel the need to interject a note here about what I mean when I say "acting." The students were not channeling Meryl Streep or Denzel Washington. Rather, when I say "acting" in this context, I mean getting up, playing with words, imagining oneself in another's skin. Sometimes that looks like good acting. Other times it does not. Either way, the opportunity presents the possibility for learning a lot.

So, to warm up today's English 11 class, I decided to do some of the punching activities one of the acting instructors taught us at TSI. We stood with our legs shoulder-width, secured our bases by tightening our leg muscles, and extended both index fingers. The first round is simply a point, not a jab. This helps students direct the focus of their eyes to the target beyond the end of the hand. As we progress to jab, I ask the students to visualize the word jab exploding from the end of their fists and hitting a point on the wall. Before you knew it, the glass at my door became crowded with confused faces as people passing by were wondering why the English class was jab the air as though it had just recited the most cutting momma joke in history.

We stopped jabbing and set up for the scene: scene one of Streetcar. When we got to the section where Blanche and Stella begin to argue about the loss of Belle Reve, I could instantly tell the jabbing exercise had worked. Two students, one male and one female, played the parts. Not only was the intensity of each italicized word or word before an exclamation point given the force of a punch, the entire emotional intensity of the scene erupted. The students had gotten so far into the scene that when Stella leaves to wash her tears and says "Does that surprise you?", the ice in her voice and eyes froze me to the core. These students have known me for five days and they were willing to perform at that level already. A testament to their abilities, but also a testament to the power of experiencing language with the entire body.

As a postscript to my day, the freshmen in my homeroom pour in before and after the final bell to plug their Chromebooks back in and store them for the night. As they came through today, they were full of questions about the purpose of the bizarre activities they witnessed in the hall or heard about through the proverbial grapevine. One young man made my week, but he doesn't know it. He said, "Whoa! That sounds like the best class ever" as he and his buddy walked out the door. That level of pure energy and excitement that causes young teenage boys to stop being cool for a minute and express an actual emotion, that is why I teach.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Preparing to Dive into the Wreck Again

by Dan Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters. - from "Diving into the Wreck" by Adrienne Rich 
So, I have been unemployed now for the better part of the first semester. Soon, I will be taking over classes from a teacher taking time off to have a baby (Congratulations, again!). As I am preparing to go back to the world of pencils, books, and dirty looks, and coming off of the 2014 NCTE National Convention, arguments about education are again dragging me down rabbit holes of  quiet contemplation and not an inconsiderable amount of angst.

This morning, as I was dropping my wife's laptop off at her school, I heard a commercial from the NEA on SiriusXM. The fact that it was on a widely accessible radio station really bothered me because, as is the case with many easily digested tidbits about this complicated work we do, the message was based on incomplete and relatively unsupportable claims. After nine years of teaching, I am still shocked at the amount of anecdotal or apocryphal knowledge that seems to permeate our professional world.

To draw a parallel, let me tell you a story. An oncologist has a patient ill with leukemia. This current manifestation is the second recurrence of the disease. This time, while treating the patient, the doctor added a steady diet of only chicken, potatoes, and peas. Miraculously, the cancer goes into remission. How would the medical community react if this doctor decided to start treating all of his patients with specifically tailored nutritional plans as a means of driving cancer into remission? Unless the laboratory science was there to back it up, including numerous experiments that can be repeated with the same results, I cannot imagine many doctors who would accept this as a valid practice.

So, imagine my chagrin, when the voice of the current NEA president pours from my car speakers expounding 1) the virtues of learning styles, 2) the need for parents to identify these, and 3) the need for parents to ensure schools are teaching their individual children in ways that correspond to these learning styles. Chagrin, perhaps, is a bit of an understatement.

People who have read this blog before know my feelings on the learning styles theory. If not, click here for a prior post on learning styles. Is the work of educating students not hard enough already that teachers need numerous misleading and, largely, profit-driven curricular approaches to put distance between us and our students? That really is the bottom line. As I sit here preparing to teach again, I find it necessary to remind myself that I teach people.

That is where the world of science and the world of education part ways (in fact, that is where education departs from many disciplines): the student. Many theories that are touted as solid, foundational, and "best" practices are based on marginal changes that have more to do with the unique moment in which they happen and less to do with the children they are intended to help. This disconnect exists because children do not repeat behaviors in a predictable and systematic way that can guarantee a consistent result. As I often do when I face this particular frustration, I went back to a great article by Daniel Willingham on the AFT website. In the article, Willingham lays out some important facts about popular educational myths. I still remember reading it for the first time and thinking Oh, that is what I have been trying to say.

Cognition is at the core of what we do; moreover, cognition is a human process that relies heavily upon numerous factors. The best thing a teacher can do is view his or her students in two ways: 1) As the mass of students in need of knowledge and 2) as the individuals who make up that mass. Children have more in common when it comes to learning than we are often willing to admit; the individuality matters more in terms of environment and special circumstances than the actual acquisition of discrete information.

I guess I should thank the current president of NEA. Because of that commercial, I got an opportunity to remind myself of how vital a teachers work it--and how much vitality it provides. The wet suit is ready, the tanks are full, and I cannot wait to dive deep with the students who been entrusted to my care.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Getting Together with the Secondary Section: 2014 Convention Edition

by Dan Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT

It is almost here. In two days, the 2014 NCTE Annual Convention kicks off in Washington, D.C. If you are going to be attending in person, the Secondary Section Steering Committee would love to see and meet you at any of our major events throughout the convention. Below, you will find a complete list of the SSSC events as well as descriptions of who will be there and what the focus will be. Additionally, interact with and follow the Secondary Section throughout the weekend by tweeting with the hashtag #HSM2014. We believe that high school matters and that high school teachers do the most important work in the world. Come socialize, celebrate, and inspire each other in the SSSC events this year.

Secondary Section Get-Together - Thursday, November 20th from 4:30 PM to 6:00 PM in the Maryland B Room

Come hear from researcher and filmmaker William Kist as he shares Running from Crazy and leads a discussion of the film. Following William Kist, Jim Burke of Burlingame High School will share inspiration and his trademark good humor with us. Before the talks and in-between there will be ample time to socialize with your section, make new friends, and reconnect with old colleagues. A good time is guaranteed.

High School Matters - Friday, November 21 from 2:30 PM to 5:15 PM in the Potomac A/B Room

Our annual smorgasbord of secondary ELA ideas and inspiration is guaranteed to leave you feeling enlightened, excited, and enthusiastic. As per the usual, we will kick off with Carol Jago's list of must-reads from the year. Following Carol's talk, we will continue the tradition of sharing our own book recommendations and then launch into the first roundtable session. This year's roundtable list features a ton of really interesting topics including sessions on text complexity and multicultural voices in the canon of high school literature. Following the first roundtable, Kelly Gallagher will share some of his insights about teaching in his usual entertaining and thought-provoking way. After Kelly's talk, there will be two roundtable sessions, giving you more opportunities to network with colleagues and learn something new about our field. This double session always generates great ideas to take back and use in the classroom; don't miss it!

Secondary Section Luncheon - Saturday, November 22 from 12:30 PM to 2:30 PM

Come lunch with your colleagues and hear this year's guest speaker: science fiction novelist, blogger, and technology activist Cory Doctorow. Note: This event requires tickets to attend. If you haven't purchased your tickets yet, there may still be time to snag one if you act fast. Ask at the registration desk when you check in.

The SSSC looks forward to seeing you in person; however, if you cannot attend, please engage with us on twitter, through e-mail, or on this blog.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Asking the Questions that there Are not Enuf Lifetimes to Answer

by Dan Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT

One of the most prominent discussions in the teaching of literature in high school is what makes a work worthy of review, thought, and criticism. In other words, why study To Kill a Mockingbird instead of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (or whichever)? The more I engage with good literature and even-better scholars of that literature, the more I begin to think it has to do with the questions we ask about people. While I will admit to the all-night read-a-thon that would happen when a new Harry Potter novel hit the shelves, I will also admit that there is nothing surprising or even intriguing about the characters and the choices they make. I can still remember reading the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and thinking (spoiler alert; although, at this point, really?) Harry, you do not need to dump Ginny simply because you are the hero. It was about as close to blatant formula as one can get. On the Mockingbird side of things, people are still mystified at the existence of non-racists in a town, community, or family of them; what makes people like Atticus rise above prejudice to do his best for a man whose social status has not changed that much since slavery?

This aspect of characters who puzzle us leads me to what I have recently decided must be my number one criterion for a novel, play, or poem to be considered worthy of critical reflection: does it make me ask questions that I could only answer in the span of a lifetime (and, if I am honest, multiple lifetimes)? I had the privilege recently of seeing a new theatrical piece at the Atlas theatre in Washington, D.C.: Caleen Sinette Jennings's Not Enuf Lifetimes. Before I go any further, here is what the website for The Welders, a DC playwriting collective with an excellent mission, says about the play:
It’s 2004, and Frank Riley—a well-meaning, white 50-something car mechanic—can’t understand why his son Ian dropped out of medical school to live and work in what he considers the ghetto. When Ian disappears, Frank must enter Ian’s world in order to find him. He must learn to communicate with Dante, Ian’s black roommate, and Manjit, Ian’s South Asian girlfriend. He must figure out whether Ronnie Holmes, Ian’s black protégé from the projects, could also be Ian’s killer. Most importantly, Frank must figure out why the child of his heart walked away from the life Frank worked so hard to give him. This exploration of rifts and potential bridges between the Boomer and Hip Hop generations features a hip hop-inspired structure with rhymes and music.
The play says one thing outright: Caleen Sinette Jennings loves people. In her profile on the The Welder's website, she declares that she is a Weldebecause "a welder doesn't talk a lot. A welder looks and listens." The people that exist on the stage truly do exist; they have so many facets and contradictions of being that build into the beautiful complications of their relationships. Few of the characters are likable from the start, much like we all are. But as the layers are peeled away, not one character exists as a type. There are moments when characters seem headed for the territory of stereotype, but then Jennings's words transform them in the space of a single utterance.

And those utterances can carry a power that seems unlikely given their brevity. There is a line from Dante, Ian's successful programmer roommate, about the type of hip-hop heard popularly. In response to Frank's denigration of the form, focused on all of the worst aspects of gangster rap, Dante simply replies that that type of hip-hop plays to something in the popular culture, creating greater divisions and keeping the money in the same pockets that have always had it (I am not quoting this line because my paraphrase is far clunkier than the way it came out on stage). It was one of those instances where a line comes out that so pithily synthesizes something you knew but could not articulate.

Even more powerful are the lyrics of Ronnie Holmes, the young father who works hard to take care of his mother and daughter while he tries to survive the Glendale projects. The lines he spits with Ian from his composition book reveal a man yearning to live his dreams, but dealing with the disappointment of failing to realize them. The frustration and righteous anger come through in each syllable, providing an interesting counterpoint to the manically optimistic Ian.

As the play closed, I found myself invested in the futures these characters might have ahead of them (which is no small feat in a show with no intermission). I could easily imagine teaching this play for the questions it was already generating as I left the theatre: What does it mean to love one's children? How can we best teach our children to live in the world? How can they best teach us to do the same? Where is the line between patronizing and supporting? My head just kept spinning. What I could say for certain is that this play taught me, again, the value of love over all other concerns. What is a better message than this with which to send students out into the world? Another very good question.

Not Enuf Lifetimes is still on stage and I would encourage you to go and see it if you can. Click the link here to get details.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Tell Us About Yourself: The College Essay

Writing about the self is the hardest thing to do. Whether this results from social pressures to put the self aside, from familial pressures to be part of the whole, from peer groups who often (unintentionally or not) supplant the individual with a group self constructed from the impressions of others, knowing the self is hard to do at any age. Whether we are five or seventy-five, the protean concept of who we are shifts and changes as our lives shift and change. We move our lives about, hoping to hold onto a sense of who we were in the last moment even as we grow into the next. No one has a harder time wrestling with identity than the very people we ask to define that self in 250 words annually: high school seniors. Just take a look at these Common App essay prompts:
  • Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  • Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn? 
  • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  • Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
  • Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
Anecdotally, 40 percent of teachers who apply for National Board Certification will successfully complete the program and be certified. A large part of this process is the ability to reflect on one's own practice, to "discuss an accomplishment or event" to "recount" moments when a lesson fell apart and he or she "experienced failure." If 60 percent of grown teachers applying for an advanced certificate have a hard time writing about these things, how could we expect so much from 17- and 18-year-old teens?

And yet, the requirement is there. More so, these colleges need to know who they are letting in; their institutional capital rests on the quality of the people they admit. So, what is a young person to do?

They are to turn to their teachers. October's Engage Now from Lawrence Butti of the Secondary Section Steering Committee is here to help provide some very clear, stable structures for teaching seniors, or even juniors, about the college essay process. Of particular note is Lawrence Butti's college essay brainstorming sheet that helps students frame the narrative of self in clear, discrete pieces of information that can be hard to pull out of the fog of memory in the context of writing the college essay.

As with all really difficult tasks that students complete, teachers are there to help guide students to be their best. In this case, we get the privilege to be there for our students at a time when stress is high and futures are on the line. What a great part of the ever-changing self known as teacher.

Friday, September 19, 2014

More Sinned Against Than Sinning: King Lear in the Classroom and On Stage

by Daniel A. Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT

I really thought that I would not be able to watch it. Up to the minute the play began, I thought I would only be able to see Will Smith's wry and knowing butler attempting to play one of the most tragic and emotionally exhausting roles in theater. Then, the play began. In classic Globe fashion, it began with a lively folk song. As soon as Lear came on stage, Joseph Marcell, better known as Jeffrey to my generation, had the audience in the palm of his hand. What struck me as I watched the play unfold was not the production itself, but the conversations I could have in my classroom with students if we had all attended together.

One reviewer claimed that this version of Lear gives us the "Boomer Lear." The review can be found here. You may wish to read it before finishing this post since a lot of what I have to say is almost a direct response to the reviewer's idea of what this production means.

Marcell's Lear certainly alternates between entitlement and rage. In fact, this production establishes early on a confusing atmosphere. If a director wishes to make the daughters more sympathetic in the beginning, he or she could cut some of the lines at the end of 1.1 and make Lear a carouser in 1.4. But the sisters already appear to be scheming when we arrive at 1.4, and the director here has chosen to have one of the most riotous Lears I have ever seen. Were I Goneril, I would be pretty upset, too. For example, Oswald is not only struck and then tripped, but Kent then proceeds to wallop him for a good thirty seconds while Lear looks on approvingly. This paints the picture of a petty a violent king, not necessarily one I would feel a whole lot of sympathy for.

Perhaps this is why the madness scenes in this production come across so farcical. There were only a couple points where Lear's madness wandered into pathos, but for the most part, it stayed in fairly unmoving territory. When his madness is most emotional, it is made so by the presence of other grieving characters; this move almost feels like the director knows that his Lear is unsympathetic so we must have bathos from every character in a scene with him. The effect was so alienating that when Lear says he is more "sinned against than sinning," all I could think of was the old Bill Cosby Noah routine: RIIIIIIIIGHT...

Mad Lear and Blind Gloucester from the Globe's Facebook Page
The final scene was done with a bit more gravitas than I expected. Were it not for the snickering teenager over my left shoulder who couldn't stop his laughter at Lear's "howl"s, I would have been completely engrossed. Marcell got the mania and misery of the last scene in a way that few have. He swung from manic denier to morose accepter as a child swings from monkey bar to monkey bar: graceful and surprising. That, more than anything, brought the humanity back to the character and inspired the chain of thought that follows.

Domestic violence is a huge topic right now because of the high-profile athletes involved in legal scandals. Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, the NFL's reaction, Roger Goodell's fickle and inconstant method of punishment (although I should just write retribution) all have soaked the front pages of major newspapers for weeks. The Lear we have in this Globe production is less Boomer Lear and more Beater Lear. He falls in line with much scholarship on the character that sees him as a violent and unstable father; a reckless leader bent on control of his subjects with fist and foot, not palm and heart (for a great discussion of this see the Arden Shakespeare Edition edited by R.A. Foakes or A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, a novel based on Lear that turns the character into a sexually abusive father). Marcell's Lear seems first to rely on his fists, then on his equally lacerating words. In many of the early scenes between Goneril and Lear, she visibly flinches as he menaces toward her or rails on her as though she expects the fist of her father to come crashing down any moment. Regan's ruthlessness only serves to deepen this image of Lear as abuser; her ruthless behavior feels like survivalism.

Lear hears Regan's speech about how much she loves him from the Globe's Facebook Page
So this Lear brings up contemporary notions of domestic violence in the form of a violent patriarch, but pulls no punches as the daughters move to eclipse their fathers. The eye-gouging scene featured a bloodlusty Regan who would not let Cornwall take the first eye. Rather, she removed her shoe and used the heel to leverage the eye from its socket. She them tossed it to Cornwall who literally set his foot upon it--hard. He then picked up the remains and chucked them into the balcony. In a parallel case, footballer Hope Solo is currently awaiting trial on domestic abuse charges of her own; however, no one has much mentioned her or demanded her deactivation.

One final teaching point that I noticed in this production is the casting. Normally, Lear has ten principle roles and can include a variety of extras. There were only eight principle actors in the performance who were occasionally accompanied by two stage crew members in costume. This short casting led to a variety of doubles. The usual Fool/Cordelia doubling was present, and much has been said about the emotional symbiosis of the two. The ones that are most interesting to me as theatrical choices are the doubling (or rather tripling) of Daniel Pirrie as Edmund/Oswald/King of France and the doubling (again, rather tripling) of Alex Mugnaioni as Edgar/Cornwall/Duke of Burgundy.

Daniel Pirrie is brilliant. He swings from Edmund to Oswald so completely that one does not know he is the same actor except for his costume. He even manages this change in a scene where both characters appear at once. As Goneril addresses each man, she turns, points, says the name of the character, and waits for Pirrie to run to that spot (donning a cap if Oswald, removing it if Edmund). Oswald's self-serving sycophancy melts into Edmund's arrogant posturing seamlessly; this scene provides much needed, and not normally included, comic relief after the removal of Gloucester's eyes. The choice to make him the King of France is also confusing. Seeing an actor who clearly plays the "bad guys" so well portray one of the few "good" characters in the play is less jarring than it should be because it happens in 1.1; however, it sets an odd tone wherein I want to like Edmund. After all, his ambition to climb beyond others' classifications of him as "illegitimate," "bastard," and "base" is a quintessentially American theme. It is Edmund's lack of a moral direction that makes him so despicable in the end (even though his final acts are acts he does freely because he wants to do some good before he dies). The conversation that could be had about this multiple casting in class invite much close reading and analysis of all three figures.

Alex Mugnaioni's range is unbelieveable. He makes a rather convincing Edgar, Poor Tom, Cornwall, and Burgundy without making any of them anything like the other characters. He even seems to command his face to shift its shape a bit as he goes from naive, schoolboy Edgar to ruthless and conniving Cornwall from scene change to scene change. His Poor Tom borders on theatrical stereotype, but his belief in the character brings through a spark of humanity even in the madman's rantings. I also was confused as to why Mugnaioni would play the sniveling Duke of Burgundy, but he carried the part well. The early portrayal had an equal effect to that of Pirrie's France: I felt less sympathetic toward Edgar early on than I did in the end. Again, this tripling makes for a great close reading and analysis discussion of the character.

Brother vs. Brother from the Globe's Facebook Page
In the end, the play does what Lear should do: it interrogates us about our notions of justice. If Lear is truly the heavy-handed and violent father/king he appears in the play, then the loss of all he holds dear and his own life seems a sort of cosmic account, a reaping of the bitter oats he has sown. Before the play began, as the actors sang and danced, pulling on costumes as they did, an already costumed Lear pulls a string revealing a huge map of England. The daughers then grab chalk and sketch it onto the floor of the stage itself. In the final scene, as Lear cradles his dead Cordelia, the faint echo of the Britain of Lear's rule still appears on stage. Edgar authoritatively delivers the final commanding lines while standing atop this relic of a lost kingdom while the actresses who portrayed Goneril and Regan emerge humming a funeral tune; they grab the same chalk from the beginning and outline the body of Lear like a crime scene. Lear and Cordelia rise to their feet and morose trace the outline of his body with their fingers. The old kingdom has faded. The old king is dead. Nothing came from nothing and so the cast moves on, surprisingly singing a rousing version of Feste's song from the end of Twelfth Night. The wind and the rain have brought tragedy, but have washed away the violent and bloated kingdom of a small and petty king.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Gift of Opportunity: An Open Letter to Teachers Starting a New Year

I remember going to practice for rugby and thinking that all of the running and diving and sliding in the summer heat was fun, but not that fun. Then, I got into my first game. The intensity and athleticism required pushed me to a new point of physical exhaustion. I was spent, but exhilarated. I went back to practice with a new enthusiasm. I played harder and harder, pushed my exhaustion point further and further. I felt like Superman because of what I was proving to myself I could do.

The same is true of the opening of school years. The relentless drudge of the meeting machine. The mind-numbing banality of printing lists, labeling folders, etc. The more exciting, yet still somewhat low-impact, drive to revisit lessons and revise them into better, more effective incarnations of themselves (or to pitch them on the fire of high-minded yet unpractical ones). The moment when the chrysalis of anticipation blooms into the butterflies of the first day. Getting to know new kids while saying hello to those already known. Some teachers say that the first day is almost like Christmas morning. I agree. Teachers on the first day are just like those children on Christmas morning: recipients of a gift that we know is beyond our deserving, the gift of opportunity.

I encourage you all, as you start or are preparing to start after the holiday, to remember the what it means that people entrust us with their children. Some might do so because we are an institutional constant, a necessity born of truancy laws and a vaguely democratic ideal, but that does not change the respect I have for my position as teacher. It is an awesome (and not in the trite, cliche, Spicoli-esque use of the word) responsibility to be a teacher. I find that most issues that arise in the classroom are the result of the moments when we forget that.

And I do not blame you if, in the middle of your planning weeks or your first days, you get frustrated, question your decision to return. I have been there. This year, I have the opportunity to see it from a different perspective. This year, I have to watch from the sidelines as colleagues go back to classrooms. Having recently moved to the Southeastern region of Pennsylvania, I am currently without a teaching position. My wife, also a teacher, was asked to come work in the region because of her exemplary success with her choral program. We made the move unaware of how difficult it would be for me to get a job in the area. So, now I am on the sidelines, trying to get back to the classroom, but grateful for the opportunity to observe. In my observations, I have seen teachers complaining about having to go back, wishing that their summer-long lack of students would go on. As they complain, I seethe. How could they be so unhappy when they have jobs? Then the self-righteousness of my soapbox collapses and I return to earth. I have done the same thing. I have made the same complaints.

So, from my seat on the sidelines, I have become more aware of how special a time the beginning of the new year should be. I now lay this challenge before you: before you launch into the day's issues, before you complain about that kid, before you lose your patience with that administrative policy, try to think of something for which you are grateful. I would never support the rhetoric of the past few years, the idea that any one should just be thankful they have a job, but I would encourage each of us to take the time to remember why we love what we do.

This letter is my attempt to do just that. Of course, the job search is frustrating and infuriating; however, I am grateful for what I have learned about myself while I sit on the bench. Take up the challenge, and take it to twitter. The High School Matters twitter feed is @HSMatters. I am challenging you to comment here or tweet there (or both) about what you are grateful for at the beginning of this school year. When you tweet, use the hashtag #teacheropp so that others can easily find them, especially when they need a shot of optimism. I look forward to seeing what you all write. If I have learned nothing else in all of my professional development with teachers, it is that we are surprising sources of hope and optimism. Let's see if we can start a movement of hope and optimism this year.

Best wishes as you embark on the new school year,

Dan Bruno

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Bootleg Pericles: or, how the Blogger got a crazy idea that might get him fired

by Dan Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT

If you've never read Pericles, you are fine. I am not sure I would have enjoyed it as much, or would have wanted to read it as much, if I hadn't seen the production that Taffety Punk put on Monday night, July 14th, at the Folger Theatre. For those unfamiliar with Taffety Punk, some words of introduction are warranted.

Taffety Punk Theatre Company, found here, operates with the not-so-simple mission of making theatre more accessible and affordable. They do this in a variety of ways; the way I and others here at the Teaching Shakespeare Institute experienced that mission was through Bootleg Shakespeare. The company memorized their lines ahead of time, but did not rehearse until the day of the performance. This means they had 6 hours to build a performance of the entirety of Pericles, Prince of Tyre. It was incredible.

Back on the Friday prior to the performance, we sat around the Foulke Conference Room, receiving a direct challenge to us as both teachers and people from Dr. Ayanna Thompson, now of the George Washington University. I left this discussion out in previous entries because it deserves its own post; however, given the nature of what I experienced at the Pericles performance, now seemed to be a good time to bring it up. But first, a digression.

If you go to, you will see a claim that the site peddles sporting event tickets at a 60% discount. Let's all take a moment to blink at what used to be scalping and head to the heart of it. Even at a 60% discount, tickets for an Eagles home game cost approximately $40 to sit where the game would look like Tecmo Bowl. For those of you with math skills, the original price was $99 plus tax. I'm afraid the NFL is unaware of the gross percentage of the population un- or underemployed. Those people scraping by to feed themselves and their families do not have the ability to spend even $40 on a ticket to root for the home team. During the Great Depression, despite a decrease in attendance of 40%, baseball tickets only cost $.50 or $8.17 in 2014 money. In times of strife and uncertainty what is more uplifting than gathering with the community at the stadium and rooting for your team to crush the other team? Sports have long been a vicarious form of warfare and many still attend games to relieve the stresses of everyday life. Taking the metaphor back a few hundred years and we see groundlings gazing at an open expanse of wood, walking through the theater door wanting to believe in something.

I hold that this desire to believe is true today. In our discussion with Dr. Thompson, who specializes in, for lack of a more definitive term, equity and access in relation to Shakespeare. She observed, and rightly if my experience is anything to add to the data, that many audiences for Shakespeare are getting older, staying whiter, keeping the majority of society at arms length behind a manufactured sense of power. Shakespeare's groundlings were not MENSA members. So why is it that we have constructed a fantasy about who Shakespeare's work belongs to today? Why do those with less education feel disenfranchised from the world of Shakespeare's stories? As the talk sped on, fever-pitched past the resistance of subconscious biases, one thing became clear: sometimes the ways we teach Shakespeare set up these social constructs of how can and should access his works.

So, I tried to do some back of the envelope research as I sat in my seat waiting for Pericles to begin. I gave up about five minutes in; the crowd was miraculously antithetical to the discussion we'd had days before. I, of course, have a theory why.

Taffety Punk, in its desire to share the works of Shakespeare with the community for free, cracked the power seal placed over the Bard's works by privilege and class. No expense tickets. No reserved seats. Only free tickets on a first-come, first-served basis. And the energy of the theatre company that would offer Shakespeare to the general public for free ruled the day. The house was packed with a crowd, while admittedly still overwhelmingly white, was younger and more multicultural than any other I'd seen for  Shakespeare performance. And the infectious nature of the show, a nature that had the audience laughing hysterically and cheering for a little boy with theater in his veins, drew every last person into the world of the play. For three hours, we were with Pericles through it all.

So, that brings me to "my great idea." Wherever I end up, I am going to give this a try; however, feel free to do the same wherever you are. I only ask that you write in and let me know how it went.

Every school has lunch shifts. My idea is, during our Shakespeare unit, to have students work up one scene for performance. Once we have rehearsed and prepared to the best of our ability, we are going to run down to the cafeteria, unannounced, and perform the scene. Right in front of the gathered school. When we are finished, we will disappear whence we came. I have more specifics in my head, but until I see what facilities I end up with, it is still only the kernel of an idea. Let me know what other embellishments you might throw in.

Every student deserves Shakespeare. He teaches us so much about being human, it seems to me that being human is the only prerequisite for access to his masterful lines.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The End of Illyria: Synthesizing Wednesday-Friday of Week 2

As we approached the end of Twelfth Night, it was apparent that doing one post a day was going to become tedious for me as the writer and, more importantly, more so for you as the reader. The design of the lectures and activities began to take a more synthetic shape: ideas and activities blending together in a more coherent whole.

Wednesday began with a lecture from one of our scholars on the idea of perspective in Twelfth Night. Using visual art as a point of access, and relating to the idea of practice as a trick, we dove into the text using a mathematical approach similar to that mentioned in a previous entry of this experience. Looking at all of the words related to perspective in Twelfth Night, we noticed that few of the references on their own were significant, but that the word vision itself does not appear in the text of the play. People can see, but they have no vision beyond what is apparent on the surface; thus does Viola masquerade as a man and others practice self-deception about what they want and what they can have. The characters must lack vision because unless they are complicit in the doubling present throughout the play, the poor disguises cannot work. Think about how "womanly" Orsino says Viola's voice is; she is no Frank Caliendo.

The doubling becomes part and parcel of an identity constructed in the liminal space of Illyria. Viola, acknowledging her own doubleness, says that she is a "poor monster" trapped between her womanly love for Orsino and Olivia's love for the young man Cesario. This fluid construction of gender created a porous border between sexes that was by turns humorous and discomforting (news flash: this is not the first generation to be uncomfortable with homosexuality). The mention of monster draws a parallel between The Tempest, the play that features the word monster the most, specifically between Caliban and Viola. In the end, acknowledging her two halves, one as man and the other as woman, Viola is caught in an inbetween world that is fraught with social danger; luckily, Sebastian arrives just in time to prevent the liminality of the moment from resolving in Viola's mortal end. After all, she couldn't very well be Cesario for the rest of her life with the demands being made of her.

After this discussion, we had a seminar and an interesting talk from Holly Doogan about the smells of Elizabethan England. Specifically, we discussed pomanders and their cultural connection with the plague, a topic I would encourage you to investigate further. Apparently, perfumes also existed in a liminal, inbetween space. Because perfumes were used to improve smell and to protect against the plague, they were both pestilence and prophylactic, a monstrous construct of scent. The olfactory imagery in Twelfth Night is mostly connected with Olivia's body, leading to interesting observations about Olivia and her scent.

The week ended, through lectures on both Thursday and Friday, focusing on the inbetween nature of the ending: the marriages that don't quite happen but will happen soon and the sadness of Feste's song. The liminality is spread thick, a veritable Nutella of uncertainty on the crispy toast of the play. The sweetness comes from the weddings that, though sudden, are the conventional outcomes for this play; the nuttiness is how much of it doesn't seem to resolve. When the play ends, Viola is still Cesario and Orsino cannot bring himself to call her Viola, Malvolio has stormed off somewhere doing who knows what, Andrew has been cast out to his destitution (yep, Toby spent it all), Toby and Mariah are married, Sebastian and Olivia are married, and nothing is resolved. Then, the damn clown starts singing. A sad song. To close the comedy. We are left where Viola's journey started: a vast and empty shore that is foreign to our eyes and understanding.

But, we are English teachers. We are nothing if not comfortable with unresolved, ambiguous stories. The gift we are giving our students is the ability to cope with these ambiguities. Daily, students wander our halls dealing with questions of sexual and gender identity, of personal identity, of love and desire, and of how their lives may progress when they step beyond the protection of our walls and onto the vast shores of their lives. The play becomes the liminal space wherein these ambiguous problems can be addressed, discussed, and played with in a way that avoids personalizing these issues (that is making them personal in a way that ends up setting a student up for ridicule and alienation).

As one of our visiting scholars pointed out, Twelfth Night is the end of the holiday season. Now are we turned out to the world to return to the daily rain that pours on until we can no longer focus on that bright future toward which we stumble with the best intentions. When we study this play, we give students surer footing in that all important journey to what we desire, or what we will.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Brothers, Sisters, Mothers, Fathers, and the Rest of the Tree

When I was younger, I used to get in fights with my sisters all the time. Sure, a part of it was the lack of gender similarity, but mostly it was because we were siblings. It seems that in my life, in every situation where some form of sibling or friend is involved, we are comfortable enough to fight, and caring enough to mend. As one of our scholars mentioned on Tuesday, this mending is oddly absent from the various endings of Twelfth Night.

The easiest place to analyze this fighting and mending between supposed siblings is between Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. Both Knights, they are brothers-in-arms, comrades on the front lines of battle. But what does that specific type of siblinghood mean in the context of peace? Apparently, if we observe Sir Toby, not much. Throughout the play, read this as "throughout the time Sir Andrew has money that Sir Toby wishes to dispossess him of," Sir Toby treats Sir Andrew as an equal, on the surface. Underneath his somewhat convivial exterior, a sneer is forming that finds its fullest expression in the final scene. As Sir Andrew tries to lump the two of them together in distress as in reveling, Sir Toby wheels on him, roundly rejecting him as brother in any sense. The brotherhood of the battlefield means nothing in the end of this comedy. There were many more examples, but I don't want to give anything away. I wonder how many we can get in the comments section below.

After the morning's lecture, we spent time in our seminar discussing the various familial connections we could interpret in the text. We didn't limit these to bonds of fraternity or other types of siblinghood, but we extended, mostly, to fathers. The very odd and obvious absence of fathers in the play drew most of our discussion, particularly as we discussed the idea of Feste and Malvolio being two different types of fathers to Olivia. In discussion, we determined that Feste can be seen as a comforting father figure to Olivia wile Malvolio plays the more stentorian role.When Sebastian, questioning Olivia's sanity after they have been amorous with one another, looks around and sees the orderliness of her household, remarking that that same orderliness indicates an orderliness in the mind of the woman in charge.If we think about it, the orderliness here is a result of Malvolio's work, not Olivia's. She has been too busy hiding behind closed doors, covering her face, sobbing. This melancholy is what Feste, as the comforting father, gets her to confront in his "take away the fool" discussion with her.

Following seminar discussions and lunch, we met with Dana Huff (@danamhuff) again. We finished looking at some tools, them got our hands on some different forms of technology, including:
I am going to start with the Folger Digital Texts site because it ties nicely into the Voyant tools website. The Folger Digital Text site is deceptively simple. First, the not-so-nice part: there are none of Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine's glosses by line. I know, bummer. Now that we are over it, let's look at what we can do. The search capability is beyond helpful. From the titles page (the one that has all of the titles on it that is pictured below), you can search the ENTIRE Shakespeare Corpus. All of the plays (and soon the sonnets, too).

You can also search within the play itself as you read. If you click search results in either window, you will jump directly to that spot in the text. There is also a fairly interesting navigator that allows jumping between lines with ease.

The real gift of the site is its open source code. (Listen up AP Computer Science teachers and students.) You can create custom searches and other types of programming exercises using the Folger's XML source code. You can get it on the home page at the button marked XML. Because the source is XML and very flexible, you can play with it by visiting the Folger Digital Text API.

One possible lesson derived from the API is one that deals with deeply reading and understanding the characters and text. First, click this link. The text you see is the entirety of Romeo & Juliet without dialogue tags or stage directions. Select a portion and make some copies. Handout copies to students. In groups, ask them to read through the section of the text together (I would recommend a round robin where everyone reads one line until they finish). Then, when they finish, ask them to divide the text into its parts (Romeo, Juliet, whoever). As they work, circulate and listen. Are they discussing the text? Are they justifying their decisions? This activity is no gimmick; as Mike Jones says: "It is all about close reading." Once they finish, ask them to read the scene to the class. Focus on the diversity, or lack of diversity, of how the class reconstituted this scene. Oh, and don't forget to enjoy yourself.

Voyant is a great website for what some people are calling distance reading, or the opposite of close reading. The greatest use of this site is to take the unlabeled text of a play from the API and plug it into the front page. When you hit "Reveal," get ready. The amount of information and the flexibility of analysis is fantastic. One sample exercise I already ran was to analyze two sonnets (one Petrarchan and one Shakespeaerean). In the end, the analysis revealed that the most repeated word in the Petrarchan sonnet was "she" while the Shakespearean sonnet featured "you." This led to an interesting discussion with Spencer Nissly about the focal points for each poet, and the relationship each had with those focal points.

A great day at the Folger filled with learning. What a "brave new world" we are approaching in our classrooms.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Men Their Creation Mar: Teaching Reading and Digital Literacy

In Measure for Measure, as Angelo makes his indecent proposal to Isabella, Isabella councils him that he should not try and use her brother's sentence of death as a means to gain her virginity. "Men their creatin mar" she says, in reference to Eve arising from Adam's rib. In much the same way, though not nearly in such an affecting way, man of either sex has abused that which it has created throughout our history as makers. What started as fire became a violent, nihilistic device that erased two Japanese cities from the Earth, never to return as they were. We sometimes disrespect or misunderstand that which we create, particularly as teachers in a 21st century classroom.

As much as I'd like to believe it, no one is a digital native in the sense that we immediately apprehend the use or effect of a specific piece of classroom technology. How many times have we, or our colleagues, "taught" a "technology" lesson by signing out the laptop cart? How often do we simply use a Wordle to discuss vocabulary, substituting design for meaning? The fact is, some of us are willing to experiment, some of us know how to use it, and some of us refuse to acknowledge its existence. Luckily, teachers across the country are working hard to help us organize and understand these rapidly developing technology tools.

The SAMR Model (pictured below) is one way to organize technology tools that allows us to be in control of when and how we use them.

The model also helps us to sort and identify tools once we have experimented with them.

The reason this matters is that we started a presentation with the great Dana Huff about technology tools in the classroom today. (Her blog, which is beyond helpful, can be found here.) You should also follow her on Twitter @danamhuff. In any case, we opened the technology discussion with an unusual activity: Director Of Education at the Folger Peggy O'Brien asked us to write words that describe the kids we teach on one post-it easel page and words hat describe the schools in which we teach on another post-it easel page. Once this was done, we went through the pages. We came to the conclusion that classroom technology should be used to enhance what is already here, not replace or diminish it. This discussion prompted Dana to bring up the SAMR model seen above. Finally, we went through a list of technology tools that Dana has used in her classrooms and school to teach, with a focus on Shakespeare teaching.

What is really valuable here is the thought process. Unfortunately, many people let opinion conquer them when it comes to the use of technology. Hopefully the SAMR model above is a step in the direction of creating professional conversations that help teachers separate the wheat from the 21st century chaff.

Heading back to the beginning of the day, a visiting scholar asked us to consider how the word "practice," as used in the play to mean trick or prank, could be applied to the play itself. Specifically, we attempted a thought experiment where Sebastian and Viola are played by a single actor. In this theatrical world, another actor would be required to play one of these parts in the final scene. Which actor? Which character? We went into how that would change the reading of the play we already developed when considering it in the context of the needs of this imaginary theatrical world.

We then had a colloquium with the same speaker during lunch. During the conversation, she brought up the following question: "What are we teaching when we teach Shakespeare?" That was and is the million dollar question. For her part, she suggested that we are teaching higher level reading, the sort that Speed is incapable of doing in the following scene:
SPEED How now, Signior Lance? What news with your
Mastership?LANCE With my master’s ship? Why, it is at sea.
SPEED Well, your old vice still: mistake the word. What
news, then, in your paper?

LANCE The black’st news that ever thou heard’st.
SPEED Why, man? How black?
LANCE Why, as black as ink.
SPEED Let me read them.
LANCE Fie on thee, jolt-head, thou canst not read.
SPEED Thou liest. I can.
LANCE I will try thee. Tell me this, who begot thee?
SPEED Marry, the son of my grandfather.
LANCE O, illiterate loiterer, it was the son of thy grandmother.
This proves that thou canst not read.

The problem here is that fathers beget their children while women are the ones who bear them. So, Speed's father begot him, but his father is of his father's mother, not of his father's father. The joke only works if you understand the context.

My answer is a bit different. The other day, we were talking at dinner and I posited that fate never really plays a role in Shakespeare's work because that is the easy, complication-free way of doing things and Shakespeare seems nothing if not complicated. His characters choose their "fates" by the sum total of their actions. One specific choice does not lead Juliet to the knife, but a series of choices place her on that path. These choices are also influenced by the actions of the other characters around her. Without the Nurse's suggestion that Juliet marry Paris, she might have sat tight, sought another way through, or not. The point is that these characters are wonderfully complicated, just like we are. Like Bloom says, Shakespeare seems to have understood how to invent the human as an idea.

That leads me to why we teach Shakespeare. We teach what it means to be human in all literature, but only in Shakespeare do we get to become that human. The performance, the embodying of someone so extremely representative of a type, helps our students to inhabit that space, to be someone else, for a moment. As another well-known literary figure has said, sometimes you have to get into another person's skin and walk around for a while to gain perspective.

These people, the characters in this play, have become part of our cultural unconsciousness. Consider the following. I bet you know who they are.

And yet the cultural understanding does not stay in one place. Even cultures that can seem about as opposite to our own as they can get appreciate and identify with the people in Shakespeare's work. Consider this picture:
Kurosawa saw Shakespeare's characters and knew that his countrymen would connect with the people in a play set in faraway highlands.

When I think about what I want when I teach, I think about helping my students understand how to live a good life. When I need models for that, I turn to Shakespeare. I teach him to show my students models of what a good life could be if they wanted it; that is they learn how to respect, rather than mar, that which they have created. Unsurprisingly, these characters walk with them long after they have closed the text and passed the test, companions for the long, difficult road ahead.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Leaning into the Wind: Preparing for the Second Whilrwind Week

Very few things can get high school English teachers as excited as books: the rarer, the better. As I sat in the reading room of the Folger Shakespeare Library on Saturday Morning (yep, I just wrote that), I realized that these old books, like any other, would open new doors to me, tempting me with a musky rustle to walk through them to new discoveries. As I picked up the very small edition of Luigi da Porto's novella, Julietta, I felt a sense of connection with the past that surprised and thrilled me. The translation of da Porto's medieval novella was published in 1894 and included an introduction comparing various versions of the Romeo and Juliet story that predated Shakespeare's enduring classic. One of the things that struck me about these various versions is the fact that Shakespeare was able to say so much in such a small space when compared with his predecessors.

For example, in Albert Brooke's poetic version (which is most likely the original source of Shakespeare's play), the Friar requires about 10 lines less, but comes across far less poetically. On the opposite end of the spectrum, William Painter (or Paynter if you are feeling fancy) required about six pages in the introduction to say the same thing. This difference is so disproportionate, that the author of the introduction writes that Juliet's relief at the end of the Friar's speech was not from the discovery of a way out, but that the man had stopped talking. I agree with him.

But what really struck me was da Porto's story. By way of comparison, I'll summarize the beginning:
Romeo Montecchi and Julietta Cappelletti live in Verona. Their families disagree about the existential condition of one another. The Cappellettis love to throw parties, so they do. Romeo shows up--dressed as a woman and wearing a mask (and we all thought Baz Luhrmann was way out on some limb). He puts aside his mask and is so beautiful, he throws all of the women into a jealous fit, save one: Julietta. She falls deeply in love with the "beautiful" Romeo. He does not feel the same way as he is there in pursuit of Julietta's cousin: the woman we all know as Rosaline. Romeo goes home when no affection comes his way from Rosaline. He wakes up the next day to mull over the fact that Julietta seemed pretty interested in him and how that made him feel better than Rosaline's stone cold rejection. Meanwhile, back at the Cappelletti estate, Julietta is still swooning, thinking actively to hersef that if she got Romeo to marry her, the families might stop fighting.

Obviously, I have paraphrased a bit, but you get the gist: this is not the story we know; however, it is the earliest recorded use of the names Romeo and Juliet and the earliest use of Verona as setting. It is the source text for the translations created by Brooke and Paynter (felt fancy). Why the change? The explanations are many, the least of which is that Shakespeare, being a good writer, changed details and added dialogue because a play is a far different genre than a novel.

All of this brings me back around to the beginning of Thursday's work at the Folger. Michael Witmore, Director of the Folger and Digital Humanist, walked us through what exactly the digital humanities are trying to accomplish. In a word, they are trying to create Access. The Folger's modern stacks (books published after 1830) run the length of a city block underground. Needless to say, that is a lot of text to rifle through looking for a specific piece of information. What the digital humanities seek to do is to turn the scholarly labyrinth into an easily navigable place. You looking for other texts that treat a specific pattern in a specific play by Shakespeare, or even contemporary plays that employ similar patterns, do a search and the computer compiles which books fit your criteria. Think about a card catalog with enhanced eyesight, seeing on the level of the page the context you seek and bringing it to your attention. What might have been a hidden jewel becomes a visible, useful, polished gem. At one point, Witmore explained a discovery a colleague of his made at one of the universities where he worked. In short, using a computer to analyze the text of Shakespeare's plays, a report was generated that scientifically classified Shakespeare's plays in a sort of taxonomy of dramatic structures: a classification identical to the one Heminge and Condell created in the Table of Contents in the First Folio. They had no computer, but they made judgments we now know to be based on an intuited understanding of the mechanics of the play. The only difference? The computer did it in 30 minutes.

After this eye-opening lecture, we discussed in our seminar groups the potential gifts of the digital humanities. We also discussed whether or not knowing that Shakespeare built his works upon familiar and consistent structures would reduce the view of him as exceptional. As one member said it, this might destroy the cult of Shakespeare.

But there is more to a writer than structure and form. Homer, or whoever Homer might have been (notice that genius in the modern age is received with the skepticism that only the well-educated and well-traveled could be truly great), used phrases like epithets to build repetition into the form of his works. Do the structures of the oral tradition depreciate the value of Homer's work? Does our lives lack the four elements? In other words, NO. There are reasons why so little survives from antiquity, but Homer's work is so surprisingly complete. It is the same reason that tomorrow, next year, next decade, or next century, when the inevitable hand is played and we nearly eradicate ourselves with this or that horrific weapon, the survivors will find treasured volumes like the plays of Shakespeare kept safe from the indiscriminate destruction we so often unleash.

Besides, Shakespeare's stories are not really his stories; they are the stories of the European cultures of his time. The fact is that Shakespeare's characters, like those of Dickens or Faulkner, are so fully realized, so infused with vitality on the page and stage that we cannot help but see something of ourselves in them all. From our wild, Sir Toby sides to our buttoned-up, Malvolio sides, Shakespeare knew how to create humans, to place them in conflict, and to make that conflict matter in the most basic of ways. After all, what is more fundamentally human than the means of our deaths, the creation of unions that generate life, and teh pursuit of our own happiness? The structures do not speak to our hearts, the words do.

Enough waxing philosophical, need to get back on track. We ended our day with a virtual tour of the library's online catalog and the online image database. Access to these is well beyond the value of the time and energy we are putting in here. We received our charge to do some research (for ourselves!), and the dreamy look I saw in the eyes of my friends (for that is what we have become) as we sat in the reading room on Saturday told the story of love beyond two Veronese lovers.

Bring on the week. We are ready for more.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Undrowning the Reader

There is an odd sense of time here in Shakespeareland. Even though we spent a portion of the morning looking over these intensely interesting forgeries made by an early modern con man, it feels like weeks ago. There is so much to learn, see, and do at the Folger, the brain has to expand time to make sense of all that we learn in one day.

The forgeries were part of an opening lecture by one of our scholars-in-residence. As we are looking at Twelfth Night first, this talk was on the notion of shipwrecks as loss that, despite the apparent irretrievable nature of the loss, will often lead to weird resurrections. In the case of the play, Sebastian and Viola are resurrected, one for the other, in the final scene of the play. What the sea has torn asunder, the earth has restored. There were a number of other plays in which undrowning occurred, but it was a common enough motif to pattern and preoccupation, a somewhat obsession with the notion of restoration. This idea even shows up in the sonnets.

What was most interesting to me was what it made me think of in terms of how we, as high school teachers of Shakespeare, have the most important task when it comes to undrowning the works of Shakespeare: keeping our students comfortably afloat on the sea of his language. This task become especially problematic when your students are not gifted or highly motivated; often for these kids, reading Shakespeare is akin to being drenched in a foreign language that seems to be a frustrating cognate of the language they speak, but defies (or denies) translation.

I have had colleagues in the past who flee in the face of teaching Shakespeare to a standard class. The lines fly thick and fast: "They just don't get it";"It is too hard for them";"They cannot handle that"; fill in from here. The litany of excuses leads to one of two conclusions: either the people using them are power hungry or they do not understand the text. Neither of these options are particularly appealing.

If the first is true, if we are power hungry, then I ask what right do we have to withhold knowledge from any student? The question is legitimate and completely free of sarcasm. Teaching is about walking down new pathways with students, leading them to knowledge they will need and showing them how to understand it. If we believe this to be true, what we teach to our students should be about leading them into places they cannot access themselves. Every student, as we know from experience, struggles with accessing Shakespeare: the difference is how deeply they can access the text. A student who has difficulty reading does not need to be able to intellectualize the multiple meanings of a specific mythological allusion, but simply to enjoy the plots, characters, and linguistic fun of the play. The intellectualization can come after they allow themselves into the work. But, in providing adapted texts or merely barring the way altogether, we unconsciously deny students access to these great works that, if we think about it, were written for every citizen from groundling to queen. We submerge the texts in the sea of high culture that excludes many students, particularly those at risk of poor academic performance.

However, if the second is true, it is certainly more excusable. We all had to discuss who taught us how to teach Shakespeare, and for the most part the answer was really ourselves. When we are learning on the job from colleagues, we are applying those lessons to our own style of teaching, synthesizing a new, untested method. Don't get me wrong. I am not trying to impugn anyone's Shakespeare professor. The ugly truth is that knowing a text and understanding it well enough to teach it are very different provinces in the mind. If I am uncomfortable with a text, I am either going to skip it or teach it fairly poorly. My inexperience, though not my fault, leads to a poorly developed educational experience for my students, drowning them in my own confusion.

To dive on this wreck, we must understand more about how we learn. The thing that makes the Folger's method so effective is something cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham emphasizes in the video below.

The blending of modalities plays to the various strengths and weaknesses in our brains, but also helps us focus on meaning and not merely the visual, auditory, or kinesthetic quality of a topic. The Folger's philosophy blends multiple modalities in the interpretation of these plays that, frankly, were intended to exploit multiple modalities in its audience. We hear dialogue, see movements, and experience emotional connection with characters and events playing out in front of us.

After the talk and seminar in the morning, we had great performance session where our group was given a series of really great maxims that are well-worth sharing.
  • This scene is your whole play: this further reinforces the Folger philosophy that close reading on one's feet does not require the teaching of a whole play; focus on what the scene shows us about the people in it, etc.
  • All plays are contemporary: despite the original context of the play, students bring their own cultural contexts and personal contexts to the plays they are reading; validating those contexts validates the student and builds confidence
  • Characters are defined by what they do, not what they say: helping students focus on action eases some of the anxiety with the foreign quality of the language
  • Words can convey many meanings: What do you mean when you say it?: this one reminds students that they have choice and ownership over their readings of the text while validating that there is no one way to play it
  • What does the script tell us, NOT what would we like it to tell us?: this one reminds students that everything they need to know is on this page; there is no secret code to reading Shakespeare
  • Dialogue is action-oriented: all utterances have a goal behind them, even if that goal is to be left alone; understanding these helps link performance movement choice to how the line is read
  • Good plays are about human behavior: this one links to the previous one; how do people behave when they are in specific contexts attempting to gain specific desires
  • You cannot play themes or literary tropes: these things are great for the world of literary analysis, but alien to the world of the actor; people don't consider themes when they are trying to bed lovers or destroy rivals; themes arise from our reflection on those events
The highlight of the day followed the performance sessions and tea time. Barbara Mowat came to speak to us about how she and her co-editor edit the Folger Shakespeare Editions. I could not hope to explain the process or what we did in this medium, but I do want to share what one of our fabulous master teachers asked. As the final question of our session, one of the master teachers asked Barbara Mowat what she had learned about Shakespeare the man after spending so many years intimately involved with the text of the plays. Her response moved the room. What I am typing here is paraphrase; if you are not moved, it is most definitely my fault. First, she said, Shakespeare loved language; second, he believed in compassion, and compassion that came from unusual places. Finally, she defended Shakespeare against those who say he is just a plagiarist, explaining that Shakespeare was adapting well-known stories, much like people do now with screen adaptations of classic novels. His genius is in the portrayal, not the plot.

These responses resonated so with us for, I believe, two reasons. First, that English teachers are a fairly compassionate bunch who want to teach that virtue to their students. I would argue that this compassion is what make Shakespeare such a rich and valuable text in our minds. Second, we have a concrete example upon which we have focused this week: the mistreatment of Malvolio in Twelfth Night that so unsettles us at the end. The fact that we can feel sympathy at all for such an intransigent man is remarkable because it makes us feel a way that we would not traditionally feel. The challenge to compassion is something I had not considered and am grateful for learning.

Later in the evening, we watched Henry IV, Part 2 live from Stratford-upon-Avon. This fact is not specific to TSI, but being in a room full of people you know who also love Shakespeare enhances the experience. We laughed together, sighed together, sympathized together. We learned more about being human together and, as a result, undrowned our often saturated hearts and minds. Isn't that why we teach and love the humanities?

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Imaginative Geography, Comedic Arguments, and Rare Books...Oh My!

by Dan Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT

Before I begin, I have to point something out. This point may be obvious to everyone but me, God knows it took me long enough to figure it out, but Washington, D.C. is a special place. Take the word special with whatever size grain of salt. As I stood in the hallway outside the reading room at the Folger Shakespeare Library, I was confronted by two deep, penetrating eyes; I have no idea their original color, but the greyscale of the black and white photo took me to Ithaca and tales of a grey-eyed goddess of wisdom. The man in possession of these eyes would probably rather I compared him to someone more heroic, but I think the wisdom allusion is more apt. In this modern city of grasping greedy special interests, of wobbling wonky politicians, of emerging energetic arts of all kinds, a thread of American Exceptionalism that actually rings true stands proud and unnoticed by many: selfless, active charity.

In the shadow of the Capital dome that has come, for many, to represent the dysfunction and disappointment that has plagued the politics of the federal government, institutions sit that embody the best parts of American culture: that drive and desire to learn more, to know more, and, by virtue of the transformative power of knowledge, to become more present in the gifts of people like the Smithsons and the Folgers. Henry Folger could simply have locked away his collection, hidden it deep within his private home, and, Golem-esque, cooed over the brightly bound volumes of his collection. He didn't. I don't think it hit me how remarkable this fact is until today. While power is used as a billy club down the street, Henry Folger, in a way that would make Zeno proud, turned the power of his wealth into an open hand of learning.

Enough with my Orsino impersonation; what did we do today? After an early 7:45 AM departure, we arrived at the Folger Library and heard a talk from one of our resident scholars on the Imaginative Geography of Twelfth Night. We discussed the location of Illyria (near modern Croatia), its history of violence and reputation for pirates, and how this exotic and dangerous place shapes the ways the characters are and how they behave. There was also consideration of some of the domestic geography of places like the upstairs/downstairs dichotomy of servant and served and the purity and power of the Garden as liminal (in-between) space. For example, consider how the garden wall encloses the space in Leonardo da Vinci's Annunciation. Mary is seen as an enclosed garden, bearing fruit but never penetrated; therefore, she is without original sin.

This idea of Garden as liminal space arose from an analysis of Northrop Frye's "The Argument of Comedy." In it, Frye divides the spaces in a comedy thus:

  • City and Civilization: Law/Fathers are Harsh; Young peoples' desires are frustrated
  • Green World: Inversion of hierarchy; magic agent; disorder; sexual freedom and violence
  • Renewed Society: Law and society accommodate young people (Fathers are tempered); Young people adjust to social order (Young people are tempered); Lower-class individuals invited into society
The questions we asked about Twelfth Night in relation to this paradigm dealt with whether or not Illyria is a green world, or whether or not Malvolio, with the malevolent parting shot of "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you," is ever fully restored to the renewed society. This led to a discussion of characters as liminal representations, too. So much of Twelfth Night seems predicated upon disorder, and a disorder that seems only tentatively resolved at the play's end. Though, this tentative order is perfect for the twelfth night holiday, a time of inversion. This disorder is represented in Feasts of Fools where masters of the household would serve the table and the fool would sit in state at the head of the table.

Lastly, we discussed Viola as a liminal character, one who is "in standing water, between boy and man." Dr. Desmet explained that standing water was when the shore was stable between tides, suggesting that Viola exists as the ebb and flow, changing from role to role, living an in-between life.

After this engaging talk, we broke into seminars. These seminars are led by our scholars in residence. In our seminar, we discussed the following topics:
  • How the Play opens: one of our group members mentioned that he believed that the opening was practical for the play in that it sets up the idea to be discussed; given that Twelfth Night covers three months, people seem to do very little in the play (that is except the women who, as one person observed, seem to be "working their asses off.")
  • Orsino: emo, unstable, and love-sick, the initial descriptions we receive of him from others are all positive (see 1.2 and the discussion between the sea captain and Viola)
  • Olivia's role as head of household: Women in charge of households at the time is very unusual and places a certain burden on Olivia that she seems to want and at the same time wants to give away; one person speculated that Cesario's take charge and aggressive manner of wooing might indicate to Olivia one who could run her household (I mean, at least Cesario is there instead of pining away in his castle all by himself--Ors-emo)
  • Eunuchs: Yep. Apparently this reference alone would have conjured up an entire world of images and ideas associated with the exotic and far away lands of the Illyrians and Turks (this viewpoint was later supported by one of the rare books we saw that had drawings from a production of Twelfth Night; the drawings played heavily on the idea of the harem and other near/middle-eastern cultural icons)
  • Marriage: there are two types in Shakespeare's plays: 1) Dynastic and 2) Affective; Dynastic is the arranged, power-brokering type while Affective is that done for love
  • Toby as the parodic ghost of the absent (because they are dead) fathers in the play
  • Service: 60% of Early Modern English people were in service for some portion of their lives; llike Maria, middle or lower class people would work in close proximity with people of higher classes, and, also like Maria, perhaps end up marrying up in station; there was a remarkable amount of class mobility for such a regiment time and society
  • Sumptuary Laws: at the time, they were very harsh; the harshness was tied more to infractions of class than infractions of gender.
Having a scholar lead the group was both enlightening, informative, and transformative. For every cogent, salient point a seminar member made, the scholar was able to expand and deepen our understanding. This experience is another that you should consider invaluable and should lead you to apply for the next TSI.

For the bibliophile: After lunch, we were treated to a great presentation by one of the Folger librarians which included a number of rare books, and a first folio. Yeah. You need to apply. Some of the notable other volumes present were an early printing of Chaucer, a promptbook of an Augustin Daly production of Twelfth Night, two original Quartos of Romeo & Juliet, and the original novella that inspired Romeo & Juliet. Then, we traveled to the reading rooms to see the beautiful architecture (the stained-glass window depicting the Seven Ages of man, for example) and the extraordinary collection of the Folger library.

To close out the day, we did some curriculum. We discussed Peggy O'Brien's beliefs about teachers which underlie the Folger's Teaching Philosophy, available on their website. Then, we did two popular activities that some may have experienced at National Convention presentations: Slugs vs. Clods and Two-Line Scenes. Both of these are readily available online through the Folger's education website and lesson plan archive.

In sum, we expanded our knowledge of the library, saw wonderful things, and learned a lot about the depth of setting (internal and external) that shapes Twelfth Night. At the end of day two, our imaginative geography is rather crowded, and there is still so much more undiscovered country.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Teaching Shakespeare Institute 2014 Day One

by Dan Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT and Quintin Burks


That is the only word I can come up with (and it is a sad, overwrought one) to describe my first day of the Teaching Shakespeare Institute. If there is truly a theme of marriage in this year's group, then today was the honeymoon. We got to know one another again through discussions about curriculum, performances of Cinna the poet's tragicomic death, performance exercises, and a complete round robin reading of Twelfth Night. Moreover, we received an excellent and engaging lecture from one of the scholars-in-residence on the historical and cultural context of bear-baiting in Twelfth Night. For those intrigued by this concept, and, believe me, it is far more interesting than you would think, much of the substance of this lecture can be found here. In the article, you will learn about the context of bear-baiting and how it enriches lines like the following:
Have you not set min honor at the stake, /  And baited it with all th' unmuzzled thoughts / That tyrannous heart can think? - Olivia, III.i.123-125

To break our day down further, let me get into the schedule (a detailed outline of which has been kindly provided by my co-author for the post, Quintin Burks). After walking into the gorgeous theatre at the Folger and learning about our faculty for the institute as well as its founding principles, we dove into a session on curriculum. We opened this session with each participant offering three sentences:

  1. Who are you and what/where do you teach?
  2. What plays have you taught/are you currently teaching?
  3. Who taught you to teach Shakespeare?
By about the halfway point, it was pretty clear what our master teachers were trying to emphasize: very few of us (I only recall two) were explicitly taught HOW to teach Shakespeare. Side Note: Millersville University got some serious kudos for their intensive course on Teaching Shakespeare; if you are a pre-service teacher, look them up.

After the opening discussion, we did something we affectionately dubbed "Julius Caesar Salad." For those familiar with the Shakespeare Set Free series or the Folger's Pedagogical Philosophy, you know you do not need to teach the whole play to teach Shakespeare. This exercise played to that notion by having each group of 6-7 people perform a scene from Julius Caesar, the tragicomic death of Cinna the Poet III.iii. Here is how to adapt the activity; however, be warned that knowing the steps is not a replacement for experiencing it firsthand. The two-part goal of these posts is to encourage others to apply and to spread the word about this wonderful program.
Julius Caesar Salad: 
  1. Give the Cinna scene (III.iii) from Julius Caesar to the class. Divide the class into groups of 6-7.
  2. Have the students assign parts to each other (this becomes complicated because you are intentionally stocking the group with more actors than necessary; students have to be creative with how they use the text so that each person in the group is involved).
  3. Afterwards, students work on how to perform the scene including blocking, speaking parts, etc.
  4. Allow time for practice (20 minutes is good)
  5. Hand out a  sheet of elements to add to the scene (ex: tableau, silences, laughter, etc.)
  6. Ask that all or a certain number of those elements be included in the scene
  7. Perform the scenes in quick succession
  8. Once the final group has performed, discuss what the students noticed as they saw each other perform the same scene.

After this excellent session, we moved on to either lunch or getting our reader's cards for the reading room at the Folger (insert nerdy dance break).

After lunch, we gathered for the lecture mentioned above. I still cannot say enough about how enlightening and engaging it was.

After the lecture, we had performance time with two acting experts, both university instructors. We began with a warmup: 

  1. Begin by having students shake their hands, then arms, then bodies, then legs then heads.
  2. Have students reach as high up as they can while breathing deep, and then slowly exhaling as they reach toward the ground.
  3. Then, have students walk around on tip toes, heels, and the sides of their feet. 
  4. Students then learn how to project voice while learning trust by using a blindfold and being led first by touch, then by voice.
  5. Next, Students hum and breathe while standing in a circle.
  6. Have students open their mouths wide to let the sound out while still humming.
  7. Have students place their hands on their foreheads and chests to feel the vibration of their own hums.
  8. Students then move into a circle, standing shoulder-to-shoulder to feel the vibrations of of their neighbors, opening their mouths when directed to create a mock vocal symphony.
  9. Stop. There should be silence
  10. Students simultaneously speak: “Hello, my name is (Whatever their names are, probably not Slim Shady)."

After these activities, we did an activity called Shakespeare in a Can (or in this case, three).

  1. Students pair up and choose to be either partner A or partner B.
  2. "A" students select a particular quotation from Shakespeare from the A can (and keep it to themselves, not even showing their partners).
  3. "B" students select a particular quotation from the B can (and keep it to themselves).
  4. One of the two selects a location from the third can.
  5. Allow time for students to briefly prepare an improv scene without sharing their quotations; these scenes are made up of improvisational dialogue and situations in which the students must use their quotations.
  6. Students perform scene, being sure to include their quotations in their scene wherever they belong.

Lastly, we reflected on our performance activities using something called Rounds. Standing in a circle, we each went through a series of sentence starters:

  • I learned...
  • I wish...
  • I noticed...
  • I resent...
  • I appreciate...
In completing these, we learned a lot about what we had learned and experienced that day. This statement may seem obvious, but try the activity and then tell me you aren't shocked at how thoroughly the day's lessons are analyzed.

After a wonderful dinner at a restaurant called We the Pizza (GO THERE!), we gathered to read through Twelfth Night. As we read together, laughing at the jokes and cringing at all of the references to bear-baiting (read the article), it was apparent that after only one day, the TSI class of 2014 had become a strong family, built upon a foundation of Bardolatry.