Thursday, December 17, 2009
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
I have avoided blog posts composed of lists, as I think that is sort of a crutch, but this thought seized my mind a few days ago and won't let go. It probably relates to my other blog, 24 Times Per Second, which I maintain as a model for my Film Studies class. But these are some of the people who may have put my feet on the path they walk today, even though many of them are fictitious.
The topic: Most inspirational movie teachers (presented in no particular order)
1. Mark Thackeray - To Sir With Love (1967) This may be the first film I actually paid money to see a second time. (In those pre-video days that meant going to the movie theater twice.) One of the most riveting things about the character and the movie is that Thackeray realizes early on that he is doing everything wrong. I mean, everything. All his assumptions about the students, all his goals, everything is wrong. (Personally, I like that he is not a trained teacher, nor does this seem to be a career goal, but something that is getting him through a stretch in life.) What he arrives at by instinct, trial and error is what today is called authentic-based learning. Real-life skills and real-life goals. And the film re-defined "learning" for a generation--instead of absorbing mounds of data, learning to observe and process the world--meaning the people--around us. Leadership, empathy, responsibility, engagement, humility and self-worth are his subjects.
2. Dewey Finn in School of Rock (2003). First off, we notice his passion for his subject--once he discovers what that subject is. Then, he devises an extremely authentic task: form a rock band and play publicly and--competetively. As with any well-designed authentic learning, there are many ancillary benefits, learning to work cooperatively, acknowledging and celebrating differences, problem-solving, etc., etc. The other chief characteristic of Dewey is his resilience and refusal to allow setbacks to become defeats, an indispensable lesson for our students. (For contrast, see the real-life model for Dewey in the documentary Rock School. That deranged screaming maniac should not be allowed anywhere near children.)
3. Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver (1988). Escalante might call himself persistent--others might use the word "stubborn." Edward James Olmos does stubborn really well, as fans of Battlestar Galactica will tell you. Again, an authentic task is posed, that is, passing the AP Calculus Test, which though in itself inauthentic, will open the doors to college for these disadvantaged youth. Besides his persistence, Escalante tailors his teaching methods to his students' priorities, interests and learning styles. If it makes a difference, Escalante is a real person. And from the evidence in this film, he is a bad-a**.
4. Albert Cullum in A Touch of Greatness (2003). Cullum is the man who, in the early 1960's, taught 5th-graders to debate as to whether Shakespeare or Sophocles was the greater tragedian. Cullum is another one of those people who found himself teaching and made it part of the creative continuum of his life. This film is a documentary, and thank goodness it is, because no one would believe his accomplishments if you could not see them. His greatest lesson to his students was not to follow the path trod by everyone else, to find your own way.
5. Erin Gruwell in Freedom Writers (2007). What is remarkable about Gruwell's work is that she was not about bringing something new to the students, but teaching them to use what they already have and know to transform their own lives. This is the business of a writer; whatever their apparent subject matter, their actual subject is the self. The film, as a narrative film must do, shapes its subject matter in dramatic fashion, but nothing essential was altered.
6. Anne Sullivan in The Miracle Worker (1962). Let us say first that, while the Internet Movie Database lists three film adaptations of the William Gibson play, there is truly only one, the original with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. I saw this film in its initial release--one of my earliest movie memories, and the breakfast table battle sequence is seared in my memory. (I am privileged to teach the play in my freshman English classes.) Anne brings two gifts to her student: vision--the vision to see that there is a person inside that thrashing, destructive shell; and, again, stubborness--the stubborness (more politely, patience) to cultivate that prisoner and put her in touch with the rest of the world.
7. Rafe Esquith in The Hobart Shakespeareans (2005). Here is another nut who thinks 5th graders are ready for Shakespeare. If you don't believe it, you can see them performing Hamlet in this film. And the kids in question are from neighborhoods adjacent to those tough places in Los Angeles the Freedom Writers come from.
9. Richard Feynman in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. One of the most significant physicists of the 20th century, Feynman had a reputation as "The Great Explainer." He believed that if a principle could not be explained in a freshman-level survey course, the principle was not fully understood. (He and Bernstein could have been buddies--especially since they were both Jewish New Yorkers!) Also Feynman brought an insatiable curiosity to everything. This is a guy who would take constant readings to find out at what temperature Jello set, or whether he would count to himself faster if his heart beat faster. Every man, woman and child, whether a science buff or not, should read Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman. By law.
So what are the qualities we value in our movie teachers? Patience, persistence, curiosity, empathy, being student-oriented and instinctively setting real-world [i.e., authentic] tasks for students to accomplish.
Perhaps in a later post, we'll look at Bad Movie Teachers...
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
One Christmas many years back, my wife and I made a rookie mistake with our then-two-year-old son. We went a little crazy with the gifts and literally overwhelmed the poor toddler. After tearing open six or seven presents and trying to play with each, only to be confronted with another from one of his pushy parents, he shut down. He just refused to open another present and commenced, very sensibly, to play with what he already had. Luckily, his birthday is in February, and we were able to put some things away and give them to him six weeks later.
I feel like an overwhelmed toddler myself this morning as I think back to seeing Ragtime on Broadway last night. [This page is not meant to be a blog about theater-going, but I can't help but think that seeing this production will have a palpable effect on my life as a teacher, and I need to write about it, so here we are.] To begin, I was overwhelmed by the sheer physical sensation of a 28-piece orchestra, including 11 string players and their marvelous rich sounds shooting straight up at us in the mezzanine (yes, I am a poor schoolteacher) from the relatively deep pit of the Neil Simon Theater. We are so conditioned to machines generating ersatz sounds, even in live performance situations that the actual physical buzz of horsehair against string, lip against mouthpiece was exciting. Add to that excitement the richness, variety and color of William David Brohn's orchestrations, which sound brassy and flattened on the cast recording of the original production from 11 years ago. (I must face it, I am a sucker for a harp.)
Then there was the richness of the singing. Judging by the recording only (I missed the original production), the present cast outsings the original in every role, save only Sarah, originally played by Audra McDonald. (Theoretically, there could be an actress with a richer, more expressive and moving voice than Audra McDonald, but I doubt it.) And Stephanie Umoh, the current Sarah sings the part very well indeed and is stunning--I mean stunning--to look at. Christiane Noll was a revelation--the suppleness, flexibility and warmth of her voice made her the perfect Mother. Where Stokes as Coalhouse Walker in the original production was charm turned to coiled danger, Quentin Earl Darrington is a large man with a large soul as if he was marked to be part of history from the start. (It doesn't hurt that his miming of piano playing is excellent.) But every part--down to Henry Ford and the soprano soloist in the funeral sequence, who blended gospel soul with serious opera chops--was sung to perfection.
Nonetheless, lots of shows open on Broadway with wonderful music and wonderful performances and mean nothing. This show will make you proud of America, even if you're not American. Proud of our ideals, regret for when we fall short of them, but with everlasting hope that we will continue to strive for them. The show has special meaning for me in the age of Barack Obama, who redeemed the promise so long broken. This production quickly aligns its population into three groups: the WASPS who run things (for now), the blacks who serve and/or entertain them, and the arriving immigrants who are ready to seize the dream of America. Marcia Milgrim Dodge's crystal clear direction gets to the point right away and stays with it. To my mind, not only does she clarify the play, she clarified Doctorow's novel for me as well! The setting transforms effortlessly from ship decks to factory floors to Atlantic City boardwalks and the costumes are witty and informative.
Where Frank Galati's original production seems to have been a pageant or a parade (perhaps the result of years of directing opera), Dodge's feels like a tapestry--one of those rich double-textured tapestries which is beautiful at first glance, but has a dark and complex tale woven under the bright top layers.
I have saved the most important comment for last--praise for the incomparable work of composer and lyricist Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. Ahrens work as lyricist is always specific, clear, scans perfectly (this has become rare) and is always in character. Stephen Flaherty is a musical chameleon--none of his scores resembles another. For Ragtime, Flaherty has absorbed the gay melancholy in such Joplin tunes as "Solace" and put it in the service of his story. And he is a good musical historian in that he does not limit his 1906 palette to ragtime, but includes marches, waltzes, vaudeville schottisches, etc. The pitter-patter melody of the verse to Evelyn Nesbit's vaudeville song sounds absolutely dead-on to me, having grown up playing from my grandmother's songbooks of that era.
Simply put, everyone who cares about the heritage of the Classical musical should and must see the current production of Ragtime. I wept with joy, and I wish you the same.
Saturday, November 28, 2009
Finally, we performed Much Ado About Nothing on November 19-22, 2009, and I believe all involved were satisfied that they had done well. I know I was. You never finish a play, you just stop working on it, but the place we stopped was a pretty good one.
I was particularly impressed with the work of 6 or so principal actors who made the language natural, fluent and expressive. I can claim little credit for their accomplishments--they did it themselves. I contributed perhaps some nagging.
Happily, the rock-solid anchors of the play were the four actors playing the two romantic couples, Hero and Claudio and Beatrice and Benedick. Melissa Milne, Mark Diaz, Kelly Novak and Leonard Perez all delivered the language in an entirely natural, clear, yet natural fashion. Additional fine work was done by Disha Dass and junior Andrew Bridge. Andrew really showed he could step up to the complex and varied role of Don Pedro, who is one of those Shakespearean-duke types who mixes nobility with a little wicked humor and a taste for manipulation, something like the duke in TWELFTH NIGHT.
You learn so much about a play by working with it in depth. MUCH ADO is riddled with red herrings. First, there is some fuss over whether the prince has wooed Hero for himself or as Claudio's advocate. Then there is much hoo-hah about whether or not Benedick will actually kill Claudio. Neither of those plots ever actually culminates. Shakespeare simply tosses them aside on the way to something else. Given the neither-this-nor-that status of these plot lines, the contemporary director must decide to minimize or even cut these strands; we tried to make the first one clearer than it is in Shakespeare's original and let Beatrice's aunt mis-overhear things rather than some unspecified servant. For the second red herring, we devised a little stage business for Benedick before a sudden culmination arrives which dismisses several previous scenes.
I was very happy with some aspects of the way in which I prepared the text. First, I got the show down to two hours including intermission, which is right for this kind of light show. I would happily defend all of my cuts, except that I cut a bit more heavily into Leonato's role than I would have liked, but the actor was not comfortable with a lot of the long runs that Leonato has, and it was better that he deliver his material clearly than I preserve all the long speeches. I used the Branagh film to guide many of the cuts, but Branagh virtually discarded the second gulling scene, which is the only chance that Hero gets to really show off her chops and have fun on stage, so we had to keep it. And Melissa did a great job with it, making it at least the equal of the more famous "gulling" of Benedick that precedes it. I followed Branagh's lead in changing some of the partners in the dance sequence, having Margaret dance with Borachio (rather than Balthasar as in Shakespeare) which makes their hooking up later more logical. I could not have Antonio dance with Margaret, as I had made Antonio into Antonia (a change which yielded many benefits), so Claudio is embarrassedly dancing with the household staff, which was charming.
About the newly altered character of Antonia--there is a confrontation scene between Leonato and Antonio on one side and Don Pedro and Claudio on the other which is easily overlooked. My actors really found the juice in the scene and gave it good measure. And by making Antonia a woman, the speech ticking off the antics of foolish young men had much more bite, given a bit of the "battle of the sexes" aspect--nicely mirroring the Beatrice-Benedick plot.
Another think I was proud of with my preparation of the text was dividing the prose (which makes up 2/3 to 3/4 of the text) into separate lines so that the actors could see the phrases and ideas separated the way they needed to be when spoken--as contrasted with looking at a large block of unbroken type, which so often invites young actors to race along.
My Beatrice, Kelly Novak, was always as good as I expected her to be, although she was capable of short-shrifting the music of the words a bit. My Benedick, Leonard Perez made my hair grey for a long time as he took a long time to absorb all the words in his role, and spent most of the rehearsals until the final week with the book jammed into his face, completely obscuring his face, so that I had little idea of what was going on up there. Then, suddenly, he put the book down and completely blossomed, making every work he spoke utterly crystal clear, or as clear as could be hoped for an audience not experienced with Shakespeare.
As I told the cast, work on Shakespeare is frontloaded. Take the time at the beginning to learn your lines--learn them absolutely by rote without worrying about understanding their internal logic. Then keep saying them over and over in rehearsal and their truth, beauty and logic will reveal themselves to you. No research into the character's history or background is necessary. All the actor needs to know about how to play the part is embedded in the text, if the actor will take the trouble to learn the text and learn how to pronounce it properly.
In retrospect, I was a little too pure in one way--I should have put a plot synopsis in the program. Shakespeare races through a number of important points. In the script, the assignation between Margaret and Borachio, in which she is mistaken for Hero and all the trouble starts takes place offstage. Again, I followed Branagh's lead and put the scene on stage, which took a bit more jiggering and arranging, given the limitations of the living stage, compared with film. And the Friar's plot in which the household will give out that Hero is dead in order to elicit a response from the prince and the count is rather quickly and simply laid out as if Shakespeare knew his audience already knew this plot from some other source material. It is easily missed, and sometimes was in our production. I would take more care to get that explanation clarified.
But though I will cut text, I will not change it. I have a video of NY Shakespeare Festival of MUCH ADO adapted from a popular production which went to Broadway. In the course of updating the action to early 20th-century America, actual words in the text were changed. That smacks of cheating. Change one word, why not change any others you find difficult. It's a slippery slope, and I believe I most eschew that path. If a word or phrase is truly hard for the audience to digest aurally, better to cut it utterly than to rewrite it for convenience. Nor will I stage a line so that it means the opposite of Shakespeare's plain meaning. He doesn't need that kind of smart-a** directorial "help" in my opinion.
A word about our marvelous ensemble. Most professional productions cannot afford a large household for Leonato or a sidekicks for the prince, but we had that luxury, and those actors made a tremendous contribution to the play, providing a community and a context for the sometimes outrageous actions of some of the principals. I know most people in non-speaking roles feel unappreciated, but they were absolutely indispensable to our concept of the story.
Then there was what my producer, John Coviello, referred to as our "nuclear weapon," Mary Costa as Dogberry. Mary can play a loopy character in such a fabulously loopy way as to make an audience completely helpless. Every actor playing a Shakespearean clown must make the part absolutely their own--Shakespeare only provides a bare skeletal outline for theatrical hijinks. He expected his actors to fill in the outline with their own business and persona. This Mary did as if to the manner born. Brava! The audience was completely helpless in her hands.
A great experience for me, one I hope to repeat, although I am afraid I cannot do it more than once every three or four years, given all the other experiences I wish to provide for my students, including acting in original plays I hope to write. But I cannot imagine accomplishing any greater professional development this year than what I did by directing Shakespeare.
Thursday, November 19, 2009
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Last week, students from Fox Hill Primary School in Sheffield, Yorkshire, England returned from a school holiday to find police tape all around, blood on the floor, furniture in disarray and a teacher with a bandaged head. Happily, no crime took place; the apparent crime scene was part of what was intended as a practical, "authentic-style" problem-solving exercise to figure out "who broke into the school." Incidentally, the exercise continued for four more days.
The problem was that this was an elementary school and a good proportion of the kids were traumatized. Moreover, the community was not warned in advance and this article indicates that at least one autistic child cannot understand the explanations and is afraid to return to school completely.
An important part of growing up is learning to identify the line between pretend and reality. Perhaps school administrators at Fox Hill need to review that.
Sunday, November 8, 2009
Web 2.0 is definitely exciting for a teacher, if for no other reason that it is exciting to our students; one can't help suspect that somewhere in this welter of interactivity, there are powerful tools for learning lurking.
But first, back to my former life. Back in 1999, I was working at CNBC. I was at the center of the investor universe, hearing about all the latest business trends before anyone knew they were trends. In those days we were at the height of the Internet Bubble. Every day new companies were making buckets of money by launching new IPOs based on business plans glittering with buzzwords about this new business frontier. Everyone was convinced that because this was new and exciting, it had to be the opportunity to make money.
And, of course, a year later we saw the beginning of the end. IPOs began to sputter out. Start-ups ran through their initial capitalization without ever producing a product. Investor money dried up and by early 2001 it was virtually all over.
But the internet is still here, everyone recognizes its value and some people have made money in it. But it took time. And it took relentless experimentation and a tolerance for error, and the opportunity to go down blind alleys, double back and try again. No one's giving up, but we all realize that exciting doesn't mean obvious or easy.
To me, at the moment, Twitter feels like Internet 1999. Wikis, blogs, Skype, Ning, all of these have clear applications in the classroom, and it will just take some time to develop curriculum-specific adaptations. But honestly, whereas I see that Twitter may be useful for administrators and educational leaders to communicate with each other across distances, I do not see it as a powerful communicative or collaborative medium in the language arts. I may just be a geezer lacking insight. But the economic-technological barriers (for example, we cannot guarantee all of our students have ready access) and the 140-character limit diminishes the immediate possibilities, IMHO (to employ a tired Web 1.0 idiom).
For all the postings I have seen about Twitter in education, I have yet to be directed to a complete, classroom ready lesson plan in high school language arts employing Twitter. I'm not saying it can't be done; it's just that I haven't seen it yet myself. Sorry :(
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
First of all, we have made staggering progress with the physical setting, thanks to Jim Africano and his fabulous squad of adult volunteers. The floor plan is completely laid out, and as I write this, nearly all of the base coats of paint are down, so we are approaching the finishing stages on the set--the highlighting and shadowing that will make the whole thing pop. Matt Kaprelian, scene artist extraordinaire will be paying a visit soon and we will be wrapping up that aspect of the production before long.
I can't say I've learned or taught much about Shakespeare, theater or comedy. The cast is struggling hard to learn the lines, and I think they seriously underestimated the technical difficulty of what they are undertaking. In memorizing Shakespeare, one cannot fall back on remembered patterns from everyday speech. You have to learn the music note for note. Not surprisingly, several of the trained musicians are doing the best in memorizing, although that is not true across the board--a trend more than a true correlation. My directorial fingers are itching to reach in and help them shape scenes and sharpen the story, but I really have to keep hands off until they get their own internal mechanical work done. We did have some good moments at our workshop rehearsal last Friday--I stood in for some people who were missing and could give the other actors a little fire in their scenes, and then they started to come to life. Interesting and surprising sometimes to see who has a real knack and talent for this type of acting...and one or two students who underestimate themselves and therefore do not apply the kind of effort they would if they really believed in themselves.
If I haven't said it before, Christine Batac has real talent, not just as a choreographer, but potentially as a director. She has a sense of movement (obviously), space and timing and easily makes adjustments as needed and as requested. I wish we had got her involved sooner, but I believe she is a junior and could potentially develop as a major theater talent in an area other than pure performing--although she does want to audition for the spring musical--and everybody should have that experience who wants it!
Here we are, hard at work. Wish I had a picture of the finished set and the beautiful colors Lisette Morel has selected for it. Can't wait to see what the art classes come up with for masks for our masquerade ball!
Oh, and I forget the inestimable Mr. Peter Torpie, who not only provides invaluable logistical support in managing our mobs of students and helping herd them where they need to be, but is also a pretty impressive Shakespeare scholar himself! These science teachers are full of dark secrets!
Friday, October 30, 2009
While accountability in education may be an important goal, it’s critical to realize how difficult that might be to pin down. The lesson of my career should be that trusting massive corporations that answer to a bottom line to make decisions about American schools is a whole lot different than trusting those men and women who stand every day at the front of the classroom.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
I see JFK was aware of the same problem. Just one other thing he and I have in common besides nice hair and beautiful, chic wives. (Click on the image to read the letter.)
This is from an interesting site called Letters of Note.
Thursday, October 22, 2009
There are a number of playwriting competitions that have special significance for and connection to our students at New Milford High School (NJ):
Thespian Playworks is an activity of the Educational Theater Association, parent of the International Thespian Society, the theater honor society of which teacher our John Coviello has formed a chapter here at NMHS. Their competition is for plays 30 minutes or less. Each of the four plays accepted will be developed in a professional atmosphere with a director, dramaturg and full production. The deadline is February 1, 2010. You can read about the competition and the program here.
The New Jersey Young Playwrights Festival is an offshot of the Playwrights Theater. This competition is looking for plays up to 20 minutes in length, and (unlike Thespian Playworks) the plays may be written in collaboration. Semi-finalists receive a staged reading by professional actors in a festival in May at Kean University. The deadline is January 8, 2010, and you can read about this competition here.Finally, we have our own intramural NMHS competition. Plays should be between 10 and 20 minutes in length, and all semi-finalists get semi-staged productions here in May. There are VISA gift card prizes. The deadline will be April 1, 2010 and the rules will be published shortly.
Naturally, any work can be entered in any or all of these competitions. I want to encourage my fellow teachers to incorporate this in their lessons, in order to demonstrate that writing can be more than a exercise to be judged by a teacher.
Monday, October 19, 2009
Much of our time has still been spent getting the play up on its feet. There is a limit to the effectiveness of table work for young actors, and we need to get the play into our bodies. That also means we have to get the books out of our hands. So the really important work still lies ahead of us.
That said, we're doing OK and in some areas, very well indeed. I was thrilled with the swift and effective work of Christine Batac, who was scouted by Mr. Coviello to stage our tango number. In less than an hour she had our eight couples nicely tangoing, and in another hour she had staged three of the four featured couples in their dancing and dialogue sequences. Every full-time professional teacher should be as efficient and effective as Christine was. And I was proud of the cast's immediate infectious application to the task. Well done, all! This dance sequence will no doubt be, as planned, a highlight of the show.
My lead couple, Kelly Novak as Beatrice and Leonard Perez as Benedick had a great detailed scene work session with me as we drilled down deep on the "Kill Claudio" scene. We agreed that we would get this scene in performance condition as soon as possible to demonstrate to the rest of the company what the play should feel like. They are doing a great job of finding the black humor in this scene which is usually played for tears.
And a large group of principals had an excellent Shakespeare workshop session with me on Friday in which we worked on sustaining our strength throughout the long lines, emphasizing the final lines, and making the action words visible through the use of our bodies. We had fun and played a lot, but I believe we understood the point and I look forward to the work we did bearing fruit in the rehearsals to come.
Sunday, October 18, 2009
And beside, there is a romantic part of me that imagines that a great teacher needs nothing but a room and students. Not even a book, a piece of chalk--just those selves gathered together.
This video featuring the conductor Benjamin Zander of the Boston Philharmonic is about learning to love classical music. And Zander is an exciting teacher himself, which would make it worth your 20 minutes in any event.
The money line comes 14 minutes in when he says,
"The conductor of an orchestra doesn’t make a sound. He depends for his power on his ability to make other people powerful. My job was to awaken possibility in other people. If their eyes are shining, you know you’re doing it. If they’re not shining you get to ask this question: 'Who am I being that my children’s eyes are not shining?' ”As an English teacher, I don't dispense information. I teach process. I try and impart good ways to do something the student already (sort of) knows how to do--but in order for that to be effective, I must create passion. I need to remember that Monday morning when I go back to my classroom, whether it's filled with gadgets or a bare room. I need to be in the passion business.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
One of the comforts of teaching such a disturbing piece of literature as Arthur Miller's The Crucible is that the passions which inspired it, specifically the anti-Communist crusade of the 1950's are safely dead and embalmed in history books.
Except, of course, that they're not. This week we read that Republican Representatives, on the basis of a book called Muslim Mafia, co-written by an alleged counterterrorism expert named Dave Gaubatz, are calling for an investigation as to whether the Council on American-Islamic Relations has placed spies as interns into key legislative offices in order to influence the creation of American law, especially with regard to the revision of the Patriot Act. The net social effect is to equate Islam with terrorism.
According to website A Tiny Revolution, "[co-author] Gaubatz was last seen explaining how he'd discovered "biological and chemical weapons, material for a nuclear programme and UN-proscribed missiles" in gigantic underground bunkers in Iraq."
At the moment, only right-wing and left-wing blogs are covering this story, and there does not seem to be any independent disinterested journalism going on. It is impossible to evaluate the reliability of this information, other than on the past record of the parties involved. Nonetheless, at this point it feels like guilt by association. Remember those first 24 hours after the Oklahoma City bombing when "everybody" was "sure" it was the work of Islamic terrorists?
What "everybody" knows often is not worth anybody's time.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Confession time: I once had a political cause. I campaigned actively for the 19-year-old vote. If that sounds funny, it's because our pathetic attempt in 1970 (when I was 14) to get a law passed in New Jersey lowering the voting age to 19 were utterly eclipsed by the 26th Amendment, which passed in 1971, lowering the voting age to 18.
Nonetheless I believe our efforts contributed to an overall political atmosphere which made passage of the 26th Amendment possible. And, I freely admit, it was fun going to meetings and making signs and pamphlets and stuff.
Now the scientists have confirmed my impression. Protesting makes you happy! It's good for you to go out and do something about the causes you feel passionately about. Doesn't matter what those causes are--left, right, center or any other variation. Political activism leads to greater satisfaction in life.
So it behooves us to urge our students not only to take a stand, but--in a safe, peaceful, responsible way--take steps to change the world as they see fit. After all, having more happy young people will make the world better all by itself!
Sunday, October 11, 2009
I just completed a long but very satisfying stint as music director of a production of the murder mystery musical comedy Curtains with the Bergen County Players in Oradell. That saga really deserves its own post, which perhaps I will get to now that I have a little more time.
The "book" of Curtains (the book of a musical is the story, characters, dialogue, critical business--everything that is not a song or a dance) was written by Rupert Holmes, who first entered show business as a songwriter, arranger and producer, most notably for a number of projects with Barbra Streisand and writer of the mega-hit from 30 years ago, "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)". Later he wrote book, music and lyrics The Mystery of Edwin Drood for the Public Theater and Broadway (winning Tonys in all those categories) and since that time has become primarily a mystery writer, both for the theater and in novels.
Mr. Holmes, who grew up in Nanuet and lived in Tenafly for a long time has had a relationship with the BC Players for over 15 years, and even wrote a thriller for them. For our production of Curtains, he made some adjustments and adaptations for the theater's unusual configuration and generally advised and assisted our director, Steve Bell.
On Saturday, October 10, Mr. Holmes came to see a matinee performance and stayed afterward for a very generous Q&A session. Then he stayed even longer for pictures and autographs. He was effusive and attentive to everyone, and lavish with his praise for our production.
I have been a fan of Holmes since I was introduced to his first album (in those days they were on LP records), Widescreen, which was designed to be an audio analog to the filmgoing experience. There even was a Maltese Falcon-style radio play at the end of the record. This is one of those albums you carry in your head for a lifetime and I have to admit that I was thrilled to have him autograph the CD booklet from my current copy.
Mr. Holmes and I began a dialogue which may have positive ramifications for New Milford High, but it is too early and tentative to say anything more. Let me just say that I have always been a fan of writers--I find them to be more genuinely interested in other people than most people in the entertainment business--and I confess a little hero worship, since I aspire to be thought of that way myself. It is so gratifying when you meet someone like Mr. Holmes, whose work you admire and who comes up to your expectations of decency and thoughtfulness. A genuine pleasure.
Friday morning I read in more than one news-oriented blog that some of the Big Thinkers in our society are becoming convinced that four-year college is not right for absolutely everybody and that we are squandering resources and wasting time and money by shoving all our kids into that slot. This is not to say that college is "too good" for the kids who are better served learning a craft they can put into a practice. It's just that you don't use a fork to eat soup and you don't use your iPhone to bang in nails.
We all want students to problem-solvers, processors of information, not just recipients. And we want them to learn to work in groups to accomplish defined goals. For some students this begins as an intellectual pursuit, attached to the history of prior learners. Those students are at home with reading books and writing papers, taking tests and all the procedures that are schools have been set up to do traditionally.
Other people think with their hands. This is not a sign of a lesser intellect. Two generations ago, mine was a family of mechanics and masons. These are not unintelligent people. My own son, who is the smartest person I ever expect to know tends to do a certain amount of thinking with his hands. By this I mean that certain problems call for a tactile solution. I experience this to a certain extent myself in the process of staging a play, actually working out how the actors will stand and move. When I began directing, I tried to plan this in advance but found that either my plans were clumsy and impractical or that I became bored with the process because it was so theoretical. Papers and books are not the tools for every job in the world. And there are lots of good careers (not just jobs) available to people without college degrees.
In a serendipitous coincidence I had been commanded by my principal to represent our high school theater arts program (which at the moment is entirely extra-curricular) at a presentation by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). This covers everyone who works backstage--not just the guys who do the rigging and focus lights; it covers wardrobe, make-up and hair, scenery construction, the whole gamut. Traditionally, this has been one of the most difficult unions to enter--family connections were virtually a requirement. Now they are opening up 10 paid apprenticeships in 2010 (with presumably more to come in future years) to 18-year olds who show interest, energy and initiative, pass a simple test and make a good impression on the site visits and the interviews with the presidents of the Locals. A person who completes this program will be enter the union as a journeyman with a wide range of experience acquired during the apprenticeship, and earning $22-29/hour to start, depending on the venue. What's more IATSE will enroll pay for apprentices to take courses at Bergen Community College two nights per week, which courses could be counted toward A.A.S. or even A.S. degrees. This leaves the college option open for those who want to pursue that after they began working. As someone who went to law school at night while working, I can testify that you can get a great education that way, especially from your fellow students who are also working.
Perhaps it seems strange for a high school English teacher to be promoting this sort of thing. Aren't I supposed to be pushing kids onto the college, trying to get my kids into the best schools, jacking up our acceptance rate statistics, and all that. The answer is, I am in the education business. I want students who can think, and I try and give them the tools in terms of reading and writing to make that possible, and help them make contact with other minds. Education has lots of different routes, and it impoverishes us a society to insist that everyone take the same route, regardless of their abilities and aptitudes.
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
I am aware this is no innovation and that teachers all over the world are way ahead of me on this, but I attempting my first Wiki for class. In this case, it is my Film Studies class, which is on a collegiate track, being eligible for credit at St. Thomas Aquinas College. Students are expected to take initiative and work independently. Rolling assignments are to blog regularly on all films seen, in and out of class, and on the reading selections which I distribute periodically. My own model film blog is here.
So we have a precedent for regular resort to the Internet to complete assignments. Now the plan is to use this wiki to contribute to joint endeavors. We're starting simple. I've asked students to nominate a cinematographer they believe to be outstanding. This is a fairly sophisticated critical evaluation. It means the student has to become attentive to the specifics of the visuals of film. For most of us, narrative is everything, and the storytelling techniques pass by our conscious mind. In Film Studies we learn to apply a critical filter even as the film strives to work on our emotions; in short, we treat a film as we treat literature, both as entertainment and critical object.
Having identified a film with some self-evident visual style, the student is to identify the director of photography, look at that person's filmography and decide if that represents a significant body of work. The student then "makes their case" for the photographer in question, illustrating the argument if they wish. As I write this, one of my students has already made his contribution, but you may want to wait a week or two to check in and see what they've done.
Incidentally, Wikispaces offers free accounts for K-12 teachers. These accounts allow you to create a wiki which can only be viewed by a specific community of users and/or viewers. I wanted to make this more authentic, so the wiki can be viewed by the world at large, but only members can edit it.
Sunday, October 4, 2009
The Department of Critical Theory and Social Justice of Occidental College is offering a course in Stupidity this year. Finally, a college course I'm qualified to teach. The course description reads as follows:
Stupidity is neither ignorance nor organicity, but rather, a corollary of knowing and an element of normalcy, the double of intelligence rather than its opposite. It is an artifact of our nature as finite beings and one of the most powerful determinants of human destiny. Stupidity is always the name of the Other, and it is the sign of the feminine. This course in Critical Psychology follows the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Gilles Deleuze, and most recently, Avital Ronell, in a philosophical examination of those operations and technologies that we conduct in order to render ourselves uncomprehending. Stupidity, which has been evicted from the philosophical premises and dumbed down by psychometric psychology, has returned in the postmodern discourse against Nation, Self, and Truth and makes itself felt in political life ranging from the presidency to Beavis and Butthead. This course examines stupidity.
Actually, I'm not really qualified to run a course like this. It takes a very special level of stupidity to use a word like "organicity" or describe stupidity as a corollary of knowing; stupidity coupled with a profound desire to use language not to communicate but disguise one's own fat-headedness.
I like the part about examining stupidity in Presidents. Can we start with conducting ill-defined wars against ill-defined wars in Asian jungles and Middle Eastern deserts, please?
Friday, October 2, 2009
Clearly, most of the cast is still struggling with what they have to say. Not just learning to say it, but understanding just what the words they have to say mean. For my part, I can't understand why it's so difficult to get them to do something about that. Just as horses sense fear, audiences sense uncertainty, and you should never set foot on stage unless you can be completely confident at every moment.
It's also becoming apparent to me that we need to get our books out of our hands as soon as possible, because we will need the use of the entire body, hands, heads, everything in order to make the meaning clear at all times. And that is paramount--absolute clarity. Once the audience thinks they can't follow every single moment, their attention will start to wander, and soon they drift into a polite stupor, and the point of the exercise will be lost. We will be praised, but without genuine conviction and excitement. And polite approval without enthusiasm is death to a Shakespeare production.
Monday, September 28, 2009
William Safire, former Nixon speech writer and conservative political columnist for The New York Times has died. This is neither the time nor the place to discuss his politics, which, while essentially conservative, could be unpredictable at times, making him a more valuable columnist than the vast majority of drones working that field.
Our interest in him here is as a language maven. Together with the late Edwin Newman of NBC News, Safire thought wrote about the American language, mostly descriptively rather than proscriptively. (That is, he was more likely to make observations than rules.) Those observations could be found in his Times column "On Language" which ran from 1979 to 2009, many examples of which were collected in numerous book anthologies. Like my favorite writer on language, E.B. White, Safire valued crisp, clear, effective, efficient and unambiguous expression (unless the ambiguity was intentional).
To the extent Safire did have rules, they were expressed in a pedagogically memorable manner:
Remember to never split an infinitive. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors. Proofread carefully to see if you words out. Avoid clichés like the plague. And don’t overuse exclamation marks!!Safire is also remembered as a phrasemaker, mostly for Vice President Spiro Agnew, for whom he coined “nattering nabobs of negativism” and “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.” Also memorable, but not to be encouraged, especially since they furthered the Us. vs. Them agenda of the Nixon presidency, the residue of which stills lives with us and makes America so difficult to reconcile and to govern.
Interestingly, Safire himself did not seem to subscribe to that view of the world. He frequently befriended or was befriended by political opponents and had warm friendships with people from all sorts of backgrounds and political opinions. And after all, he was brought into the left-of-center New York Times specifically to be a different voice in that forum. It speaks well for the man and for the manner of civil discourse he represented (and which has been fraying lately) that he is so fondly remembered by so many.
A recent article in The New York Times brings to mind the matter I blogged about last week, the search for a way to teach children self-control. The public school system in Red Bank, NJ has developed a curriculum called Tools of the Mind which attempts to develop what they are calling "executive function." I'm no expert, but the skills involved seem to be sequence thoughts and actions, select the needed data and ignore the irrelevant and focus on the task and disregard distractions. Anyone who has spent time around American preschoolers has some idea how rare that skill is.
The article indicates there is no hard data on the results of this program yet, but personally I am grateful someone is making the effort, is really studying how the brain learns and turning away from the idea that the function of schooling is to prepare everyone to go to Harvard and become a doctor or a fund manager.
And the Times article has this little tidbit for a drama teacher like me, who believes that a healthy drama program is not a frill, but a far better exercise in workplace readiness than what goes on in our classrooms:
"[Lev] Vygotsky [Russian psychologist and early childhood development expert] maintained that at 4 or 5, a child’s ability to play creatively with other children was in fact a better gauge of her future academic success than any other indicator, including her vocabulary, her counting skills or her knowledge of the alphabet. Dramatic play, he said, was the training ground where children learned to regulate themselves, to conquer their own unruly minds. In the United States, we often associate play with freedom, but to Vygotsky, dramatic play was actually the arena where children’s actions were most tightly restricted. When a young boy is acting out the role of a daddy making breakfast, he is limited by all the rules of daddy-ness. Some of those limitations come from his playmates: if he starts acting like a baby (or a policeman or a dinosaur) in the middle of making breakfast, the other children will be sure to steer him back to the eggs and bacon. But even beyond that explicit peer pressure, Vygotsky would say, the child is guided by the basic principles of play. Make-believe isn’t as stimulating and satisfying — it simply isn’t as much fun — if you don’t stick to your role. And when children follow the rules of make-believe and push one another to follow those rules, he said, they develop important habits of self-control."And if you think our students in drama won't school one of their peers who is off-task and out of control, you've never been to one of our rehearsals!
This is from a recent run of the high-school themed comic strip "Funky Winkerbean." (You can click on each one to expand it and make it more readable.) A young new teacher is being questioned by parents about her selection of the play Wit which depicts a woman battling with brain cancer. I admire the strip for taking the subject on and dealing with it fairly well, but the writer of the strip has, in my opinion, missed the essential point. School drama is for students, not parents, not adminstration, not even faculty like me, who spend many hundreds of hours on a given project and is therefore tempted to select projects for his or her own gratification or personal development. The justification for the production of ANY play has to be the educational progress of the students.
This is not to say that one must always produce plays which are considered Art. There is a great deal to be learned doing a Neil Simon play (which at one time was considered the baseline of crass commercial theater). Every musical certainly teaches something about coordinating a large group effort which employs many different talents and skills toward a common goal set to a firm deadline. But personally, I was very proud of our choice last year to do Working, which is a show about how real people lead real lives. I know for a fact that our students learned a lot from that show--and a lot more than how much fun it is to paint stuff on Saturday and learn to sing in harmony.
Parents' role in all this (and I know this as a teacher and a parent) is to applaud the effort, no matter what. They are not there to be entertained. They are there to enjoy and appreciate the result of the long learning process involved in putting on a play or musical. You don't criticize the aesthetic value of your kid's matchstick replica of the George Washington Bridge. You say, "Good job! That was a lot of hard work. I'm proud of you." Same goes for a play. You want entertainment, get HBO.
Sunday, September 27, 2009
Another Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest has closed and the winners selected for 2009. What is the Bulwer-Lytton contest, you ask? Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, early 19th century novelist, is traditionally credited with the worst first sentence of a novel ever. (Sometimes he is called the worst novelist, but I doubt many people have perservered enough to finish one of his books.) That worst first sentence?
"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."The first clause is the famous one, but it is really the long rambling parade of explanatory clauses that are meant to clarify the author's intent, but which serve only to make the whole thing more impenetrable.
Since 1982, in a competition which began at San Jose State University, aspiring bad writers vied to create the worst first sentence for what is usually an imagined novel. (I don't know if anyone has ever deliberately set out to write an entire bad novel just to make a point.) Here is the winner for 2009 by David McKenzie, a 55 year-old Quality Systems consultant and writer from Federal Way, Washington:
Folks say that if you listen real close at the height of the full moon, when the wind is blowin' off Nantucket Sound from the nor' east and the dogs are howlin' for no earthly reason, you can hear the awful screams of the crew of the “Ellie May," a sturdy whaler Captained by John McTavish; for it was on just such a night when the rum was flowin' and, Davey Jones be damned, big John brought his men on deck for the first of several screaming contests.Personally, I believe the use of dialect is cheating. You can read more of this year's winners here. And before you scoff at what you may think to be a feckless endeavor, ask yourself, "Could I do as well-- or badly-- whichever applies?
Thursday, September 24, 2009
It shows some preschoolers placed in a room seated in front of a very tantalizing marshmallow. Each is promised that if he or she will wait until the adult returns, the child can have two marshmallows instead of just one, but that if the child eats the one marshmallow before the adult returns, that will be it, just one marshmallow. A lot of the fun is seeing the strategies these kids devise to keep themselves from focusing on HOW MUCH they want to EAT THE MARSHMALLOW. As greedy for treats as adults and young adults can be, it can be hard to remember the days when that is the ONLY THING ON YOUR MIND.
The video is directly inspired by what is informally referred to as "The Marshmallow Study" conducted by Dr. Walter Mischel at who first conducted a formal double blind experiment along these lines at Stanford University in the 1960s. What makes Mischel's work interesting is his inspiration to extend the study longitudinally, revisiting these same children over the course of their lives. As one would expect, the children who could delay gratification at age 4 had better school careers. On average, they scored 210 points higher on the SAT tests--11 or 12 years later! Naturally, they tended to enroll in post-secondary schools with higher academic standards.
But even more remarkably, they were happy, healthier, more satisfied, more spiritually and materially successful than their more impatient classmates. The ones who couldn't wait had shorter marriages on average, lower job satisfaction, poorer health and greater frustration in life.
You can hear excellent 15-minute radio report on this work, including an interview with Mischel at Radiolab from WNYC, New York public radio.
So perhaps the most important word you can ever say to a child is...Wait...
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Spent the day today in a workshop along with a number of my colleagues helping develop a program and its attendant website, both called Project ABLE. Able stands for Authentic-Based Learning Environment. Authentic Learning tasks are real-world tasks which call for a synthesis of materials and skills, where solutions are not spelled out for students, but have to be developed and discovered by them. It is not designed to teach a particular bunch of content, but requires the application of data and skills from a number of disciplines to solve a problem. It is "learning by doing"--almost a return to pre-modern apprenticeship, but without such a narrow skill focus. There's a decent description of the idea here.
The initiative is very timely here in New Jersey, where a new set of Core Curriculum Content Standards is emerging--some have been rewritten, some are in draft. All of them are reformatted away from hard and fast "stuff to learn" towards pushing instruction to the higher orders of thinking on Bloom's Taxonomy and employing Howard Gardner's ideas of multiple intelligences and multiple learning styles.
Project ABLE would like to get a lot of teachers, schools and districts working together and sharing ideas for strategies and plans. I just hope they are fast enough--development, especially of the website, has been rather protracted and there are still a number of bumpy spots, and many more opportunities for using technology for collaboration than they are addressing just now. But it is sort of fun to be the lab rats for this particular maze, even I do miss instructional time in the classroom.
I teach a lot of poetry, which I consider the powerful, efficient use of words, especially in comparison to prose. I love what these guys do to the ordinary prose of political discourse and reporting--there is automatic implication of satire from the mere act of setting the news to Auto-Tune. But their actual execution, the melodies, harmonies, repetitions, beats, are all terrific. I can't say I know what do with this educationally just yet, but I have to share it because I just find these funny. Check out all the videos (#5 is a particular favorite) at Barely Political.
Sunday, September 20, 2009
Noel Coward had this one right.
Saturday, September 19, 2009
Internet addiction is on the verge of being recognized as a real medical condition like other addictions. Medical or not, excessive focus on the internet, especially large-scale games like World of Warcraft has caused damage to a lot of lives. Recently, students are flunking out of college in their freshman year in record numbers because of their inability to balance the internet with the rest of their lives when they are released from the constant surveillance of their parents. There is even a rehab program, Restart, designed to treat the problem. What do you think? Is this real, or is it just overhype by paranoid adults? Post a comment below.
I got the expression "straws in the wind" from the radio artist and humorist, I grew up on, Jean Shepherd. You probably know him as author and narrator of A Christmas Story. But I listened to him on the radio between 10:15 and 11:00 from probably sometime in 6th grade through the end of high school, and occasionally after that when I could find his show. To understand the hypnotic fascination of his incredible aural weave of storytelling, social comment and silly music, you really have to sample some of that radio work. If you do, let me know what you think.
Friday, September 18, 2009
But there is no question that, no matter what level of preparation, we are still leaping into the unknown on Monday. I will be glad to deal with the familiar bits, finishing the design of the set, working on costume ideas with Jess Milne and Sarah Torpie (students taking responsibility unasked--completely mind-blowing). My cast is going to have to be ready to do some homework. I expect to spend an unusual amount of time for me sitting at tables working on the script before we get on our feet. And when we are on our feet and starting to work off-book, we will need a full-time script supervisor to make sure the script is being adhered to--to the letter.
We know we need a lot of elbow grease to do this one well. It is paramount that every one in the cast understand EVERY word they are saying; and then we must make EVERY one of those words as clear to the audience as possible. But none of this hard work will guarantee magic. And that is the promise of every play, but especially every Shakespeare play--that those words will light up a glow and send some magic sparks out into the house. Let's hope. Prepare and hope.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Once you get your page set up, you will select a prompt from either the Imagination Prompt Generator or Writer's Digest or this place. Or you can make one up yourself. Maybe you have a subject you are expert on--video games or guitars or vampire novels, or whatever floats your boat. Or you can write about website(s) you like--but be sure to include a link for that page where you discuss it.
You must be absolutely certain that I have the name and the URL for your blog page before the end of class today.
Thursday, April 30, 2009
Dozens of famous movie scripts are posted at Drew's Script-O-Rama.
Monty Python scripts are found here. South Park scripts are here. Simpsons scripts are here.
Or you could work with the text of Julius Caesar or Hamlet.
BE SURE THAT YOUR FINAL SCRIPT IS SCHOOL-APPROPRIATE, before you post it to your blog.
Be sure and use all the tools, including gestures, expressions and camera angles. Note: In order for Xtranormal to save your project, you need to open an account by clicking, "Sign In."
Here are instructions on how to embed a video in a blog.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
Thursday, March 26, 2009
But sometimes you really need to be goofy. In 10 years of surfing, I've rarely found anything quite so goofy as The Institute of Official Cheer. It features the kind of industrial, corporate art (using the word "art" in the largest sense) that I grew up with, especially my pre-adolescent years. It condescends a bit to the past, but what's history for, if you can't make fun of old stuff?
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Our topic is: "How Old Is Hamlet?" The pages you should use to research this are found here:
1. "How Many Years Has Hamlet The Dane?"
2. Footnotes on Hamlet's Age
3. Hamlet's Age - A Puzzle
4. Excerpt from On Hamlet
Use these numbers to identify the sources as you pull facts off them. One fact per card. Then practice re-sorting and shuffling your cards.
Here is how your note cards might look (click on them to expand the picture):
Thursday, March 12, 2009
[I have no idea why this post is in several different font sizes. I have spent a half-hour trying to fix it, and I have to move on...]
The goal today is to spend the entire period writing, but not necessarily about the same thing. You can take breaks by adding pictures or gadgets or otherwise decorating or re-decorating your blog. Make sure that I have the URL of your blog and that I am following it. You may want to link to your friends’ blogs this period, and you can spend some time reading their blogs and leaving comments.
Following are some suggestions to write. At least some of your entries must be about English class matters—about reading and/or writing.
1. If you don’t have an entry on this blog for any of my suggestions for your Shakespeare pre-write, select one of those and write about it. Here's the link for freshman classes. Here's the link for seniors. Or go to my homepage.
2. What is your procedure for reading Shakespeare? Is it difficult or simple to understand at first pass? What do you do about words you don’t understand? What if you think you understand the words but the whole phrase doesn’t make sense? Even without understanding all of their words, do the characters and their actions make sense? What about the verse structure—how does that affect your reading experience—or does it at all? How difficult is it to see through the archaic language and the verse and get a sense of the characters? Do they feel like living people? Why or why not?
3. Write about your independent reading. Concentrate more on the experience than the book. Where and when do you read? Are you having a good time with it or has it become a chore? Is it a “good” book, and what do you mean by that? What makes a book a “good” book? What are some of your personal “Top Ten” books and why?
4. Write about anything that's happened to you of interest in the last two weeks, something that's made you think, amused you, anything that you think someone else might want to read.
5. What have you read on the internet, news or anything else that you want to bring to other people's attention? Make a link to that item and then write your comment. For instance, you could talk about how proud you are of the NMHS Women's Basketball team making it to the Group One finals, and playing with such spirit. It doesn't have to be news. It can be anything that interests you.
6. You can also link to a favorite site and comment on it.
7. You could embed a picture, like I've done at the top of this post, and comment on it.
8. If you can't think of anything to write about, try this. If you don't like the suggestion you see, click "Next Prompt" until you find one you like.
9. Have fun and make this your own!