Category Archives: humanities

In Teaching, Even Caitlin Flanagan Has Her Uses

In my Saturday enrichment class, I wrote the opening paragraph to Caitlin Flanagan’s The Dark Power of Fraternities on the board:

(1) One warm spring night in 2011, a young man named Travis Hughes stood on the back deck of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house at Marshall University, in West Virginia, and was struck by what seemed to him—under the influence of powerful inebriants, not least among them the clear ether of youth itself—to be an excellent idea: (2) he would shove a bottle rocket up his a** and blast it into the sweet night air. (3) And perhaps it was an excellent idea. (4) What was not an excellent idea, however, was to misjudge the relative tightness of a 20-year-old sphincter and the propulsive reliability of a 20-cent bottle rocket.(5) What followed ignition was not the bright report of a successful blastoff, but the muffled thud of fire in the hole.

The class, the same students I’ve been teaching weekly since September, were finishing up a brief assignment as I wrote. You are wondering, perhaps, why I didn’t just print out the passage, but that question gives me more credit for planning than I am due.

These four boys: smart, engaged (even Francis, who still hugs the wall when I let him), fluid writers, ready readers. A joy. When I refuse to let them have “word banks”, they thrive on the challenge. When I turn over discussion to them, I get three boys eagerly arguing for their interpretation of events, individuals, authorial intent. (I have to noodge Francis). Dino is still the leader, the punky Korean kid with cowlick and attitude to spare, but Arthur and Bruce are more than willing to stand up for their own ideas. I would be happier if they remembered paper and pencil more often (here, Francis shines, always prepared, always lending out supplies, whereas I snark at the others routinely for their failure to live up to the stereotype), but in all other ways, a dream class.

Example: Our previous book was Hound of the Baskervilles. After we’d finished the book, I gave them a prompt in which I asserted my opinion, that the women of the book were opportunistic whiners, morally inferior in every way to the men, that they were weak ninnies who cared only for their own interests. They were to agree or disagree, using specific characters and their actions to support. Dino generally agreed with my position, citing Laura Lyons’ betrayal of Sir Charles, and Beryl Stapleton’s rage upon realizing her abusive husband had been cheating on her. Bruce and Arthur sympathized with the women, pointing out that they had very little control over their lives. Francis agreed with the “no choice” position, but used Mrs. Barrymore, who I honestly hadn’t even considered in writing the prompt, pointing out that she was entirely dependent on her husband to help her brother—all she did was cry about it.

So how to step it up? Last week, I dug up some of the vocabulary and grammar workbooks we keep around, and gave them each one.

“But these words are easy,” sniffed Dino.

“I haven’t seen any of them in your essays,” I noted.

“Oh,” said Arthur, always the one to see pedagogical intent. “We are working on writing?”

“Yes, I’ve been mulling the best way to challenge you, to keep this class a step beyond just an acceptably interesting way to spend Saturday afternoon. You are all effective readers who understand the importance of content knowledge. I trust you’re going to continue to build on that. So I decided you’re going to focus on writing quality. We’re going to study grammar and vocabulary in part to incorporate the deeper knowledge of vocabulary and sentence structure, and in part to give you a means to focus in on the act of writing—not the ideas and content, but the expression itself.”

So it’s a week later, and I’d told them to write three sentences using any three vocabulary words, using the structure of Subordinate Clause, Independent Clause. I had originally planned to put them on the board, go through the “work/glue” routine (more on that in a minute), and then have them rewrite.

But just then, I thought of the Flanagan piece. Like I said, not much of a planner.

The kids had finished up while I was writing, and I could hear the rustle of shock as they figured out the gist.

“This paragraph opens an article by Caitlin Flanagan on fraternities, and for now, it’s not important if you don’t know what they are. In journalism, the opening paragraph is known as the lede; when your English teachers talk about the hook, they’re describing the same thing in an annoying way.”

“Why would she write about an idiot?” asked Dino, ever the challenger.

“How did someone so stupid get to college?” Bruce wanted to know.

“Both worthy questions, but not what I want you to focus on. Anything else you notice?”

Pause.

“She doesn’t seem very sympathetic,” offered Arthur. Francis, the Clarence Thomas of my class, still silent.

“You are all focusing on the content. I knew you would. That’s a big part of my point. Not one of you ever considered the quality of the writing. How many sentences do you see, if you count the colon break as a sentence?”

“Five.”

I marked them out (as you see now).

“What do you notice?”

Pause again, but this time they examined the sentences, not the content.

Arthur: “So, okay, I don’t know if this is what you mean, but the first sentence is really, really long.”

Dino: “Yeah, and then the next one, what he’s going to do” (they giggle) “is short. And….specific. Like, you have to kind of figure out what the first sentence is about, but the second one is, like…..” he searches for a word. “blunt.”

Me: “Brutal, even.”

“The shortest sentence is the third one,” Bruce: “Which is weird, because it’s not an excellent idea.”

“Nice,” I said. “It’s almost like a bridge, a pause, to the second half of the paragraph. Go back to the first sentence, again. Dino has a good point—it’s a meandering sentence, in a way. What is it saying?”

“He’s stupid.”

“He’s young,” Francis stepped up.

“What does inebriant mean?” I asked.

Silence.

“So you ever heard of someone being inebriated?”

“Oh, is he drunk?” asked Arthur.

“Hey, ether is an alcohol, too!” from Bruce.

“So being young is like being drunk.”

“But he was drunk, too.”

“She never used the word drunk,” observed Dino. “My English teacher always tells us to be clear, not use big words just to use them.”

“Good point. Flanagan, the author, wrote this for the Atlantic, so was directing it to a highly educated audience. But you bring up an interesting point: when are writers using appropriate synonyms, bringing in the full richness of the English language, and when are they just ‘using big words’? “

“It’s weird, too, because she’s real direct after the colon,” Arthur observed.

“Hey, excellent point. After all that lyrical description of youth and alcohol, suddenly we get the brutality.”

Dino smacked the desk. “Contrast!”

“There you go.”

“Oh, I see” Bruce leaned forward. “She kind of leads you in, it’s a nice night, he’s drunk but kind of in a nice-sounding way, and he’s young, so he has an idea.”

“Francis?” we all waited. And waited. And waited.

“It’s like the short sentence in the middle stops it.”

“Interesting. What do you mean?” we all waited some more. Dino wanted desperately to talk; I waved him down.

“Like, not telling you what happened…”

“..yet. I totally agree.” Dino could wait no longer. “It’s like she’s giving time to process what this idiot did before going on to say what happened.”

“And then she tells us what happened, and both sentences are different from the first three.” Arthur pointed out.

“What do you notice?”

“It’s like…parallel? The 20-year-old hahahahaha, um, and then the 20-cent bottle rocket.” Bruce pushed back his glasses. “So she tells you why things went wrong (eww).”

“Nice. Notice at the end, the use of two general terms that convey exactly what happened: ‘successful blastoff’ and ‘failure to launch’.” They all laughed. “So first she explains why things went wrong, then she tells you what happened, generally, and your imagination fills in the details.”

“Eww.”

“Good discussion; you’ve talked about how her writing achieved her goals. What you haven’t mentioned one way or the other is the quality of the writing.”

“I don’t know what good writing is.” from Arthur.

“Look at the board.”

They looked again, and were quiet.

“I could give you some of the technical ways in which it’s great. Remember the many times we’ve discussed working words and glue words? Let’s go through it again.

(Note: C. Edward Good’s oops book transformed my writing a decade or so ago. Good gives full credit for work/glue concept to the originator Richard Wydick, but Wydick didn’t get specific the way that Good does. I teach a modified form of Good’s structure.)

myworkglue

“So how much glue do you see?”

Silence.

“Wow. Not much.”

“Remember, glue is not a matter of bad or good. Articles are essential, as are conjunctions and pronouns. She uses the simple word ‘it’ to great effect. And starts a sentence with ‘And’!, which some teachers say is wrong, but they’re wrong. She opens with ‘a young man named’, when ‘Travis Hughes’ would do nicely. It’s not all about following rigid rules.”

“She uses ‘to be’ as a main verb, too.”

“Right, another thing that shouldn’t be taken to excess but is used beautifully here. And let me tell you something: I am not a fan of Caitlin Flanagan’s ideas. If she’s against fraternities then I’m strongly tempted in favor of them. But if I ever wrote an essay that’s half as evocative, as rich, as this five-sentence paragraph, I’d count it as a good day. So now, look down at your three sentences.”

They all groaned. I laughed.

“No, I’m not trying to make you feel inadequate! That’s not the point. Here’s the question: how much work did you put into crafting them? How much time did you spend choosing words, thinking about active verbs, how much did you think about how much weight each word could pull?”

“None.”

“Right. You just wanted to get the assignment done. Well, this is what I mean by our new focus on writing. When I ask you to write sentences, using a particular style, I don’t want you to just get it done. I want you to think about the words, form a picture in your head of what you want your sentence to do, or the idea you want to communicate. It’s easier at first to work with images or actions, but over time, you want to spend the same time making your ideas as vivid. But the point here is the quality of your writing, not simply putting together a grammatically correct sentence. You all have the stuff to become strong writers.”

Writing is thinking, you always say.”

“That’s right. That’s stage one. That’s what everyone has to understand first. You’ve got that part down, all of you. Now it’s time to craft your thoughts, make them compelling, think about presenting those thoughts to their greatest advantage.”

I’ve been teaching English longer than I’ve been teaching math, really, although not in public school. Math, at its core, has a procedural, structural component rarely found in the study of either composition or literature, once you get past grammar. Writing or literary analysis doesn’t involve procedures, but an approach, a quality of thought.

I started into a full jeremiad against English high school instruction today, but decided against it. I don’t know enough about what goes on in the average classroom. Suffice it to say this: from what I see, we spend almost no time in high school English teaching students how to write well, or how to analyze literature to the extent of their ability. No, Common Core won’t fix this.

In math, improvement doesn’t count until the kid gets The Right Answer. Writing and literary analysis both have a big advantage in that respect: all improvement counts. I’ve taught ACT classes in which I’ve taken low ability kids from single incoherent paragraphs to five paragraph essays—still weak in language and grammar, but considerably improved from where they began and infinitely greater in self-expression. I’ve watched students with sixth grade reading skills suddenly realize that in two chapters of his memoir that cover Haiti, Rick Bragg barely mentioned that the oppressors and the oppressed were all black, and wonder why he avoided direct mention of this key fact, leading to great discussions of audience and ideology. None of the kids ended with significantly stronger reading skills or much more in the way of vocabulary—although they usually retain a much stronger understanding of grammar. However, they all improved in using the skills they had to think and express their ideas.

Best of all is when you get smart kids who understand what’s on offer. I can’t give them procedures. I can give paths, methods, considerations, advice. But not a flowchart on how. Sorry, Don Hirsch. It’s not all about content.

Of course, that’s what makes it so fun.


The End of Pi

No, not π. This is the English teacher speaking, although most of my English lit work is now in enrichment classes.

I’ve taught Life of Pi in my book club two or three times. For most of the book, I focus on literary terms: metaphors, similes, personification, metonymy, didactic (my lord, the amount of time Pi spends instructing the reader!), understatement and hyperbole. I also draw attention to Pi’s exceptionally unusual character. Adolescent readers have a distressing tendency to take everything they read at face value without thinking about what the events reveal. When Pi joins three religions, they don’t think, “What idiot is this?” They’re like, “Well, Pi was born a Hindu, but he really liked the Muslim religion, so he joined that, too. Then he became a Christian. His parents got really mad; they think he should just be Hindu.”

So I prod them a bit, ask them if they belong to three religions, and if they don’t think Pi’s a little odd for this and other reasons. Who is more reasonable, really, Pi or his perplexed parents? (who, ultimately, let him have his spiritual advisers). The early lessons focus on reading and appreciating the imagery, but also on gaining an understanding of the character in the first third or so of the book. Why, given what we know is going to happen, does the author spend so much time on zoos and religion?

This preparation helps them make the most of the middle third, which is the book’s claim to fame, the reason Ang Lee made the movie in 3-D. We again focus on imagery and literary terms, practice writing analysis of said literary techniques and how they emphasize ideas,themes,and so on.

But then there’s the last third, which I’ve attached here–actually, I copied it from this site, but it didn’t have the font changes for the Japanese conversation.

I start by having the kids draw a sketch of the entire section (chapters 97-99). I encourage the kids who hate drawing by telling them that whatever they do, my sketch will be the worst. (They know my boardwork, so they believe me even before they see it.)

Why a sketch? Because after two-thirds of a plot-rich story, loaded with action, thoughts, and imagery, the sketch helps student see that the entire third section is three people talking in a room. All the insights, all the discoveries come through conversation. That is, the final third is much like reading a play, a profoundly important switch in a book thus far rich with imagery and thought with relatively little dialogue.

Right around here, we discuss the fact that Pi introduces a second story, that we now must question his original story. Enter the notion of “unreliable narrator” (I usually bring up The Murder of Roger Ackroyd).

So leaving aside event specifics, what patterns of interaction did the class notice about Pi and the investigators? We build a list:

  • The Japanese insurance investigators are hungry and cranky.
  • They speak their minds in Japanese, and their interactions are often very funny.
  • Pi is hoarding food, something that the readers know he is still doing as an adult. (We discuss the hoarding impulse and why a prolonged bout of near-starvation would bring it on.)
  • The Japanese men give Pi food, first grudgingly, then with more understanding of his need.
  • Pi constantly challenges the investigators, making facially compelling arguments (that are nonethless ridiculous). These arguments nonetheless stop the investigators with frustrating frequency, because Pi won’t simply accept that a Bengal tiger in a lifeboat is ridiculous, that man-eating plants are absurd, and so on, but rather argues with seeming logic about other absurd realities.
  • The frustrated investigators constantly remind Pi that they are investigating a tragedy, and Pi stops them again in their tracks by agreeing, and reminding them of what, exactly, he had lost. Over time, these reminders have their impact, and the investigators start their later questions by acknowledging his pain.
  • Mr. Chiba, the assistant, is a good-humored and open man; Mr. Okamoto, the senior, is more analytical, and the more easily frustrated by Pi’s antics.

I make sure they see the humor for example, Mr. Okamoto’s irritation as shown by “[long silence]” when, dammit, the bananas do float, or the fake laughs, or Mr. Chiba’s offering of his uncle the bonsai master, and their pauses as he asks for more and more and, ultimately, all of their food. The kids see that humor is not really anything howlingly funny about any individual event, but the overall story of these increasingly frustrated investigators faced with a recalcitrant Pi. We talk about how it’s easier to see the impact of Pi’s behavior because of the POV change, from first person to third person limited omniscient (we know what the Japanese are thinking because of the translated dialogue). So it’s easier to realize how frustrating it is to deal with Pi.

Then we go through the specific events.

  • The investigators ask Pi for an accounting of the events.
  • Pi tells them the events as he recounted it later to the book’s author, and as we the readers read.
  • The investigators are skeptical, and attack his logic. But Pi tries to build a logical chain by inference: if illogical events have happened elsewhere, they could have happened in the lifeboat.
  • The investigators try to win his favor by giving him cookies, their lunch, chocolate bars, all while arguing with him and asking for a more realistic story that they can believe.
  • After many cookies, chocolate, all the investigators’ lunch, Pi tells a second story, one that makes the reader wish devoutly for brain bleach, a story of horror, the degradation of humanity, and Pi’s own unwitting betrayal of his mother.
  • The investigators don’t like that story either, and after further pushing, they give up. They realize that the sole survivor of the tragedy will not be able to enlighten them as to the cause of the sinking.
  • Pi asks them a question: Given that neither story helps them resolve their investigation, which is the better story?
  • Mr. Okamoto starts to analyze the question, but Mr. Chiba answers without hesitation that the first story, “the one with the animals”, is the better story. Mr. Okamoto approves of his underling’s answer privately, and chimes in with agreement.
  • Pi thanks them, saying “and so it goes with god”. He starts to cry.
  • The investigators sit in silence and wonder. After a while, they get up to leave, assuring Pi that they will look out for Richard Parker, the tiger at the center of the story they said was the better story.
  • Pi offers them three cookies each. Up to this point, he has hoarded food and given it up (like the bananas) only to ask for it back.
  • In a letter written years later, Mr. Okamoto restates his belief in Richard Parker.

It often takes some additional prodding, but after a while, my students notice that Pi did not ask which was the more believable story or the true story, but the better story. And yet, both Pi and the investigators behave subsequently as if the investigators have accepted the true story. Pi cries in clear relief. The investigators refer to Richard Parker.

Up to now, we do it as a class discussion, but I promise I’m not forcing them to “discover” what I want them to. In fact, many of the details I list above were original offered by my students, that I hadn’t originally seen (e.g., I hadn’t noticed the pattern break of Pi offering the investigators a cookie until a student pointed it out).

But now they break up into small groups (2-3) and I ask them this question: Why do the investigators accept Pi’s story? What answer does the text support?

I’ve taught this book three times, and in all cases, all my small groups come back unanimously with the same answer, the only answer I believe is possible after a close read of section three: Mr. Chiba and Mr. Okamoto declare “the story with the animals” the better story out of kindness, of sympathy for a young boy in tremendous pain, who they’ve come to admire, however grudgingly, for his ferocious determination and creative arguments. The students always point out the same key evidence—Mr. Chiba, the more empathetic and less purely analytical investigator, interrupts his superior to give the “right answer”, that his superior, Mr. Okamoto, says “Yes” in Japanese, signifiying approval of and consent to Mr. Chiba’s answer, abandoning his usual commitment to analysis and logic to reason his way to the correct answer.

So then we take the story as a whole. I point out that “dry, yeastless factuality” is a phrase that has appeared before, in a rather startling slam on agnosticism back in Chapter 22. Agnostics, it seems, are in danger of missing “the better story”….hey. That’s a term we’ve seen before. So Pi, and probably the author, is drawing a link between an insistence on facts and the refusal to choose, and choice is essential. We must choose. And we must choose the better story, to Pi. Hence his various comparisons of creation myths in Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism. So why does Pi return to this “yeastless factuality”, to a clearly religious context, when talking about his own stories and the choice he offers to the investigators?

Back to the groups, but despite lots of passionate discussion, the students aren’t sure if they have an answer. I tell them that there doesn’t have to be AN answer, but that they might find the notion of creation myth, understood broadly, to be helpful. I also tell them that I am leading them to my own preferred interpretation when I do so.

What continually hangs up the discussions, for good reason, is the book’s conflation of “better” with “true”. Which story is better? The one with the animals, of course. But which story is true? Is Pi relieved when the investigators choose the story with the animals simply because it speaks well of his story-telling? All my students reject that; Pi is clearly moved to tears because the investigators accept his story, in the absence of all relevance, as true, that they begin to discuss Richard Parker as a real being.

Each time I teach this book, we come to this impasse, and I always tell them that they can decide that the author meant true, not better, if they clearly qualify their interpretation with this decision.

At that point, coupled with my hint on “creation myth”, most of the kids come up with some form of this, which we then define as a group: Pi is struggling to survive his trauma, and comes up with a fantastic, beautiful story to mask the brutal reality. It’s more manageable to remember a hyena eating a still-living zebra than a Frenchman slicing up a Chinese sailor, the hyena breaking an orangutan’s neck preferable to the decapitation of his mother. The new story isn’t just a story of his survival, it’s his own “creation myth”, the creation of his own religion, the Life of Pi. He must have a basis, a religion, a credo in order to move forward with his life. He can’t live with the reality, that he was the brutal, savage, yet beautiful Richard Parker.

But all religions must have adherents, people who accept the creation myth. Hence the importance of the Japanese investigators. In refusing his original story, they show the rigid adherence to fact that Pi finds in all agnostics. Their insistence that he tell a “true” story forces him to tell the horrors he experienced. But the endlessly creative Pi, in the midst of his pain, finds one more logical way to ask the investigators for the validation he needs. Since the story of his survival has no relationship to the sinking of the ship, can they tell him which is the better story?

At this point, I usually tell the students that the best part of the book, for me, lies in the extraordinary sympathy Mr. Chiba and Mr. Okamoto show Pi. Mr. Okamoto, the logical one, begins analytically but is saved by the more humane Mr. Chiba, who interrupts his boss to give the answer Pi so clearly craves. And then, as Pi cries quietly, Mr. Okamoto finds a way to reinforce the fact that better does indeed mean true, by reassuring Pi that they’ll be careful not to run into the tiger. These are the acts of kind men, men who were distracted by the demands of the job, frustrated by the fruitful inventions of this confusing survivor, but ultimately moved to help him take the first step past his pain. I always snuffle when Mr. Okamoto agrees with Mr. Chiba.

Then I pass out copies of this Yann Martel book club interview (pages 3 and 4), and let my students read the Wrongness.

They are outraged! Martel ignores the agency of the investigators and says they chose the “better” story because they responded to the more “transcendental” story, the one with the unreal elements. Martel wants readers to choose the unreal story because of their revulsion with the “true” story, but he wants the “better” story to have an unreal element to make it a more difficult choice.

“Wait. He’s basically making the whole story really about people and religion, rather than about Pi. He’s got this whole agenda!” said one of my strongest students one year.

“THANK you,” I growled.

And of course, the students are then bummed because they have spent all this time deciphering a story and coming up with a meaning that’s wrong.

“Who says so?” sez I.

“The author.”

” We can always focus on author’s intent, but when his intent conflicts with your own reading, and you’ve got the evidence to back it up, then the author’s just this guy, y’know? He doesn’t get the last word. This is why J.K. Rowling should be drummed out of civilized society, for acting like she’s the only interpreter of Harry Potter novels. As if there’s much to interpret in a damn Harry Potter novel in the first place. She should be skewered on Voldemort’s wand for her arrogance. Instead, when Salman Rushdie comes up with an interpretation clearly supported by the text, this lowlife fool explains patiently why he’s wrong—to friggin’ Rushdie, whose worst novel is of a quality that Rowling could only dream of. But I digress. Look. If Yann Martel wanted us to swallow his bilge, then he should have done a less excellent job with the Japanese investigators. There’s no way around it.”

“Are there other cases of authors being wrong about their work?”

“More specifically, are there other authors who I believe I can prove are wrong about their work? Sure. My favorite and earliest example (that is, the first case I realized I thought the author wrong) is William Faulkner and A Rose for Emily. Many people think Flannery O’Conner is wrong about her interpretation of A Good Man is Hard to Find; I’m not sure I’d go that far, but she definitely makes the grandma’s redemption case stronger than it is. And it’s very common in movies to see a different vision than the director and creative talents intended.”

So to finish the unit, I have them write a freeform essay on one of two topics. They can write up their own interpretation of the ending, or they can explain why they think Martel is wrong. OR right. Anyone who wants to argue that Martel is right because he’s the author can do it, but I tell them they still need to support from the text—or explain why I should ignore the text.

**********************************************************
This came up, of course, because of the movie. Reviews suggest that the adult Pi asks the question, “Which is the better story” of the author, not the adolescent Pi of the investigators. Rod Dreher says that the Japanese investigators reject the story with the animals and accept the horrible story—in other words, do exactly the opposite of what they did in the book.

It’s worth realizing these are not trivial changes. In the novel, no one other than the Japanese investigators got a choice. When the author is sent to Pi with the words, “This is a story that will make you believe in god”, the speaker refers to the “better story”, the story with the tiger. The author learns of the alternate version from additional research. The adult Pi has completely adopted his creation myth. His listeners are to believe in God because he has survived nearly a year on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, not because they are given a choice between a brutal, lifeless fact-based horror and a beautiful fantasy.

I suppose it’s inevitable that the interpretation of this book has been stuffed into the “Reader Response” funnel. Our just a tad short of narcissistic president wrote a letter telling the world that he and his daughter made the right choice of the “better story”, which makes him pretty much the equal of every book review , which also ended with the reviewer’s declaration of what he or she, personally, thought was the “better story”. Reader, do you believe in God, with no proof but the better story? Or are you one of those yeastless agnostics, dependent on fact and reason? Make your choice! Talk about how your response to the book is nothing more than a reflection of your finer qualities! Let us all bond together in congratulating ourselves on making the “better choice”, rather than critically analyzing and discussing the many fascinating ideas the book raises, often accidentally.

I don’t think Pi is a particularly excellent book, but the ending is its best part. It’s a shame that it’s been ruined by the Let’s Make Every Book All About Me school of faux critical analysis. (Ruined the book, that is. I can hardly blame Lee for playing to the bigger crowd.)

I believe the book offers considerably more profound insights if we accept that Pi’s survival is beautiful, regardless of how it happened, and that the kindness of two busy men faced with a young man trying to cope with horrors beyond their imagining is as much evidence of God as is the carnivorous island.


Why I teach enrichment, reasons #1138 and beyond

I teach summer school because compared to regular school it’s like free money.

But then, I teach enrichment classes in reading and composition, as well as PSAT prep, to kids whose parents make them show up and are too compliant to rebel–that is, I teach Asian first generation immigrants (Chinese, Korean, Indian, and the occasiohnal Vietnamese). I tease them about their compliance mercilessly, and they are, for the most part, fascinated by a teacher who tells them they should go home and watch more TV.

Brief anecdotes:

  • I gave them an essay question, “Should school grades be determined entirely by an end of year test?” All but two of the 18 students took positions emphatically in the negative, and all gave the same reason: kids would just goof around and cram at the end.

    I pointed out the implicit value system inherent in their answers: kids only care about grades, not about learning. I said tht this was a big problem, as I saw it, with their attitude towards school and it was something they might want to think about. However, I said, regardless of their opinion, they could make their essay much stronger by attributing this unattractive behavior to other students. “Regrettable as it is to consider, many students have no interest in learning, and are only interested in getting a good grade.” Now they have distanced themselves from the value system, while still holding onto their position and their argument—which had obvious merits.

    And I reminded them that my course had no grade. So why were they in the class? What was their purpose? I hoped they would focus on my big three: better thinkers, better writers, richer vocabularies.

  • Every year, we get a day off for the Fourth of July. Every year, I ask my class what the holiday celebrates. Every year, at least one kid doesn’t know. Every year, at least one of the kids who does know doesn’t know the year. And every year, that kid got an A in 8th grade US History. Every year, I point out that this is a symptom of a kid who wants to get an A, not learn about American history, and that all of the kids in this class have similar gaps—stunning ignorance in subjects where they learned to get the A and never thought about it again.

    And what I truly love about this class is that every year, this lecture makes a huge impression. The kids understand my point. They understand that I value knowledge, not grades, and for the first time, they realize the utter emptiness of an A achieved without actually learning anything.

  • Another “every year” conversation:
    “What courses are you signed up for?”

    Typical rising sophomore answer: “Calc A/B (or Math Analysis), Honors Chem, Spanish III, World History, English II.”

    “Why not Honors English or WHAP (World History AP)?”

    “It’s too hard.”

    Please remember that, the next time you hear about how Asians take tough classes. They don’t take tough classes. They take classes that everyone else (read, white people) find tough. The classes they find tough, they skip.

  • It is not at all uncommon to find exceptional writers. This is not encouraged by their parents.
  • One of my few classroom rituals is “do your two”. Students are required to read two detailed columns four times a week. The column must either be an opinion piece or informational reporting. It can be on any topic: sports, movies, politics, news. They have to report back. I then intersperse my opinions, ensure that they’ve read it accurately, and understood the purpose. Over the course of the summer, I observe the kids picking up more general content knowledge (the purpose of the exercise), but they also start building on each other. So one kid reports on the Euro status, and another kid sees an article two days later that they click on because of the first kid’s report. It’s a very useful exercise.

    Today, one of my students discussed a new study showing that most people don’t actually listen very well. (I’ll find the link later) This generated a fun discussion, culminating in my announcement that I liked to think my students listened to me. Was I wrong?

    Joey started suddenly, looked up, and said, “Uh, what?”

    Little punk.


What I learned: Year 1

I thought I’d capture my big teaching discoveries year by year. In some cases, the learning will be expanded in a later post; I’ll link to any expansions later.

My first school was extremely progressive. We had weekly staff meetings; signature petitions for various Democratic causes were commonly passed around. We had a moment of silence when Edward Kennedy died. The school dedicated an entire day to propaganda about school funding. The principal met with me and mentioned that I didn’t seem, er, enthusiastic about matters that were important to the school which was unfair because I worked very hard to keep my opinions off my face and my mouth shut. That meeting was one of the few times any administrator acknowledged my existence. Weird, uncomfortable year; without question, I was let go because I wasn’t deemed sufficiently left of center.

Teaching history

I teach an AP US History Survey course every year and have excellent content knowledge in US and European history. But I’d never had to think through units on countries or eras, and my ed school work was all in math. All the discoveries I discuss were my own, although for all I know they’re basic equipment and I was just never told.

  • When studying a country, start with the physical and give the kids a map activity. Coloring in the Khyber Pass does much to help cement India’s vulnerability to invasion, and the Philippines’ placement in Southeast Asia does much to explain the term “strategically located” which, in turn, does much to explain the history of the Philippines. Be generous with the colored pencils and clever with the location activities.
  • Give them the nuts and bolts
    Logistics and economics can be unexpectedly fascinating, and I don’t understand why so many teachers ignore them. I don’t mean formal economics, but the simple nuts and bolts of money, need, and incentives, as well as the interesting unconsidered cause and effects. Male students in particular find this approach interesting. So, for example, when archaeologists found the Globe Theatre, I pointed out what a complete drag it was for the business that owned the location, which had to go through all sorts of negotiations just to get the use of their space back. Or the importance of dung in the Agricultural Revolution, and how the nitrogen-rich plants just happened to be the perfect food for livestock, which thus became more affordable, and so dumped its droppings into the land, providing still more fertilizer. A month later, we were reading a book on post-colonial India later on, in which a character picks up cattle dung to burn for fuel. Bam! Connection. The kids understood why manufacturing alone wasn’t sufficient to grow a new economy, that food production had to become much more efficient, and that using dung for fuel was robbing the land of nutrients. But they also realized that the character had no choice, which led to a greater awareness that England’s success wasn’t necessarily replicable.

  • Give them the gore.
    Trotsky got axed. Magellan got ripped to shreds. The Russian royal family got shot. Bad things happen, baby. (I had them draw pictures of Magellan’s demise. They were a hoot.)

  • Memorization isn’t automatic
    The first quiz revealed that the history facts had simply gone in one ear and out the other for several of my kids. I sat them down and gave them a talk about the importance of memorization and studying. This was news.
    “You mean, we just keep reading them over and over?”

    “Well, you can also work with a friend. Ask questions until you remember them. Come up with memory tricks to help. But here’s what will also help–understand that all that stuff we talk about, in class? It’s supposed to stay in your brain. That’s why you should take notes. But just writing it down isn’t enough–you have to remember what you write down, what you hear.

    Again, this was clearly new information (presumably because they didn’t listen the other 30 times they’d been told). But my non-performers made a quantum leap in performance that year, simply because I told them explicitly to remember what they learned. So, you know, don’t forget to tell them. And give them time to study; early success will reinforce the behavior.

English

As I described here, I designed a content-rich SSR/SSW program that did not involve the kids staring at a book they didn’t care about.

Math

I taught Geometry and Algebra I, using the CPM curriculum.
Most of my “aha” moments were more useful for the following year.

  • What kids learn, they forget.
    I love teaching test prep, but its short-term nature meant I hadn’t yet learned the merciless lack of retention skills that most kids had. And it’s much harder to remember processes (math) then facts (history).

  • Multi-step equations
    It’s May, and I suddenly notice that my kids can’t do multistep equations if I mix and match distribution and combination. This realization was essential to the ephiphany I had early the next year; without it, I might have gone another year without realizing why my kids could handle 3(x+7) = 24 but not 2x +3(x-2) + 3 = 6x + 2.

  • Binomial multiplication and factoring
    While I’m not a huge fan of CPM, I really like the generic rectangle model for this process. I still use the techniques and the documents I developed this year.

Teaching Humanities, History of Elizabethan Theater, (III)

Days 1 and 2, and 3 and 4.

Day 4 part I: Recreating History
Students use their notes and documents from Day 3 to sketch the details of an Elizabethan era theater. Fishbowl discussion: what did they sketch for seats? What about curtains? What did “backstage” look like? How do historians “fill in the blanks” when they don’t have primary evidence to point them in the right direction?

After the discussion, students took a virtual tour of the Globe theater. How would someone go about establishing the source material and accuracy of this tour?

No deliverable here. I just wanted the kids to grasp the choices involved in recreating history, whether it be for a book, a movie, or simply an image. I thought something familiar and specific would give them a better idea of how many thousands of decisions are involved in filling in those blanks. And while I can offer no tangible proof that this worked, I can say that every student had that “aha” moment, when they realized how much they didn’t know, and how every decision in a recreation can further affect our general understanding of history. The discussions were active and everyone was engaged; we had some great exchanges. One of my delightful ditzes suddenly realized she couldn’t assume that there would be bathroom stalls.

“But….the plays could be hours. What would they do? Go back outside? What if they were way up front?”

“Maybe they had pots,” offered a classmate.

I broke in with a brief history of the chamberpots.

Another student’s eyes widened. “Hey, maybe that’s where the phrase comes from–they didn’t have a”

“pot to pee in!” the class choruses.

“What about the actors, though? They had to have at least one bathroom. They didn’t even need girls’ bathrooms, right?”

One of my top historians pointed out, “But look, they didn’t even have running water back then. Did they even have toilets?”

“When did they get toilets?”

I gave them the story of Thomas Crapper and ended the segment during the ensuing hilarity.

Underneath all the fun, they really did get an inkling of the challenges involved in understanding the past. And, of course, some potty jokes.

Day 4 part II: Sonnets
Lecture on the sonnet, including its history and the two major styles (Petrarchan and Shakespearean). Students listen to five sonnets written from Shakespearean to modern times, and write responses to each. They identify the link between one of the sonnets and a modern song.

I am not a cut-and-dried planner. I’d always known that this unit would have a sonnets lesson. I’d vaguely thought of them reading the poems, which seemed unsatisfactory but I figured something would occur to me. The “something” waited until 30 minutes before class time, when I suddenly realized how much the sound of the sonnets would add to the experience, and so spent a frenetic half hour hunting down them all (mostly on youtube).

After all that, though, it went beautifully.

Day 5 and 6: Shakespeare in Love

They got all the jokes. They didn’t giggle at the sex scenes. They were engrossed by the story. They enjoyed the movie, understood the movie, and were completely aware that enjoyment and understanding came from their new content knowledge. I could tell.

So if I have a disappointment, it’s only that I would have preferred they’d be blown away by the movie. I am a film propagandist who shows movies that students would never think of watching and are nonetheless enthralled. I’m very good at this, so when I could tell that they just enjoyed the movie, it felt like a letdown.

In retrospect, though, Shakespeare in Love isn’t really a propaganda film; I’d never deliberately try to sell it to early teens. In this case, it was curriculum. And from that perspective, it worked beautifully.

Note: My kids had all been approved for R-Rated films for health class. I doubt most teachers could get away with showing SiL to freshmen otherwise.

Day 7: Content Knowledge and Art
Students write an essay on this prompt: “To what extent did content knowledge help you appreciate Shakespeare in Love?”

In fact, I had seen the answer in their faces as they watched the movie, but I wanted them to think about it.

SilFinal


Teaching Humanities, History of Elizabethan Theater (II)

See Days 1 and 2, if you’re interested.

Day 3 Part I: Elizabethan Theater Who’s Who
Students, grouped roughly by ability and content knowledge, were given different readings about key figures in the era. After reading, taking notes, and discussing, they created posters about their subject(s). The lesson ended with a “gallery walk” in which the students take notes about the key figures who weren’t part of their reading.

Yes, posters. Given my druthers, I’d have given them all four readings and 25 minutes to peruse, followed by a class discussion. But there you go. Well over half of all students I’ve worked with love making posters, and I always commiserate with the ones who don’t.

This lesson uses a form of “jigsawing”; as I’ve mentioned before, while most trendy math teaching techniques are hooey, I’ve become fond of more than a few used in history and English. Jigsawing is a terrific way to provide content by ability group. In this case, it allowed me to make sure that the students focused in on the content area most appropriate to their abilities.

So my weakest kids got the Shakespeare reading, because I wanted them to get a solid grasp on who he was, what he’d written, and some important quotes. If that was all they got from the exercise, that was a good get. Next group of kids up, I figured would be able to get the key ideas about Shakespeare from the poster, so I had them focus on the other Elizabethan playwrights. That way, they’d get some solid new information on Marlowe, Kidd, and Webster, whilst still picking up the key facts about Shakespeare. Again, if that was all they got, terrific.

Next group up, I knew, would be interested in learning about the new playwrights and would pick up the content from the poster–so they got the actors. The strongest group got Henslowe and Tilney, and the responsibility of figuring out what it was they did.

I know I’ve said this before, but I really wish I’d had an android back then, since the posters were stunningly good—not just in terms of artistic value, but in terms of how the students incorporated the readings into their posters.

In the gallery walk, each group took turns explaining their subject to the others, so they could take notes. I quizzed everyone it later, but I can’t find that document. They all knew enough to laugh at John Webster as the young boy with a violence fetish, and several were sad knowing that Marlowe must die, so the content definitely filtered in.

Day 3, Part II: Theater and its Impact on the Economy
Students reviewed pages of Philip Henslowe’s diary. What evidence did this primary document provide to support the claim that Henslowe was a producer who worked with some of the key playwrights of the day?

Using diary entries, write an essay supporting or contradicting this assertion: “The rise of the theatrical industry probably had a positive impact on London’s economy.”

I’m not sure if the pages in the attachment the pages I actually used. I spent several hours looking for three or four pages that would give them a wealth of evidence for both parts.

This was definitely an activity I designed primarily for the stronger students, and their essays showed they appreciated the challenge. However, all the students were interested. Much chortling when they discovered how much time Henslowe spent with his lawyers and on “copywrighte”.

Day 4: History In Motion
Reading and lecture on the constantly changing nature of “history”. Not only does it keep on building up, but we keep discovering more about our past. Students learn of the Swan drawing, by Johanes de Witt, which wasn’t discovered until 300 years later. Then, 30 years ago, a routine building excavation led to the discovery of Philip Henslowe’s Rose Theatre–and then the Globe was quickly located as well. But is there a cost to these discoveries? Students discuss the impact of living in a historical site.

This is the third really cool “primary” document (well, a copy of one) that I found for this unit, and I spent much of my own time researching it because it’s exactly the sort of tidbit I find fascinating.

What we know of the London theatres of Shakespeare’s age is, to a disproportionately large extent, due to the records such as diary entries left by tourists….Two of these tourists are Johannes de Witt and Aernout van Buchell, friends from the city of Utrecht, the Netherlands….To them we owe the best piece of visual evidence of what an Elizabethan theatre looked like on the inside: the sketch of the Swan theatre on Bankside, along with a brief Latin text describing the London theatre scene….First of all, it is unclear precisely what each of the two friends contributed. We do know that de Witt travelled to London, probably at some time between 1596 and 1598, and visited some theatres there, including the Swan; at some later point, he apparently gave (or sent) his sketch and written ‘Observations’ to his friend van Buchell, who copied the drawing as well as the text–or part of it. It is van Buchell’s notebook that now survives in the Utrecht University Library……There is no evidence that de Witt’s information had an immediate impact on his own culture. Sure enough, van Buchell made a copy of (some of) the information, but he never published it. Not that he was merely a collector of information for his own amusement; the documents he gathered, the facts and impressions he noted down, were made available to fellow scholars on demand for future generations. But for practical purposes, van Buchell’s main function as a go-between lies in transmitting de Witt’s sketch and observations to posterity. For some 300 years, the notebook gathered dust in libraries, until it was discovered by the German scholar Karl Theodore Gaedertz in 1888.

(Source: Renaissance go-betweens:
cultural exchange in early modern Europe
(page 79-81)

So. For centuries, we had no actual image of an Elizabethan theater. Then, for a few generations, the de Witt drawing was all we had, until The Rose was discovered, and once they had that location pinpointed, finding the Globe was pretty easy (hell, my kids found them using a 400 year old map). The past just won’t have the decency to sit still.

And yet, what of the developers? Lucky them! Their business plans had to be postponed; they had to incur additional expense to protect the Rose “until a future date”. Their building had to be suspended over the excavation. and what, exactly, will that do to the retail value of their property? Good, if the rich movie stars propose to buy it out. Bad, if the efforts never get far enough to the purchase level but stay at the annoyance level.

I told the kids about a hospital in my area moving from its old space to an empty lot that held the last orchard in an area that once was devoted to farming. I mean, couldn’t they have moved it anywhere? This orchard had somehow lasted that long, couldn’t we preserve it as the last little piece of heritage in the area?

On the other hand, the hospital can’t move there, it moves to another town, and bye bye jobs and property taxes. Discuss the degree to which we should interfere with business development in order to protect our past.

The essays were great. Heartless guttersnipes all. “Hey, it’s only trees!” “They lasted for 400 years without the theaters. What’s the big deal?”

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Teaching Humanities, History of Elizabethan Theater (I)

Writing up the Twelfth Night unit reminded me how much fun I’d had and how thoroughly the students had learned the material. I need no reminding with my Elizabethan history unit, which is still the single finest two-week period I’ve ever had as a teacher.

Learning Objective: Students can discuss the milestones of the transition from mysteries to plays, and provide the rationale for the development of physical theaters. They can identify the tensions involved when archaelogical remains don’t have the courtesy to become inactive, but just keep inconsiderately piling on history unto the present. They can identify the key Elizabethan playwrights and theater personnel. They know how many lines are in a sonnet.

Secondary Objective: They would understand every in-joke in Shakespeare in Love, which they’d watch at the end of the unit.

Day 1: Lecture on the development history of Western European theater, which disappeared entirely after the fall of the Roman Empire for over five hundred years, until it returned again in the form of “mysteries”, the performance of Biblical scenes, and slowly developed into the morality plays of the late Middle Ages. During the Renaissance era, the morality plays developed slowly into plays written more purely for entertainment, and thus were born both the acting profession and the theater (which allowed the actors to collect money from their audience). The lecture covered the development of the first theater (started by James Burbage, as we all know from SiL) through to the great razing of the theaters in the mid-1600s.

I can’t find my lecture notes, but the gist can be derived from the handout:
It must be said: I give a great lecture, and am particularly good, I think, at making the kids see developments as interesting when they’d never before given them a thought. Movies are a huge part of their lives, and before movies there were plays. But how did plays start? I often test attention by popping in questions during the talk, and the kids were all right there with me.

“So you had these acting troupes traveling from town to town, acting out these morality plays to big audiences, whereas before, the churches themselves put on the mysteries. How would that change things, Meg?”

“Well, the church is religious, and the actors aren’t.”

“Okay, and how would that matter? Renee, your hand is up.”

“The church probably had priests who acted!”

“Okay, and what does that mean? Think about the difference between a priest and and actor. Isaac?”

“The actors would need money, right? The Church had money already.”

Ian said, “Yes, they’d have to get money. How do you get money if it’s just a big crowd?”

“You pass the hat,” said Dom, “like they do in the movies.”

“You can’t pass the hat if you’ve got hundreds of people in the audience,” said Kayla.

“And what if no one wants to pay? How would they make money?” asked Sheena.

“Wow. You all are taking my lecture away from me. You’re right about the differences, the money, and passing the hat works well as a voluntary payment for small groups, but if actors were going to make a business of it, it’d be really convenient to have, oh, I don’t know, maybe a building? To let people in after they’ve paid? Otherwise known as….”

“Theaters!” they chorused.

The handouts, as well as their work over the next week, confirmed that this stuck with them.

Day 2: Using Primary Documents
Students had to map out the theaters of London during the Elizabethan era, using the “Agas Map” (Civitas Londinium). They had a handout with descriptions of theater locations, and they had to use the big map as well as the map on their handout to place all the theaters. When they finished, they checked their work against the placement based on current historical knowledge.

I printed out the Agas Map of London in 32 full page sections, which I then glued together. And trust me, crafts ain’t my thang, usually. But it was worth it, if only for the great visual. It’s a gorgeous map.

These were the clues:

Here’s the map they used to check their work:

Doing it again, I’d have magnifying glasses to read the Agas map more clearly. Still, it was a successful day. The students, working in pairs, found all the theaters and enjoyed the scavenger hunt aspect.

To be continued….


Teaching Movies

I wrote this up five years ago for some friends and decided to add it here, because I wanted to start writing about the importance of movies in teaching. I’ve mentioned my enrichment class before; I teach summer school every year. The first year, I had an whole extra week without a book planned, so I asked the director if I could teach a week of movies. By some miracle, he said yes.
*******

I’ve been heading a summer school film festival this week, which thus far has been a roaring success.
My first plan, offered to assuage any concerns the director might have, included these three movies:

  • White Heat
  • Fort Apache
  • His Girl Friday

I liked all these films, but more importantly they included four quintessentially American film types: gangster and noir, Western, screwball comedy. I was concerned that if I just chose purely fun movies, the director might be worried.

Two things happened to change my plans. First, the director wasn’t even in the building the first day, nor did he have the DVD player and large screen monitor available (he’d forgotten). Second, I only owned White Heat, but had ordered the other films last week and damned if they weren’t late. They’re finally arriving today.

After tearing home and grabbing my 7 year old laptop, which I keep around only to watch DVDs when there’s no TV handy, I became far less concerned about what the director wanted. Fort Apache got booted, Singin in the Rain and Rear Window got added.

Learning objectives:

  • Taking notes in the dark, while someone else is talking. They have to do it in high school and college, so may as well start now.
  • Writing film reviews, writing a synopsys, and the occasional persuasive essay.
  • Reading film reviews.
  • Analyzing characters and motivations.

Day 1: White Heat

Popcorn: None. I wasn’t sure that Asian kids would like popcorn. They assured me they would.

They were interested in White Heat, but it was an academic interest. They certainly enjoyed the great lines, and watching Jimmy Cagney, but the investigation scenes didn’t make up in interest what they added in lack of excitement. I suspect that the film will always be associated with “dramatic irony” though, as most of them heard the term for the first time when I explained it.
Without my planned films, I resorted to my own library. I also hooked up an old monitor to the laptop, creating two viewing areas. Sound remains an issue, dammit–the sound quality is fine, but the volume is a bit low.

Day 2: Singin’ in the Rain

Popcorn: Two full batches. I brought paper bags and salt. They devoured it in 20 minutes.

I selected Singin in the Rain first because I had it, second because it would be a nice change after Heat and finally, glory be, for relevance. As an opening lecture to the festival, I explained the history of movies, going through the impact of The Jazz Singer, the lack of technical expertise, and the problems that some actors had with squeaky voices. As part of the intro to this film, I naturally explained the difference between a Broadway and Hollywood musical, the importance of the Freed unit, and how the screenplay writers had been told that they had to write a story that fit this group of songs.

Big success. They loved every moment (confession: I skipped through the Broadway Melody section). They were riveted by the dance scenes; many of them noted that “they don’t chop it up, like in Chicago.” They laughed in all the right places. In their reviews, they all mentioned “the evil but funny Lina” and the great “dignity” speech. They were duly impressed that Cathy was Princess Leia’s mom, but even more stunned that Jean Hagen was dubbing her own voice, as Debbie lacked gravitas.

Day 3: Rear Window

Popcorn: 3 full batches, likewise devoured in 20 minutes. I am not sure where the bottom lies.
I wasn’t sure if they’d like Rear Window, but I thought it safer than The Third Man, and while I had It Happened One Night, I was still hoping my movies would come in and I didn’t want to preclude His Girl Friday.

Their note taking had gotten spotty, so this time I made them to track all the major characters, track all the “window stories”, and also the usual note good quotes, good scenes, and any questions. This did the trick; all of them had two pages of notes.

Three quarters of Rear Window is, as Roger Ebert notes, elegant foreplay. It then ratchets up the suspense with three exquisite shocks:

  • The Miss Lonelyhearts distraction cut to Thorwald’s return with Lisa still in his apartment.
  • Thorwald’s look from Lisa’s ring to Jeff, looking on.
  • Jeff answering the phone. “Hello, Tom? I think Thorwald’s cleared out. Hello?” and then his look of horror as he realizes who has called.

The students were fascinated throughout, commenting on the various “window plots” and speculating about what Thorwald had done. They gasped as one during the three shock scenes, laughing in horror and telling Lisa to “run!” And when it was over, they asked if they could have another Hitchcock today. I told them no! but you know, he’s at Blockbuster and on Netflix.

I was grinning like a lunatic during the last 25 minutes. As a teacher and a movie buff, I couldn’t have been more pleased by their response.

Day 4: His Girl Friday

I was worried it’d be a bit of a letdown after the huge success of Window and it was, just a bit. But still.

Their three biggest laughs:

  • After Walter has relegated Hitler, the Chinese earthquake, and the Polish corridor to page 6 or the funny pages, he says “No, keep the rooster story. That’s human interest.”
  • The entire scene with Bruce’s mother, from her entrance to her exit over Louie’s shoulders.
  • “Hey, I wonder if Bruce can put us up!”

Before the film, I had given them a good deal of info on Ralph Bellamy and Cary Grant (including Grant’s real name), so they got both of those jokes. I also told them what newspapers were like in that era, that big cities had 6 or 7 papers at least, and that newspapers were far more influential then. They absolutely got the message when the reporters gave fifty different versions (“Earl didn’t give up without a fight!” “Earl didn’t struggle!” “Earl tried to shoot, but his gun wasn’t loaded!”), and that for all our complaints about the media, things are a lot better these days.

They also loved the cameraderie of the press corps. One of my favorite moments in HGF occurs after the men have humiliated Molly and she leaves in tears. They know they’ve gone too far, and are sitting in silent embarrassment. It’s one of the only quiet moments in the film. Anna said, “Look, they feel bad” and the rest murmured in agreement. Later, when Molly shows up again, Michael pointed out how nice the reporters were at first, to make up for their rudeness.

So now it’s over. Lordy, I want to do that again. The whole summer was a great deal of fun, but this last week was teaching nirvana for me.

***************

This week was hugely influential in my teaching. To my elation, the kids really responded to “old” movies. Thanks to the ten kids in the class that day, a couple hundred kids have seen movie classics whenever I had a few spare hours.


Teaching Humanities, Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night lesson plan and discussion.

This was a 100 minute block period daily, which was pretty cool. Rather than do history one day and English the next, we switched off between history and English. Block is pretty brutal for math, but it’s great for history and English. I have most of the assignment images at the bottom of this post.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I went off the reservation for the last month of the school year. The original lesson plan called for an entire month of Twelfth Night, spent not reading and understanding it, but exploring issues of identity and gender and how the play helped the students see these issues in their own lives. Yeah, not my thing. I started out with good intentions, but by Day 3, I knew I’d done as much as I could. So I cut the time on Twelfth Night in half and then did a two week unit on Elizabethan theater. When I mention the “original lesson plan”, I’m referring to the plan I followed before jumping off.

Primary learning objective: Shakespeare becomes much more understandable when it’s seen and heard. Yes, the words can be simplified, but a great deal of the beauty and power is lost. Students who struggle with understanding Shakespeare can help themselves gain a better understanding of the material by hunting out a movie, talking it over with friends, and yes, reading synopses or translations. But they should also realize that the whole reason we still read Shakespeare has much to do with the beauty and strength of the words, and to make every effort to increase their understanding of those words.

Secondary learning objectives: Students will learn one of Elizabethan acting traditions (e.g., why was Viola dressing like a boy?). They will also form a greater awareness of the challenges and opportunities that emerge as the written word is translated to the stage.

Notes: Remember that a third of the class had reading skills at about the sixth grade level. Actually understanding Twelfth Night text was well beyond their abilities. The top kids, who read at college level (four of them) would find the assignments I was going to give intellectually interesting, even if we weren’t actually analyzing the literature–which they all would read. The mid level kids (half the class) probably would have benefitted from more close reading of the literature. However, as any English teacher can tell you, kids don’t usually do the reading at home, which means you have to schedule a lot of school time for it—and that would leave my low ability kids lost and bored and goofing around, all for the possibility that my mid-level ability kids might gain something from reading more Shakespeare. It was a tradeoff. Eh. Which is not to say the kids weren’t assigned the reading, and that my top level and probably half of my mid-level kids did. It’s just that I didn’t push the reading, as you’ll see.

Day 1-2: Watched the movie, a very good rendition. The kids had to create a “social network” of the characters.

This came from the original plan, it did help the kids focus on characters as well as plot. I then modified the assignment a bit to be less squishy, and off they went. I am not a teacher who goes to the art well much, and whenever I do I am reminded how much the kids love it. They were incredibly creative. I didn’t have an android back then, or I would have grabbed pictures of their work.

Day 3: Gallery walk through the networks and a reading of a Edith Nesbit’s short story of the play and then a fishbowl discussion of three questions. The questions were assigned by student ability (not obviously so). Students are graded in fishbowl on their participation and the strength of their discussion. While the discussion topics varied in complexity, students focused on the tradeoffs made in telling the same basic story in text, live action, or film.

It was the Nesbit story, in fact, that gave me my jumping off point and my new lesson objective. The only students who actually discussed the story were the lower ability students; the top students had to start wrestling with staging and technique.

It’s funny: I have little truck with math “techniques” (pair and share, blah blah blah). I am a big fan, however, of fishbowls and jigsaws in English and history. I suspect it’s because fishbowls and jigsaws work, whereas math techniques just make everyone feel better about trying something. No evidence to support this theory, though.

I thought the questions I came up with for this fishbowl were pretty strong; the kids liked them, too.

Day 4: Read the first act of Twelfth Night aloud. Discussed how much more difficult it would have been to understand if they hadn’t seen the movie first–or was there anyone who found it easier to read than watch? (there wasn’t) Reference back to the free write, short story, and staging.

Assignment: read Act II, scenes 1-3. In class, we looked at them to be sure everyone had a reference point from the movie. I told them yes, I knew of No Fear Shakespeare, and NOT TO USE IT RIGHT NOW. It was okay if they didn’t get everything; we’d discuss it tomorrow, and we would be talking about how to use NFS.

I did a longer stint with SSR today, because reading aloud can be deadly. The first day, the kids just took turns reading it aloud with no acting it out. I am reasonably sure that most of the kids did not use NFS to translate, given that I’d told them I wanted them to puzzle about it without that help and that I wasn’t criticizing NFS.

Day 5: Assigned SSR for 30 minutes–read the rest of Act II, looking for parts you remember from movie. Then we acted out most of Act III–not just reading aloud, but with emphasis and minimal staging. If a student muffed a delivery, I’d make him or her do it again. (Note: I had them skip through a lot of the boring parts.)

Weekend Assignment: Read Acts IV and V of Twelfth Night. Yes, No Fear Shakespeare was allowed, but as much as possible they are to look at both to gain a better sense of what those words mean. Extra credit: spot one scene that was definitely not in the movie. (four kids found some scenes that hadn’t been in the movie.)

As we read through Sebastian and Antonio’s scenes, one student asks “So, am I the only picking up on the whole gay thing? What were they doing on that ship, anyway?” “I think Antonio only helped Sebastian because he was hot for him” said another and the class quickly devolved into three minutes of ribald speculation until I reluctantly restored order.

Day 6: Freewrite: I gave them one scene in two columns, one of the original text, the other “translated” by NFS. It is my opinion, said the freewrite assignment, that NFS loses a great deal in translation. Do you agree or disagree? Be specific and discuss the use of descriptive language, particularly metaphors and similes.

They agreed in all cases (safe choice) but every student, from the strongest to weakest readers, gave thoughtful responses about what was lost in translation, along with some decent specific examples. I was pleased. By the way, I don’t have any documents from the past four days, because it was all done by my winging it through Days 4-6 while I planned out the next assignments, which start now.

Rest of Day 6 and Day 7: Gibberish assignment. No, not the game or the language, but literally words that couldn’t be understood. Students formed groups and chose from a list of scenes that I’d chosen. They had to stage the scene—props and costumes allowed—but they were only allowed to use nonsense language of their choice. They had to focus on making the staging as clear as possible to someone who wasn’t familiar with the play. They had close to two hours of class time to work on their staging, as well as during advisory and of course, after school.

I had no idea how this would work. I just didn’t want them spending time creating scenes that wouldn’t be very good to start with, and this promised to be funny

Day 8: Performance of the Gibberish Staging

This is undoubtedly the funniest 100 minutes of class time I have ever designed.

  • Two boys enacted Olivia’s proposal to Viola saying “glockle blockel stoppel” over and over again, with Olivia looking mooningly into Viola’s eyes and Viola–who was much, much larger than Olivia—desperately trying to escape.
  • Three girls acted out Malvolio’s yellow stocking scene in three languages: Tagalog (Malvolio), Japanese (Olivia) and Chinese (Maria).
  • Four students acted out Sir Andrew’s letter writing scene with Sir Andrew (a girl) doing knee bends, fencing stabs, and muscle preening while Sir Toby reads the letter aloud, giving reassurances to Sir Andrew as to its ferocious law-abidingness, which exchanging snide looks with Maria–and then the duel itself with Viola played by one of the tallest boys in the class, wincing in terror–all done to the sounds of Dubdubdubbiddybub.

And those are just the three I remember specifically; they were all hysterical and in the main, very well staged. I dunno, maybe you had to be there. The students had a blast and wrote their own reviews.

HW: Final Essay–you have a friend who is complaining about how hard it is to read Shakespeare. Write a full-page letter (can be informal, but no text-speak) and give some advice with specific examples.

The results here were pretty much what you’d expect. Nothing spectacular, but they all got the idea.

Day 9 or Day 10—I can’t remember if I’m missing a day or if we had to do some assembly. In any event, the last day of the unit was the final. Students had to identify key plot points and quotes.

While I didn’t track specific results, all the students got a C or higher, and only 3 students got a C. I had spent the year emphasizing the importance of remembering content, not letting it just go in one ear and out the other, and it had really paid off. My favorite airhead got a B-, to her shock, and took a bow to the class.

Documents below.

It’s funny; I have many fond memories of the Elizabethan history unit, but not until I wrote this up did I realize that the Twelfth Night unit had also been quite successful. Learning objective definitely achieved by all students. I’m quite sure they increased their content knowledge and all of them, regardless of reading ability, have a decent memory of the main plot points of the play. All that and gender identity discussions, too!

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Teaching Humanities, Part I

I got lucky my first year out and was able to teach math and humanities.

Were I ever to get a full-time job teaching either English or history, I would feel guilty for abandoning math and taking the easy way out. That’s how much easier it is to teach either subject. Do not picture me as short-timer, stuck teaching math as some sort of dead-end, droning on praying for the day that I get to teach my true passion. No. I find teaching math, constantly struggling to find a way to make abstract concepts understandable to uninterested students with no inherent ability, to be one of the most fascinating tasks invented. I’m hooked. But teaching English or history is a hell of a lot easier, and my lord, is it fun.

I taught 9th grade humanities at an extremely progressive school. (You’re wondering why on earth they hired me. They were desperate and got rid of me as soon as they decently could.) I planned out the curriculum with two other teachers for most of the year. As a rule, I did tests, grammar, and history (I was the only certified history teacher of the three of us, had considerable experience with standardized tests and–also as a result of my test experience–a lot of background in teaching grammar). They did literature and most of the actual planning (weeks spent on each section and so on). It was all collaborative and lots of fun–I learned a lot about planning out a book, and they gave me great feedback on how to simplify a history lesson for freshmen, while I taught them how to keep the rigor in even if the vocabulary is simplified.

We did the history of India, history of the Philippines, a brief history of Russia from the freeing of the serfs to the Russian Revolution, and the Age of Enlightenment, Age of Discovery, and revolutions industrial and agricultural. The kids read Nectar in a Sieve, a book on post-colonial India, a choice of three books on the Philippines (can’t remember their names), Animal Farm, and Twelfth Night. They also did some sort of project on natural disasters, which interested me not at all except I learned a good deal about geography, and some sort of personal narrative.

There was a great deal of indoctrination in the course material from years past, but I convinced the other teachers to dump a lot of it (without ever mentioning my opinion of the indoctrination) and the rest of it I just cut from my lesson.

The kids’ reading abilities ranged from 6th grade to college level, as did their writing. We were supposed to do “sustained silent reading/writing” each day for 20 minutes (it was a block class of 100 minutes) and it was supposed to be based on student choice, but I realized that most of them were just sitting around doing nothing. So I instituted my own hand-made SRA program of three levels. I just went to the bookstore, picked out some enrichment materials at various levels (and yes, bought them with my own money), and made copies for the kids. The kids read nifty little passages on all sorts of subjects, answered questions, did crossword puzzles with new vocabulary, and had little tests at the end of each unit that I checked on.

The kids gained tremendously in content knowledge at all levels. My favorite example: when we were talking about Russian history and Trotsky, I mentioned in passing that Stalin hunted down Trotsky even after he fled to Mexico, where he lived for a while with two famous artists, Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo.

One of my weakest readers perked up. “Is that how you say her name?”

I laughed. “I think so, but I’m not sure. I’ll go look it up later. You know about Frida Kahlo?”

“She was in the reading packets. She was famous for painting herself, or something.”

“Self-portraits?”

“Yeah, that was it. She wasn’t happy with the Diego guy, right?”

“Oh, is that the one that had a car accident?” pipes up another weak reader.

Another boy pops in. “She crashed into something.”

A strong reader (who therefore had not read about Frida) was interested. “When was this?”

“Yeah, this was like….it was after 1900. I think it was a lot after 1900, but not like 1950 or anything.”

“I think her car crash was in the 1920s, but don’t quote me,” sez I. (It was.) “That was very useful information, and thanks for the interesting details. Back to Trotsky and the axe.”

Content knowledge, baby.

Anyway, the segment on Twelfth Night we were expected to do was designed by a student teacher, and it was all about identity and examining their own navel—exactly the kind of nonsense I don’t like to do. By now, I knew I wouldn’t be back next year and this was the last segment of the year, so I went off the reservation. I did two weeks on Twelfth Night and two weeks on Elizabethan theater, and every minute of it was joyous fun. For the kids sometimes, too.

This post is getting long, so I’ll put the lesson plans and a story about in subsequent posts.


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