Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Solo Week

When classes start up again after vacation, I'm going to embark on my first solo week.

The University requires that I teach, all by my lonesome, for two weeks during the internship. Those weeks can happen pretty much any time and in any configuration the intern and CT chooses - Monday to Friday, say, or Wednesday to Tuesday. An intern can do both weeks together if he or she wishes, or split them up over the span of the internship. I'm going to start mine of Monday.

I spent some time this afternoon with CT at her place. We talked about my solo week and about what I should do with the various classes. We decided quite some time ago that we would co-teach the Advanced Placement (AP) class, both because teachers get special training to teach AP and because there's one particular student who's been a thorn in CT's side and she doesn't want to give him any reason to go running to Mummy and Daddy whining about the poor quality of his education. She's giving me a lot of leeway in deciding what we do with the class that week, though, and I'm looking forward to some of the conversations I'm going to try to get started with those kids.

I'm going to have them do some writing about Bel Canto (which they're supposed to be reading over vacation) and we're going to read Hamlet cover to cover (they watched the Mel Gibson movie over the course of the last week or so). I want to see if I can get the kids to establish enough critical distance from the texts to be able to connect them in meaningful ways. It's kind of a stretch - or, at least, it will be for them - because the works aren't obviously related; there are quite a few common themes, but no common plot points. The point for the week's lessons will mostly revolve around active reading and meaning-making; something they should already be doing, not only as AP students but as juniors and seniors. Neither CT nor I are confident that they have quite reached the "active readers" stage yet, though. The whole point of all this literature stuff, in my view, is to give us experiences through which we interpret the world around us. I want to see if I can get the kids beyond just dragging their eyes over the words on the page to really USING the experience of reading as a means of understanding themselves and their lives.

(proofreading that last paragraph has me thinking “what the HELL am I thinking?!?” Wish me luck, wouldja?)

The Freshmen 200's are going to get more of what they were working on before vacation. The period 2 kids will continue working on the literature and poetry of the Holocaust. I'm really interested in opening up a conversation about the concepts of justice and forgiveness with them; I felt like the AP kids didn't really attend to the idea fully when we tried to engage them in that same discussion a few weeks ago. I've got a bunch of material in mind to move the class along; song lyrics from Patty Griffin, writing prompts about slavery and internment camps and the treatment of Native Americans at the hands of the U.S. government - I might have them watch a West Wing episode where Josh gets into it with a Justice Department appointee about slave reparations. We'll probably spend most of the block day watching Nuremberg (which I'm looking forward to, never having seen it myself) and writing about the really big questions that Holocaust literature presents.

The period 4 kids will finish watching Romeo and Juliet, then we'll work on some sonnets. I'm not sure how much I really want to drill the mechanics of the form into them (*I* still have to look up the poetic rules for sonnets - I can't expect them to memorize them if it hasn't been important enough to ME to commit to memory, now, can I?). I really just want them to read them, to speak them, to let the language work through their brains so that they can make sense of a few of them.

Then - and this is the part I'm REALLY looking forward to - we're going to (TRY to) discuss the ineffable; that part of poetry and drama and literature that speaks to us in ways that we can't adequately describe. How does a piece of writing, or an actor's performance, communicate more than just what's on the page or script? I want them to think about times when they've been stricken by something outside of themselves - a poem, a song, a performance in a play or movie; hell, I'll even take a play in a football game - that's transcended language. How do we experience those moments? How do we communicate them to others so we can share them? Does the act of putting such moments into words somehow diminish the experience? I'm not sure I can pull it off, but I'm SO excited to see what freshmen come up with anyway.

The period 5 kids - the 400 levels - are going to do some writing. CT asked one of the students in that class, just before vacation, what kind of writing she likes to do. She said that the class really enjoys writing prompts that are personal, so I'm going to compose five day's worth of "tell me about you and what's important to you" prompts. Then, we're going to work with Frankenstein.

I'm pretty sure that the novel is too much for these kids. It's nothing like the Bella Lugosi movies they may or may not have seen, and Shelley's language is dense and formal and I doubt these particular students would have any patience for it at all, so we're going to watch a movie. I may photocopy a couple of passages from the book, but most of their comprehension of the work will come from the film, and I’m more than okay with that.

I bought this DVD - which I'd never seen before - from the bargain bin of my video store a couple of summers ago. I'm not usually in the habit of buying movies without having seen them, but I'm SO glad I bought this one. It's a Hallmark version - made for t.v. - is very faithful to Shelley's story and the production is, in my humble opinion, excellent. The story is really about acceptance and rejection and finding an identity - all themes with which nearly every teenager can identify, and I'm hoping that they'll at least consider attending to some of the material as a group. We'll do some writing around the theme, and I may ask them to put together an "identity" project that will ask them to really consider who they are and what's important to them and, more importantly, why. I'm not sure I can pull THIS off, either, but I'm willing to give it a good try.

So, I'm not sure how much writing I'm going to be doing during my solo week. I'm hoping to be able to keep pace with the work - actually, I’m hoping to make the KIDS do most of the heavy lifting - but I may find that my evening writing time is taken up with other tasks. Regardless, I'll post an update when it's all finished. Keep checking in...

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Membership Has Its Privileges

I was in Barnes & Nobel today, meeting a friend for a bit of cocoa and conversation. While I was there, I picked up a book we promised my father-in-law for his birthday and, well, a couple of other things.

While I was standing in line doing quick math in my head (okay, I'll 'fess up, I have to round everything to the nearest, oh, five dollars. My math skills really suck), I figured I had about eighty bucks' worth of books. Yikes. While figuring, and keeping track of my small people, I heard someone behind a register talking about a teachers' discount. Hello? Could you say that again, please?

So, when my turn came, I asked my very pierced checkout girl what the whole "teachers' discount" thing was about. She turned expectantly to her manager, who proceeded to explain to me that, if I could provide a paystub or a picture ID from my school, I could take advantage of the promotion. It gives me 20% off of school related books (but not textbooks, he explained, because B & N doesn't get discounts off of them from the publisher and, therefore, can't pass along a discount to the customer) and discounts on other things like DVDs and games during their special educators' weeks, which he'd be happy to inform me of if I provided my email address.

It turns out he was willing to take my word for it that I worked in a high school, since I had neither my ID nor a paystub to offer as proof of my eligibility. I'm pretty sure my selection of books helped my case quite a bit - I had the Arden Complete Shakespeare and a bunch of SparkNotes folders about grammar, composition and annotation; not exactly bedside reading for most folks.

After my discount, I still payed over seventy bucks. It's okay, though - I got a new book for the girls, my FIL's birthday present, a really nice annotated complete works of the Bard, and a bunch of easy-to-follow quick references that are very helpful in making mini-lesson plans.

Have I mentioned before how much I LOVE books?

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

They've Gotta Think You Like Them

I was the recipient of some very good advice yesterday, though I'm not entirely sure what to DO with it.

CT and I were sitting in the tiny office she shares with another English teacher when she turned to me and said, "Okay, I'm going to tell you this because I've been at this for 25 years, and it took me a long time to learn it and I want to save you some time. Freshman will only work for you if they think you like them."

Apparently, all grade levels perform better for teachers they feel kindly towards, but this axiom holds particularly true for freshman. Coming from middle schools, freshmen are used to being coddled and treated kindly, CT said, and they often don't know how to function independently. The idea that "you're in high school now and the rules are different" doesn't seem to sink in until at least sophomore year - if even then - and the key to getting 9th graders to produce is to give them the impression that they're your favorites.

I was out of the period 4 classroom on Monday and CT told me that they'd expressed relief to have her back as their teacher. It seems that they don't think I like them.

To be fair to me - and to them - I didn't come to them under the best of circumstances. I arrived, unannounced and in the middle of a week, and almost immediately started leading their class. There was almost no transition to speak of. Add to that the fact that they'd been disintegrating as a class since the semester break back at Christmas, and CT was starting to crack back down on the expectations for classroom behaviour. I was in on that process and my theory is because my appearance coincided with the reestablishment of order, they've decided that I don't like them.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. While I may not KNOW them very well, I do like them. And I'm SO proud of the work they did with the Hamlet unit! When I was back in class yesterday, I made a point of telling them that I'd been bragging about them to everyone I know (and even to people I DON'T know) since Friday - that I think they did truly remarkable work when asked to do things that are usually only asked of upper classmen and freshmen in college, and that I'm really excited to be working with them.

I'm hoping that helps but, short of being more expressive of my enthusiasm for being with them, I'm not sure what else I can (or should) do.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

To Be or Not To Be....

...that may be the question, but the answer is most decidedly YES! Freshman CAN work with Hamlet, and do an amazing job at it, too.

There is much noise and clamor that Hamlet is "too much" for freshmen. The play is too dense, the argument goes; there's too much intrigue and psychological machinations and ambiguity for younger students to fully comprehend. The popular opinion seems to be that Romeo and Juliet is the way to go with ninth graders; Hamlet is so far beyond the capacity of youngsters to comprehend as to be completely inaccessible.

Oh yeah? Well, that may be true in a lot of cases, but I’m here to tell you that my freshman 200 level kids KICKED HAMLET’S ASS these last two weeks.

I had planned a unit that revolved almost entirely around Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet, which was released in 1990 and stars Mel Gibson, Glen Close, and Ian Holm, among others. This version is perhaps my favorite, not only because I’m comfortable with the actors, but because it isn’t set in modern times - I have trouble with modern settings for Shakespearian works. Anyway, I love this version. Yes, Zeffirelli makes some creative adjustments to the original text - most notably transposing the “to be or not to be” soliloquy and the “are you honest? Are you fair?” confrontation between Hamlet and Ophelia - but, not being a purist, I don’t feel these changes negatively impact the work as a whole.

Really, though, I love the film because it’s accessible to young people. Even these kids, who were born two years after this film was released, know many of the actors - they’ve seen the Lethal Weapon movies and most of them recognized Helena Bonham Carter, though they didn’t know from where. They’re often put off by the language - Zeffirelli uses Shakespeare's words - but they feel as though they can “get” this if they try. It doesn’t seem dated or foreign to the students in ways that other, older productions seem to.

I approached the unit with my main focus being the film. We started out by reading the “to be or not to be” soliloquy (see the “I love my life” post for a comment about that) and spent a day or so really digging into what it means. The kids came up with a lot of really good insights, especially considering none of them admitted to having any prior experiences with the play. They were able to figure out, without any translations from me, that Hamlet was contemplating suicide but that he was afraid to take his own life because, they said, he didn’t know if the life he was living now, as bad as it was, wouldn’t be better than whatever life came after death (and they even talked about how suicide was a “sin” and he might face an eternity of punishment for it, which didn’t help his decision-making any). I was amazed by how well they managed to work through that particularly dense piece of drama, and by how tenacious some of them were about getting it “right”.

We watched the film in bits, mostly because the classes are only fifty minutes long (and these kids still haven’t figured out how to come in and settle right down, so we’re usually left with only about half an hour of actual class time when all is said and done). While it’s not the most enjoyable way to watch a film - in fact, it bugs the crap out of me, personally - I stopped the DVD every so often to ask the kids what was going on and, much to my giddy delight, most of them had a pretty good handle on it. Sometimes, though, I stopped the DVD because they asked ME what was going on - and I’ve got to tell you that, most of those times, they asked about particularly difficult scenes. They were confused by Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia, they didn’t get a lot of Polonius’ ramblings, and they missed the bit about Claudius sending Hamlet to England to be killed (and, being freshmen, they were completely grossed out by how much families kissed each other on the lips, which I thought was funny).A few days into the film, I photocopied a couple of scenes from my favorite annotated version and asked them to read the text ahead of watching the scenes in the movie. Without a whole lot of prompting from me, they were able to speak to the differences between the text and the film and how those differences affected the mood and tone of the scenes they watched. Though none of them was particularly eloquent, they had the right ideas, and it was profoundly exciting for me as their teacher. One student, commenting on the omission of most of Ophelia’s dialogue during the “are you honest, are you fair?” scene, struggled to explain that her silence made her seem weaker and more vulnerable, and that same student mentioned later that the mood set in that scene helped make Ophelia’s insanity later in the play much easier to believe. Another student said that he didn’t quite get the “feel” for the scene through reading, but that it made much more sense after seeing it. They were able to talk about how Hamlet knew he was being watched by Claudius and Polonius and was testing Ophelia when he asked her where her father was. When she answered “at home,” and Hamlet knew full well that she was lying to him, the students talked about how this betrayal of trust on Ophelia’s part only fueled Hamlet’s anger and confusion and helped explain his behaviour toward her later in the play. One particularly attentive student decided that Zeffirelli transposed that scene and “to be or not to be” (“to be or not to be” comes before “are you honest, are you fair” in the original version, if you don’t know) so that Ophelia’s lie contributed to Hamlet’s despair and contemplation of suicide. It was beautiful.

We finished the movie on Friday. As a final assessment, I asked them to pick a scene that best illustrated Hamlet’s true character, then write a short essay explaining to me why they felt the scene was so telling.

Most of them chose the final scene, particularly where Laertes, after being wounded with his own poisoned sword, confesses all to Hamlet and begs his forgiveness as they are both dying. They watched Hamlet forgive his friend, and beg his forgiveness in return. They watched as Queen Gertrude, portrayed as completely innocent in the film, dies in Hamlet’s arms. They saw how Claudius responds to both the queen’s death and Laertes’ accusations. They loved it.

And they wrote. Several of them really dug deep and came up with the opinion that Hamlet was never crazy at all - that it was all an act. They explained that every single thing he did throughout the play was motivated entirely by love - his love for his father, his love for his mother, his love for Ophelia. They wrote that Hamlet only ever wanted to do the right thing and that not always knowing what the “right” thing was was what led him to his frustrated outbursts and “madness.” They wrote about how much he loved his parents and how devastated he was by his mother’s behaviour. They wrote about how smart and calculating Hamlet was in asking the players to recreate his father’s demise, so that he could be sure that the ghost had not misled him and therefore not exact revenge where none was warranted.

They kicked ass. I am SO proud of them.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

There's Always One

So, I’m STILL thinking about the fifth period, level 400 English class. I find it occupies my thoughts so often because I’m growing increasingly frustrated by not only what I’m observing, but also my total inability to do anything about it.

There’s one boy who’s gotten under my skin. This particular young man is handsome in a very boyish way, with clear skin and penetrating blue eyes. Those eyes reveal a character that is very clever and crafty. He’s quick to anger and is particularly fond of mumbling expletives under his breath, though he’s often not aware enough of his surroundings to realize that an adult is standing right beside him. He has decided that the class is a colossal waste of his time, but has also figured out a way to skirt the edges of acceptability in such a way that we can never actually catch him doing something “wrong”.

He’s been “reading “ a book called Monster. It was a book of his own choosing, recommended to him by several of his classmates. The book is slightly below his tested reading level and is arranged very much like a movie screenplay, so there is a visual aspect to the text that he was certain would make the process of reading the book easier for him.

Every day, he strolls into the classroom and sits in a different seat. Once, he got the book out without being asked, but the rest of the time he’s come in and gone straight to another student to begin a conversation. When he’s asked to settle in and do the work, he’ll dutifully open the book and stare at the same page for the entirety of the period. He constantly looks up to see who’s looking at him (and very often sees me looking at him), grins, then goes back to looking at the same page again. At the end of the period, he’ll go to CT and claim that he’s read several pages - today’s number was thirty - when, in fact, he’s barely read a single paragraph.

CT has given the students a worksheet with a series of exercises they’re expected to do with their reading. Half of them are hands-on, creative projects from which they get to choose (create a CD, complete with artwork, as a soundtrack for your book; create a book jacket, cast a movie and explain why you chose particular actors to play each role); the other half is very English-class oriented: describe the narrative style of the book, describe the main character, summarize the story. The assignments are written down and very clearly explained, and CT took a class period earlier in the week to go over them out loud and to explain how many points each component is worth.

CT’s standards for this work are entirely attainable. One student turned in three sentences describing the narrative style of her book, and that work earned her the full point potential despite the grammatical and structural errors in those few sentences. My point here is that these children do not have to exert themselves to an unreasonable degree to achieve success in this class, yet most of them - and the above mentioned boy in particular - choose not to do any of it.

So my question becomes this: how does an instructor cope with students who simply refuse to participate? We’re clearly in “you can lead a horse to water” territory here; we’ve made efforts to offer the students control over the books they read, we’ve given them choices concerning which projects they want to do with the end result being that they don’t want to do it at all.

My blue eyed boy affects me so deeply, I think, because I see a spark in him. I know, for sure, that he could do this work, and that he could thrive in the class. He’s quick, he’s got a sense of humor, he’s got an energy about him that resonates to me. He’s decided, though, at all of fourteen, that he doesn’t need to know any of this, that it’s all a waste of his time. This isn’t the cool thing to be doing, all this writing and reading, and he doesn’t want to be seen doing it.

I wonder what the source of all that apathy comes from. Does he not have a trusted adult in his life who has appreciated the value of learning? Is he incapable of understanding how important this literacy stuff is, even (especially?) to him? Perhaps what bothers me so much is that he’s also decided that he doesn’t like me, so he’s not at all open to allowing me to model that behavior, or letting me close enough to tell him how deeply I believe in his ability to do this well.

Of course I don’t know what the future holds. I fear, with his temper and lack of respect for authority in pretty much any form, that he’s headed for a life of struggle and trouble. Maybe, though, he will decide that being able to read and write and communicate effectively really IS in his best interests. Perhaps he will choose a profession or a trade or find a passion that requires his focus and attention.

I just hope he figures it out sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

A Night of No Homework

I've been forbidden to do homework tonight, and I've gotta tell ya, I'm having a hard time with it.

CT sent me home today, slightly early, with the admonition that I was to do nothing work-related tonight. She told me that I've been doing too much and she's made it her new priority to teach me how to balance work and life.

I obviously need more practice.

I have a couple of things I really want to work on, but I'm going to be a good student, listen to my teacher and not work on school stuff. While I was waiting to pick up the girls from school, I did make a list of things I want to work on when the moratorium is lifted, but I don't think that counts. My "assignment" was made easier by the fact that today was a "visit gramma and grampa" day, so most of my prime work time was taken up with loving old people.

Still, this is harder than I thought it was going to be. It seems that I really DO need to learn how to balance life and work.

Friday, February 10, 2006

I LOVE My Life!

So, here's the scene. I'm in the living room with school papers strewn all around me on the couch while I attempt to corral them into some sort of coherent order. PunkinPie, my eldest daughter (who's eight, it's important to remember) comes over and picks up a random sheet, which happens to have the "to be or not to be" soliloquy printed on it. She reads (aloud) to about "slings and arrows" when she abruptly drops the page and runs to her room.

Not that this is exceptionally odd behavior for her, but still.

Anyway, she returns about two minutes later with the Calvin and Hobbes There's Treasure Everywhere book. She flips furiously through the pages until she finds what she's looking for; a Sunday comic that depicts a pile of green nastiness that's supposed to be Calvin's dinner which suddenly bursts into the famous monologue. Calvin watches the scene with such expressions on his face! Finally, though, the goo breaks into the chorus of "Feelings" and, well, that's just too much for poor Calvin. The final frame is his mother removing the now empty plate and Calvin begging not to have that dinner again.

Can I reemphasize that the kid is EIGHT?!

I am going to see if there's a way for my husband to record the kid reading the comic so I can bring it into my freshman English class so they can see that this stuff really DOES connect to stuff outside of school. And to see that an eight year old has the capacity to at least hold the recognition of the Bard's work in her head.

And so can they.


So, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the period five, level 400 kids (as a matter of fact, I’m in the period five, level 400 class right now - I brought my computer to school, but forgot my reading book). I’m hoping that writing will help me to solidify and organize some of that thinking.

It seems that things, at least at the moment, are getting a little better. This is the third day of getting the kids settled into a routine of reading and writing, though it’s still a little bit of a struggle. The students are often argumentative about the simple tasks we ask them to do. They seem unable to focus for more than a few minutes at a time, and only then after complaining loudly and enthusiastically about it.

There are thirteen students in the class. There are four adults in the class. You would think, with a ratio like this, that things should be rather easy to manage. Not so - not even a little. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a group of kids more resistant and easily distractible as these.

CT tells me that, up until this year, kids such as these would be in special education classrooms, but the school system saw fit to put them in regular classes this year as a means of trying to integrate them more fully into the academic community. The problem, though, is that they’re NOT integrated into the academic community. These kids move - almost exclusively as a pack - through each of their classes. They spend all day together, moving from math class to English class to biology class without ever sharing a classroom with students outside of their group. This accounts for at least part of the problem, I’m sure - they’re just plain sick of each other, and I can’t say that I blame them.

I’ve been struggling with my thinking about this class since I came to the school two weeks ago. I’m fighting against my instincts in how to deal with them, and am trying very hard to step back and observe.

For starters, this class doesn’t belong to me; I don’t have the authority to step in (and I’m not sure, at this point, that I’d want to if I did). The students know CT and seem to trust her (some more than others) and I have to respect that. Secondly, these kids have been shuffled around a lot in this class lately. They’ve been moved from room to room over the past two weeks; evicted out of one classroom, moved to a temporary spot only to be kicked out of that room, too. They’re trying to find some equilibrium, and having me come in from out of thin air isn’t helping matters any. I’m mindful of that.

The thing is, though, I am choking back an almost undeniable desire to reveal Ms. Bitch. These kids have almost no respect for themselves or anyone else. Very rarely does anyone speak politely to anyone else (though one of the girls did say “thank you” to me when I opened a locked door for her). I regularly hear them challenging each other, “shut up” is a common phrase, and their listening skills are practically nonexistent. My instinct is to march in there and establish myself as the Alpha dog. You come in, you sit down, you do what we tell you. You do not speak rudely to us or anyone else, you do not complain about every little thing we ask you to do, you do not get up and wander around whenever you damned well feel like it. Did you go to kindergarten? Remember the rules? THEY STILL APPLY! If you can’t behave like young adults, I will treat you like little children. I can do that, you know, and will suffer not a moment’s hesitation.

I’m not sure that’s the best approach here, though. There are a lot of different personalities in the class and I’m not sure that coming in and demanding proper behavior would work. I’m not afraid to stand up to a bunch of 14 year olds - that’s not my issue - I just wonder if my coming in there with all my attitude hanging out would attain the desired result. I have the feeling that Ms. Bitch would prove to be more of a target than an authority figure.

Still, something has to change. The students aren’t really working on anything. They’re not learning to use their language more appropriately or skillfully; they’re not making connections between what they read and everything else; they’re not thinking critically. More than anyone else, I think THESE are the kids who NEED those skills. Sure, the kids in the upper levels should know all those things, but it’s the kids who we know aren’t going to college - the kids who are going to live all their lives in the “real” world - who we should be arming with the kind of knowledge they can get from a language arts class. They are doing their best to see that they don’t HAVE to learn those things, though, and I fear that they will realize, too late, that they could have earned a significant advantage here.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Learning Unit Objectives

I just finished my first ever Learning Unit Objective (LUO).

The requirement for instructors in this school isn't to have on hand an entire unit's worth of lesson plans, but rather to have completed an LUO prior to beginning a new unit. The LUO is, essentially, an overview of the unit you're planning to teach and includes:
~a rundown of essential questions
~a description of what some of the activities in the unit will include
~"learning objectives" - what the kids should come out the other end knowing
~"instructional strategies" - how the teacher is going to present the material
~"assessment strategies" - how the student will demonstrate mastery
~which curriculum standards are addressed in the unit.

I have to say that I much prefer this method to writing out plans for individual classes. While I understand that these can be useful for substitutes, I find that having to map out each class really leaves me feeling limited in what I'm able to do. I'm more of a big-picture gal. I'm not very good at micro-managing.

Just for kicks, I'm including the LUO for you to look at and critique. I'd LOVE feedback - make suggestions for materials, give me ideas for projects or assessments, give me all you've got. While I feel I've got a pretty good handle on what I want the kids to know, I'm more than happy to take suggestions to make the experience better for all concerned!

Ready? Here it is:

Freshman English 200
“Shakespeare, Drama, and the Monologue”
February 9 - 17th (should I allow more time? This isn't set in stone, but I'd like to have a reasonable guess for how long something like this will take..)

Essential Questions:

-Who was Shakespeare and why is he important enough to study today?
-What is a monologue?
-Where are monologues commonly found?
-What literary / dramatic purposes do monologues serve?
-How did Shakespeare employ monologue in his works?


Students will be (re)introduced to the works of William Shakespeare through a series of monologues and speeches, excerpted from both comedies and tragedies, which they will engage with close reading, analysis, and performance. Students will watch several scenes from various performances of Shakespeare’s works and later read the corresponding scenes with an eye toward analysis and comprehension. Students will produce several monologues generated from various sources (outside reading, personal experience, etc.), both as a means of character analysis and personal expression / problem solving.

Learning Objectives:

Students will:

-read at least five different Shakespearean monologues
-understand and explain the uses of monologues within the context of dramatic performance
-recognize figurative language and dramatic conventions (foreshadowing, allusion, double entendre, innuendo, etc.)
-recognize, define and explain vocabulary used to discuss drama
-analyze text for character motivation and emotion
-attempt to create dramatic monologues based on outside reading and personal experience
-practice and perform a monologue in class
-write, revise, and edit at least two monologues for assessment purposes

Instructional Strategies:

-read aloud and discuss models
-class discussion
-small group analysis of reading and film clips
-cooperative learning groups
-writing workshop exercises and practice
-mini lessons


-monologues / handouts
-DV player, clips from various Shakespearian films

Assessment Strategies:

-class participation and contributions
-written monologues, including revisions and workshop production
-analysis of readings and film clips
-short response / journal writing
-essay test

Curriculum Standards Addressed:
(I have to look these up, though I'm sure there are a bunch that are covered in a unit such as this one - reading, writing, speaking and listening, analytical skills, critical thinking.....)

Comments? Suggestions? Critique? In the immortal words of Will Smith: "Bring it!"

Monday, February 06, 2006

A Revolt in A207

Today was an interesting day.

Mondays suck in general, but today was particularly challenging. None of the kids were really interested in school today - there was much grumbling and very little cooperation - but none were so enthusiastic about their apathy as the 400 level kids in period five.

CT and I had started on Friday by splitting the group up. She took five boys out of the room and left me with the remaining eight students (four of each boys and girls). We'd started reading Taste of Salt with the class, but it became obvious very early on that at least some of the students were NOT going to participate, so CT found some short stories and articles that were related to the time period in Haiti that Taste of Salt describes and was planning on coming at the subject at a different angle. I stayed with the rest of the class and read aloud to them, stopping every so often to ask for clarification and discussion.

Friday went extremely well. The kids managed to get through the chapter with me with a minimum of complaining, and a few of them even had really interesting, insightful things to say. I went home this weekend with a real sense of accomplishment - I thought we were really going to go somewhere with this book.

Then today happened.

I started the group off by asking for a recap of what happened last week. We'd had a whole weekend without thinking about the book, and I wanted to see how much they'd retained. Before long, though, the kids decided that this wasn't worth their effort. The conversation morphed from my asking "why do you think that things were getting more and more dangerous for Djo and the street boys who lived with Aristide" to their asking"why do we have read this stupid book, anyway?" We spent the better part of twenty minutes talking about why it's important to read things that describe how other people live, why we need to understand how other people think and feel, why it's important for us to share the reading of a book as an experience. It's not about the BOOK, per se, it's about understanding things outside of yourself.

CT had an even worse time in her class. Five boys, and not a one of them was willing to even attempt to meet her halfway. She brought them back into the classroom fifteen minutes before the class ended in a state of having given up, so we spent the rest of the class talking about why things seem to be falling apart. The kids were frustrated by what they see as a lack of choice in the class, we were frustrated by their lack of cooperation and respect.

We came to a pseudo-consensus before the class ended: the kids are going to come to class tomorrow with a list of ten "rules" they think the class needs to follow in order to function more smoothly, and we're going to bring in a box of books for the students to choose from. I'm not sure how we're going to manage having all the kids reading different things, but we'll (hopefully) at least have them engaged enough to make it through a fifty minute class period.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Going With the Flow

I've been thinking a lot about the differences between CT's teaching style and that of the teachers I worked under last semester.

I'm beginning to think that one of the reasons my last internship didn't run smoothly is because the way I think about education - the way I learn and want to present information - was too different from the way my former mentors did things.

Before I got booted from my old school, I was in the process of putting together a poetry unit to present to the kids when I got back from semester break. I had spent a good amount of time on the thing; I had pulled poems from popluar and obscure poets, I had song lyrics and haiku and limericks (some I'd made up myself, even). I had great ideas about doing a concrete poetry lesson, a found poetry lesson, and about writing odes to everyday things. I wanted to have fun with the unit, and to see how many kids I could get excited about something that usually draws groans from the field of desks.

When I passed my ideas on to my former mentor, though, she all but shot them out of the sky. She told me that we had a textbook for a reason, and that we had a particular curriculum to follow. The students would be entering their sophomore classes under teachers who expected them to know certain things and to be familiar with the poems in the book. There was no room for my ideas, no time for the "extra" stuff that I thought would make the study of poetry a little more palatable to the freshmen. I was essentially told to take my big old cruise ship and pass it through a lock intended for a lobster boat.

Not so now. My CT has a curriculum to follow, of course, but she prefers to teach in a more natural way. She incorporates poetry into nearly every unit she does. If there's a good spot to stop and talk about how a particular piece of writing connects to a particular song, or movie, or another piece of writing, she stops and talks about it. Her style is much more free form and natural, and I'm fitting into it easily.

I was bothered, at my former placement, by how regimented things felt. There were lists to be checked off. Odyssey? Check. Poetry? Check. Commas and semi-colons? Check. I was forever worried that I'd miss a checklist item, or that I wouldn't cover it sufficiently to meet the criteria. Here, though, I don't think I'll worry about it quite so much. The kids get to learn things in a way that makes much more sense to me - in a way that my own children learn things. Things are taught when they naturally occur, when they are relevent and necessary and fit into the progression of things - not when their day comes up on the list. I think this method helps students really understand the point of whatever they're learning, and may help them retain the information in more useful ways, since that learning is connected to something else that helps give both items meaning.

Does that make any sense at all?

A Honey-Colored Gold Mine of a Book

I just finished one of the most remarkable books I've ever read.

I tore through The Secret Life of Bees in less than two days. I'd picked it up off of CT's pile of "reading day" books, and was completely engrossed from about page seven. By page 239, I was in tears, and I've never actually cried while reading a book before. It was an exquisite experience, and I've been thinking for the last day and a half about all the rich opportunities this book would provide in a classroom.

The essense of the story is, as I read it, the need for unconditional love and healing. The main character, Lily, loses her mother at a very young age in a set of unclear circumstances. She recognizes early that there's a hole in her being that needs to be filled by someone outside of herself, that she's lacking a mother and all that a mother provides, so she goes out looking for answers. In the end, she finds out more about her mother than she really wanted, but comes to understand more than she ever thought possible.

The book won't appeal to all students; I think that boys will be hard pressed to identify with the female lead character. I can only call to mind four males in the story, and one of them is the abusive father that Lily runs away from. The story can also be seen as sappy and overdone, I think, though it spoke to me in very profound and personal ways.

Still, I think that it provides a lot of rich fodder for the English classroom. There are great opportunities for character studies, a ton of leads into writing exercises, dramatic and poetic expression, and character development beyond what it given to us on the page. There's a moment, for example, when we catch the tiniest of glimpses into the pain that Lily's father, T-Ray, has been beating back within himself all this time and we might - just maybe - begin to understand a little bit about why he treats Lily so horribly. As an English teacher, I would LOVE to see what the kids would write about what went through T-Ray's mind as he leaves Lily in the pink house.

The point of all of this is that I'm really excited about teaching again. I'm seeing potential in nearly everything, and I can't stop thinking about how I would present things to a class.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Reading Days

I have decided that, whatever I teach, one class period a week - at least - will be devoted entirely to reading.

I've heard stories about reading initiatives. I think Kizz mentioned that she worked in a school (visited? I can't remember the details, but I think they're in a comment to a post from this site) where there was some sort of announcement over the PA system and everyone, from the principal to the janitors to the lunch ladies, stopped everything they were doing and read for a set amount of time. I've also heard about DEAR - Drop Everything And Read - which I'm gathering is a similar sort of scenario.

The point, though, is that it's a fantastic thing. A beautiful, useful, important thing. We had reading days today in the freshman 200 classes. CT is good and sick with a NASTY cold (please, send any spare good energy you might have her way - Poor Baby) and decided that today would make a good reading day. We got the classes settled in, made sure everyone had a book, and read for the entire period. Everyone - us included.

It doesn't matter what you read, really (though we put a stop to the kids reading teen magazines that were laying around for use as poster-fodder). CT's rule is that it has to be a BOOK, but it doesn't matter what book. You could read for a class assignment, you can read for pleasure. CT has a basket of books that she's culled from the book room in the school and students can choose from them. One student is reading one of the Harry Potter installments. I began (and now, can't put down) The Secret Life of Bees. CT started Princess. The point is that, for damned near fifty minutes, every single soul in that room was reading - even kids who "hate" to read.

Some teachers don't hold to the idea. They argue that there's precious little instructional time as it is, and that "wasting" an entire class period - especially on a regular basis - only puts one behind in the curriculum. I'm not sure I could disagree more. Certainly, there are no specific lessons that can be delivered, especially if everyone is reading something different. I contend wholeheartedly that time spent reading is never wasted time. I also think it's important for kids to see adults reading, and to see them really engrossed in the process.

I'm going to adopt it as a policy in my own classrooms. Count on it.

Back on Track

Hear that? That's a HUGE sigh of relief issuing forth from my general vicinity.

Today marks the end of my first week back in high school. I'm hard pressed for words to describe the feelings I have right now, but since that's the point of my writing here, I'll do my best.

I went to a pretty dark place through most of the last semester. I was spending a lot of energy - more than I had to spare, really - on a lot of nonsense. I was preoccupied, I was nervous all the time, and I had really lost sight of what I was really there for. I began to dread going to work, was anxious about what I would find when I got there, and really lost sight of what I loved about teaching.

By the time last semester ended, I was really struggling with the thought of going back. I know I SAID that the experience hadn't shaken my desire to become a teacher, but I have to be honest in looking back and say that, really, it did. I began to crave my stay-at-home-mom days; I wanted to be free of the stress, pressure and general stupidity of what I had just been through. I didn't feel that the benefits - the love of the subject, the love of the kids, the general satisfaction in doing what I really wanted to do - were strong enough to counterbalance all the stress and strain of the political situation. I was ready to say to hell with all of it.

I've been in my new placement for a week now, and I'm practically floating. I taught a couple of classes this week and have rediscovered what I was missing last semester. I love this work. I love talking to the kids, I love watching them struggle with an idea, I love the look on their faces when I tell them that I KNOW that the answer is in their heads and they have to believe it, too. I love it when kids start sentences with "Mrs. Chili, doesn't this mean that...." and have them make connections that I never thought of. This is what I do this for.

I'm so glad I didn't leave when the going got stupid.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

A Question of Style

I'm starting to settle quite nicely into my new placement.

I'm really enjoying working with my CT. She has been teaching high school English for more than twenty years (I'm not sure of the exact number, but I do know that she was my teacher when I went to school there, and I graduated in '87) and she has an easy confidence about her that I admire. She is quick to smile, she really listens to the students, and she doesn't seem to carry much stress around with her - she seems settled.

The only thing about her that I've noticed in a not-so-positive light is her classroom management style. She allows her classes a lot more freedom than I think I would. I don't know if it's because she has been teaching for so long and has set up different priorities or if it's because she doesn't see the kids' behavior as being detrimental to the learning process, but I'm still a little uncomfortable with the way kids act in class. Some of them are too quick with flippant remarks. Comments that are completely off-target and intended to throw off the rhythm of the lesson are far more common than thoughtful responses to questions. Side conversations are happening constantly, kids complain about the learning they're being asked to attempt, and more than once I've seen adults in the room (myself included) summoned with a "Hey!" None of this seems to faze my CT, but it's sending me closer and closer to the ledge.

This difference in our thinking about how students should behave is really causing me to re-think the way I handle classroom management - something I tend to think of as a strong suit of mine. Do I expect too much of students? Am I a hard-ass? Maybe I am, but I don't think I'm ready yet to make apologies for it (though I know for sure that my CT would never expect me to). I think that certain behaviours SHOULD be expected in the classroom, just as certain behaviours should be expected in an office or a restaurant or pretty much anywhere where people come together. There are some basic rules of decency that everyone - not just students but everyone - should be able to follow. If someone is talking, you're listening and if you're talking, we're listening. It's okay to disagree with someone, but it's not okay to dis them. If you have something to say, please think for a moment about whether or not it is going to add to the discussion and don't just talk to give us the privilege of hearing your voice. I'm making an effort to learn your names, you can learn mine and not call my attention by yelling "HEY!"

I took part of the college-bound freshman class this morning. I read "Salvador Late or Early" by Sandra Cisneros (sorry - I can't find a link to the text). I managed to get the kids to settle in and pay attention, but it took a lot more time than I thought was necessary. Yes, we're talking about freshmen. Yes, we're also talking about poetry, and I know that's tough even for a lot of adults to handle, but I was reading aloud and asking them questions - I wasn't asking anything unreasonable of them.

The thing is? I don't expect everyone to dive headfirst with wild enthusaism into everything we do. I am very practical and realistic about the fact that most people do not share my love of this subject. What I DO expect, though, is for you to not be a disruption. You don't want to participate? Fine; I can't make you. I am merely there to hold open the door - you get to decide whether you walk through it. What's important to remember, though, is that you don't get to block anyone else's way, either.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

My First Block Day

It turns out that the school where I'm working has two days set aside each week as "block" days. On Wednesdays, we see classes one, three, five, and seven for (I think) 100 minutes. On Thursday, we see two, four, five, and six (period five is lunch, so it remains the same all week). Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays are "normal" days where we run from one through seven for 50 minutes.

I've never experienced a block day before. When I went to school there (have I told you that I'm now working in the high school from which I graduated 19 years ago?), we started earlier, ended earlier and, if memory serves me - which I'm not promising it is - there was an extra class period. I'm still not entirely sure I understand the whole concept of block schedules, though I found it very satisfying to be able to have a class discussion with the AP kids for a good chunk of time and having ample opportunity for everyone to participate.

Our discussion about forgiveness was interesting, though I think we may have frustrated some of the students' definitions of the idea and therefore made their task of writing a response to Weisenthal's book a lot more complicated than they originally thought it would be. It was fun to sit on the perifery and watch how the kids interact with each other, to see who spoke up and who needed to be prompted to speak, who demonstrated antagonism toward the class in general and the subject in particular. And to try to learn their names... SO many NAMES!!