Thursday, November 27, 2014

Powerful student protest of Ferguson decision in Baltimore City Schools

Great things happen in city schools every day. I head into this Thanksgiving weekend with a full heart, thankful and excited about our future and the lessons my younger students learned today and my older students taught me.

It was the beginning of class in the afternoon, and my 9th graders and I were talking informally about Fences, which they'd been reading in my absence over the last three days (I missed Friday for NCTE, and Monday and Tuesday with a nasty respiratory infection that sent me to the hospital). Some kids had finished; others were almost done, and a few needed some clarification on some of the text-dependent questions I had left. Being the day before Thanksgiving, which shouldn't be a full school day anyway, only about two-thirds of the class was there; beyond the weirdness of the day, it was also a strange class period: 20 minutes of class, a 45-minute advisory in the middle, followed by another 25 minutes of class.

We were set to begin advisory at 12:56, but at around 12:45, a group of older students poked their heads into my classroom and addressed my 9th graders: "If you all want to go to the sit-in, come along now." About half of the 20 students left, and 10 remained, looking at me. They were worried. "Are we going to get in trouble?."

I wanted them to go, but I didn't want to tell them to go. This should be student-directed, not teacher-directed. I said, "Well, if you want to engage in any sort of protest, you should accept the consequences, whatever they might be." They still looked at me confused, so I added: "I'm not planning on giving you any punitive consequences." They talked it over a little bit, one boy sweetly worried he might not be able to play football the next year if he was caught attending a peaceful protest with the vast majority of his schoolmates. Then, he decided to go. It was important enough. By this point, the halls were crowded with students marching in unison, shouting, "Hands up! Don't shoot!", many with signs.

With all my students attending the protest, I decided to go see what it was all about. The auditorium was full of hundreds of students, most of them dressed all in black in solidarity with their response to the verdict. After a couple of neutral words from the principal, the remaining hour and a half sit-in was completely student led. The Senior Class President began with a speech about the non-indictment, featuring a continued repetition of the line, "I think I smell something" referring to the purported facts of the case, which finally, towards the end of his speech, cascaded into the answer: "injustice". Another student described the testimony of Officer Wilson, describing how the entire investigation was "goosed": no fingerprints taken off the gun, no cross-examination of the officer. Yet another came up to the mic, admitted that she "didn't know what (she) was doing" before delving into a powerful catalogue of things she is tired of, ending with the line, "If we stand for nothing, we will fall for anything." Fifty or so students spoke, each ending their speech with the "Hands up, Don't shoot" mantra that has been a part of every protest. Eventually, the discussion moved to the institutional racism that persists within the structures in which they struggle every day; students presented a thoughtful list of demands of administration and the school system.

There were a couple of exceptions, but, for the most part, it was an incredible and inspiring day. There were times when my eyes teared up watching these young, passionate people share their thoughts and engage in non-violent protest. It was completely student-led, which made it even more powerful, and more proud of where I work and our students. With the holiday of graciousness upon us the next day, it was hard not to feel how thankful I was to work in this school, to work with these students. I needed this, this week.

For this week has been a hard one. After the ridiculous and inhumane Trayvon Martin / Zimmerman decision in Florida, I was not expecting Officer Wilson to be indicted. And that's sad, to just expect injustice to persist, because one of the things I'm most passionate about is fighting cynicism. But even I couldn't not be cynical about what the prosecuting attorney was going to say that night. Now, I'm not sure what happened on that day in Ferguson, and as the son and cousin to great police officers and someone who grew up in the cop culture, I have some predispositions that many of my fellow liberal friends don't have. I will defend police all the time; it is a demanding, life-threatening, and often thankless job of service. But Officer Wilson was not a good police officer. He let a situation escalate to the point where he felt the need to fire 8 bullets at a kid. The lollipop questions asked of him in the indictment hearing were designed to bring one result: to not give this guy a day in court or allow Mike Brown's family the opportunity to face the man who killed their child. Instead, they heard their child go on trial, as Wilson's testimony painted him as an overpowering "demon" who had a bizarre, suicide-by-cop personality. And everyone believed him. Everything was stacked against an indictment, from the slow investigation, the lack of ballistics, to the fact that the District Attorney's father was a police officer killed in the line of duty. This is why the case became that rarest of rarities: a case that goes before a grand jury and isn't brought to trial; indeed, only 1 in 11,000 cases before a grand jury don't end up going to trial. Even Justice Scalia (in his 1992 Supreme Court case United States vs. Williams) agrees: "It is the grand jury’s function not ‘to enquire … upon what foundation [the charge may be] denied,’ or otherwise to try the suspect’s defenses, but only to examine ‘upon what foundation [the charge] is made’ by the prosecutor. Respublica v. Shaffer, 1 Dall. 236 (O. T. Phila. 1788); see also F. Wharton, Criminal Pleading and Practice § 360, pp. 248-249 (8th ed. 1880). As a consequence,neither in this country nor in England has the suspect under investigation by the grand jury ever been thought to have a right to testify or to have exculpatory evidence presented."

The trial may have resulted in an acquittal, but this case has too many questions not to go to trial, a public trial where witnesses are vetted and questioned by more than just those already predisposed to be believed by prosecutors. 

So, yes, out of this sadness and anger, our students gave me a lot of hope today, and I pray these students feel empowered and engaged for years to come after their powerful and compassionate sit-in today. It's what my heart needed to end this week and move into the Thanksgiving holiday.

Monday, November 24, 2014

My Experience at NCTE Conference 2014

This weekend was the Annual NCTE convention, and it was a whirlwind couple of days, and I'm back to Baltimore feeling invigorated by being around a bunch of great educators. (And, also, pretty sick, with a respiratory infection that had Patient First sending me to the ER Sunday and today to my cardiologist, but I digress.)
My arrival with friend and colleague Amber Phelps

On Friday morning, the four English teachers from my school attending drove up early (my colleague and I had saved Serial episode #9 for the drive, so it went really quickly -- this episode had me on the "Adnan couldn't have done it" train again),in time to make it to Glenda Funk's session "Blurred Lines: Landscapes of Truth and Fiction in Imaginary and Informational Texts," where I was regaled with all of Glenda's book and strategy recommendations as well as by her co-presenters. Afterwards, I attended the Folger's session about putting a scene on its feet, a demonstration of "3D Shakespeare" using 9th grade students unexperienced in Shakespeare. They came from my school, which was extra special, and the lesson -- demonstrated by Michael Tolaydo in a room overflowing with English teachers -- went really well. It basically called on the students to inhabit the language (in a brief scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream) and, eventually, use the language to get on their feet with it. Bringing a group of 30 or so Baltimore 9th graders to the NCTE was something I'd never seen before, but I think it was a powerful example of how great the Folger methods are in the classroom, for any student regardless of their level of Shakespeare experience. The feedback the students gave at the end of the presentation -- "I thought it would be hard with all the 'thou's' and 'thee's, but it became understandable as we read through the scene more" -- was exactly what I think teachers needed to hear to feel confident using these sort of methods with students.

City College students videotaped as part of their lesson.
Next, we went out to lunch (Nando's... mmm... and low-sodium as long as you don't put much hot sauce on the chicken), and that's where I started getting nervous; I was set to present at 4pm, just a couple of hours from at that moment. One thing about the Gaylord National Resort, the home of the convention, is that the wireless capabilities were terrible. It was actually pretty astonishing. Not only wouldn't YouTube clips load, but basic websites, like, would load only after several minutes of loading. It was so frustrating, especially because I had a clip of a student on YouTube that I wanted to share, and it didn't look like it was possible. I used the wifi at Nando's to download the clip onto my laptop computer on my laptop computer, then we made our way back to the convention.

I walked around for a bit in the Expo at the convention, but my nerves were on edge about my impending presentation, so I thought I would make myself feel better by heading to the room where we were set to present. There happened to be a session there about creating safe spaces for LBGTQ students in schools, and the presenter was a nice woman who was left to present alone after two of her colleagues were stranded in blizzard-struck Buffalo. I stayed for her presentation, which was a sweet case study of a trans man and some of his experiences in high school. She was from Ohio, and I liked what she was saying, though I work in a school that is pretty darn friendly for LBGTQ students (we have an active GSA and almost half the school participates in National Day of Silence); she works in an environment where, apparently, teachers purposefully schedule oral exams on National Day of Silence so students have the choice whether to participate or fail the class. It was eye-opening, though probably not surprising, that this still exists in American high schools.

Our session -- "Shakespeare and the (Common Core) Assessments" -- was divided amongst three speakers: Laura Turchi from the University of Houston; Deborah Gascon, a master Shakespeare teacher from South Carolina, and myself. Ms. Turchi is a teacher educator, and is writing a book about Shakespeare and the Common Core, and posed several questions and offered several strategies for the audience about assessment. Ms. Gascon offered a cool group cold reading strategy that I will certainly use in my classroom. And as for my section, I was asked to speak about a final exam our English I team wrote last year for our Romeo and Juliet unit; I write about it here. (Indeed, Folger Education Director Peggy O'Brien read that entry and decided to ask me to present on the topic.) For my part of the presentation, I did a bunch of research on the PARCC exam to make sure I was well-versed in it, as well as the new evidence-based SAT. I discussed our goal that the kids are able to read Shakespeare by the end of the unit, not necessarily that they learn every plot detail or symbol from the play we're teaching; our final exam, thus, was a passage from a non-Romeo and Juliet play (Richard III) and evidence-based selected response questions and writing based upon the passage. I then tried to tie it together with showing one of my current students perform a monologue done after close study of the language of a passage. Making the case that performance is preparation for rigorous high-stakes multiple-choice exams was my goal, and I hope it worked out.

Then, we hightailed it to the Folger Library for a reunion of the Teaching Shakespeare Institute from 1984-2014. TSI has reached hundreds of teachers and impacted English instruction around the country; personally, I think of my career as "Before TSI" and "After TSI"; I wrote about this impact here. It was great to see old friends, including 4 from my 2008 class, and hear impacts from teachers who have worked through the institute over the last 30 years. It was also a bit of a thrill drinking beer in the Reading Room, the vaunted library space home to world-renowned scholars. Later, we ran through a practice run of the Julius Caesar flash mob that was expanded for the conventions, and it was a lot of fun.

Folger Reading Room TSI reunion
Caesar cast talkback. Over 70 NCTE teachers attended.

TSI alums run through Caesar flash mob at library.

After our brief reunion, we walked across the building to the theater, where we saw Folger's production of Caesar. I admit that I've never taught or even read the play before, so my experience with the play wasn't much beyond "Beware the Ides of March" and "Et tu, Brutus?". But the play was so good, full of intrigue and phrases I recognized in pop culture ("the fault in our stars", "it's all Greek to me") and incredible performances. Specifically, I especially enjoyed the great Maurice Jones as a charismatic Marc Antony, and the two women in the cast, Deidre LaWan Starnes as the loyal Calpurnia (there's a moment in the play when she makes the line "O" -- when Caesar decides to go to the Senate meeting after initially saying he wouldn't -- entrancingly powerful cry of pain) and Shrine Babb as Brutus's wife, who is incredible in her brief scenes. Louis Butelli is very, very good as the conniving Cassius. But the big star was the direction, I think; Robert Richmond's direction is stylized, powerful, and evocative. I was really blown away by this play, and I really regretted calling a few hours too late to get my students in to see it this fall. I would have taught the play and then we would taken the MARC train down to Baltimore to see it. Oh well. Still, I would totally teach Caesar someday, to 9th or 12th graders.

The play ended around 11pm, and we were pretty beat from a long day of sessions. Four of us attended NCTE from our school, and three of us shared two motel rooms about 10 minutes from the Gaylord Convention Center, paying $80 a room rather than the $300+ the convention center cost. We had another presentation at 11am on Saturday, this one on Steinbeck, and it was great we didn't try to drive back to Baltimore and then back to DC like I had originally thought. The motel room was comfortable and I slept like a rock, and we made it to the convention on Saturday morning at around 9am. For the 9:30 session, I wanted to see David Kirkland (who I think I might have worked with in Lansing) at a presentation about empowering Black Males. The presentation ended up being about using Speech & Debate to do so, and I feel like our school does that pretty well already, and there was no sign of Dr. Kirkland (it turns out he was the respondent, so I missed him since I had to leave a little early to head to our room for our Steinbeck presentation), but the energetic students were fun to watch before I had to leave.

Me presenting on Steinbeck
Now, onto our Steinbeck Presentation, which I simply and uncleverly titled John Steinbeck and the Story of America. I think the NCTE conference, in general, had a lack of specific titles and content for presentations. There were a few presentations that seemed to be about specific authors or books (I saw one about To Kill a Mockingbird, plus of course the great Folger presentations on Shakespeare), but, for the most part, titles and sessions were more vague. We didn't know if that would hurt us or help us, but, it turned out, it seems participants were craving this sort of presentation. Teachers were lining up 20 minutes before it began, and many teachers left because it was so crowded. All in all, we had about 100 teachers attend.

For the presentation, my goal was to share some of the stuff we learned at the Steinbeck Institute, plus offer some practical lessons and materials for integrating into the classroom. In January or so, I sent an e-mail to all of the 2013 Steinbeck Institute participants to see if anyone wanted to join me in a presentation about teaching Steinbeck. I got a few hits, and, at one point, we were at 8 participants. But, as I expected, real life hit (plus the cost of the conference, which was around $250), and it ended up only being 4 participants from the Steinbeck Institute, plus 2 teachers from my school who used methods and materials that I had learned at the institute. Kris Sieloff (Steinbeck Institute 2011) was set to present about Of Mice and Men, Dan Clare (Steinbeck Institute 2013) was set to present about Cannery Row (check out the awesome website he built for the presentation at http://canneryrowphoto.blogspot.com, Jamie Vermatt (2013) was set to present on Steinbeck's non-fiction work, and Jessie Doernberger and Amber Phelps, from my school, ended up presenting about our awesome cross-curricular The Grapes of Wrath unit we taught last year along with Social Studies. The books I have taught recently (The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row) were being presented on by other teachers, so I ended up presenting on East of Eden and The Long Valley, since it was in our program and no one was set to present on those books.
Our Steinbeck Presentation group

Our presentation (and our plan) was supposed to be a Roundtable presentation (as seen in the program on the left), but the room given to us had no tables, and five rows of around 20 seats each. So, in the 15 minutes in between the end of the last presentation and ours, we had to storm into the room, change the entire arrangement, as well as set up our technology. A crowd of teachers had already shown up, and helped us out. There were a few issues with my Mac Air in running the powerpoint I had created, so another teacher let us borrow a flash drive, saving the day. We had everything set up by 11am, when I was able to present my somewhat rambly Powerpoint describing some of the things we encountered during the Steinbeck Institute 2013 (imagine boiling down an amazing 3 weeks in your professional life to 10-15 minutes... it becomes 18 minutes pretty easily).

As aforementioned, around 100 teachers came, and we had to bring one circle of desks out in the hallways to handle the crowd. The five presenters rotated from table to table with their packets, and, from the feedback we got, it seems like it went really well. I ran out of packets and e-mailed it out to those who didn't get it. Lots of folks stayed afterwards to chat, and, all in all, it just felt good: we offered lots of practical and interesting ideas to teach the work of John Steinbeck to modern, diverse students in the era of Common Core testing.

We were wondering about what other authors would hold as much interest at an NCTE convention; after Steinbeck, it seems to me that Steinbeck, Orwell (Animal Farm AND 1984 are widely taught), and Morrison (Song of Solomon, Beloved, and The Bluest Eye) are the three that would. Ideas are definitely percolating. For years, I thought I might someday present about teaching the work of James Baldwin, but I think he might need to be part of something bigger.

Anyhow, our Steinbeck presentation completed successfully, we went out and walked around the National Harbor, having an incredible lunch at Mexicano Rose (the guacamole was to die for) and riding the Capital Wheel while we waited for our table. Upon returning to the convention, I took an opportunity to walk around the Expo, attended a close-reading presentation for a bit, and then made my way down for the Folger Julius Caesar flash mob, which was a lot of fun. (I expect we'll be doing a Shakespeare flash mob with all grade levels next year on Shakespeare's birthday, in the cafeteria.) So much fun and energy around Shakespeare's language!
Julius Caesar flash mob (Folger's 2nd annual!)

I ended up feeling pretty sick on Sunday, and didn't make it back for the third day. But, all in all, I feel energized by the conference and hopeful I can attend the annual conference with more regularity than I have in my career (this is just my 3rd in 14 years).

My two complaints about the organization of the presentation -- the terrible wireless situation at the Gaylord Resort and the fact that our room was set up for a lecture/panel rather than a roundtable -- are minor compared to the verve I felt throughout my two days there, and the ideas I gained as a result of sessions I attended. I'll be ready to start thinking about next year in a few weeks.

The strange artificial world of Gaylord National Resort.

Inside the Gaylord National Resort overlooking the National Harbor.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Beyonce, Adichie, Feminism, and the Thing Around Your Neck

"Before we begin today's lesson, can anyone tell me what they think about when they hear the word 'feminist'?"

A few 9th grade hands gingerly rise into the air. We are finishing up Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck, and today, I'm going to attempt to crystallize some of the feminist themes the dominate the collection using Adichie's TED Talk We Should All Be Feminists, which Beyonce sampled in her song "Flawless." The students are writing about theme, and I thought this lesson, late in the unit, would help with their essays.

First volunteer: "It's someone who is not against women having equal rights."

Yup.... kind of. Let's get more positive, though.

Next volunteer: "I think it's someone who is against women's rights."

Me: "Hmmm. I think you might mean 'sexist'?"

"Oh yeah, that's it."

Eventually, we get to it. I thought we would be discussing connotations of the word "feminist," but we really didn't get beyond denotation. but that's important, of course. 

In preparing the lesson a few weeks ago -- I was saving it for a day when we had a 90-minute block, and today worked out well, as students are in the midst of writing an essay linking two short stories together via theme, setting, and point of view, and Adichie's discussion of feminism in both the U.S. and Nigeria fits in nicely -- I was a little bit confused by Beyonce's use of Adichie's feminist TED talk. I'd paid only marginal attention to the idea of Beyonce as a Feminist, and honestly she's a little outside my usual range of pop culture interest. So in my study of her the lyrics of "Flawless", I certainly noted that it did have some feminist moments ("I took some time to live my life / But don't think I'm just his little wife"), but these lines are cut by the repeated "Bow down, Bitches," which doesn't suggest female empowerment, only Beyonce empowerment. Then, there's the awesome sampling of Adichie's words for the 2nd verse, but, later, the song, for me, devolves into a (yes, catchy) list of materialistic bragging about diamonds and her car in the last verse. But there's some cool female empowerment lines towards the end, too, and I loved the little pun on "My rock, flawless / My Roc, flawless." So I have some mixed feelings about the song, but I'm all for anyone who brings Adichie to the masses, and definitely thought these would be interesting issues to discuss with the students. 

And they didn't disappoint. Immediately after hearing it, one young man raised his hand and said, "What I wanna know is, why is she telling all the other women to 'Bow down, B____'  if the song is about women getting equal rights?"

And that sparked a debate, with some students defending their interpretation of the song, and others arguing the occasional dissonance between the lyrics and the talk. What an interesting little discussion it was, evolving into an analysis of some of the stories in The Thing Around My Neck, with students stating why stories were feminist or not. Students were perceptive and used textual evidence from stories and lyrics. 

Then we listened to Adichie's warm, funny, and pointed TED talk, and the kids loved it. And, really, how could you not; the balance between passion, outrage, humor, and honesty is seamless, and Adichie's use of anecdote to support her points makes her argument all the more powerful, "I am angry", she says at one point. "Gender as it functions today is a grave injustice. We should all be angry. Anger has a long history of bringing about positive change, but in addition to being angry, I’m also hopeful because I believe deeply in the ability of human beings to make and remake themselves for the better."

I took this transcript of the TED talk (which may or may not be available forever, since Adichie's publisher just published the talk as an E-book), ran it off with a few questions and copies of Beyonce's lyrics. Afterwards, we discussed which stories in The Thing Around Your Neck seemed to support feminist values, and why. 

Here are the prompts I used:

Before reading…
·       What is your perspective of the word “feminist”? In your point of view, are you a “feminist”? Why or why not?
·       How has gender been an important subject of the Adichie stories thus far?

As you read…
·       As you read, annotate sentences that you find striking or powerful.
·       Write question and connections in the margin to discuss later

After reading… (answer on separate sheet of paper)
1.    What is Adichie’s overall perspective about feminism?
2.   What details and examples helped form Adichie’s perspective about this topic?
3.   What details from the stories seem to connect to the perspective Adichie outlines here?
4.   Adichie primarily uses examples from Nigeria. Does the message still apply when the setting is changed to the U.S.?

5.   Why does Beyonce decide to sample lines from this speech in her song “Flawless” (lyrics included in this packet)? How do the lines support the theme of her song? (Note: the lines that Beyonce used in her song are bolded in the speech.)

This is Adichie's verse in the song "Flawless":

[Verse 2: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie]
We teach girls to shrink themselves
To make themselves smaller
We say to girls,
"You can have ambition
But not too much
You should aim to be successful
But not too successful
Otherwise you will threaten the man."
Because I am female
I am expected to aspire to marriage
I am expected to make my life choices
Always keeping in mind that
Marriage is the most important
Now marriage can be a source of
Joy and love and mutual support
But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage
And we don't teach boys the same?
We raise girls to see each other as competitors
Not for jobs or for accomplishments
Which I think can be a good thing
But for the attention of men
We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings
In the way that boys are
Feminist: the person who believes in the social
Political, and economic equality of the sexes

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Movie Diary: Interstellar and Skeleton Twins

It's been a great year for movies. Gone, Girl (my review here) was a brilliant adaptation of a twisty thriller (and metaphor for modern marriage) that lived up to its hype in every way. Boyhood (my review here) captured a dozen years in the life of a family, movingly asserting that real life and well-drawn and acted characters can be the backbone of an incredible movie. Snowpiercer (my review here) was an inventive take on the apocalyptic movie genre, full of madcap performances, thought-provoking ideas, and riveting action sequences. Grand Budapest Hotel (my review here), with its brilliant set pieces and precision, enthralling tracking shots, witty performances, and fast-moving and funny story showcased the best of what Wes Anderson does behind the camera. Milificent, Days of Future Past (reviews here), and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (review here) were satisfying big-budget popcorn movies that had both brains and heart.

 But Interstellar might be the movie of the year at this point. I'll have to think about it some more, but I just got back from seeing it, and -- wow -- it was mesmerizing.

Chastain, Nolan, McConaughey, and Hathaway
Both an odyssey about the survival of the human race and a moving family drama, it is also a thriller, a film that twists throughout its last third, keeping the audience on edge. I was wincing and crying as the film builds to its superb, emotional conclusion. The film begins with the world not unlike the Dust Bowl depicted in The Grapes of Wrath; I imagined Steinbeck's opening description in that novel as I watched scenes in which characters have to turn plates over on their tables so they don't fill with dust before the food is served. The world is blighted; crops are dying, and the human race is in peril. Matthew McConaughey plays a pilot who is asked to explore whether other worlds are habitable. He's terrific, but I also loved Jessica Chastain as his daughter and Anne Hathaway as another scientist on the mission. That's the setup, and giving away too much more wouldn't be right, but suffice to say there is a lot of action sequences in space -- not unlike Cuaron's work in Gravity the year before, which made me happy that the rest of the film is different enough. And the rest of it is, full of moving proclamations about love and science, beautiful shots by Christopher Nolan, and a satisfying and thought-provoking ending that reminded me a bit of the best twists in M. Night Shyamalan's work. There's something so satisfying about a movie that ends with a brilliant and satisfying twist, and this one does, to the point where I was crying through several of the final scenes. Interstellar is a moving and mind-blowing epic that combines big ideas with a big heart, in the hands of an ambitious filmmaker at the top of his game. See it. The question is: is it better than Boyhood? Will it take Oscar, or will it match up to other contenders I haven't see yet? Birdman, Imitation Game, A Most Violent Year, A Theory of Everything, Unbroken, Whiplash, Selma, Foxcatcher, American Sniper? We'll see.

Hader and Wiig in Skeleton Twins
The Skeleton Twins is the other recent film we've seen. I hadn't seen Kristin Wiig in any films since her hilarious Bridesmaids, and it was great to see her and Bill Hader playing twin siblings who, in the opening moments of the film, are estranged, but both in the throws of attempting suicide on opposite ends of the country. From that subject of suicide, screenwriters Craig Johnson (who also directed) and Mark Heyman mine plenty of laugh-out-loud and joyous moments, such as when the two siblings lipsync "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" together. But it's also a sad film, as those skeletons begin to come out of the closet and the twins must deal with years-old issues. It's a great little movie, full of laughs and tears, built on a smart script and great performances. Hader and Wiig show they are actors with great range beyond their Saturday Night Live days, and the film is wise and poignant. It reminded me quite a bit of Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo's great Kenneth Longeran film You Can Count on Me, probably because it's a film about estranged siblings coming together, and also has an authentic, untidy ending. Definitely another great movie in this great 2014 year of movies.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Brilliant and Moving Amazon Prime Series, Transparent

Transparent, the new Amazon Prime series starring Jeffrey Tambor as a woman who comes out as transgendered at age 68, is one of the best television series of all-time.

That's a bold statement to make after just 10 episodes, but this series is a masterpiece. It is marvelously written, daring, multi-layered, and both heart-wrenching and laugh-out-loud funny. However, the word that keeps brimming to the top of my head is authentic. Transparent has such an unscripted feel to it that it feels like a documentary; these people feel so real and the situations resonate like real life does. The humor doesn't come from jokes, but from situations that are well-timed and well-earned. The drama comes from characters who are sensitively and compassionately written and who are portrayed by actors willing to take big risks.

Transparent is not really a coming-out show, as I thought going in, particularly from its trailer. Yes, there are joyous and painful scenes in which Mort/Maura reveals herself to her family. But all of these characters have secrets, and all of them engage thoroughly in the messiness of life. I love how Jill Soloway, creator and head writer, doesn't sentimentalize the journeys of these people. There's no preachiness when a major character has a selfish affair in early episodes; there's only the joy of new love and the pain of love left behind. There's a lot of sex, some drugs, plenty of gender expressions, but this series never feels like it's pandering to its audience or preaching one way or another. 

The characters, even the minor ones, are beautifully drawn, and the acting is terrific. Jeffrey Tambor has the role of a lifetime. Even if they can't quite make the 70-year old Tambor look like 48-year old Mort in the plentiful 1994 flashback scenes, we're left with a portrayal that is poignant and hopefully will win Tambor an Emmy. There's an amazing scene in the first episode in which Maura reveals herself to her daughter: "So, you're telling me you're going to start dressing up like a woman?" and her answer -- "No, what I'm telling you is... that, my whole life, I've been dressing up like a man" -- is perfectly timed and delivered, with just the right amount of force and humor. There are audacious moments, like a performance of "Someone That I Used To Know" in a Trans-Talent show, and also plenty of small moving ones, as when he (at that point, that pronoun is still appropriate, I think) sneaks away to a "dressup camp" after befriending another closeted (at that point) crossdresser in an adult bookstore.

Every cast member stood out to me, though. My favorite performance comes from Gaby Hoffman, the little girl from Uncle Buck, who delivers a complex performance as Ali, the youngest sibling in the Pfefferman family and most directionless character. She undergoes so many incarnations in the ten episodes that it's hard to revel in just one, but her pain feels so real that you just want to hug her, even as she's trying to drug two guys into doing a threesome or leaving her dad's performance to go have sex in a public bathroom with a transgender man who treats her like scum. Amy Landecker and Jay Duplass are equally affecting as the other two siblings, but it was the performance of Judith Light (of Who's the Boss) that most amused me; it was cool to see the old sitcom mom playing the frenzied but supportive ex-wife of Mort/Maura. It was also kind of a thrill to see Melora Hardin -- Jan on The Office -- playing a pretty, butch lesbian in a relationship with Sarah, the oldest sibling.

But even the smaller roles really resonated. Katherine Hahn broke my heart after entering for five episodes as a female rabbi who dates Josh. Carrie Brownstein of Sleater/Kinney and Portlandia turns up as Ali's best friend in a similarly moving performance. These actors add nuance to small parts and dramatic weight to the situations.

The series has an interesting, non-TV like pace that feels like an indie film. Its use of music, particularly 1970s folk music like Jim Croce and Heart, is particularly strong.

I just can't say enough about this show. Literally each episode, we laughed out loud and nearly cried. Its writing, pacing, direction, and acting are second to none; there is great joy and pathos just emanating from the screen, despite the unhappiness and confusion of many of the characters. This is a show that embraces life, artfully rendering it; it's definitely one of the best things I've watched in a really long time. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Preparing and Excited for NCTE Convention 2014

The last couple of weeks, I have been busily preparing to attend the annual National Council of Teachers of English conference, to be held next week and weekend in Washington, D.C. (Nov. 20-23). I'll be participating in two presentations. I'm getting pretty excited about the convention -- my first NCTE convention in a few years -- though of course I've got some butterflies in my stomach about my presentations.

On Friday, Nov. 21, at 4, I'll be presenting in a panel called "Shakespeare and the (Common Core) Assessments" along with other educators affiliated with the Folger Shakespeare Library: Dr. Peggy O'Brien, Education Director and our chair; Deborah Gascon, another National Folger Teacher Corps member along with me; and Laura Turchi, a professor at Arizona State University who is writing a book about Shakespeare and the Common Core. 

My specific portion will entail discussion of preparing our 9th grade students for a final exam modeled after the PARCC exam, connected to the Common Core. Hopefully our presentation will shed some light on teaching great literature in the era of the Common Core to teachers. 

On Saturday at 11 a.m., I will be presenting in a Roundtable discussion called "John Steinbeck and the Story of America" along with several other Teaching Steinbeck Institute participants -- Kris Sieloff of Baltimore (2011), Dan Clare of Virginia (2013), Jamie Vermaat of New Jersey (2013) -- as well as two of my colleagues, Jessie Doernberger and Amber Phelps. Ms. Sieloff will be discussing Of Mice and Men; Mr. Clare will be discussing Cannery Row; Ms. Vermaat will be discussing Steinbeck's non-fiction (Travels With Charley, Journal of a Novel, American and Americans); Ms. Doernberger and Ms. Phelps, both my Baltimore City College colleagues, will be discussing the incorporation some of the techniques and content we learned about in the Steinbeck Institute into our The Grapes of Wrath unit this past school year; and, finally, I will be presenting on East of Eden.

I'm chairing this presentation, as I'm hoping to do what a colleague mentor did for me back in 2006: help lead younger teachers in beginning to present ideas to the wider profession. I'm proud to say that I think our English department is a really good one, cutting edge even, and our school is a terrific place to teach and try innovative ideas, so hopefully we continue to have a presence at NCTE. Back that year in 2006, Charles Ellenbogen here at Baltimore City College chaired a presentation many young teachers in our department participated in called Beyond the Dead White Man: How You Can -- and Should -- Diversify Your Curriculum (this title seems so quaint and obvious now, but it didn't feel like it then and probably isn't so obvious in many curricular lists); I think my part was about the great novel A Lesson Before Dying. I was 29 at that point, about 6 years into my career, and was ready for that next challenge, and Mr. Ellenbogen helped provide that for me (and others in my department). Hopefully I can help do the same for others this year with the Steinbeck Presentation. 

This is my 3rd time presenting at NCTE. In 2009 or so (whenever the Philadelphia NCTE was), I presented with Ms. Sieloff about Translated Books, in a presentation called Found in Translation; I discussed titles from Murakami, Allende, Puig, Ninh, and more. I haven't been to NCTE since (travel and registration, if it's not in the area, has generally been out of my price range), so I'm super excited this year. 

So, if you're going to be at the convention, stop in and say "hi" (I'll also be at the Folger Booth from 4-4:15 on Saturday presenting my WILLesson about Talking Tableaus, at the Teaching Shakespeare Institute Reunion on Friday night at the Folger, as well as attending Julius Caesar at the Folger on that same Friday evening, plus hopefully going to several sessions myself). 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Performing a Shakepeare Play via Monologues

I've long been a proponent of performance as an assessment in literature, particularly with Shakespeare, and generally have taken the acting companies assignment from the Shakespeare Set Free series and used that as a major component of final assessments for any Shakespeare unit. Lately, though, I have valued the use of monologues -- sometimes in addition to acting companies, sometimes instead of (when time doesn't allow acting companies).

I got the idea at the Teaching Shakespeare Institute at the Folger, when one of our acting professors, Caleen Jennings, assigned us each a brief monologue from (for me) King Lear, and we embodied the lines for nearly two weeks before performing them on the Folger stage. The process of memorization and then living the lines was a powerful one, and I still remember the feeling I had after finishing the process: I felt like I knew the play and the language really well. And I really felt alive. Can I help my students feel that same way? That was my thought.

Then, two years ago, when I had a fun year teaching a sophomore Drama class, we "performed" the play Othello all in monologues; I pulled 34 monologues from the play, and we performed them in order with some context introducing each to the audience. Each student was required to memorize their monologue (which were around 12-20 lines) and embody the monologue, making choices (a gesture, a pause, a vocal intonation, a movement, etc.) at each line or so, conveying that we understand the character, situation, play's themes, etc.

With this sort of assignment, student choice is always how I'm evaluating. If a student is taking the script and making choices about what to do with it, he or she is critically reading and evaluating the text. Choice equals engagement and interaction with the language. It creates opportunities for close reading.

Today, I'm heading into school and my IB Seniors have all memorized a short monologue from Macbeth. There have been some adjustments due to needs of the class, but the concept is similar to that IB Drama class a couple of years ago. They will introduce their monologue describing the context of the scene, the significance of the monologue, and analysis of two literary devices that Shakespeare uses in the monologue. Then, they will set their notes down and perform their monologue, showing via their pauses, tones, gestures, and movements that they understand what Shakespeare intended. They're also describing what they've done in writing, in case I missed it.

For the IB class, I'm using the assignment for three reasons. First of all, viewing all 32 monologues (in my largest class), along with context, significance, and analysis, will help us all know the play better, which will help with our iB assessment in January, the Oral Literary Discussion (a 10-minute recorded discussion with teacher about the play or James Baldwin, chosen randomly). Secondly, the assignment works as an assessment for understanding the chief concerns of the playwright and the play; I want them connecting their monologue to major ideas in the play, and making appropriate choices to convey this understanding. Lastly, for the IB Literary Discussion, it's important to show that you know the play really well, not just about the play, so embodying some lines and then in January being able to recall specific moments from memory will help with answers in the literary discussion.

I'm really excited about today! I'm sure the students will live up to the challenge of embodying a Shakespeare monologue.

Here's the handouts I use:

Macbeth  Monologue                                                                                            
Due Monday, Nov. 10 (Both performance and handout)
Name: ___________________________________                       Monologue #_____
1.      Find your monologue in the play.
Act: ________           Scene: ____________     Lines: ____________                     Page: _________
2.      Paraphrase: Understand your monologue. Reread the scene. Look up words. Annotate your text.
One sentence summary of your monologue:

Paraphrase the monologue sentence by sentence (you do not need to go word by word):

3.      Write an introduction for the monologue that you will say to the class. Your introduction will include the following:
A)    Context of the play (this includes the place in the play from which this monologue is pulled, what is happening or has just happened, who is on stage, and what your character is feeling). Write below:
Example lead: “Just before Macbeth returns home to his castle, Lady Macbeth is…”

B)     Description of Significance: Why is this an important monologue for the play’s ideas and themes overall? For the audience understanding your character or the setting?
Example lead: “This monologue is significant in emphasizing the overall ideas of the play because… Additionally, it helps the audience understand my character and the setting because…”

C)    Analysis of Literary Techniques: What language tools does Shakespeare use (metaphors, similes, personification, oxymoron, etc.) What images are most striking and what type of imagery is it? What kinds of syntax/sentences does he use? What diction (word choices) is/are most important? Use verbs for strong literary analysis and describe all the above. What tones are created? What meaning is achieved?
Example lead: “In terms of Shakespeare’s choices and how they create meaning, what you should listen for is…”

Performance Notes: It is crucial to add movement, gestures, shifts in vocalization and tone, and other choices that show you understand all capacities of the speech. We need to see via the way you perform your monologue that you understand its implications.
D)    What gestures will you be making and at what lines? Describe at least one per two lines of text and use evidence (words/phrases/line numbers) from the monologue.:

E)     What movements (the difference between movements and gestures is that a movement means you move across the stage) will you be making and at what lines? Describe at least three movements and use evidence (words/phrases/line numbers) from the monologue.

F)     What pauses will you be making? Where do you do this? Why? Use evidence (words/phrases/line numbers) from the monologue.. Describe several below:

G)    What shifts in vocalization and tone will you be making? This means you shift the volume or inflection of your voice to convey emotions and tones.

Monologue Rubric                                Name: _______________________________________

When you present your monologue, you not be able to bring any papers with you (you will hand me this packet before you present). You will then present the following to the class:

1.     Tell the class the act/scene/line of the monologue (you can also tell them the page number).
2.     Tell the class the context of the monologue (one or two sentences is find).
3.     Explain why the monologue is significant (what it helps us understand about the play).
4.     Explain TWO literary techniques (contrasts, literary devices, etc).
5.     Act out your monologue, using the gestures, movements, pauses, and tone that you have practiced.

You will be graded on the following rubric:

Memorization of Monologue
______ / 40
Use of Gestures, movements, vocalization, and tone to show understanding
______ / 20
Effective introduction to your monologue

_____ / 20
This handout, completely and thoughtfully done
_____ / 20


_____ / 100

·        We are doing this for three reasons:
o   To review the play. We will all watch monologues, hear the context for them, and get more of a sense of the play as a whole.
o   Performance is understanding. In the assignment, you will analyze the choices Shakespeare uses in the language, make determinations about the effect of these language choices, and then deliver the monologue according to these choices and effects.
o   To give us all some specific evidence from the play for literary discussions. As you know, being able to recall lines or phrases is an impressive feat that adds to Criteria D (knowledge of text).
·        Your audience should be able to assess your engagement and understanding of the text through your performance. If you just get up there and read it from your head, or worst, you don’t have it memorized and attempt to read it, you will score very low. Make sure you are aware of the rubric.
·        Your Macbeth monologue assignment handout is due when you perform.

Presentations will go like this. You may use notes for parts #1-4.
1.     Tell the class the act/scene/line of the monologue (you should also tell them the page number). (10 seconds)
2.     Tell the class the context of the monologue (one or two sentences is find). (30 seconds)
3.     Explain why the monologue is significant (what it helps us understand about the play’s ideas). (30 seconds)
4.     Describe effect of TWO literary techniques (contrasts, literary devices, etc). (30 seconds)
5.     Act out your monologue, using the gestures, movements, pauses, and tone that you have practiced. (roughly 1 minute)
-        Does the context let you know exactly what is happening in the monologue?

-        Do you understand why this is an important monologue? What themes it is emphasizing? What it shows you about the character?  Is there anything important that the performer did not note?

-        Does the performer highlight interesting and important literary techniques? Are there techniques he/she should include that are not included?

-        Is the monologue effectively memorized? What areas need to be smoother?

-        Do the gestures and movements add to your understanding of the monologue?

-        Are the pauses and shifts of tone effective? Do they appropriately convey the character’s emotions?

-        What does the student need to do tonight to be ready for tomorrow?