All The World's A Stage: BYO Props!

Welcome to my very first choose-your-own-adventure blog post!  Here you have three options:

1. Click the image below to donate to my current Donors Choose project! 
2. Continue reading for an in-depth overview on how I plan to use each resource I've applied for in my Donors Choose project!
3. Just read my blog and steal the amazing resources as you see fit!

The choice is yours... Let the adventure begin! :)

I am a planner. My life is a series of checkboxes and sticky notes curated within a personally-designed bullet journal with digital calendars and cell phone alarms and reminders thrown in to keep it interesting. And though I only teach Shakespeare for 10 weeks each year, I never, ever stop thinking about it. This is primarily because I am never, ever happy with how my units turn out.

In my infinite planning loop, I recently realized that I am not teaching Shakespeare to 7th graders in a developmentally-appropriate way. What's worse--I actually suspect I am making it so overly rigorous that they end up really disliking Shakespeare. Then, when I teach them the next year as 8th graders, it is not lost on me that they politely bite their tongues as our Shakespeare unit begins. Sure, they're being kind about it because they like me and they know how much I love teaching that unit, but I've already failed if they feel like they have to fake their enthusiasm. I mean, really?

Unacceptable. It's time for a seventh grade reboot.

I scrapped months of work and decided to start from scratch (I do this a lot). I came up with the following goals for the 7th graders during their first real exposure to Shakespeare:

1. Know the basics about Shakespearean plays (the structure, the genres, etc.).
2. Become comfortable with the features of a dramatic text (stage directions, line numbers, etc.).
3. Decode Shakespeare's flowery writing style (ev'ry thou an' thine).
4. Enjoy playing with language, plots, and characters.
5. Do some groundling-level analysis of themes and conflicts (Ah yes, the standards never die).

In my heart of hearts, I would make the 7th grade unit a "survey" of Shakespeare, in which I expose them to multiple genres, plays, characters, themes, and conflicts through acting and guided analysis. However, I am a special education co-teacher, and my general education counterpart loves Julius Caesar. So, Julius Caesar will be our core text. See my previous post for my true feelings on this.

Regardless of core text, I think I can amp up the enjoyment factor during 7th grade and reap the benefits of this work during their 8th grade year.  Here's an in-depth break down what I'll need:

In Julius Caesar, the togas make the man. At least, in a classroom they do. I've selected these easily-adjustable toga costumes which should fit a variety of my students. And when things get stabby (as they do in Act 3), these retractable daggers should make for an unforgettable moment on our classroom stage. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, no one gets a bigger laugh than Bottom when he enters the action completely unaware of his donkey head. Yes, I selected the creepiest donkey head I could find. I also thought this flowered crown would be a good way to set Titania apart from the rest. I also found a cauldron for students to use, because I am taking them to see Macbeth on stage next year, and this will serve us well as we prepare to see that performance.

I found a couple of games that will require my students to interact with Shakespeare's language, thus removing the barrier of fear and unfamiliarity, that look super fun and engaging! When playing Brain Box, for example, students test their memory by studying a card (which includes a picture from an important Shakespearean scene, a quote, the name, act, and scene number of the play, etc.) and then recall as many details from it as possible. This deck of Shakespearean Insult Cards can be used in more ways than I can imagine! We will use them to stage an Insult-Off, in which students form two lines on either side of the room and practice delivering their insults in the most "biting" tones they can muster. Hilarity ensues, and students don't even realize how difficult the language they're using actually is. Likewise, the Great Shakespearean Deaths Card Game can be played like a game of War, but the introduction to the terrible ways Shakespeare ends his tales is sure to draw in the most skeptical scholar.

I'm not about to spend a bunch of money purchasing student copies of Shakespeare's plays, when we can find them anywhere on the internet for free! But there are a few books that I plan to use to spice up this unit. As my regular readers will attest, I believe in getting students up, moving, and acting The Second City Guide to Improve in the Classroom. Second City, as you may know, is a mainstay of improv comedy here in Chicago, and though I have attended trainings that center on the teachings within this book, I don't actually own the book yet. The next book I'd like to use is entitled Pop Sonnets, by Erik Didriksen, which I recently learned about via the Folger Library's Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. This is a collection of pop songs lovingly re-worked into Shakespearean sonnets--down to the very last iamb. I plan to use these as warm-ups a few times a week; students will read the lyrics, try to guess the song based on its content, and then we'll decode it together while listening to the song itself. Once again, my goal here is exposure to the language without all the pressure. My last book selections are also all about exposure. Kill Shakespeare is a series of comic books in which all of Shakespeare's most famous heroes team up against his most famous villains to search for a long-lost wizard (Shakespeare himself). The combination of comic-style storytelling, the visual artwork, and the mash-up of these complex characters will definitely get the wheels turning in the minds of some of my hardest-to-reach students.
during this unit. But even my acting games and strategies can become stale over time. That's why I'd like to invest in my own copy of

Other Necessities:
During our Shakespeare unit, I allow students to choose a monologue to memorize and perform as part of their final grades. Headphones are absolutely crucial to the implementation of this project, especially for my English language learners. I set them up with everything they need, including easily-accessible videos of their speeches being performed by professionals. To see how I set up this assignment and make my students fully-independent in their preparation, check out my previous post here.  Lastly, I want to do everything I can to make my Shakespeare unit as hands-on as possible. As an extension project (or as a modified final), students will have the opportunity to construct their own Globe Theater out of paper. In the meantime, they can research its history, structural components, audiences in Shakespeare's time, and superstitions that were widely believed in Elizabethan England. Sounds like a great presentation to me!

As I've mentioned above, feel free to steal any of the resources I've compiled above and find your own creative ways to use them in your classroom. However, this collection of resources isn't cheap and I certainly don't have funding to infuse my classroom with them. If you feel inclined to donate to my Donors Choose project, I would greatly appreciate it. And stay tuned for a full 10-week lesson plan to see how I incorporate each of these resources into one, cohesive unit!

Thanks for reading!

Which Plays and When?

I consistently get into disagreements with other teachers, administrators, department chairs, and others over which plays should be taught to whom and when in their educational careers each play fits best. I feel rather strongly about it, but I also acknowledge that there are plenty of great reasons to consider assigning completely different plays to completely different age groups than what I will argue here.

To preface this post, I will merely be laying out my argument for the students I see every day while taking into consideration the ways in which students of different ages acquire critical thinking and analysis skills as well as mental and maturational development.  I am writing this in the hopes of highlighting the depth of consideration that should go into each assignment of each play---not to convince you that you should fight to assign the plays exactly as I would prefer to see them laid out in my school.

Some personal background: I am a 7-12 special education teacher at a public, JROTC-focused school in the Chicago Public Schools district. I studied secondary English education in my undergrad and have a master's degree in special education, so I spend most of my time teaching inclusion reading classes. Our school includes a middle school and high school combined into one building. Our population consists of roughly 75% Latinx students and 25% African American students.

7th Grade: A Midsummer Night's Dream
In our school, seventh graders are in state of tumultuous transition--they have just emerged from grammar school and now share the hallways with terrifyingly large high schoolers, new teachers, tougher uniform and conduct expectations, and a difficult academic curriculum. Given all the stressors they already face, expecting them to digest Shakespeare could easily be the tipping point that makes them reach frustration and give up. Midsummer is, in my opinion, is the answer to these issues. In addition to being The Bard's shortest play, this is easily one of the most accessible and enjoyable for a young audience. The themes included within Midsummer are ones a young audience can easily relate to: love (of the mutual and unrequited persuasions), parental rule, magic, appearance vs. reality, the roles of men and women in relationships, damaged friendships, jealousy, transformation, identity, and so on. Bear in mind that students' first interaction with Shakespeare is critical: they need to find enjoyment within the hard work. If they don't, they'll shut down and disengage from Shakespeare in the future, and it'll be twice as hard to get them to come back and try him again. I also like to start with Midsummer because the costumes and settings are vivid and fun. The comedy is easy to follow and not hidden within complex contexts or meant to teach us deep lessons about life. Also, the 1999 film adaptation with Kevin Cline, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Stanley Tucci is fantastic and the students really enjoy seeing the characters brought to life on film. It is especially important to share performances and films of Shakespeare's work with younger audiences because these boil off all the hard work and leave them with the pleasure of the play itself--just the way Shakespeare intended it.

8th Grade: Romeo and Juliet
The differences between 7th and 8th graders are more pronounced than I ever could have imagined during my years of exclusively teaching high school. Our 8th graders are working toward middle school graduation, after which they will join the ranks of our high schoolers and continue on their college-preparatory path. It's a benchmark year with a lot of academic and social pressures, and they are beginning to determine with increased clarity which adults they can trust and which ones they cannot. Pyramus and Thisbe (Midsummer's play within a play) is, of course, a parallel of Romeo and Juliet, and teaching these plays back-to-back opens up opportunities for students to make that connection. We once again see themes that younger students can relate to: love, parental rule, teenage rebellion, expectations for women and girls, chances vs. choices, etc. Further, let us not forget that Romeo and Juliet are the same age as 8th graders. But we can even make deeper connections. Students at this age are experimenting with issues of loyalty (both in circles of friends and in relationships of all kinds) and their sexual identities begin to develop as they enter puberty. They are constantly caught between the expectations of their guardians and their undeniable desire to rebel and to take risks. The instances of relatability with this age group are infinite. And don't even get me started on the 1996 version of Romeo and Juliet starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes! The movie definitely toes the line at what's acceptable for 8th graders, and so I recommend a soft permission slip before you show it, but if we don't think these ideas are already heavily on our students' minds, we're kidding ourselves.

9th Grade: Julius Caesar
In my opinion, one of the toughest Common Core Standards to effectively address in the 9th grade is RI.9-10.6: Determine an author's point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how an author uses rhetoric to advance that point of view or purpose. Rhetoric is a tricky subject that is hard to boil down to teachable matter. It takes years to understand it fully. But Julius Caesar is a remarkable study in rhetoric. In fact, if we take Julius Caesar and strip any acknowledgement of the rhetoric, the story seems shapeless, one-sided, and flat. The characters seem weak and easily malleable. Rhetoric allows us to understand why Brutus is swayed against his better judgment, why the plebeians are quick to turn from Brutus to Mark Anthony at Caesar's funeral, and why organized government is a churning, restless machine. As many 9th grade students are just beginning to study history and the foundations, strengths, and shortcomings of government, Julius Caesar fits right in and can potentially push students to investigate their own political preferences and experiences. Julius hits the mark with relatable themes for 9th graders as well: these include friendship, loyalty, gossip, karmic retribution, and peer pressure. Though there lacks a decent movie for Julius Caesar (sorry, Marlon Brando, but I find you unrelatable...), digging into the text will be rewarding if students have the proper

10th Grade: Macbeth
The sophomore slump is alive and well at our school. It's an easily understandable phenomenon, yet we marvel at it all the same--freshmen get all kinds of extra support to ensure they are on track when they enter their high school careers, juniors have the pressure of the SAT hanging over their heads, and seniors are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Sophomores, however, seem to get left out in the cold. Further, for some reason this slump seems to gobble up students' creativity and curiosity, and though they emerge from the slump, their curious natures do not. Let's give them something to be curious about--magic, witches, fate, free will, destiny, gender identity, what makes a good leader, the dangers and merits of being ambitious, and the corruption that is associated with absolute power. And let's wrap it all up in a tumultuous, murderous saga! Eat your heart out, Game of Thrones fans! Macbeth is a tale that moves quickly, that constantly demands your attention, and that, with a little bit of guided critical thinking, is absolutely horrifying and real to us. Macbeth lends itself to being doled out with natural cliffhangers--the type that make students Google the ending ahead of time and come in the next day demanding to know why Lady Macbeth kills herself. In one fell swoop (see what I did there?), we can get these students engaged again. Film versions are plentiful for Macbeth, but the 2015 rendition starring Michael Fassbender is terribly dark, violent, and dramatic--even jaded sophomores will be drawn into it.  

11th Grade: Othello
Currently, my students are all people of color. But even if they weren't, I would still be remiss if I allowed any of my students to graduate without having read Othello. I will state an unpopular opinion: I think this play is more important and relevant than Hamlet. They need to read Hamlet because everyone reads Hamlet; they need to read Othello because we are all parts of Othello's world. Juniors are naturally entrenched in important work: preparing for college, studying for and scoring well on the SAT, beginning to work in addition to going to school, planning for the future, etc. Uncovering, acknowledging, and deconstructing systems of oppression that exist in the world is paramount. Juniors will be eligible to vote and enroll in the military soon; they are firming up their political identities and determining what they will stand for and what they will fight for. They are learning to be allies and reflective thinkers, and they are beginning to see that not everyone starts out on a level playing field. Dig into these issues when you teach Othello. Even if students reject the harsh, systematic realities of the play, they're going to see Iago for what he is (Shakespeare's greatest villain) and react accordingly. And if you're looking for a film version that doesn't quite hit the mark but that will be highly engaging and open students up to different conversations, the 2001 version entitled "O" isn't the worst place to start.

12th Grade: Hamlet
I somehow managed to graduate from high school and college having never read Hamlet in an educational setting. And for the record, no one in my school is teaching Hamlet to students of any age. Upon reading it on my own the first time, I wasn't impressed. Then I bought tickets to go and see it performed in Stratford-Upon-Avon while I was there geeking out on Shakespeare, but the production was cancelled due to the theater's air conditioning being temperamental (just like Hamlet). Since then, I've read it again and seen two film adaptations (one produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the other starring Benedict Cumberbatch), and I think I get it now. One could experience this play all throughout one's life and draw a different interpretation from it every single time. That is a rare feat for a single work of literature. To send students off into the "real world" without basic knowledge of Hamlet is to deprive them of understanding countless references, quotes, and analysis of human life that they will be able to draw from for years to come. If you're looking for a great film adaptation, there are many.  Skip the Mel Gibson version and opt for the 1996 Kenneth Branagh version, which offers an interesting look at Hamlet as a Christ figure (one of only about a million interpretations to make). And don't forget about the Simpson's episode, which is a highly entertaining overview of the play as well.

I'm interested to hear what you think about my proposal above.  Feel free to share how your school distributes Shakespeare's works in the comments below! 

Thanks for reading!

Mechanically Challenged

Despite the nauseating number of times I have read A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Mechanicals have always seemed sort of arbitrary to me.  I've always thought they were there to provide a cheap, guaranteed laugh to pull the audience in and punch up the enjoyment of Act 5. I mean, the main conflict (the who-marries-who stuff) has been resolved by the end of Act 4, so Act 5 itself has always seemed like a silly epilogue to me. They're just there for those people in the movie theater who sit through lengthy scrolls of credits after the film ends in the hopes of seeing an extra scene or silly outtakes the director has decided to throw in.

All of that changed when I got to meet a group of actors who were playing the roles of the Mechanicals in a local production!

I recently had the opportunity to observe a live rehearsal of Act 3 of A Midsummer Night's Dream, as performed by the cast at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. It was definitely the first time I had even gotten to see the intricacies of the acting process (as performed by professionals), and it was a marvelous experience.

The actors were just off-book, meaning they had read and memorized their lines, conducted table-reads, and had critical discussions about the motivations and traits of each of their characters. They were about two weeks into the rehearsal process. For those who don't eat, sleep, and breathe MidsummerAct 3 is when Bottom parades his donkey head around and Titania awakes to fall in love with him.

Watching the rehearsal was so entertaining, not just because the text is written to be such, but because the actors were grappling with the process at the same time. "At what moment should Bottom fully succumb to Titania's powers/beauty," one actor asked another. "I'd like Titania to seem more manic than actually attracted to Bottom, like she can't help herself and she doesn't even understand why," another actor would muse. "Oberon's anger toward Titania ultimately comes from jealousy. He's not jealous in the sense that he thinks she cheated on him. Rather, he's jealous that now Titania is giving her attention to a little changeling boy instead of to him." The level of characterization involved was drool-worthy, and I totally geeked out.

This was the day when The Mechanicals came to life for me. Suddenly, they were round characters with real fears, real dreams, and real goals. They were all blue collar workers who wanted more for themselves. They each had weaknesses and they all rallied to support one another. They were boldly going for something that no one expected them to be able to do. They all wanted to "take pains - be perfect" because they cared about being a part of something bigger than themselves. We can all relate to them and we can find them funny at the same time.

I chided myself a bit - after all, I am well aware that Shakespeare's clowns are never just clowns. In fact, they're often the most insightful, most brutally honest, and most cerebral characters. By dismissing them as fools purely in existence for comic relief, I was of course missing something greater.

I can't help but assume that our students miss out on these unique, delightful, supremely real characters as well. And while they may not uncover the characters' motivations as thoroughly as professional actors do, I think it's important not to write them off completely. It's certainly tempting to do so, since we as teachers never have enough time to teach everything we need to teach. Further, students can completely disregard The Mechanicals and still understand the plot of the play. But oh, what fun The Mechanicals are!

I made a quick, relatively simple, and highly engaging activity for my students to "get to know" The Mechanicals a little better. Introducing: Who Are The Mechanicals?: A Paperless Card Sort!
Card sorts are a great idea and a wonderful way for students to build new schema, but they're a pain in the butt to manage. Cutting the cards out creates a mess, as does the glue. There's always one kid who loses pieces, and another who glues it all down and then realizes it's all wrong. And if you run out of time, you'd better have envelopes or clips or bags prepared and labeled so your students don't lose all their work and end up frustrated! Let's go digital, folks. Save yourself some headaches.

My paperless card sort activity is designed to reacquaint your students with The Mechanicals so they can fully enjoy and understand the hilarity that ensues in Act 5. This activity challenges students to decide who each character is, what they might look like, the parts they will perform, and the motivation (or lack thereof) each character has for his role. Students simply drag and drop the correct "cards" onto the slide that matches each character. Check it out:

As an added bonus, there is a video activity attached to the end of the card sort for your "early finishers." They can view the video and then go back and check their work before they turn it in. This resource also includes an "instructions" sheet you can project, print, or use as a guide when you explain how this activity works to your students. Also included is an answer key, which makes grading a snap!

Visit my TpT Store for this and other great resources designed to clarify, amplify, and add joy to your Shakespeare unit!  If you do decide to purchase this resource, I'd love to know what you think of it and how I could perhaps improve it in the future. Feel free to leave comments below!

Thanks for reading!

A Single Step

Yesterday, I took my students to A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater in Chicago, Illinois. It was a special trip for them, because they had just finished learning the play a few weeks earlier and they had earned admittance to the trip based on their level of effort, academic risk taking, and development of analysis skills. I'm not big on incentives, but if seeing a Shakespeare production can be used as one, I'm on board.

This was a special trip for me as well because, as you may know if you are a regular reader of this blog, A Midsummer Night's Dream was one of my first real connections to Shakespeare.  Here I am playing one of the fairies in Titania's bower in the sixth grade (see left).

It would appear that I have finally reached the age at which I can now share experiences I had in middle school with current middle schoolers.  I believe this places me into the category my students have entitled, "old," but I don't mind because getting old is a privilege denied to many.  Though I have no interest in having children of my own, I love that I still have so many opportunities to share positive experiences with young people. The fact that I am now experiencing the "full circle" of my Shakespeare experience is supremely satisfying to me.

Of course, passing on learning experiences to the "next generation" always includes some risk. What if they hated it? What if they fell asleep? What if they still didn't "get it?" What if they wiggled and shifted in their seats (thereby unknowingly exposing their disengagement with the play)? What if they decided to fiddle with the noisy plastic wrappers of their contraband hot chips during an important monologue? What if they decided to fold their programs into paper airplanes and challenge themselves to see how far onto the stage they could fly them? What if their phones went off or they decided to Snapchat silly faces in the middle of the play?

It's not lost on me that adults do these things, too.

I took a deep breath as the lights went down and resigned myself to whatever would happen. As usual, my students pleasantly surprised me. They laughed at all the right moments. They gasped or hooted or sighed at all the right moments. They got it! Success! Thank you, actors! Thank you, Shakespeare!  What delighted me the most, though, were the very polite, very quiet whispers I heard. "I want to be her," one girl remarked as Titania took the stage. "That was my part," someone whispered as Puck appeared behind Oberon. "That's bogus," a boy commented as Egeus screamed at his daughter, Hermia. And oh, the laughter when the mechanicals put on Pyramus and Thisbe!

The joy of seeing my students simply enjoying Shakespeare, rather than working so hard to understand him, was remarkable. I knew they were potentially forming many of the same positive associations with Shakespeare that I did when I was their age.  (Did I just say, "When I was their age?" Yeah, that happened.)

I don't know what my students will do with the positive associations they may or may not have formed with Shakespeare. But the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. My journey has led me here to this blog, to my classroom, perhaps to a PhD someday, and to an endless fascination with those immortal words set down by a mysterious writer over 400 years ago. Where my students will go with Shakespeare is up to them. Off they go!

Thanks for reading!

Engaging with Shakespeare's Themes

There are many reasons why Shakespeare has survived (even thrived) over the past 400 years. Colonialism, the creators of the first folio, and the Folger Library certainly helped. But when teachers like me are considering what texts to expose students to that will help them grow, change, think, and develop a love of reading, there are intangible reasons why we continually reach for Shakespeare. And it's not just because he is required reading according to the Common Core State Standards.

It's the rich and round characters, the relatable conflicts they experience, the gravitational pull of the language they use, and the themes they grapple with. As a middle school teacher, I choose to connect my students with themes (because if I tried to connect them with all of those facets, we'd be studying Shakespeare all year long).

I focus on theme for two reasons.  The first is because I use Shakespeare to address this 7th and 8th grade standard: "Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text." The second is because Shakespeare gives us so many to choose from and he allows us to interpret them in endless ways. This leaves the door open for so many interpretations, that I can just about guarantee my students will choose a theme, own it, and reflect on it in a personal way.  This gets them to connect to the text in a personal way, which is key.
Before we even crack the cover on our Shakespeare plays, we discuss theme and identify common themes Shakespeare frequently addresses: love, change, gender roles, dreams, ambition, trust, jealousy, manipulation, loyalty, identity, etc. The list is extensive. Chances are, every human can find a theme that they will personally connect with in any play. So that's my natural starting place with my students.

When we study A Midsummer Night's Dream, I pull out themes that I think will catch my students' attention. I do this by getting to know them really well for the first half of the year. The student who is going through a bad break-up will be interested in manipulation. The student who doodles his significant other's name on his notebook will be interested in love. The student grappling with her gender identity will be interested in identity. The student who is struggling to navigate changes in her circle of friends will be interested in loyalty. I collect all of these anecdotes my students share with me and determine how to help them note how the characters in A Midsummer Night's Dream handle those issues and then decide whether they've made good choices or not.

It all begins with a personal connection. This can be done on paper or digitally; all students need is some time to reflect on their own lives and some guiding questions or statements to get them thinking about the situations and conflicts the characters in the play will be experiencing. Here is the one I used this year, though it admittedly changes every year.  I've done this in the form of a four corners debate, in which students must first make their decision about statements given and then explain their thinking in small groups. I've also done it as a silent, free-writing activity for students who prefer to process these things privately. It depends on who my class is each year.  Here's a sampling of what my students wrote about this year, with a little insight on how it helped them connect to the play once we began reading it:

Given Statement: Does love make people act like fools?
Student Response: "When you are in love, you think that person is special and very honest with you. But when you or the other person messes up, everything is ruined. You hate that person and wonder why you ever loved them. Then you realize you were a fool for trusting them and telling them everything." --Brandon, 8th Grade
How It Helped: When we encounter Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream, it's easy to stereotype her as being a desperate, lonely, clingy woman. She's rather pathetic in her unrequited pursuit of Demetrius, and my students are quick to judge her as a "crazy" girl. But if we can place her conflict into more personal context--and point out the detail that Helena and Demetrius were previously engaged in a romantic relationship--students will connect with her, understand her, and maybe even feel bad for her. Once this connection is made, Demetrius ends up looking like the bad guy, and Helena courageous for fighting for what she wants/what was promised to her.

Given Statement: Do men and women have different roles in a relationship?
Student Response: "I think they do have different roles because one has to act different than the other. Maybe one should set up the dates and it's different because the other will agree or disagree with the date. The man should pay for dinner most of the time." --Jonathan, 8th Grade
How It Helped: We repeatedly see women fighting for what they want in their relationships in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and what they want is frequently different from what the men in the story try to dictate. Hermia's father, of course, wants her to marry Demetrius instead of Lysander, so she runs away to elope with Lysander in the forest. Helena wants to rekindle her connection with Demetrius, and though he refuses she follows him in hot pursuit. Titania refuses to submit to her husband's wishes concerning the Indian boy, and does not back down from the conflict that results. These women break out of their stereotypical roles in their relationships to give us a more interesting, rich conflict to chew on.

Given Statement: Can we be manipulated into falling in love?
Student Response: "We can be tricked into falling in love. I fell in love with this one boy but we broke up because he tricked me. He made me believe it would last forever, like we promised each other." --Gladys, 8th Grade
How It Helped: Oberon (and by extension, Puck) is like an invisible puppet master throughout every scene that takes place in the forest in A Midsummer Night's Dream. He puts plans into motion and watches them unfold, mostly for entertainment. He manipulates Demetrius (on purpose) and Lysander (by accident), thereby wreaking havoc on their relationships with Hermia and Helena. He manipulates Titania to get the Indian boy from her. This may all seem far-fetched to a modern audience, because he uses magic to put this manipulation into progress. Regardless of his methodology, however, we can all relate to the situations he places other characters in because chances are, we've been manipulated ourselves.

By activating students' initial thoughts about each theme we study throughout the play, students realize they already know something about the action of the play. Personal connections make the characters and their conflicts relatable and encourage students to "dig a little deeper" than
what's written on the page. It activates a natural desire to analyze, to question, and to argue. Best of all, it is a really helpful way to get students over the hump of the flowery language because they are searching the text for specific evidence that justifies their feelings. Personal connections to the play, characters, and themes help keep students' attention throughout all five acts. Regardless of how bloody or unbelievable or confusing the play may get, they'll always be able to connect and see themselves within the conflicts.

How do you get your students to connect to Shakespeare on a personal level? I'd love to hear some more ideas!!  Feel free to comment and share them below.

Thanks for reading!

#MeToo, Shakespeare...

7th graders are a frustrating mix: cute and innocent, still tooling around in a vestige of their child-like elementary school likenesses, yet beginning to experiment with peer groups, risk taking, and pushing boundaries. Each year, they transform before my eyes from meek, curious mice into bold go-getters (for better or worse). The trouble is, as they begin to stretch their legs and claim morsels of independence, they don't often apply critical thinking to their decision-making process.

It was the third week of my Shakespeare unit this year when a gaggle of students came up to me after class. They had worried, conflicted looks in their eyes--a look I know all too well. It was the look students get when they want to report something that has happened among their peers, but they don't want to be labeled the "snitch" or the "tattletale" of the group. They informed me that one student in my class was directing a group of young boys to form a circle around an unsuspecting 7th grade girl in the hallway. Then he was encouraging everyone in the circle to touch or grab any part of the surrounded girl they wanted. And no, they weren't asking her permission.

The situation exploded from there. Aside from having hallway security camera footage of this happening right near my classroom door, I had a handful of other students privately report similar stories of this student pushing boundaries. "He touches my legs under the table during science class," one student told me. "I was just standing in the lunch room, and he came up and touched me," another reported. In following up on this situation with counselors and deans, more and more students' stories were unearthed. It was a #MeToo movement unfolding right before my eyes.

I felt crushed. I felt furious. I felt powerless, in a strange way. Even though I had connected students with the necessary parties to sort through the situation and deliver appropriate consequences to each participant, I still couldn't believe this had happened to my own students. After all, it was first and foremost my job to protect my students in my classroom--especially in a city like Chicago, where my students' lives are constantly under threat of gun violence, domestic violence, etc. For most of them, school is the safest place they have access to.

The next week, I set aside my anger to the best of my ability and continued forward with my Shakespeare unit. Our close reading passage for the week was Shakespeare's Sonnet 18, which is set down here for your convenience:

     Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
     Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
     Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
     And summer’s lease hath all too short a date; 
5   Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
     And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
     And every fair from fair sometime declines,
     By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm'd;
     But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
10 Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
     Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
     When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
     So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
     So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

There are many interpretations of this sonnet--and all of Shakespeare's sonnets. The first, and most obvious, is that it is simply a love poem. Petrarch would be proud, considering the poem's expression of "problematic desire" (often written in the form of unrequited love, though not in this case). Instead of lusting after the unattainable "Laura," however, the poet instead finds himself conflicted with the best comparison he can make for the object of his love. The second and perhaps most mind-blowing interpretation is that Shakespeare wrote it as a eulogy (perhaps for his deceased son, Hamnet?). Of course, that's the beauty of the sonnets--no matter how many times we read them and form new interpretations of them, they are just never quite what they seem.

For the sake of the interpretation I'll present here, we must assume that the speaker is wooing someone. My students assumed that the speaker was a straight man wooing a straight woman, and I allowed this heteronormative assumption to remain only because of the conflict my students had experienced the previous week.

The first thing I pointed out to my students is that this sonnet begins with a question. "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" One of my most vocal students, a female, shouted, "YES!" as soon as I read the first line. We all laughed, but this opened up an important conversation: What was the lady's reply? The students reasoned that, if her answer to the poet's question was "No," the poet would not have continued writing the rest of the sonnet. Therefore, her answer must have been "Yes," and thus the poet continues. Just like that, we were discussing consent in the classroom. We discussed boundaries and how, while expressing your feelings is always positive, one must make sure the party you are expressing them to is willing and comfortable with the means in which you express yourself. The best way to make sure of this is simple: just ask.

Well Shakespeare, the first line of your sonnet directly led to an important discussion about consent, boundaries, respect, and relationship dynamics. Could the rest of the sonnet be just as poignant?

Let's look at line 7, which comes just before the conflict in the poem shifts from the speaker struggling to find something even better than summer to compare his love to, to his assurance that his love for her and all of her qualities is eternal. Line 7 reads, "And every fair from fair sometime declines." This line is tricky to decode for students and teachers alike. The word my students focused on was "declines."

One student remarked, "It's like when you decline a call on your cell phone. Like, you don't have to listen to it if you don't want to." Ding, ding, ding! Here we are again, seeing the speaker's respect and understanding for his love's decision to accept or decline his love. Even though she is voiceless in the sonnet, she is truly in the driver's seat in the relationship. The speaker knows that women may love you one day and cast you off the next. He does not argue this. He is not offended by this. He states it as a fact.

Here we have further proof that the lady in question has chosen him. She can certainly change her mind at any point, but the fact that she remains firm in her consent opens up the "eternal" section in the second half of the poem. It's almost like saying that respecting a woman's right to accept or decline your advances can open a relationship up to deeper levels of love, devotion, and admiration than would otherwise never be possible.

That, my friends, is how you woo a woman.*

*=Heteronormative, again. Situationally appropriate. Sorry.

As you can imagine, that's about all we got through in that particular day of close reading. Any more, and I'm sure my students would have been overwhelmed or frustrated. But oh, what an unexpected opportunity! A simple sonnet opened up meaningful discourse about the ways in which we approach, respond, and respect one another. Thanks, Shakespeare.

What do you think? Are there any other lines or ideas within this sonnet that could have applied to this teachable moment? Or any other Shakespearean text that can provide an entry point into a situation as complex as those addressed by the #MeToo movement? If so, I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Thanks for reading!

Eight Steps to Make Memorization Magical

As you can read in my "About Me" section on this blog, my deep, life-long connection to Shakespeare got its start in 6th grade. As a skinny, socially awkward 11-year-old, I stood next to my peers in a packed gymnasium, illuminated by spotlight and way too much stage makeup, and I delivered line after line of Shakespeare's words. I pushed air with my diaphragm and spat out my consonants so that the person in the very back of the echo-y room could hear the words as I spoke them. I put thought into the inflection, the rhyme scheme, and the meter in each piece.

I basically had no idea what I was saying, but that was a challenge for an older version of myself to tackle.

Anyone who's studied Shakespeare will tell you that you can read and re-read plays or monologues and continually reveal new layers of meaning with each repetition. And what's even more mind-boggling is that Shakespeare actually seems to evolve with us through time. Your first interpretation of Romeo and Juliet as a freshman in high school is undoubtedly different than your interpretation of it as a post-graduate student or as a person about to turn 40 or as a person who has just retired. Great literature has the power to grow with us, repeatedly leaving us baffled and awed by its bottomless depths and timeless relatability. 

What an amazing gift to give a young child - a jumble of words that are inexplicably pleasing to the ear. When committed to memory, they lie in wait to reveal their messages at the right moment. It's like a mental time capsule--one that opens again and again with fresh, new meaning over the course of one's life.

This was my first year requiring students to memorize and present Shakespearean monologues, and I'll be honest--I half expected them to revolt and key my car. This work is incredibly difficult and the fact that my students are learning English as a second language, have special needs, and are reading at least 4 years below grade level is probably what discouraged me from trying this sooner. But oh, what our students can do when they are presented with a mountain to climb and the tools to conquer it..!

Here's how I set it up for my students to reach the top of the mountain:

1. Begin with a pep talk and a demonstration to show them how it's done.
On the day when I assigned this project, I projected this quote from Twelfth Night on the board: "Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em." We had an informal discussion about the ways society views young people simply due to their age or experience levels, and how unfair that is. We talked about what it means to have a growth mindset and the power in saying things like, "I don't get it--YET." We talked about the hardest things they've ever had to do in a classroom and how they got through it.

After I explain what will be expected of them and they've stopped throwing staplers at me, I show them photos of me in 6th grade reciting Prospero's "our revels now are ended" monologue from The Tempest. And just to drive home my point about how attainable this goal is, I project the full speech behind me and recite the entire thing from memory for them. Then I answer their questions, many of which I respond to in Spanish: "Si, se puede!"

2. Empower students to choose their monologues. 
Next, I share a document with them that I spent many days over the summer compiling. It contains links to clean, double-spaced copies of each monologue they can choose from. This means every student has access to a digital copy, which they can easily access from their phones or other devices any time. I also hand them paper copies, but these are great to have in case they lose them. The second column on this document tells students how many lines each speech has. This was a no-brainer; I knew that many students would simply want the shortest speech possible. The third column has links to YouTube videos of actors delivering each speech. I scoured YouTube for the very best versions that really revealed the meaning of the words through diction and inflection so students had a top-notch model to emulate. I even purchased a classroom set of headphones so students could listen to their speeches in class whenever they had time. The last few columns have spaces for me to type in each student's name and presentation date so all students know and can be held accountable for their own due dates.

3. Set performance dates that relate to the difficulty and/or length of each speech.
After letting my students "shop" the selection of monologues, I announced that it was time to choose their speech, which they would be responsible for memorizing and delivering to the class in about two months' time. I also informed them that no more than two students could each sign up for any one speech. Then I doled out speeches in the fairest way possible--by drawing names out of a hat one by one and letting students choose speeches.

Okay, that's a lie. Behind the scenes, I carefully constructed a list of students, putting them in order of who needed the most support to those who needed the least. That way, my students with special needs or those who were in early stages of English acquisition could select their speeches first. The fact that these students chose longer and more challenging speeches, even though the shorter ones were readily available to them, blew my mind. One student with a learning disability and a moderate speech disorder was dead-set on choosing one of the longest speeches available to him. He ended up getting one of four perfect scores in the class.

4. Be transparent with your grading practices. 
One way to reduce anxiety and increase accountability for this type of assignment is by providing students with a rubric that explains clearly how they will be graded. Here's mine. You'll notice that there's basically no way for a student to get below a C unless they simply don't present their speech on their due date. Knowing how difficult this was for my students made me want to set them up for success. I didn't want anyone's grade to take a dive because they didn't reach the memorization finish line. After all, the whole point is to leave them with the mental time capsule described above, not to make them hate Shakespeare or to make them feel insecure about their spoken language skills. The goal of this type of activity must always be to build students up and make them feel powerful.

5. Incentivize and schedule checkpoints. 
Every week, I incentivized students to recite small chunks of their speeches from memory. The first week, it was simply the first line. The second week, it was two. Then I wanted to hear four... then 5... then 7. Anyone who could reach each checkpoint when I asked received a reward. In my case, students received points toward earning admission to a field trip to see A Midsummer Night's Dream performed at The Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Any reward will work. The key to incentivizing is the publicity of it all. Any student who successfully met the checkpoint was publicly lauded for his or her efforts. This wasn't just to make that student feel good--it was to let the rest of your class know that what they once deemed impossible was, in fact, being achieved by those sitting right next to them regardless of their shared struggles.

6. Stand your ground. 
Amazing things started happening when we were about three weeks into this project. My students were finding me in the hallway, running up to me, and breathlessly reciting their lines to show me they could do it. There was joy in my classroom--pairs of students worked together to cue each other, quiz each other, cheer for each other, and perform silly pantomime they were considering incorporating into their final presentations.

Alas, all good things must come to an end (or stall, in this case). The fear of failure slowly curled its fingers around my students as their performance dates approached and several of them began to realize they had not used their time wisely. I heard rumblings of students planning to be absent on their performance dates. I had students quietly ask me if they could perform privately (just in front of me) during their lunch periods. I got questions about re-take opportunities. Their little puppy dog eyes made me want to grant all of their worried wishes... Luckily, my very strict co-teacher urged me to stand firm in my expectations. "They can do this," she assured me. I felt a little guilty for doubting them.

7. Create a supportive environment for your performers. 
Performance dates rolled around much quicker than my students preferred. I mean, sure, I assigned this project just before Thanksgiving and they didn't have to perform until the end of January... but I digress.

I had a very firm talk with the class about the expectations for an audience at any type of formal performance: they must remain silent, they should avoid fidgeting, and they shouldn't shout out or interrupt/distract performers in any way. They should welcome performers to the stage with applause and congratulate them with more applause after their speeches. And above all--they should understand how nerve-wracking it is to be in front of the entire class doing something terrifyingly difficult. Therefore, they should comport themselves with empathy.

I also agreed to cue students any time they got stuck as they performed. I understand that, even though they may have an entire speech memorized to perfection, nerves can cause unexplained difficulties to surface when they least expect it. Therefore, any time a student paused during their presentation, I'd cue them from the back of the room with enough of the next line to get them going again. I also didn't dock their grades for this. This seemed to cut their anxiety in half.  Phew!

8. Get meta. 
When it's all over, reflect with your students on what they've just accomplished. For me, this meant returning to Malvolio's 'greatness' quote from Twelfth Night once again. We talk about greatness and how it's not necessarily what you are--but what you do that makes you great. I talk about the greatness I've seen in each of them and the power of conquering a goal you once felt would be impossible. I give them time to free-write and discuss with partners about the experience. Any time we can get students to take a moment and think, "I didn't think I would be able to do it, but I worked hard, and I did it." that's a valuable use of classroom time.

Do you assign memorization tasks to your students? I'd love to hear your thoughts on the subject and I'm always listening for ideas to make this type of project even better.

Thanks for reading! 
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