Sunday, March 13, 2016

Stage Swordfighting

I have been interested in fencing for years, even doing a very little bit of it in grad school at Indiana, and I always use my practice foil as a visual aid when explaining the plot against Hamlet in Act V.  While I wished there were some way other than watching the filmed fight scenes for my students to experience the joy of swords, I really didn't feel expert enough to try to do more.

That all changed on a July afternoon when all the participants of the Folger Summer Academy gathered on its grassy front lawn facing our nation's Capitol, took off our shoes, took up our dowels, and took choreographed swings at one another.  Since that very moment, I have been plotting to do stage sword fighting with my own students.

My first hurdle was figuring how what equipment to use.  I knew I didn't want to use dowels as we had in the Academy.  I kept hearing variations of an explanation about how one wound up shattered and embedded in a student, so I began to search for an alternative with which injury would be as impossible as I could humanly make it.

Dollar Tree to the rescue, once again.  During Halloween, they had inflatable lightsabers.  This, of course, appealed quite deeply not only to the geek in me but also to the geek in my students, so I cleaned the store out and scurried away with my prize.  They were locked safely in my supply cabinet, and every time I opened the door, I grinned at the thought of what was to come.

Finally, second semester started and our Hamlet unit began.  Since weather in Mississippi in the winter is tricky, I booked our auditorium as a backup, but my true goal was the large open green space in the center of our campus.  Despite rain early in the week, by the time we got to the magic chosen day, the temperatures were mild, the ground was firm, and the sun was shining.  The students grabbed their chosen inflatable lightsaber, and out we went.

Just as we'd been taught at the Folger, I lined them up and started with footwork.  The students laughed as they tried to master the stance and the proper movements.  I ran them forward and backward, remembering the sage advice to "wear them out" first.

I showed them the five strikes and blocks, and we practiced.  As we worked, students passed by from other places.  Some of them took pictures.  Some of them stood to watch until their teacher urged them on.  Several of them said, "Man, I wanna take this class.  What is this class?"  My student swordsmen and women fought on.

Once I felt like they had as much of the basics as a 50-minute introduction with an inflatable sword was likely to yield, I told them to come up with a scene for us that they would perform for the whole group.  I walked around and helped out, took pictures, and generally enjoyed what I was seeing.  They were putting together some amazing things.  One group of guys had more background than the others since one is active in local theater and the other actually plays sword sports.  A group of girls incorporated synchronized cartwheels.  One group had two attacking one brave defender, and a group of four girls wound up in a carefully designed free-for-all in which everyone was dead at the end.

It was fabulous.  It was everything I had hoped for all those months ago on a DC summer evening.

We watched each group perform, and everyone cheered.  Snapchat videos were shot.  Selfies were taken.  It was more than a lesson; it was a memory.  Hopefully, they will look back on their senior year at some time in the future and say, "Hey, do you remember that time when....?"

At the end, just as my teacher group had done during the Academy, I had all the students take one of the Famous Last Lines from the packet provided by the Folger, and we all stood in a large circle.  The only instructions I gave them were that they needed to be loud and as ridiculously dramatic as possible as they "died."  Melodrama abounded.  Some went quickly and brutally.  Others drew it out in a way that Bugs Bunny himself would have approved of.  We laughed and laughed.

When it was over, we dusted ourselves off, collected our battered lightsabers, and went back to the classroom. The following day, we watched a filmed version of the final fight.  As they viewed, I saw several of them commenting to their partners about the moves of the fencing.  How could one ask for more than this?

Hamlet Gallery Walk

On January 25th, my AP classes did a modified version of the tone word gallery walk activity we did at the Folger this summer. We listened to Renaissance music courtesy of a couple of really awesome playlists on Spotify including an album from the Folger Consort while the students walked around the room inspecting various artistic representations of Hamlet meeting his father's ghost.  As the students walked, they left a tone word from a list they have as a permanent resource in their writing folders on a post-it near each.

The pictures were diverse.  Many of them came from my research at the Folger courtesy of Luna,
their digital image collection.  One was a cartoon from the collection of Hamlet references I am constantly collecting from various sources.  The final was a painting I had seen in the Pinacoteca in Sao Paulo, Brazil while I was there for a summer program four years ago.

When the students were done choosing their tone words and looking at the words of others, I had them move to stand in front of the one they thought most accurately represented Act 1.4.  They had to talk with others who had also picked that image and be prepared to explain why it was best based on textual evidence. Lots of them "bandwagoned," but all of them had well-supported explanations based on the visual source and Hamlet.

Finally, I broke them into groups of two or three and told them to create a "3-D painting" of the perfect scene to convey the tone they thought the the text indicated. They had so much fun with this, with pulling each other into poses, with getting just the right facial expressions, with explaining how the use of a jacket draped across their head or a foam sword helped to convey the feeling of the scene appropriately.  I took photos of all of them to preserve their work of art, and I put them in our Google Classroom for them all to enjoy later.

As we were wrapping things up and preparing for the trip to the cafeteria, one of the students in my 5th period class said, "Ms. Waters, this was just FUN. I was expecting this class to be boring because, you know, it's reading and stuff, but this was so good. And interesting."

That may be some of the highest praise I've ever gotten. Thank you, Folger folk, for making that happen.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Meph(istopheles) on the Shelf

The "elf on the shelf" phenomenon both fascinates me and unsettles me.  Saturday, my best friend and I were in Target, and there was a huge end-cap display of the elves and all their accouterments.  There's even a "pet" for the elf and all kinds of clothing and other things to suck money right out of the wallets of well-meaning parents.  It's a whole industry, and apparently a growing one.

I have one of the original shelf-sitter dolls from the 1960s.  I got it on eBay a long time ago.  Mine is no elf, though.  Mine is a red-pointed-tail, horn- wearing devil.  He has pointed ears and a wicked little winking grin.  He is my Mephistopheles.

I used to put him out every year when we studied Doctor Faustus.  He sat safely on my shelf until the work was done; then it was time for him to go back into storage for another year.  For the last two years, though, he's stayed in my locking cabinet.  I've simply been too tired or too rushed to get him out.

This year, after seeing the shelf-elves and hearing one of my colleagues talk about using one of them in her classroom, I felt inspired.  I braved the Fibber McGee's closet that is my locking cabinet and unearthed him.  Then I tucked Meph into the leaves of my giant rubber plant and let him wait.  When the class noticed him, I told him we would have a shelf Meph instead.  He is really much more my style than a simpering elf.  They loved it.

This afternoon, after the last of my students were gone, he migrated to a new spot in the room.  I reckon I can find great amusement in keeping this up until the end of the semester.  Hopefully, the students will find it amusing, too.

The things we do at semester's end.....

Two-Line Scenes with Faustus

Today, I was finally able to use another one of the strategies I learned this summer at the Folger:  two-line scenes.  Although we had originally done this with Hamlet this summer, I combed through the play we're currently reading, Doctor Faustus, and created a set of lines from it.  Some of them were thematically important. We had the famous "face that launched a thousand ships" and "Man, fly!"  We told each other that this was hell, nor were we out of it....  Some of them were just fun. We burned our books, became apes and dogs, and told each other we could not read. I was eager to see how the students would handle it.

They drew their lines, found their partners, and started scrounging around my room for props.  I have two huge boxes of things I use to dress up my Shakespeare bust for the various holidays, and his costumes got pretty thoroughly pillaged.  I had students in fezzes, in boas made of holiday garland, in goofy glasses, and in a hat shaped like a cooked turkey.  They used squeezy stress balls, sets of National Honor Society cords, and foam swords.  They found sound effects and video clips of flame to use on their phones.  It was fabulous.

They commandeered every part of the room, the front, all the furniture, and even the shower curtains I use to hide all the obnoxious nastiness in my classroom.  One group took a mountain trek over the seats of one row of desks.  That same group finished by lassoed a display clothesline with silver-and-gold-star garland to swing away from the "hell" their line indicated they were in.

I had the best time.  I loved watching them create meaning from the random combination of lines.  With the exception of a few words they wanted to look up (fustian, sixpence), they were independent of everything except the text.  All of them engaged.  All of them had wonderful little vignettes.  We all laughed and cheered at every dramatic effort.

When I told them afterward that all the lines had come from the play we were about to read, they were excited.  They were eager to find out where "their" line was going to come into the larger story.  As a preparatory activity, I don't see how it could have gone better.  It gave us a break from the stress and hustle of the semester's end, and it piqued their interest in the text ahead.  They left the classroom smiling and talking about the experience, reliving it on the ubiquitous SnapChat.  What a great activity!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Rainy Mississippi Meditations

I started my day today as I usually do, Froot Loops and coffee and social media.  Stella and Chewie were happily throwing each other to the living room floor.  Much needed rain was falling outside.  It should have been a peaceful moment.

Then I clicked a link to a news story and read the comments.

How long is Mississippi going to insist on being backwards?  Why is it that in every possible pursuit we continually and seemingly enthusiastically race toward the prejudiced, the intolerant, the exclusionary, or the corrupt?

We wonder why people leave and never return.  I have so many loved ones - friends, family members, former students - who have made their lives across the country or across the globe not because they wanted to leave family but because they could not have a future here or simpy be accepted for who and what they are.  Our best and our brightest are the very ones we are driving away.  The ones who could do more and better go.  As long as this continues, what hope is left?

I love this state.  I believe now as much as I have in the past that she could be something great.  Her leadership, though, seems stuck in the 1950s.  I can understand why.  It is undoubtedly very comfortable for them there.  They are undisputed masters of all they survey, fat and sleek and able to slip the hand into the till at their leisure.  Who wouldn't love a system in which all the toys belonged to them alone?

Leaders are called to be more.  They have been called to put the welfare of the state as a whole first, have stood before a God they only pay lipservice to during the elections and sworn oaths to do so.  What they don't seem to recognize or honor is that leadership is full of sacrifice - sacrifice of self for the right, sacrifice of the leader's good for the good of all.  Instead, they have made a private club of it and employed a "let them eat cake" mentality toward the rest.  I wonder if they forget the lessons history has to teach about how well that worked out for the originators....

I suppose the leaders are not alone in their fault, though.  Somehow, some way, the electorate chose to put these people in places of power.  Despite the fact that they never change, we continue to put some of them in office over and over and over....  Maybe they are giving out a temporary boon, a paved road, a cleared "situation," a business favor between "friends."  Maybe we, too, need to stop accepting a short-term grab-and-go and begin to look down the road at what is right for everybody, to do what is right for those who will come after us.

I still believe - foolishly, perhaps - that change is possible.  After all, if nothing else happens, the system will collapse on itself and change will happen in that way.  I'd like to think instead that my fellow Mississippians will come together and try to gain control of this before it has to be broken completely and reset to allow for proper healing.  I think we may be very close to that point.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Not Just for Shakespeare

Today began a unit on Modern literature.  We started looking at Eliot's "The Hollow Men" as a way into the characteristics of the period.  They have been working on Prufrock for a week by themselves.  We will pick up on it tomorrow together, and we'll move from Eliot to discussion of As I Lay Dying and Their Eyes Were Watching God.

I love Eliot.  I always have.  It was probably an early warning sign of future English-teacherdom that I was buying Dover Thrift Editions of his works during my own high school days.

I do understand how challenging he is.  He operated at "god level" when it came to weaving allusions with stream of consciousness and vivid imagery.  Even most of my bravest students are daunted when it comes to dealing with him for the first time.  (Those that aren't...well...lots of them are now English teachers, too...)

As I was preparing copies of the poem for TPCASTT annotation, a thought occurred.  What if I tried the Folger 3-D tactic with "The Hollow Men"?  I was curious as to whether or not the strategy would be as successful with helping my students to shape meaning for themselves with this complex poetry.  It had worked so well with the Seven Ages of Man speech at the beginning of the year.  I piddled and pondered, and finally, I decided to see what would happen.

I did use part of a PowerPoint of Doom this time because I wanted to remind them of the general feelings of despair, distrust, and brokenness that inform Modern literature.  I slipped through it quickly, presented the format of a TPCASTT, and had them make quick notes on their initial reaction to the title.  Then we read through the entire poem with each student taking a line.

They took to the activity with no hesitation, prompting each other if someone got lost.  When we got to part V with its "here we go round the prickly pear" portion, some of them actually caught on and put the tune to it.  One student missed his cue for his line, and he laughed.  "I was singing the song in my head.  Sorry."  The final lines drew a big reaction from everyone, "Hey!  I've heard that before...."  Suddenly, there was a connection with something that had been more or less threatening and unintelligible.

Because I was doing this on the fly and time was short, I asked them to get with partners immediately after that and "see what they noticed."

They started putting big chunks of it together, and I eavesdropped on their conversations.

"They're scarecrows, right?  I see 'heads stuffed with straw.'"

"They aren't real scarecrows.  I think they're supposed to be like people?"

"Everything in this poem is dead.  Look.  'Stone....cactus....dry....'"

I couldn't hide my glee.  It had worked.  One student saw me smiling and eyed me suspiciously.

"What?  Ms. Waters, did I say something silly?"

"Not at all.  Not.  At.  All.  You were dead on.  Keep going."

And they did.

We talked through parts of it today, and they were a little amazed at how much they had understood with just one brief dip into the work.  I saw smiles.  I saw confidence growing.  I saw the same group who had almost without exception raised their hands when I'd asked who didn't feel comfortable dealing with poetry at the beginning of the class suddenly eagerly pointing out things that were dry or purposeless.

Tomorrow, we will start with the portion of the read-through where each person takes an entire sentence as a review before finishing it and moving on to Prufrock.  I can't wait to see how much more they can extract.  The benefits of what I learned this summer at the Folger just keep coming.

Sunday, October 11, 2015


My administrator showed up outside my door two weeks ago and asked/told me to co-lead a PD session with one of my colleagues to be a part of our staff development day .  She and I started putting things together the best we could.  We tweaked and edited.

Then, two days before we were to present, the great grumbling began. There is nothing like knowing you're going to have to stand up in front of a room full of your peers who are angry at having to be there.  As time ticked away, I had a migraine.  Both of us had nightmares about technology failure, general rebellion, the usual meeting horrors.

Friday finally came, and by that point, I just wanted it all to be done.  We presented for our first group, and I gradually saw the grumpy faces smooth out some.  They asked some questions, tried out some of the strategies and apps we were presenting.  We gave away candy and Dollar Tree door prizes as a part of the demonstration of some of the tools.  When we finished up, they walked out with smiles.

Fifteen minutes later, we did a second session, and much the same pattern repeated.  I wanted to collapse when it was all over, but we made it through.

While I didn't volunteer to do the PD Friday, I still tried to do something I would want to attend.  My biggest fear was that the other teachers would think Jayne and I were saying, "Oh my GOD.  We are SO FANCY.  Be like us."  Nothing could have been further from the truth.  She and I just put together things we'd found to be helpful and told them how we'd used them.

I don't know if they will ever use anything Jayne and I put together for them, but I hope at least they weren't still angry at having to come.  I am the Queen of Not Liking Meetings.  I understand.  Too often, our PD winds up being an overpaid and condescending consultant or someone who has a PowerPoint and reads every line.  Teachers have so little time and so much that needs to be done that I think we are grudging of every second.  We don't mind coming to something that helps us do better for our students, but when a presentation is clearly a way for someone to practice the time-honored art of Covering One's Backside or Padding One's Bank Account, we don't tend to respond well.

What happened Friday is what I believe good PD should look like:  peers sharing.  We could all share things that have been tested out with our kids on our campus.  We could all point out apps that had been run with our technology filters in place and our WiFi connection providing the hookup.  We could avoid the problems that come with being the first person to do something.  Together, we could be stronger.

It would be nice to think Friday was a first step in this process.  I suppose only time will tell.