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Happy 452nd Birthday Will

Shakespeare’s birthday is upon us, and to honor the bard I would like to write down some thoughts about him. I am currently teaching Julius Caesar to my 10th graders and I taught Romeo and Juliet to my 9th graders last year, and the majority of students’ opinions about Shakespeare are negative. I understand why—Shakespeare’s language is terribly confusing. Half the battle is being able to read what he is saying, and once you figure that out, the skill of analyzing his concepts is just as difficult. For a high schooler, that’s a lot of brain power. Heck, for me it takes a lot of brain power. However, the themes buried underneath the Early Modern English are profound and universal. My goal with my students is to get them to start appreciating Shakespeare’s work. It’s a difficult task, but I try new methods every day. I tell them about how he made up hundreds of new words and phrases that are now commonly used in the English language. I tell them about how the stories he wrote were inspiring and beautiful. I try to express my passion so clearly in hopes that some of it will be transferred to them. Yet at the end of each Shakespeare unit, the majority of students still have the same responses: “I don’t get it.” “He’s boring.” “Nothing makes sense.” “Why do we still read Shakespeare?” It’s like someone punches me in the gut every time they say these things.

So I am still exploring ways to help students appreciate good old William. Of course I am always open to suggestions. I’m sure (at least I hope) that Shakespeare will continue to be taught for many years to come, which gives me time to figure out how to express his genius. At the end of the day, this is the thought I leave them with: take away the details, the language, the fluff. Just look at the heart of the story-the message. What is the message Shakespeare is trying to get across? Is it about love? Betrayal? Loyalty? Loss? These themes are universal and timeless, and that is what students will walk away remembering.

I’ll end with one of my favorite quotes from Romeo and Juliet:

“My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.”

Although I wasn’t a huge fan of Romeo and Juliet, this quote was beautiful.

Also…this article came out in the Philadelphia Inquirer the other day and it was written by my adviser in the English department at Gettysburg College. Interesting look at the bard’s language!

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What is Beauty?

Three times a year, my students have to answer a writing prompt through an online program called Criterion. The first prompt was about truth. Students had to consider whether honesty was always the best policy, is it okay to lie sometimes, when does the truth matter most, etc. The second prompt addressed forgiveness and students had to decide if it is better to forgive and forget or always remember and take revenge. The last prompt asks the question, what is beauty? Students have to think about the evolving definition of beauty over time through art, literature, history, and society. It’s a pretty deep topic. In fact, all of the prompts are. What is truth? Can you forgive? What is beauty? These are the kinds of questions I discuss with my friends for hours, usually on a Friday night, usually with some wine involved. How are high school students supposed to write about this in four to five paragraphs when I don’t even know a concrete answer to these questions? Maybe that’s the point though, for students to begin thinking about these concepts and attempt to write down all those thoughts in an organized fashion. But it is a little overwhelming. Where do you start? What examples do you give? How can I make all my thoughts go in one direction instead of a thousand? I thought I’d give the prompt a shot, in a very brief, somewhat organized fashion. Here’s what I came up with:

  • “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Yes, I stole this from a terrifying Twilight Zone episode I showed my students to get them thinking about the topic. But I completely agree with it. (If you haven’t watched it, check it out right now, it’s worth it. Season 2, Episode 6). Beauty is absolutely subjective, and therefore we can’t assign any certain definition to it. No one else can tell you what is beautiful; it is up to your own perception. So the idea of beauty “standards” does not make sense to me, because beauty cannot be standardized. Everyone has a different point of view which means everyone sees beauty differently. But these “standards” lead me to my next point…

 

  • Beauty standards change over time and across cultures. What was cool in the 1920’s was out of style a couple decades later. In the mid 20th century, curvy was beautiful. Now skinny is beautiful .Society shapes the way we view beauty, and culture plays a huge part in this process. America’s definition of beauty is very different than China’s. This further demonstrates my point that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, where the beholder also involves society.

 

I’ll stop there with the societal influence only because that tangent could go on for a while.

I want to end with some more philosophical ideas. Let’s start with a quote from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray:

“Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.”

We can’t forget John Keats:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

Or of course, Confucius:

“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”

Here’s what I gather. Beauty is a unique, inspiring, wonderful thing. We must work to find it for ourselves. So often we attach beauty to physical appearance, but it is more than that. Much, much more than that. When I think of beauty, I think of quotes like the ones above that mention hope and truth. In fact, I rarely think of physical appearance when I hear the word beauty. Unfortunately, I don’t think many of the teenagers I teach would think the way I do about it. I hope we can start to think about beauty the way the Romantic poets did. While these Criterion prompts might not change our thinking significantly, I hope it can at least make us think about changing the way we think. That makes sense, I think…

Quotes

Every week, I have my students answer a journal prompt on Edmodo. I usually have the prompt relate to what we are learning about so students can extend their thinking. For example, right now we are reading Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and a major theme in the text is betrayal. Therefore, I asked my students to think of a time when either they betrayed someone or were betrayed by another. I asked them to describe the situation, how it felt, if betrayal is ever worth it, etc. I figure these journals give my students a chance to practice writing but in a more creative, personal mode.

This week, the prompt asked for my students to think of their favorite quote. We just read the scene where two main characters in the play, Brutus and Mark Antony, recite speeches and we analyzed the power of words. So I wanted them to think of a powerful quote that stood out to them, whether it is from a song, a book, a movie, a celebrity, poem, anything. Then they need to explain why the quote means so much to them. I think oftentimes, students take language for granted. I am so passionate about the power of language, and teenagers don’t seem to share that passion with me. I love Shakespeare, while they ask me almost every day to “stop speaking the made up language.” It is frustrating to say the least. Anyways, I thought I’d consider my answer to the prompt and pick a favorite quote. I have quite a few…again, I love words. I love language and manipulating language. If I had to pick one, I’m going to go with Harper Lee:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

I’m sure you’ve heard of this quote before. I’m probably the hundredth person to claim it’s my favorite. But it truly is one that I hold dear to my heart. This book has always been so important to me, and I like this quote because it has a message that I have been trying to push with my students for a while. I teach in a mostly white, upper-middle class school where diversity is practically non-existent. Sometimes, the area is referred to as a “bubble” because it’s like everyone here lives in their own little world, oblivious of the reality that goes on outside the neighborhood. I am working to teach my students that they need to expand their knowledge so they can be better prepared when they enter the real world. This starts by practicing the act of seeing things from different points of view. I do some kind of point of view activity with every text we read to help remind students that the literary element can completely change a story. Going back to my example with Shakespeare, I have students think about the perspective from which the story is told-mostly the conspirators who assassinated Caesar. But what if the story were told from Caesar’s point of view? Would we like Caesar more? Probably. Looking at point of view also helps them question credibility. And the more they question texts, the more they will understand them.

Essentially, this quote appeals to me for personal and academic reasons, which is why I love it so much. It is so simple, but teaches such a significant lesson. My students might not have as strong of an attachment to their quote like I do, but I’m hoping to help them discover why it is certain phrases stick out to them. Maybe it will remind them of the power of words and show them that there is this mysterious magic behind them that draws readers in.  Or maybe they will pick the lyrics to a cartoon theme song that have no real meaning other than to sound catchy. At least I can say I tried…

Students’ Well-Being

A couple of weeks ago, Chris Herren came to the high school where I work to deliver a speech about his upsetting past. He was a talented basketball star in high school and college, even making it to the professional league, but heroin also played a big part in his life which led to his downfall. The entire school was in the auditorium to hear his message, and I have never heard 1700 kids in one room so quiet. It was one of the most powerful assemblies I have ever attended.

Chris did not come to explain his past. Everyone knows about his tragic history. Instead, he focused his forty-five minutes on what teenagers can do if they are dealing with these issues now. Chris has been around the country and talked to hundreds of high schools and professional sports teams. He knows how to talk to his audience, and during his time here, he really did address every single person sitting in that auditorium. He talked about those directly affected by alcohol and drug use, and also talked about those who have family or friends involved in that dangerous lifestyle. His message was strong and simple: speak up, stop the problem, get help. He also repeated a perspective that I found especially powerful. He told the students to ask themselves why they think they aren’t good enough, because that is why people drink and use drugs. Chris encouraged students to think of their family and friends and remember that they are absolutely good enough, that they mean something, and the bravest most sincere people are the ones who don’t need alcohol or drugs to have a good time. These people are comfortable in their own skin, and that’s admirable.

The last part of Chris’s speech focused on what schools can do to help. He criticized schools for failing to offer opportunities to talk about these issues. We push the problems under the rug and hope they go away. He argues that we should know by now that this does not solve anything. Instead, we should give students a chance to openly discuss the concerns in their lives. I completely agree with his belief, and decided to bring that topic back to my students a couple days later. First, I asked my students if they felt as though there was an adult in the school they could go to if they have problems. No one raised their hand. That in itself shocked me. So I asked what we can do as teachers to help students feel more comfortable, and they told me that once a month, we should sit down as a class and simply talk about what is going on in our lives. They believe that the school does not care, and that forces them to deal with problems on their own which can lead to disastrous consequences. I was kicking myself for not doing this earlier-asking them what they need to be better students, better people. Chris Herren’s speech inspired students and teachers, and it was exactly the wake up call we needed to move forward.

At the end of the class period, I asked students to write down how their year has been going-not in English, but in life overall. I told them I would be the only one reading their thoughts, so they could be as honest as they would like. There were several responses that produced the expected “Everything’s fine,” “school is busy,” “can’t wait for summer.” However, there were just as many responses that produced very real, honest thoughts. I learned about some personal family crises, social problems, and troubling outlooks on life. I asked students to also write what I as a teacher can do to help them feel more supported, and a lot wrote down that getting the chance to write like this every couple weeks really helps. I think they just want someone to listen to them, and writing gives them the opportunity to do so freely.

My plan is this: every 2 weeks, have students write down how their life has been going followed by an individual conference with each student to check in. Once a month, sit down with the class and have a class period devoted to expressing issues and talking about what we observe in the world. I take these suggestions directly from the students, and I hope it helps. School is an academic setting, but we need to address students’ well-being too. What is the best way as teachers that we can do this? I’m not sure. But I will work to find out.

Take 2

I tried starting a blog once. I spent the fall semester of my junior year of college abroad in England, and figured a blog would be a great way to keep people in the loop about what I was doing. This blog would be a detailed account of all the adventures I went on, satisfying the curiosity of the plethora of people at home who had a deep interest in all that I was doing. The blog lasted two weeks. I wrote two posts. The first was about how excited I was to go abroad. The second was about the long plane ride and how tired I was on my first day in England. Didn’t quite achieve the exciting, worldly, extravagant tone I was originally aiming for. I figured this was for a couple reasons. First, only my parents really cared about what I was doing. Most of my other friends were also abroad and didn’t have time to check in on every blog out there. So that “plethora of people” was really just Mom and Dad. Second, I realized I didn’t have time to post because I was too busy exploring. I wanted to spend my time actually doing things, not writing about what I had done. I did keep a journal where I recorded my adventures every couple of days, but did not think those notes were formal enough for a blog. I haven’t tried blogging since.

Honestly, I felt like there wasn’t anything important or exciting enough (like traveling around Europe) to blog about. But maybe blogging isn’t always about reporting on the most suspenseful, dramatic, inspiring events in life. Maybe it’s about musing over the ordinary things in life. Right now I’m starting a unit with my Creative Writing class on poetry. The first thing I taught them was to write about things you know. You can make something ordinary extraordinary if you want to; it’s about how you interpret what you’re writing about. If I am teaching that to my seniors, then I should probably practice what I preach. So this is take 2. I am going to take some inspiration from my favorite author, the wonderful William Wordsworth, and just let my thoughts flow. For as he says,

“Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”

Switch out the word “poetry” for “blogging” and I have my motto for this experience. Kind of.

While I want the purpose of this blog to be primarily professional, I can tell already that my personal thoughts and commentary will be interspersed within the reflections on my experiences in the classroom. We’ll see where it goes…

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