Monthly Archives: April 2012

Closing out the year

The last series of state tests are tomorrow.

For the last month of the year, I always give a comprehensive test every Friday, which assures me the students’ complete attention. Students with poor grades can raise them, students with good grades can lose it all.

As for the rest of the days, I haven’t decided entirely what to do. For the weaker geometry students, I’m going to go back to the basics and throw in still more algebra. The stronger ones, on the other hand, I’d like to get more complex problems—something I just haven’t had time for them to do all year. I’ve got a great exercise, Babylonian Taxes, that I think most of my students will be able to do. And I still need to do a bit on circles.

Algebra II will be tougher, because my seniors have mostly checked out. I won’t really be able to individualize their work, because half of them will sit and do nothing if I’m not riding them the entire time. Then, when they flunk the Friday tests and realize they might not pass, they’ll come wailing to me. So no self-directed learning. My current thinking:

  • Counting and probability
  • Exponential and logarithmic equations–applications only
  • One more try at parent graphs and transformations, although the last two attempts have been less than successful.

I’ve had good results in previous years keeping kids focused and productive in the last month, but there’s always one class that just tilts over to unproductive. (Third period, I’m looking at you.) I’m determined to keep on top of that this May.

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.


The Real Agenda

The Culture of Can’t in America

I clicked in with interest, because Rick Hess doesn’t usually offer a routine perspective.

When it comes to reforming our nation’s public schools, we hear a lot about what educational leaders can’t do. Contracts, laws, and regulations assuredly handcuff school and system leaders. But the ardent drumbeat for “reform” has obscured the fact that school and system leaders can actually do much that they often complain they can’t, if they have the persistence, knowledge, ingenuity, and motivation. In truth, it’s tough to know how much blame should be apportioned to contracts and laws and how much to timid school boards and leaders who prize consensus and stakeholder buy-in.

Sounds promising but apparently, the only thing Hess thinks that leaders can do that they say they can’t do is 1) be creative in getting around LIFO and 2) use a phone to go through some of the more annoying consequences of giving a negative evaluation.

Think bold, move from Can’t to Can, and all he can come up with is a few procedural suggestions to get creative in firing teachers?

You’d think he could just say so. Title the article “Firing teachers: It’s not as hard as you think!”

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.