#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! 

Getting to Know Shakespeare

Beatrice, from Much Ado About Nothing, is my spirit animal.

Shakespeare's heroines give feminists like me pause every now and again (we're looking at you, Kate from Taming of the Shrew) but Beatrice never disappoints us. She's sharp-tongued, quick-witted, bright, and assertive. The number of times she interrupts male characters almost evens the score for any woman who's been subject to mansplaining, and we love her for it.

In Much Ado About Nothing, Don Pedro hypothesizes that her strong and merry personality is likely due to special circumstances at her birth. Indeed, she confirms that she was born under a dancing star.

I don't think the circumstances of Shakespeare's birth were extraordinary by any means, but the romantic in me does believe that the world today boasts a little more beauty because he once inhabited it. I keep this in mind when I front-load my Shakespeare unit, and most importantly when I introduce Shakespeare (the man, not the works) to my students.

I've done this in a few ways over the course of my career, and I've never been satisfied with it until this year. This year, I put aside my lecture notes, my power points, my photos, my video biographies, and my articles. After all, the usual techniques could never adequately introduce a man who was born beneath a dancing star.

Instead, I turn up the engagement and ignite students' sense of discovery by tossing them headfirst into an interactive Google Map of Shakespeare's old stomping grounds. I made the whole thing myself, and my students loved it. Luckily for me, I had plenty of source material.

When I was a 6th grader, I promised myself that I would one day travel to Shakespeare's hometown of Stratford-Upon-Avon to see it for myself. I checked this off my travel bucket list in the summer of 2016, and the trip exceeded every expectation my awkward, daydreaming, 11-year-old self could have possibly imagined.

It was a few months ago when I realized that all the photos I took during that trip could actually come in handy in my classroom! Enter: Google Maps. As I was working through my Google Level 1 and 2 Certification, I learned about the features of Google Maps that allow you to design a personalized journey that students can click through at their leisure. I integrated tons of my vacation photos from England and added my own narrative--essentially taking on the role of the "tour guide" who would take my students across the Atlantic and back in time 400 years. I paired my Google Map adventure with a simple quiz on Google Forms and then I turned my students loose within Shakespeare's world.

The activity allowed students to click through 6 locations:
- Shakespeare's birthplace
- King Edward VI School
- Anne Hathaway's cottage
- Holy Trinity Church
- The Globe Theater
- Buckingham Palace (mainly just for fun, and for those who finished early)

Students could see a bird's eye view, zoom in to see the streets and businesses that exist there, or even place themselves within the map and "walk around" town by clicking arrows already embedded via Google Maps. They could see as much or as little of each location as they liked.

And oh, the things I heard during this activity: "Whoa, is this really the inside of his house?" "How far did he have to walk to get to his wife's cottage?" "Weird, the Globe Theater is completely round!" "Look! I found his grave stone!" "How did he learn Latin when he was so young?" "Did the Queen like the plays he wrote?"

Google Maps pushed my students directly into an inquiry-based bubble where they could explore, ask questions, wonder about Shakespeare's life, make hypotheses, and develop a hunger to know more about the Bard. And given how little we actually know about Shakespeare's life, I couldn't think of a more appropriate way to introduce him. Rather than rattling off details--both real and romanticized--about Shakespeare's life that I've collected over the years, I allowed my students to make their own judgments and guesses about who this great man was. Likewise, the "tour guide" narrative I included gave my students the clues they would need to understand what life was like in Elizabethan England and to later uncover how and why characters behave the way they do throughout his works.

If you're interested in checking out my Google Map (or even using it in your classroom), click the preview photo below!  And if you'd like to pair it with my Google Forms quiz (which grades itself upon completion), you can access and edit it here.

What do you think of my introduction to Shakespeare?  My ears are always open for feedback.  Feel free to share your best practices for introducing the Bard to your students as well.

Thank you for reading!

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