Category: Speaking

Things I Learned in Shakespeare Club

Those of you who know me know this: I have a Shakespeare problem. Well, maybe more of an obsession than a problem. In fact, the only problem is that the world does not have enough Shakespeare-related things in it! As much as I do consider myself a teacher with very contemporary methods and an eye to the future, I also look forward to teaching Shakespearean texts each year with the anticipation of a child before a birthday party. I love the stories. I love the language! I love the drama!! SHAKESPEARE!!!

…Like I said, I have a problem. But the point of this story is how I have proudly transferred this problem to the next generation: a very satisfying accomplishment. After our Romeo and Juliet unit this year, a small group of my sixth hour sophomores were sad that it was over. They half-jokingly requested that I set aside one day a week during our enhancement (RtI) period to preside over a Shakespeare club so that we could act out more Shakespearean plays together. I narrowed my eyes momentarily as I attempted to discern if this was some type of crude joke. My heart fluttered. As it turns out, it was an earnest request. Shakespeare Club was formed in the next 30 seconds with my single word response: “Done.”

 To my great delight, Mr. M agreed to join me in the teaching/ play/ performance/ monitoring of Shakespeare Club. I gathered a list of interested parties (about 12 students), and sent each one a sealed invitation, anonymously delivered during lunch or via friends:

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We started with Macbeth, reading from the No Fear Shakespeare text for maximum accessibility during our brief time each week. Before each meeting, I previewed the section so that I could explain and narrate as needed while student actors milled about. I also created index card nametags with brief descriptors for each character that would be speaking (such as “Lady Macbeth – Straight-up Crazy” or “Donalbain – Duncan’s other son”), so that we could keep straight who was playing whom. Each week, students could select a part to read and take part in the action. All were welcome. Overjoyed but still dubious, I thought it might last two weeks at best.

That, however, was not the case. We eventually had pretty consistent attendance of over twenty kids who came each week to read Macbeth. We got T-shirts made. We also held a brief discussion of the play and had a “Monologue-Off” where both teachers and students prepared original-language Shakespearean monologues to perform for the group. We rewarded these actors with copies of Shakespearean texts that I was able to pick up at Half Price Books for a steal. Shakespeare Club was pretty darn awesome, and it’s something I hope I can take with me into future years of teaching, because–in my humble opinion–there are more kids out there who need to get irreversibly hooked on Shakespeare.

10 Things I learned in Shakespeare Club

1. Shakespeare attracts a great mix of kids–spotlight hoggers, Ivy league aspirers, fun lovers, romantics, literature heads, misfits, and kids who just like to pretend that they have swords.

2. Shakespeare Club is actually an acronym (C.L.U.B) for Come Learn Ur Bard.

3. Even kids who aren’t confident inhabiting themselves can bravely inhabit a Shakespearean role.

4. Don’t take advice from witches.

5. Caliban’s hunched, bumpy back can be crafted by shoving plastic cups beneath one’s shirt.

6. There actually is such a thing as a freshman who will independently memorize and then perform Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy flawlessly for absolutely no other reason than having the opportunity to do it.

7. Cool t-shirts are one of the best ways to raise awareness for a niche academic club. (Thank you, CustomInk.)

8. Students love to cheer for each other.

9. Students get important things from reading modernized Shakespeare. They also get important things from working with the original language.

10. Shakespeare continues to “amaze indeed the very faculties of eyes and ears,” even on Fridays, at the end of the day, amidst a group of squirrely 14-18 year olds.

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Does anybody else out there have a Shakespeare Club for high school students? When and how do you run it? Does anybody want to start a ring of Shakespeare Clubs that can communicate online and/or occasionally meet in person to attend plays and such? What do you think? Like the Universe as Text Facebook page to start the conversation! 🙂

Speaking of Commencement

 I was given the great honor of being chosen as the commencement speaker for this year’s graduation ceremony at the school where I teach. While I was, of course, flattered and excited by the opportunity, I was also a bit daunted by the task initially. Graduation speeches are so often overly cliche, irrelevant to graduates’ actual lives, or simply forgettable. I really wanted to craft something that would transcend the pitfalls of the typical commencement speech, and say something worth saying. As teachers, I think all of us have a desire to pass on something memorable to our students. In the classroom, sometimes it works like a charm and sometimes it comes out as confusing gobbeldygook–it depends on the day! But at a graduation ceremony, it has to come out right, and I hoped that I’d be able to make it so.

Luckily, I was struck by inspiration when I saw a video showcasing a quote from Dr. Neil De Grasse Tyson, that hit a deep, resonating chord with me and sent me on my way to craft a speech that helped turn my love of stories and my love of science into one message for living, one that I was proud to share with the Class of 2012, their families, and many former and future students. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to speak at a graduation, and the moment felt perfect to me. Something about being surrounded by my seniors from this year, as well as recieving enthusiastic congrats from last year’s returning seniors and the students I’ll have in my senior classes next year really created a feeling of continuity, of community, and family. Schools are more than just gathering places–things happen in them that unify young people and those who mentor them. 

The transcript of my June 3rd commencement speech is found below for (A) other educators who may be looking for an example commencement speech, (B) students who may want to look back and consider the words spoken on their graduation day, and (C) simple posterity. Thank you, Class of 2012, for this awesome chance to fill a special role in our school and local community!

Good afternoon! You know, as a teacher, I am very used to addressing young people, but today I get an introduction and applause? Man—I really don’t think I can go “back to before” now that this has happened. Thank you—that was lovely.

Pretty much the moment I became a teacher, I had people, for a whole variety of reasons, I’m sure, asking me why. You know: “Why did you become an English teacher? Why would you want to be that?” And while I’ve got many answers for that question, the most prominent one is this: I’m fascinated by the power of stories. When we read a book or view a film, we inhabit another life for a little while, and we see places, feel things, and think in ways that we might have never otherwise imagined. Stories have always played a role in forming our culture, and they still do—just look at the phenomenon surrounding The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, or The Lord of the Rings. Everyone is able to tap into the magic of story and gain something from it. Personally, many of my first revelations about life came from my incessant viewing of the original Star Wars trilogy on VHS. I will never forget the tiny, green, and wise creature Yoda explaining to the young, overeager Luke Skywalker how he could harness power from the world around him. “My ally is The Force,” he tells Luke. “And a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” He pinches Luke’s shoulder at that last part. As a kid, I was fascinated by this idea that people could be more. You know… more than just a body, but rather a “luminous being” filled with the life force of everything around us. Of course, that’s just a story. But that’s the thing—while stories aren’t true, they point us toward a deeper understanding of truth and reality.

If we look closely, we discover that the world is full of metaphor—full of symbols to read and interpret. Sometimes these symbols are woven into a poem that I might share with my third hour class; other times they appear out here in our lives for us to observe. Often, things from the natural world inspire common symbols that are universally understood. One of these symbols is the star. Stars, as we all know, often stand for the ideas of excellence, or fate. Destiny. You can read this meaning ten thousand different times, from a certain Shakespearean play, where Romeo tells Benvolio “my mind misgives some consequence yet hanging in the stars” to the 2011 hit song “Written in the Stars” by hip hop artist Tinie Tempah. Stars also appear everywhere at graduations, on cards and balloons, signifying all that the graduates are destined to achieve. Stars, and humanity’s endless fascination with them, hint at that fact that our universe, too, can be a story in itself.

There’s perhaps nobody better to illustrate this idea than celebrated American astrophysicist and science ambassador Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. In an interview for TIME magazine, Dr. deGrasse Tyson was asked the challenging question “What’s the most astounding fact you can share with us about the universe?” His answer was something that really resonated with me, and I’d like to share it with you, Class of 2012. He said that the most astounding fact is that “the same atoms that comprise life on earth, the atoms that make up the human body […] carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and all the fundamental ingredients of life”—are the same atoms that comprise the stars. He continues, saying, “…I look up at the night sky, and I know that yes, we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up. Many people feel small, because they’re small and the universe is big, but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars.” Now if that isn’t astounding, I don’t know what is. The same elements that make you, graduates, are the elements of the whole beautiful starry sky. That means that you are a star, literally! You are a luminous being—so much more than a crude shell. You are a part of a legacy as old as eternity, and you have a precious blip of time in which to fulfill it. And this exact moment in your life, as you transition from being a high school student to being an adult in our society, is the perfect time to consider it.

Now, by nature, stars develop, shift, and slowly scatter throughout the universe. Some of you will become scientists, some storytellers. Some will till the earth and help it grow. Some will negotiate the fast-paced obstacle course of economic markets. Some of you will invent new forms of cuisine. You might pledge yourself to art or medicine, education or religion, or service to your country. Or maybe you just want to earn an honest wage and live a simple life. We each pursue our own directions—like the universe, we are always expanding, shifting, changing and moving, as forces like this ceremony here today, act upon us. Today, you are an emerging star. You can feel yourself on the precipice of the unknown.

While this big moment is thrilling, it can also bring with it some very big uncertainties: things like, “How do I make use of this time I’ve been given, this space in front of me? How do I know what to do? How do I matter?” When we face these huge questions, even we stars are in danger of feeling small, insignificant, or lost. For many of you, this is your first solo journey, your first time being the decider of your own fate without anyone else directing your path. Before you cross this stage, I want to offer you a starchart, a bit of guidance to help you find your place in this incredible universe. This comes in the form of two things to remember.

The first thing to remember is that you are not only a star, but a star with a backpack full of useful things. A good question to ask yourself in any moment of decision is “Well, what have I got?” After twelve years of education, of algebra and literature and biology and history, you have a basic knowledge of the world around you. And after years’ worth of touchdown passes, opening nights, robot building, writing to meet deadlines, speaking as a part of your student organization, practicing the perfect serve, free throw, goal, or pace, or mastering songs with your instrument, voice, or dancing body, you’ve begun to taste what it’s like to create an effect that impacts others. And after surviving adolescence, you have started to explore those experiences that make up this thing called being human—the passions, the broken hearts, the wild joy, the dizzying freedom of choice, the pride of achievement, the pain of disappointment, and the restoration of hope and healing. You’ve been through these things, and you will recognize them when life sends them your way again.

So you’ve got quite a bit in your backpack, really… knowledge, skills, achievements, and the priceless insight that will one day, when you’re WAY older than me, turn into wisdom. That was the whole point of your childhood and your education—to make sure that you set off into life with a bit of a starter kit in your metaphorical backpack. Some things were handed to you, others you picked up yourself along the way. That’s the first comfort as you face this oncoming challenge of living up to your own universal legacy. You’ll always carry your past with you, and if you use it as a tool, you’ll be prepared for anything.

The second thing: If you still feel small as you face this expanse of universe before you, consider the idea, that you, young stars, are not alone in the cosmos. You’ll remember that Dr. deGrasse Tyson—the guy that reminded us of that astounding fact that people and stars are essentially made up of the same ingredients, said that he feels big instead of insignificant when he thinks about the sky. In that same interview, he goes on to tell us why. He says, “There’s a level of connectivity. That’s really what you want in life. You wanna feel connected. You wanna feel relevant. You wanna feel like you’re a participant in the activities and the goings-on around you. That’s precisely what we are, just by being alive.” Think about that and how amazing that is—that each of us has an intrinsic connection to the universe, and therefore to life, to all creation, and to one another. Sometimes we get so caught up in ourselves that we forget that fact.

When you go home today, and you begin the string of graduation celebrations with family and friends, the conversations will be in that language of individual achievement. Relatives will bombard you with many questions that all essentially mean “What are YOU going to do with YOUR life?” as if you are a comet rather than a star, with only one possible trajectory. You know, one shot… and it’s all on you. That can be a lot of pressure!  And while you might smile at Uncle Bill when he claps you on the back and says you’re headed for great things, you might find yourself lying awake at night wondering, “What will I really do with my life? Am I making the right choice? Am I heading in the right direction?” If and when that happens, remember that if we are all made of stardust, that old phrase “Reach for the stars” doesn’t actually mean to strain toward a single goal, but rather to reach out to each other. The possibilities of life are indeed infinite, but it’s a certainty that, just as the night sky is breathtaking because of the sheer number of stars overhead, our lives gain meaning because of the connections we make together. You can feel it here, in the overwhelming love that the all the people out here have for all the people up here. It’s part of our nature to be connected, and those connections give us power. So if you can find a way to serve others, to hold their hands along your way, you’ll no doubt find your individual path in the process.

So I’ll leave you with the astounding fact that there is a star in every last one of you, and I wish you blessings and luck as you find your places in the universe. Welcome to adulthood.

When Etiquette and Education Collide: “Good Afternoon!”

I’m one of those teachers who is committed to standing outside the door of my classroom each period, every day, as students enter my classroom. It’s a great opportunity to monitor the mood and energy level of each student before class begins, catch a student for a quick chat about an absence or assignment, and to confiscate the occasional distracting item before it crosses the threshold. But mostly, standing at the door is just to say “hi”—to take a brief moment to connect with students in an interpersonal way, outside of any academic context, to send the message “I notice you are here, and I’m glad to see you.” Taking the time to do that is important. The accumulation of all those two-second greetings can add up to a valuable relationship with each and every student.

That being said, the students aren’t always as enthusiastic about saying “hi” as I am. Maybe they’re not used to adults addressing them. Maybe they hate English class. Maybe they have hearing loss. Whatever the underlying cause, year after year, at least half of my students just walk past as I greet them, staring straight ahead, scowls or blank looks on their faces, completely unresponsive even when I greet them by name. All year long, I say hello. All year long, some will continue to ignore it with all the aloofness of an irritated retail customer. In the past, I’ve simply accepted this behavior as a manifestation of adolescent apathy that was beyond my control. Not anymore.

As the school year began and I again started to experience the Good Morning!/[No Response] Phenomenon, I thought back to a book that I read as an undergrad called The Essential 55: An Award Winning Educator’s Rules for Discovering the Successful Student in Every Child. The book, often more geared toward elementary teaching, uses manners and etiquette as a platform for student achievement. When I read it (and I would still maintain this), some of the 55 rules seemed a bit too picky, superficial, and difficult to enforce; the link between manners and ability to learn sounded a bit sketchy. However, I did recall that one of the rules addressed the situation of an adult greeting a student. Clark required his students to consistently make eye contact and greet adults pleasantly throughout the school day, especially if they were greeted first. This is an essential skill, no doubt. And it was, I felt, an important part of helping my students allow me to establish a relationship with them. So, I decided to go Ron Clark on them.

Sixth hour was the experimental group. As always, I said “Good afternoon” cordially to each student, meanwhile carefully observing their responses. It was as usual. As I started class, I told the students that I had something important and honest to share with them. I asked for a volunteer. A redhead with a goofy grin hopped up and came to the front of the classroom. “All right,” I told him. “You are going to play me. I am going to play a couple of different students. I’m going to walk toward you a few times. All you have to do is smile at me and say ‘Good Afternoon’.” He obliged.

“Every day when I greet you at the door, about a third of you do this,” I said. I walked past, blatantly ignoring the personal greeting and mumbling something like “buhhhh” as I stared like a slack-jawed idiot.

“And about a third of you do this,”I said. Shortly after, I blurted out “DO WE NEED OUR BOOK TODAY?” about three inches from my poor volunteer’s face before he could even finish the “good” of “good afternoon.”

“And… about a third of you do this.” This time I gave a polite smile, a nod, and an enthusiastic reply of “good afternoon!” I finished up the exercise by saying some persuasive things about the importance of courtesy and collegiality in the professional world along with a fair amount of pathos regarding my own hurt feelings at not being greeted in return!

To my surprise and delight, my students responded resoundingly to this demo. I now have a 100% rate of students smiling and greeting me at the door. Many of them now say hello even when they’re on their way to a different class. Success.

It may seem like a small detail, but it has resulted in easier classroom management, increased class participation, and more positive attitudes about English class (and the English teacher herself, I suppose). While this small expectation alone does not create success, it certainly sets students up for it.

Speak Up!

Discussion is one of the mainstays of the Language Arts classroom. In a great learning environment, teachers and students do not view talking as a distraction, but use it as a tool for learning. Some of the best discussions I’ve had in my life have happened in high school, college, and my own English classrooms. It’s a great and expected part of what we do. We talk: about literature, about writing, about philosophy. But I think talking stops there too often, retiring within that comfortable Student Comment-Teacher Response script.

 I love to hear students talk when it ties in with what we’re learning. I never tire of hearing Shakespeare’s words emerging from a mouth that’s reading them for the first time. Saying it aloud creates a full experience—the character comes alive, the rhythmic, folding, flowing sound of the words is freed from the codex into the air. We pay attention. We hear it, share it, say it. It’s no longer foreign; it’s ours.

 For some reason, the kinesthetic experience of speaking is so crucial for making connections to other human beings. It’s our responsibility as English teachers to target speaking as a method of forming and demonstrating knowledge. We need to expect them to express themselves as fluently out loud as they do on paper. This semester I’ve really been trying to incorporate verbal communication alongside reading and writing. I’d like to share two of these instances that have been successful for me this semester.

Sophomore Independent Reading Interview

My tenth graders are required to read one independent novel per quarter. This time around, my teaching partner and I required that our students have a personal interview with us about their chosen reading. It intimidated the heck out of our kids, but in the end it held them to very high standards and created a fulfilling personal interaction.

Students were told to prepare by placing at least five post-it annotations throughout their book, noting spots that were particularly memorable, beautiful, strange, or incendiary. They were told to know their books backwards and forwards and to be prepared with answers for questions like “What is the theme of the story and why?” or “What is the main character’s biggest flaw and how does it manifest itself?” On the days that were set aside for interviews, students would come up to my desk one at a time, and we’d have a conversation about what they read.

When interview day came, I was very impressed by their level of preparation. Pages were riddled with post-its, notes had been taken, books had been re-read multiple times. Man, they took it seriously! I was blown away by the quality of our conversations. I really felt like I was mentally transported to a coffee shop, discussing a book with a friend. Rather than sticking to the standard questions, I found myself genuinely invested and curious about the points that they brought up. They were ready and animated, speaking in a more mature tone than I’d ever seen. It worked. And I think what made it work so well was the personal speaking element. Even kids who are willing to hand in shoddy paperwork were not willing to lose face when they sat down with me, awaiting the question, “So, what did you think of your book?” They wanted to do well, and they certainly did. Oral assessment in English class—it works!

 Senior Speech Unit

While it’s nothing particularly innovative, I’m also beaming with pride over the speech unit that I just completed with my seniors. I had initially dreaded this portion of the year, as most of my grade 12 students have been fighting me all semester long when it comes to speaking in front of a group—they were petrified. Speaking in front of an audience with finesse and power is a complex skill, but an essential one. I felt the need to get these kids to take the floor, and own it, at least once before graduation. I just didn’t know how I would get there.

Since fear was a tangible element to my students’ resistance, I decided to organize my unit around the psychological process of overcoming anxiety—something I’m unfortunately/fortunately well acquainted with. We started by talking about our fear, how it’s normal and natural, and how public speaking is rated higher than death on the list of American phobias. I had them take a survey about public speaking anxiety, and then display their responses by moving to specific spots in the room for each response. This way, they visually observed that they were not alone in their anxiety. I mentioned how I’ve had to overcome social anxiety in order to do my job well. We were in this thing together.

We then discussed the “jump right in” philosophy of extinguishing fear, and stayed true to it. On day two, my students had to stand and give an impromptu speech of a few sentences. We observed one another and identified body language and vocal inflection. Then, we learned about using the body for communication—posture, gesturing, movement, tone and volume of voice, how to look confident. The next day, they had to do more impromptu speaking. At this point, I focused completely on the look of the body and the sound of the voice. As I told them, “What you say doesn’t matter yet.” I waited until I saw and heard true confidence before moving on to things like rhetoric and organization.

More and more speaking, watching videos of pros, playing improvisation games, and complex reverse outlining of famous speeches eventually turned these scared students into speakers who oozed confidence. In their final 10-minute speeches, informative talks on a topic within their expertise, they were enlightening, engaging, and witty. It’s amazing how successful speaking in front of a group gives a person such a sense of authority. As with my sophomores, I saw these seniors transform into adults before my eyes the second they opened their mouths.

 Students have things to say. When we encourage them to say these things, out loud, with high expectations, they blossom as thinkers and as people all at the same time.