Archive for the ‘English Lit’ Category

Why I Love My Kindle (and Your Students Might, Too)

For my birthday/Father’s Day gift this year, my wife and kids got me the newest non-tablet model of the Amazon Kindle, the Paperwhite.  I’ve already read several books on it in the month plus I’ve had it, so I’m feeling pretty comfortable with the device and discussing what it can and can’t do.

Dedicated e-Reader vs. Tablet

While I considered getting a tablet that could function not only as an e-reader but also as a web browser, gaming device, media player, etc., I went with my little monochrome Paperwhite precisely because its primary function is to display books and magazines, and I’ll only be using it for books anyway.  The lack of a modern, speedy web browser or social networking apps is actually a good thing for me, as it will prevent me from saying, “Oh, I’ll just click over to Facebook and see what’s up” and then two hours later…

My phone and computer do voice, Internet, and productivity stuff, my iPod does music, and my Kindle will do books.  I’m comfortable with that level of compartmentalization.  It’s the new old-fashioned way.

Why I Like My Kindle

  • Ergonomics: My Kindle is a good fit for my hand.  Without the case, the device measures 6.7″ x 4.6″, so it’s bigger than a smartphone but smaller than most tablets.  I can hold it in my right hand and tap the screen with my thumb to advance the page.  Even in a case, it’s small and light (7.5 oz), and not awkward to hold.  It feels natural and comfortable.
  • Hypertext-ish: It’s not hypertext in the strictest sense, but you can highlight any word in any e-book and pull up a definition from the Kindle’s on-board dictionary.  If you can’t get what you want from the dictionary, choosing the “More” option allows you to pull up the Wikipedia entry for your highlighted term, as well as to search for it in your other e-books or in the entire Kindle store.
  • Social Functionality: I love, love, love being able to highlight a controversial, inspiring, or otherwise interesting passage on the Kindle and share it out to my Facebook friends or Twitter followers.
  • Portability: I took twenty books with me on my recent vacation to Antigua.  Before my Kindle, that would’ve been a checked bag unto itself, but I was able to slip them all into the cargo pocket of my shorts.
  • Customization: From an accessibility standpoint, the size of the text and brightness of the screen can be adjusted.  There’s no such thing as “regular print” or “large print” anymore; the text of every book can be made as large or as small as I’m comfortable with.
  • Access to Public Domain Works: My Kindle (as well as any e-reader, to be fair) allows me to access hundreds of literary works in the public domain for free via Project Gutenberg.  These works are all available through traditional retailers for a price, but why pay when it’s legal to obtain them for free?

I fully acknowledge that not every technological tool I enjoy on a personal level has applications in the classroom; however, just off the top of my head, here are some ways I can see Kindles being beneficial in school – not as students’ sole devices, but rather as part of their toolbelt:

Potential Benefits for Students

  • Research/Note-Taking: With a few finger swipes, passages and references are “clipped” and backed up to one central location (your Amazon account) for later perusing, either on the Kindle or on the Amazon website.  Could be helpful with organization.
  • Access to Classic Novels: Many of the 18th-, 19th-, and some early 20th-century works students study in high school literature courses can be found for free at Project Gutenberg.  I just downloaded the complete works of both Poe and Shakespeare; I also saw, in passing, Kafka, Dickens, Voltaire, Chaucer, Dante, Fitzgerald, Whitman, and many other canonical heavy hitters.
  • Portability: Aside from the convenience factor for the general population, some students are physically incapable of lugging multiple textbooks around.  One Kindle can likely fit every textbook and novel a student might need throughout four years of high school.
  • Built-In Dictionary/Wikipedia Access: One long press answers the question “What does this word mean?”  Another click or two enables readers to do cursory research on allusions and references made in-text in order to better understand what they’re reading.  I don’t believe any research has been done yet as far as Kindles/e-readers and their impact on fluency, literacy, etc., but I think it would be a very worthwhile undertaking.

Potential Drawbacks

  • Cost to Replace/Repair: Novels can be replaced for a few bucks.
  • Ties to Amazon Ecosystem: I suppose it’s the price to pay for the note-taking functionality.  It can read e-books from any source, but it does tie users in to Amazon accounts, which would expose students to advertising if/when on the website.
  • ???: I’m kind of stuck, honestly.  I’m having difficulty thinking of any other major drawbacks.

Do you use Kindles or other e-readers with your students?  What have your classroom experiences – good or bad – been with students using these devices?

Sharing My Career Via Dropbox

On March 7, 2011, I finally did something I have wanted to do for a long time: I made available for download all the materials I developed, adapted, and otherwise used for all the courses I taught over the span of my eight-year career teaching high school English.

Why I Did It

First, why I DIDN’T do it: I DIDN’T do it because I feel I’d be depriving the world of some educational holy grail if I didn’t.  In fact, most of what’s in there was developed prior to the major change in thinking I had toward my practice in 2006-2007.  What is in there, however, I think are good jumping off points for development.  I may have had stale writing assigments from my first few years, but I think the core questions and ideas they address are still good – my challenge to you is, can you take those good ideas and come up with a better way to have kids address them than I did?

I did this in the spirit of open education and sharing.  I was fortunate enough to work in an English department with teachers who were only too happy to share their wealth of materials with me as I was starting out; I’d like to think that in some way, this move honors their generosity of time and resources (especially since some of their stuff is probably in these files, in one form or another).

I also think back to one of the reasons I liked having students post their research online: what good does all that hard work do if it’s just sitting on your hard drive somewhere collecting proverbial dust?  While my students may have had a few weeks of research to share, I have eight years worth of research, thinking, missteps, and refinement that I hope will benefit some pre-service or early career teacher sitting in his living room, staring at a copy of Hamlet, and thinking not so much, “What the hell am I supposed to do with this?”, but rather, “Where the hell am I supposed to start with this?”  Sometimes the seeming enormity of the task overwhelms; that’s where (hopefully) my stuff can help focus and provide ideas.

How I Did It

I’ve toyed with the idea of doing this ever since I stopped teaching at the end of the 2007-2008 school year, but could never find the right combination of price (for file hosting) and convenience to make it a worthwhile project to pursue.  The closest I came was using DivShare to upload my stuff because they had a drag & drop uploader, but folders still had to be individually created via the website, documents re-arranged manually (again, via the website), and let’s face it – we’re talking about 3.5 gigs of files, mostly text documents.  That was just too much.

The service I ended up using for this project was one I’ve used and loved for years now – Dropbox.  Dropbox is a service that provides 2GB of free online storage and file syncing between computers (if you use the link above to sign up for the service and install it on your computer, you and I both get an additional 250MB of space on top of the 2GB; further space can be obtained through their referral program).  The watershed moment came a few months ago when Dropbox announced that their next software upgrade would include a folder sharing function (previously, only individual files could be shared publicly).  Here’s how you do it:

  1. Right-click on the folder you want to share.
  2. Select “Dropbox” > “Get shareable link”.
  3. You’ll be re-directed to Dropbox’s website, where you’ll get a short link you can tweet, share on Facebook, or embed in a webpage, wiki, blog, etc.
  4. Anyone who can access the link can now access the contents of that folder.
  5. That’s it.
  6. No, really; that’s all there is to it.

Since I kept all my stuff in Dropbox anyway, this meant that all I needed to do was activate the shareable link for each course’s folder, put the link on my website along with a brief description of each course, and remove any pictures or videos of students (all of whom have long since graduated from high school and are adults, but it’s the right thing to do).  Once that was done, I did another cursory sweep of the files just to tighten up organization a bit, and that was that.  Unlike other services, I could do this all from my desktop, and any changes made there were instantaneously reflected on the Dropbox servers – far less time consuming than doing it all manually through a web app.

If you’d like to have a look, head over to my portfolio website and feel free to have a poke around.  Also, if you know an English teacher or department who may want to dig around, please feel free to distribute the link far and wide.  Much like my blog, my lessons and materials are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License (of course, this license does not abridge your Fair Use rights as an educator).

Finally, I’d like to toss this out there – if setting up the file sharing was as simple as dragging some folders into Dropbox, getting the shareable link, then posting the link on a website (or wiki, or blog, or whatever you like)…

…would you share your work too?

Alleviating Shakes-fear, Part II

When my young charges entered the room that day, they saw five red balloons stuck to the whiteboard with tape.  Each balloon had taped to it an 8 ½ x 11 sheet of paper with one of the following phrases printed on it in 100-point font:

  • Shakespeare wrote intellectual “high drama.”
  • The Renaissance was a wonderful time to be alive!
  • Shakespeare was highly educated and wrote specifically for kings, queens, and nobility.
  • We can learn more about Shakespeare by studying his plays.
  • The issues Shakespeare wrote about have no bearing on my world.

I explained to the class that these statements represented some commonly held misconceptions about Shakespeare and Elizabethan England, and that today we were going to symbolically destroy these beliefs that even the very highly educated and refined members of this class may even hold themselves.  Volunteers would come to the board to read one statement out loud, pop the balloon, and then read aloud the folded-up refutation that I had placed inside the balloon before inflating it.

The initial response was blank stares and silence from the class.  Uh-oh.  Had I completely lost the plot?  Was this too babyish for my high school sophomores?  After what seemed like an eternity of silence (which was roughly equivalent to three seconds realtime), an explosion of “ooh, me!” and “can I go first?” and “Mr. B, can I get a shot?” and other general commotion overwhelmed me.  When I heard one of my much less motivated students say to himself (unironically), “Wow, that’s really creative”, I knew it – they were hooked!

Five students got to (not “had to”!) go to the front of the room, pop a balloon, and explain to their classmates about the hygienic pitfalls of living in England during Shakespeare’s time, the universality of Shakespeare’s themes, and the rather straight lines one can draw between Shakespeare’s plays and some modern horror movies.  Afterwards, I gave every student in the class their very own red balloon, into which I instructed them to channel every bad feeling and negative association they ever had with William Shakespeare.  Then, on the count of three, we all popped our balloons in a cathartic release of negative energy.

Of course, a hook without substance is nothing but a cheap gimmick, and to follow a start like that with anything less than both barrels blazing would have been a heartbreaking waste of momentum.  We then did some work with Shakespeare’s language and physical movement, just getting familiar with the vocabulary and cadence and simply getting the words into and out of our mouths, much like a baseball player takes a few practice swings before stepping up to bat.  A little bit of acting, some discussion about stage directions, unfamiliar syntax, and using context clues to determine meaning, and before I knew it they were arguing over who got to be the witches first in 1.1.

In subsequent years, I added Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Measure for Measure, and Twelfth Night to the list of Shakespearean plays I would explore with my high school students.  While the specific assignments and activities varied by play, I found that by following a few guiding principles, I was able to make Shakespeare a relatively painless (possibly even enjoyable!) experience for my students.

While we all had a great time popping balloons and making a commotion, at the heart of that activity was an attempt to help the students get to the content in an unconventional way.  Along that line, I’ve found that having a healthily irreverent attitude towards Shakespeare can go a long way toward defusing some of the anxiety, intimidation, and subsequent resistance students demonstrate when confronted with this seemingly foreign writing.  Where others might put Shakespeare up on a pedestal, I always aimed to take him down off the pedestal and have some fun with him.  Making jokes and poking fun at odd phrasings or situations had my students laughing with me, and we were all in the Shakespeare boat together, which made for a dynamic well-suited to open-mindedness and learning.  If you haven’t seen The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), do so – it’s a perfect example of irreverence toward Shakespeare by people who clearly love him.

Physical movement is imperative to any study of Shakespeare.  I cringe when I think of all the time I wasted as a young teacher having students sit in their chairs, reading the play aloud.  Having my students get up and move around with the text made them think not just about what is being said, but how that translates into physical action, and why.  Whenever I asked students to block scenes, I would always challenge them to defend their blocking – why should Juliet stand here instead of here?  Why did Ophelia give the crowflowers to her instead of him?  Acting out the same scene in different ways can also lead to high-level discussion about character motivation and major themes in the context of a director deciding how to play a scene.  For example, I used to split my sophomore classes in half and ask one group to act out the banquet scene from Macbeth twice: once with an actor playing the ghost of Banquo, and once with no one playing Banquo.  We then discussed how both the audience and Macbeth’s dinner guests are impacted by a directorial decision to have Macbeth scream at an actor in ghost makeup versus having him scream at an empty chair. These all helped the students gain a more multi-dimensional understanding of the play – not just what’s happening, but why, and what could (or could not) happen as a result.

Also in a performance vein, I strongly suggest watching movies with your students.  More accurately, I suggest watching clips of movies.  I don’t believe I ever showed a complete film start-to-finish during any study of Shakespeare.  I used clips of scenes to reinforce basic comprehension or to make a point as needed, but my primary focus was to use film as a text for analysis and discussion.  One of my favorite film-based activities was to show three different versions of the same scene in Hamlet and have my students discuss whether they felt Mel Gibson, Campbell Scott, or Ethan Hawke had the most accurate take on the great Dane, and why (they are three very different portrayals).  We also examined how each film treats the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia and discussed the major points of contrast and what impact that has on the audience’s perspective.  Studying how closely different versions of a scene (such as Titania’s seduction of Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream) adhere to the text can lead very easily to discussions of how the tone of a scene (and the subsequent impact on the play) can be altered by omitting a single line or set of lines, or by re-arranging the events of a scene.

Speaking of lines, editing Shakespeare’s text is a fantastic exercise in critical reading.  I often gave small groups of students a scene and instructed them to edit out ten (or twenty, or thirty) percent of the lines.  To do this effectively, they had to work together to distinguish what was essential to the scene and what was not, as well as what might be important to keep for later in the play.  As I’ve never been one to ask my students to do something I wouldn’t do or haven’t done myself, I first did this at TSI 2002, and I can honestly say that it is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever been asked to do with a Shakespeare play.  Try it yourself before you assign it to your students; you’ll see what I mean.

Regardless of the teaching strategies you try, above all, please: have fun.  If you dread teaching Shakespeare, your students will dread learning Shakespeare.  If you display your genuine enthusiasm, however, and can maintain a light-hearted attitude, even the most reluctant learners can be brought along for the ride.

Alleviating Shakes-fear, Part I

I’m proud to announce that this month, my first short story was published by Kaplan Publishing in an anthology entitled The Teachable Moment: Seizing the Instants When Children Learn.  The book was compiled and edited by fellow school psychologist/blogger Dr. Rebecca Branstetter, and is available at finer online and offline purveyors of literature.

The title is pretty self-explanatory, so if you’re inclined to read about such things, please pick yourself up a copy and check out what stories these fine educators have to share (no, I don’t get royalties for copies sold!).  For my contribution to this collection, to be published here in two parts, I drew upon my experiences exploring the works of William Shakespeare with high school students.

What follows is taken from the last version I submitted to the editor.  With the exception of any links I added for online publication, any disparity between what appears here and what appears in the book are due to the in-house editing process (and probably improved the piece immeasurably, so thank you, editors!).

Alleviating Shakes-fear

Of all the difficulties I struggled with as a new teacher, one of the most Herculean tasks I faced was not classroom management or dealing with difficult parents: it was getting my students interested in Shakespeare.  In retrospect, I guess I should have been able to identify with them a bit more; after all, even as an Honors student and self-professed English geek, it wasn’t until I got to the very end of high school that I even began to appreciate his works, and then not until the end of my undergraduate program that I really started to feel like I could engage the texts on a level deeper than what my Cliff’s Notes were telling me.  The summer after I graduated college, I was recruited by my Shakespeare professor to play the role of Young Siward in Macbeth.  My prior acting experience had been limited to a few high school musicals, so this was a great first Shakespearean role: I got to say four or five lines, have a short swordfight with Macbeth, and then die (my being “of woman born” my chief liability on the battlefield).

This opportunity led to others within the theater company.  Over the next few years, I would play increasingly larger roles in 1 Henry IV, The Tempest, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  About midway through this succession of roles, I landed my first full-time position as an English teacher.  By that time, I was a bona fide Shakespeare nut and ready to bring my love of the Bard to the unsuspecting tenth-graders with whom I’d be covering Macbeth that fall.

I think it’s safe to say that my first time around teaching Shakespeare to high school students didn’t go exactly as planned.  For some odd reason, they weren’t as excited to be reading The Scottish Play as I was, and I was actually met with resistance when I told them how great the play was!  I struggled through the play with them as best I could as a new teacher, and I think I speak for students and teacher alike that we were all quite relieved when it was over.  My first attempt at teaching Shakespeare was, as Will S. himself might have said, a hot mess.

As any teacher does, I picked up little tips and tricks my second and third time around with the play, and each time got a little less painful (which is what I was gunning for, really).  I was doing passably well with the text once we got rolling, but I was still lacking that hook that was going to grab my kids from the outset.  I felt it was taking too long to get the kids interested and invested in what was happening (although “by Act 3” was much better than my first attempt, which was “not at all”).  Fortunately for me (and my students), all I would need is a push in the right direction, and it was about to come.

In the summer of 2002, I was one of twenty-six teachers from around the US selected to participate in the Teaching Shakespeare Institute (TSI) in Washington, DC.  The TSI is held at the Folger Shakespeare Library every other summer, and allows teachers access to the Folger facilities and faculty, as well as to distinguished American Shakespearean scholars, to collaborate on creating exciting and engaging materials for teaching the works of Shakespeare.  To expound upon the litany of praise and respect I have for the people involved in the TSI is beyond the scope of this essay, but I mention the creative focus of the Institute because this is what jump-started me toward thinking differently about teaching Shakespeare.  Ironically enough, however, the “hook” I’d been looking for for years came to me in the least likely place: a lecture hall.

During one of our introductory lectures, Dr. Robert Watson of UCLA was making a point about the contrast between the romanticized storybook version of the Renaissance period that we often hear about versus the often horrible truths about pestilence, disease, and general hard living to which the majority of Renaissance England was subject.  I remember him using a variation on the phrase, “I hate to burst your bubble”, and as I was taking a short break from studiously and furiously taking notes, I started doodling a popping balloon. I then began to think about Dr. Watson’s point about preconceived notions in the context of teaching Shakespeare, and it occurred to me that so many students fight learning about Shakespeare because they have already convinced themselves it’s going to be awful (this may not be news for many of you, but I was still a new teacher, so I was taking all the revelations I could get).

Over the course of the Institute, I worked alongside some incredible teachers, actors, playwrights, and scholars, all of whom helped me come to a better understanding of how to approach Shakespeare with my students; for this, I am indebted to them.  When I returned to my classroom in New Jersey the following fall, I took all of that with me, but remained guided by that initial little flash I had in the lecture hall: start strong.  Do not let them convince themselves that they can’t do this.  Do not let them beat themselves before they even start. Don’t even give them half a chance.

My tenth-grade English class started our study of Macbeth right around Halloween that year, appropriately enough.  This time, rather than try any of my previous opening activities (much of which resulted in the students complaining about how hard “this Old English stuff” was), I had decided that I was going to burst my students’ bubbles – or rather, they were going to burst their own.

(to be continued!)

Everything Must Go

If you are a regular visitor to this blog, perhaps you’ve noticed a new tab on the upper-right-hand side menu: Teaching Materials.  I’ve decided that it would be a shame if the lesson plans, projects, activities, and related materials I created over eight years of teaching were to just sit on my hard drive and rot.  Over the next few days, I will be uploading my entire “stash” to DivShare, a free file-hosting site.  Once everything is up, I’ll write some descriptions and post links to folders for each course I taught over the last eight years.  Furthermore, all my work will be licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC, which allows you to copy, distribute, transmit, and adapt the work (in fact, please adapt and make it better!), but not for commercial purposes.  Also, if you do use any of my stuff other than in your classroom (e.g., on the Web), a link back to me would be most appreciated!

So far, I’ve got my stuff from two of six courses up (seven courses really, but I’m combining materials for the Honors and non-Honors Brit Lit courses).  I’ll post an update here once all the materials are up.