"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Taking down the scaffolding

Since I began teaching about a decade ago, I've heard about scaffolding.  I was congratulated early on, before I had even begun Alternate Route courses for my instinctual scaffolding.

For those not acquainted with the jargon, and to grotesquely simplify it, scaffolding is supporting student learning by posing a problem, then guiding and coaching the student through the task, often relying on the students' prior knowledge.

The idea behind the metaphor is that one erects scaffolding to provide support to the workers who are constructing a building, and eventually the job is completed and the scaffolding comes down.  Thus, eventually the student achieves mastery and is able to perform problem-solving independently.

But I don't like the metaphor anymore and I think it leads down some cul-de-sacs.  Because I worked in Manhattan for 20 years and there's one thing a Manhattanite knows -- Scaffolding Never Comes Down.  That piece of sidewalk will never see the sun again.  Those contractors will figure out a way to keep the job going and going and going.  And your students will figure out ways to keep you from dismantling your scaffolding and maintain their dependence on you.

Second, scaffolding is not generally used in construction.  It's for renovation.  New buildings use cranes and elevators, not scaffolds.  Hopefully we are not renovating knowledge, we are building it afresh.

And third, we really aren't building knowledge.  Most of the time, we are exploring knowledge that already exists.  True, the student hasn't seen it before, but it is already there.  We are not creating anything.

We are laying down a path through this forest of knowledge.  We are mapping it out.  We are exploring.  Even when there are skills involved, those skills are not ends in themselves, but means toward acquiring knowledge.  To take my own discipline, one doesn't learn to write literary analysis in order to write literary analysis.  That is not a very valuable product.  It exists almost exclusively within the tight borders of academia.  One writes analysis in order to explain TO YOURSELF what you just read.  You may also be demonstrating your mastery to your instructor, but that is merely a by-product.  The chief end is to set out the metes and bounds of one's own understanding of the reading. 

We are not a construction crew -- we are explorers, hoping that the young explorers we train will go deeper into the woods and come back and tell us of the treasures they found there.  It is pure arrogance to think we are making something from nothing.  In fact, unless our students are creating genuinely new literature, conducting new research, fabricating new inventions, they are not building, they are mapping the terrain.  We take them through the part of the forest we know, then we let them go.  Some move beyond us, others wander back to home base.

So from now on, although I will use the jargon as required by professional courtesy, in my mind I will know that I am not a foreman, but a surveyor, training others mostly to be surveyors and a few special ones to go beyond our maps, out into the darkness, out toward the edges, out where there be dragons.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Annual reflection and setting new goals

I have never done this in public, but I think it's worth doing if only to publicly commit myself to some goals and raise my own level of accountability.  Now, as we approach the dawn of a new school year, it's time to lay out specific plans for improvement in my courses and my classroom.

Management Issues

Lateness - With only a 40-minute period, too much time is being lost to lateness.  Moreover, the problem got so bad late in the year with one course that it was hard to determine, even ten minutes after the bell, whether I had enough students to proceed with my plan or to shift course.  I would shift, and then the stragglers would show up.

One problem is that detention does not work.  It palpably does not work, because at the end of the year we still had dozens of students assigned to detention every day.  This is as effective as locking up drug addicts has been in fighting addiction in our country.  Yet we persist (in both cases).

I've spent some time this week reading everything I can find on the subject and it is all the same and it is all unhelpful, because the advice addresses individual aberrant cases of lateness, and a lot of attention is given to tracking and record-keeping.  I am fundamentally opposed to punishing myself for a student's misbehavior.  (That is one reason I don't have my own detention.  Another is that I am too involved in co-curricular activities to be able to drop what I'm doing and see a student after school.)

Phone calls home are school policy and I will, of course, comply.  But I don't believe in them, partly because we have so few reliable ways to communicate with our parents in a timely manner (will have to work on THAT this year) and because I teach seniors.  Parental disapproval and sanctions may be effective, but they are a poor preparation for the phase of life my students are about to begin.  They need to have their own discipline and their own habits in place, unless their parents are going to run their whole lives for them.

Clearly I need to move beyond sanctions.  Many of my colleagues (including many who should know) believe the lateness thing is cultural.  (Incidentally, that should not be viewed as racist.  Many European Mediterranean cultures do not value punctuality, and they are not generally oppressed minorities in this country.)  However, I need not investigate root causes or do some deep character education.  What I need to do is establish that whatever culture my students come from, when they enter my room, they enter MY CULTURE with my expectations.

So I need to be disciplined myself, start the class within a minute of the second bell, disregard who's there and not there, ignore late students when they enter (which I do anyway) and deal with lateness reporting issues later.  I will establish that I will mark absences at the top of the class and that unless they sign the latebook, it will go down as a cut, with the attendant consequences, which are out of my hands.  Hopefully, once it is clear that the class begins when it begins, the issue will diminish.  I only wish that I could flip my classroom so that the entrance was in the back of the room, but that is not practical for a number of reasons.  In any event, I will stop trying to use punishment and shame, and try and establish a social and cultural norm and set of expectations, at least within my own four walls.  Consistency.

This also supports a specifically educational imperative I want to press this year:  that, as we learn to write, we are writing in a specific and separate dialect called Standard Written English.  (Not Standard White English.)  SWE is not the way we speak every day.  It may not even coincide with formal speech.  It is a special, particular language which my students will be expected to use in college composition, and in most written communications other than to friends and family.  It is not a denigration of natural speech, but a commonly accepted and preferred alternate to it, and using it does not signal racism, but simply the employment of a Lingua Franca.

So in both punctuality and form of written expression, we have different expectations in the classroom than you have with family and friends.  Not superior, just different.

Phones - There is little or no support on the ground for a no-phones policy in class, although that is the stated written policy of the district.  Confiscation is not practical and could lead to liability problems, especially without support up the line.  Again, I must establish a cultural expectation, which I will reinforce with by distributing a copy of the page in the district handbook banning phones and having each student sign and acknowledge that.  I know that is no solution to anything, and is frequently an empty gesture, but perhaps it will be a signal that I intend to be consistent with that.  I must not let myself slip and lose heart about reminding students to get the phones out of my sight.  On the other hand, there will be times (I hope) when I will invite the students to use their smart phones in class, as a reminder that it is not that I am a Luddite, but that there is a time and place for everything, and that it is important to be present in the place where one is physically present, and to leave the cyberworld from time to time to be here now.  You know, all zen and stuff.

The Teaching of Literature  - I read an interesting piece this summer about the ascendancy of teaching literature over rhetoric in our high schools, which puts them out of joint with our colleges.  The fact is, I have never formally studied rhetoric, but as a former lawyer, I am familiar with and equipped to teach its application.  And as a reader, I am far more interested in journalism and other forms of non-fiction than I am in literature.

This comports with a district and building initiative to intensify the reading and analysis of short non-fiction on a regular basis.

So a couple of interlocking decisions.  I am not going to attempt to "teach" novels.  I will frame them and contextualize them at the outset.  Students will read them independently, using a schedule I provide as a rough guide.  I am still debating assessment of reading, whether to journal, quiz or other technique. From time to time, students will rotate in leading discussion, a process I will teach, building on what they learned junior year.  There will be the assessment of rote reading in a one-period timed test and a more important assessment in the form of a project which requires synthesis, as I have done historically since I began teaching.  The larger point is that our book of the moment should only occupy one or two days per week.  This leaves two days for writing and two days for everything else.

The Teaching of Writing AND Reading Non-Fiction  - This provides an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.  As mentioned, there is an initiative to stress non-fiction reading.  The plan as it stands right now, is to assign new non-fiction reading each Monday.  (Note to self -- because photocopying must be submitted in advance, must have non-fiction selected before leaving building on Thursday night.)  This can be in class, silently or aloud, partially in class and partially independently, etc. etc., depending on the specific task to be performed in connection with the reading -- analysis, rebuttal, extrapolation.  Then writing based on the writing can be assigned every other week, to be submitted electronically by Thursday.  I must then faithfully review and assess all writing over the weekend and return e-mail it before Monday.  On alternate weeks, students will be re-writing per my comments, to be submitted the following Thursday.  That is, one week write, next week rewrite.  After one semester, and with the use of projections and lecture-demonstrations, students will understand the edit and rewrite process well enough to do peer review, and start to incorporate those ideas about better style into their own drafting.

I have to brace myself to work harder this year and get better at seeing around corners.  At least this year, I've read most of my literature once already.  And the longform work must be interlaced with more short work.

Assessments - More of them, more at higher levels, more rapid marking and return of them.  Last year, my students rarely had the opportunity to benefit from comments.  That must change.

Advanced Placement -  I have ideas about re-formulating the Advanced Placement, starting with administering practice tests within the first week and regularly thereafter.  Earlier classes seem to have been completely sandbagged by the test, and there is no reason for that.  As high level as the class is, at some level it is all about the test at the end.  I am determined to have some 4s and 5s this year.  I will have more to say about this after next week, when I complete my mini-course on teaching AP.

Social Justice in Film  - Very charged up about this new elective.  I have always had trouble designing assessments for electives.  I am thinking of two principal modes at the moment -- having students blog about each film and having a rotating assignment of introducing and giving context to each film.  I will give the student a list of terms, names, etc. which are connected to the film and ask them to prepare 10 minutes for the class.  (Naturally, I will be prepared to back this up.)

Work Deadlines - This year I really want to walk the talk.  Keep deadlines myself and hold students to them.  I must start at the beginning of the year and not accept late homework at all, other than for excused absences.  I understand that students are allowed to re-take tests, but if they never hand in a paper assigned in lieu of a test, can they "re-do" that?  I am inclined to given them the 55 for a missing assessment and then assign something else, rather than give the impression that deadlines mean nothing, and that any work can be handed in at any time before the last day of the marking period.  That was just making me miserable.

I am hereby putting my DC and my principal on notice that my September gradebook may look very scary, but I am confident the situation will correct itself if I remain firm.

Use of the School Website  - As soon as possible, I am getting all my classes to the computer lab, show them my page, show them where their work is posted, give them the Twitter feeds and the Facebook page they can like in order to receive information about all the homework assignments.  It must be clear that if they are absent, excused or not, they are responsible not only for doing the work but for finding out what it is.  I must consistently refuse to answer questions about what the past work was except to direct them to the website.  They must learn that this is how most college courses operate.  The professor will not chase you and scarcely will talk to you about past assignments.  They must assume responsibility.

Apps - Speaking of the school website, I have it on reasonably good authority that a bright high-school level hacker/code monkey could write an app that makes our school website legible on a smart phone.  I would love to offer a prize for a student to do that for all the obvious reasons.  I also want to research free or cheap apps that help students manage their assignment calendars, not to mention college and scholarship application deadlines, which leads me to...

The War Room - I hope that Coach T and I can hold to Mr. Gregory to his agreement to commit Room 401 to be a War Room for college applications and scholarship applications.  Too much was compromised last year due to students not managing timelines.  We need to support that, to counsel students on their choices and to celebrate ALL THE ACCEPTANCES.  Last year, some got noticed and some didn't.  That's not right.  They are all a big deal, and we have to make them that way.  Which reminds of something else that needs to be different this year...

College Presentations during English instruction time  I need better advance notice of this, and they must be limited.  There have to be other times and places found to meet with seniors other than decimating a graduation requirement course.  Also, I'm putting my foot down on this specifically -- NO CLASS TIME AFFORDED TO FOR-PROFIT SCHOOLS.  We don't know what those schools are doing, what kind of financial problems they could create for our students, and they are off-mission for us.  Yes, some post-high-school education is the goal for all Newark Public School students, but AHHS is specifically a college prep school, and our message should be consistent.  Again, there must be other means, other times for the for-profit schools to reach our kids.

Well, that's all I can think of now.  There are a lot of details that are still fuzzy to me, such as the sequencing of my literature units (chronological order did not work), but this reflection was more about architecture than engineering.  Time for the latter later.

Now I've published this and you can all throw it in my weary and bedraggled face in June!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

What works

I've been sitting on this piece for a while, but since I am in the throes of final exams as I write, it seems appropriate to share it now.  You should read the post yourself, but to summarize, a college professor describes his process of switching from in-class timed essays as his final assessment to independently-written work as a more valid and accurate measure of his students' progress in his course.

I applaud this professor for his reflectivity, and the reasons he gives for changing his methodology all make excellent good sense.  His course sounds very rewarding, and I am certainly looking forward to adjusting the general-literature high school courses I teach to be more thematically unified.  He even writes so temptingly about the Margaret Atwood novel Oryx and Crake that I thought about putting it on my summer reading list, until I read the synopsis and realized it has all the irritating and tedious qualities of science fiction -- made-up words, arbitrary premises, implausible psychology and politics.  Yes, I realize that if you are going to write about humans, things will be implausible and unpredictable, which is why I prefer history, in which it is impossible to argue with the events or a play, in which you see the implausible performed in front of you -- again, it cannot be denied because it is made palpable.

Everything else just strikes me as Lewis Carroll.  But then, I am becoming impatient with just about all fiction.

But the real point I want to make is that this fellow persisted in a procedure which he knew was not just unsatisfactory, but downright counterproductive and completely worthless at producing reliable data about student achievement for 15 years.  And every semester.  He did something that didn't work 30 times before he decided to change it.

Perhaps that defines the difference between college instruction and us secondary and middle-school peons.  My first year of teaching -- before I knew anything, I looked at the numbers for the vocabulary instruction system I had inherited (the dreadful outdated Sadlier-Oxford series) and realize that the numbers had not moved at all over the year.  The students who scored high at the beginning of the year scored well at the end.  The students who struggled continued to struggle.  Was it difficult to jettison that?  When it took up at least one-fifth of my instructional time, and sometimes more?  Easiest thing in the world.  What I substituted was far more work intensive for me -- I got a list of SAT words and identified them in the assigned reading, and built exercises and quizzes from that -- but many students showed real improvement.

True, one often has to delay jettisoning a non-working portion of a course until there is an alternative that has some possibility of being more effective.  But that's what summers are for.  But knowing how awful it feels to persist with something that demonstrably doesn't work even once -- I can't imagine how you could keep going at it 30 times.  (And read the comments in the post.  The writers make some intelligent observations about learning in college -- which were made and measured scientifically in K-12 pedagogy about 25 or 30 years ago.  Next, I expect some college professor to announce the startling discovery that students learn in different ways from each other!)

I come to teaching from the performing arts, and what I love about the latter is their pure empiricism.  It's OK if nobody knows that Moby Dick was great until 30 years after Melville dies.  But a play, a film, a piece of music must work right now or it fails on its own terms.  Because the way the artist in the performing arts develops and improves is to listen to the audience.  Same with teachers.  What doesn't work with students, doesn't work, no matter what the theorists and consultants say. 

Now, back to work on my perpetual motion machine!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Shakespeare as Videogame, Part 5

The Story So Far:
Kerr, mild-mannered high-school literature teacher from another planet and his son, Rob, fearless videogame-designer are exchanging ideas about converting a Shakespeare play into a videogame in an effort to learn about Shakespeare and about videogames.  Previous entries can be read below on this blog and at Rob's blog.

Rob's most recent post is here, but here's his reply to my last set of thoughts.

Rob: I like that you brought up the language. It is really hard to get rid of the great dialogue Shakespeare has given us. I imagine that's why Baz Luhrmann refused to give it up in Romeo + Juliet, and later the same choice was made in Hamlet with Ethan Hawke, despite setting the story in contemporary California. It's definitely an argument against re-setting any Bard-game in a different time and place.

On the other hand, gamers are no strangers to 'thee's and 'thou's, so an adapting game developer probably wouldn't need to worry too much about translation to contemporary english, so you could really go either way (a more modern setting or an authentic one), and it's not an easy choice.

Et two, brute!
One great thing about using Shakespeare's actual words is that there are so many of them. Since games are a series of choices which each, ideally, have different consequences, games require more content than plays or films do (not to mention the fact that they're currently expected to last about ten times as long). For instance, Julius Caesar has a bunch of ghosts which are mentioned as portents of Caesar's death (but never shown, presumably for budgetary reasons). They might be cool to include in the game, but the play has given them no lines. Luckily there are plenty of ghostly lines from Richard III, Hamlet, and Macbeth which might be perfect.

The Tempest as an online open-world multiplayer adventure is interesting (that's what you suggested, by the way, in game industry jargon). There aren't many online multiplayer games designed for heterogeneous groups of that size. That may be because people wouldn't play it, or because it's an untapped market; I'm not certain.

One thing I foresee as being problematic is the compliment of verbs. In creating a videogame, an early decision is always "What verbs can the player character do?" The verbs that some of the characters have at their disposal -- summoning fairies, invisibility, flight, hypnosis, meteorological control -- are a lot more interesting than the verbs other characters have -- gathering wood, getting drunk, stealing clothes, talking to your girlfriend's parents, etc.

If I can take your role a moment without hurting my own cause too much, I think the best strategy for adapting The Tempest would be to stick to Ariel as your one and only player character (or perhaps split her into multiple characters with the same attributes). She is empowered enough to feel fun to play, but still has a master who she fears. Her master gives her specific missions to complete, and then summons her to do more. If she does well she is promised a reward -- her freedom.

In terms of the thematic approach you mentioned, I think it's a sound one. I'd relate that idea to The Art Of Game Design's tenth lens, The Lens of Resonance. There are a few one might pick as a kernel to base a Julius Caesar videogame around. The best, I think, is loyalty. The decision to kill Caesar is mostly a conflict of loyalties. Loyalty to a friend vs. loyalty to the state is Brutus' dilemma.

If I were adapting Julius Caesar to a game today, I would spend some time establishing the camaraderie between the characters. I might include, as a level, the beautiful story Cassius tells in scene 2, line 90, of how Julius saved him from drowning, to establish the affinity of Cassius towards Caesar. Then there would be a level where you would have to mitigate some of Caesar's tyranny, perhaps by saving a servant who he would have mistreated, in order to show how he damages the republic.

Then I would give the user a choice of whether to take part in the plot against Caesar's life -- in other words, to continue the story as Brutus or Marc Antony. I think there are a lot of interesting possibilities in each of those decisions, and each are honorable men -- there are no true villains in this story, which makes it an even stronger choice, to my mind. That's just a first instinct, though.

Veering off course a bit, some people in the comments of the previous installment had the (I thought, inspired) idea of using a minor character as the player character to explore the world of Hamlet or Romeo & Juliet without influencing (much) the main storyline. I don't think it works so well with either of the plays we chose, but what do you think of that idea?

Here's another nice mess you've gotten me into!
Kerr:  To begin with the end, which is the most natural thing for easily distracted people like me, what your commenters are suggesting might be termed the Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead gambit.  (Incidentally, I have a copy of that play here with me and the ampersand is officially part of the title.)  I refer to the game-changing Tom Stoppard play in which Hamlet's two schoolmates who are co-opted by Claudius to spy on Hamlet and report on him, and who are marked for death themselves become the central figures in a Beckett-like conceit in which they are trapped in a space mostly continguous to and occasionally coincident with the space occupied by the play Hamlet, waiting like Becket's hobos for another, more important, more decisive character to either put things to rights or end their lives.  It works as a virtually literal reflection of and on Hamlet. 

I agree with you, Rob, that it's a good concept for a Shakespeare video game, especially if one is open to side excursions.  I can imagine Bernardo and Marcellus perpetually trying to get the Ghost to come back and talk to them (it speaks only to Hamlet) or Ross trying to keep from getting killed in Macbeth, as he is buffeted between the Macbeth and Malcolm camps.

But I also agree that we need to table that discussion until we have utterly abandoned both The Tempest and Julius Caesar

Let me see if I can codify the decision tree that seems to be emerging.  If The Tempest is to be our source, we should settle on a point of view character such as Ariel.  If we choose that route, then we need to pick the character and that character's goal.

If Julius Caesar is to be our source, we should consider alternate historical settings so that we do not have to contemplate a Rome in which Caesar is not assassinated and Brutus does not die at the Battle of Phillipi.  If we go down that route, we should discuss the setting.  Other than an age in which kings are in charge, the only other setting in which groups of people can murder leaders with impunity is within some sort of gang setting.

And the third major rabbit hole to fall down is the question of selecting another very driven tragedy such as Macbeth (I can't see Romeo and Juliet at all -- the stakes are too small and commonplace) or Richard III and perhaps going full Rosencrantz.  While they have similar trajectories, how a minor noble becomes and remains king through the use of sustained violence, I like Richard more than Macbeth.  It has more killings and more appalling ones, plus the wooing of Anne.  A Macbeth game is going to have to figure out how Lady Macbeth works, which is troublesome since she and Macbeth are virtually in lockstep throughout the story, at least in terms of their overt actions.

I think the time has come to fish or cut bait.  I'll let you have your say and then we should try to arrive at a consensus.  Or am I, like a poor game designer, shutting down viable and rewarding options for play prematurely?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Shakespeare as Videogame Part 3

"Say, Ariel, any idea who's winning?"
Rob and I have only just started this dialogue, he at his blog on Gamasutra, a game design site, and I here, and we are already getting recognition. His post was a featured one at Gamasutra, and has also been aggregated here at Broadway Stars, a theater news site I visit regularly, and home to the excellent podcast This Week on Broadway.

You can read Rob's reply to my last post at Gamasutra, but in the interest of completeness, here it is:

Rob: Growth and change? Don't you know videogames are all about shooting aliens in the face?

In all seriousness, I think JULIUS CAESAR would make a good videogame because of the emphasis on action and conflict. As much as I enjoy it, THE TEMPEST seems to be a story mainly about people almost doing something, but then deciding against it.

In JULIUS CAESAR Brutus and Cassius are forced to kill a dear friend for the sake of Rome, and Rome is bribed to side against them. Then they must fight a war which was evenly matched until Brutus made a strategic error.

Certainly, the play was Shakespeare's most accurate (though it includes dubious incidents of ghosts), but that doesn't mean that the game needs to be 'trapped by the facts of history.' To convert a play to a game means introducing some nonlinearity, so we can ask and answer a bunch of what-if questions in this game.

What if Caesar had found out about the plot? What if he'd stayed at home instead of going to the senate? What if Brutus were a better orator, or strategist? We could even go so far as to change the setting entirely. This story could be set in the Mafia of the 1930s, a Galactic Federation, or a Pirate Ship.

In contrast, THE TEMPEST must include a wizard and a fairy and a freakish beast-man. There aren't a lot of settings that can accomodate that.

I think the many story threads of THE TEMPEST are a weakness rather than a strength. The perspective of this play is not high enough to be a god-game or management sim, and not low enough for a first-person experience. I'll admit that THE TEMPEST was a tempting choice, because of superficial similarities to fantasy-genre games, but I think there's less there than meets the eye.

Maybe I'm just lacking imagination. How do you imagine a TEMPEST video game playing out?
Kerr:  To begin with, I want to bookmark some ideas and return to them at a later post.  First, I would like to explore the idea of moving Julius Caesar to another setting.  This is a time-honored tradition in Shakespearean production.  I would say today it is standard practice to costume in modern business suits, and of course, Orson Welles created a landmark modern fascist interpretation in 1936.  I suppose I hadn't considered that possibility, and it opens up a lot more of the plays, especially those that have traditionally been reset in different times and places, such as Othello and Macbeth and the ever-lovin' Midsummer's Night Dream.  Personally, I would like to set all the romantic comedies aside, as the stakes, typically who will end up side-by-side at the altar, do not feel like a "fit" for gaming.  But we need to explore the idea of divorcing Shakespeare's narrative from its original settings -- and doing so gives license to ignore those pesky historical facts that troubled me so.
This does place a sideways finger on the inherent flaw in the entire concept--we are attempting to engage Shakespeare's power without his language.  I must admit that I cannot conceive how that can be incorporated, but I would like to see how we can.  It is true that Shakespeare took his received materials and wielded them into different, more complex, and more resonant narrative shapes, but that is still not why he is the most revered writer in the world.  It comes down to the very words themselves and we ignore them at our peril.  But I await instruction as to how blank verse and other Shakespeare text can be employed as an integral part of a game, and not just a decorative feature.  Could there be tasks or goals associated with language which are required to progress in the game?
Back to The Tempest.  I am probably going to reveal the depths of my ignorance about gaming, but in my simple understanding, the most successful games are social multi-player games in which people explore a universe, rather than simply being a god controlling others.  That was my template for Tempest.  Certainly somebody would want to be Prospero seeking to regain his dukedom.  You could be Caliban seeking to perform tasks to achieve independence from Prospero or Ariel seeking to earn your freedom from Prospero.  You could be Alonso or Antonio, seeking Ferdinand and escape from the island.  You could be Ferdinand, seeking to perform the tasks to be worthy of Miranda.  You could even by Miranda, striving to become an independent adult away from her father.  And for any role not being adopted by a player, the game could take on that role from sets of pre-determined alternative tracks.  And Stephano and Trinculo can work as all-purpose troublemakers, available to thwart anyone's goals and plans.  The design trick is to figure out how these interact, and how, for example, an action of Caliban could alter the Antonio plotline, or something Miranda does could impact Ariel's quest.
But maybe I am getting ahead of my self.  If I were directing The Tempest for the stage, I would never run down any of these story or even character rabbit holes until I had decided what the play was about.  Once I've landed on that, all my other decisions can proceed therefrom.  It is unecessary to come up with the final and definitive answer as to the meaning or themes of any given play; one simply has to latch on an idea or ideas -- no more than two or three, tops -- that are supported by the text and which can help the play sustain in performance.  So, for instance, Hamlet is about dozens of different things, but if the director decides the play is about Betrayal then everything everyone does can proceed from there.  The set, costume and lighting designer, the way the actors move and interact, the choice of goals within scenes --everything can be interpreted through the lens of "betrayal."
So what is The Tempest about, and what would be a good choice for a game design?  We have already talked about freedom and confinement, as reflected by Caliban, Ariel, Ferdinand, Miranda and the enchanted passengers of the wrecked ship.  Prospero is even arguably confined by his desire to reverse the wrongs of the past, a desire from which he needs liberation.  That connects to another theme, reconciliation and forgiveness.  This could present serious challenges for a game driven by pre-determined logic, but perhaps receiving forgiveness can be broken into steps which need to be performed properly.  There is a conflict between the natural and technological worlds, if we interpret magic as a type of techonology.  Or we could look at magic as something between nature and technology -- man-made, but drawing on secret natural aspects of the universe.
Why this English-class discussion of themes?  Because we need to decide why we're making the game.  We need some criterion to couch all the other decisions.  We need something that will keep us moving in a defined direction, because it is clearly easy to get lost in the woods.
I don't know if what I'm imagining is technologically feasible -- a more straightforward story with clearly defined goals might be far better.  It's easy to come up with an adaptation of Macbeth as a first-person-stabber game.  But I am also looking to explore those aspects that make Shakespeare Shakespeare.  Nowadays, thanks to Joseph Campbell, we all know how to cook up a hero's journey by the numbers.  Thus I am drawn to the more particular, the more peculiar, the more inconsistent and the more complex elements that constitute Shakespeare, especially from mid-career on.
Or am I just talking through my wizard's hat?

Monday, May 28, 2012

Literature as Videogame or Vice Versa, Part 1

What follows is a dialogue between Rob and Kerr.  Rob is a video game designer in the Chicago area.  Kerr is a literature teacher in Newark, NJ.  Also, Rob is Kerr's son.  

The posts will appear here on this blog and at Rob's blog on Gamasutra, found here.

Their topic is: 'What Shakespeare play would make the best video game, and what would that game be like?'

Rob:  Hey, Dad.  So your first impulse was to say 'The Tempest' would make a great video game.  I think that's a great choice, but just for giggles I said 'Julius Ceasar' would be the best.  I have some ideas, but why do you think 'the Tempest' would work so well?

Kerr:  The obvious aspects that make THE TEMPEST videogame fodder is that there is magic -- in fact the central character is a magician -- there are strange non-human characters such as Caliban and Ariel, and the fantastic setting -- an unspecified remote island which can take on any terrain that the designers and directors choose.  There are also many separate story threads:  Prospero overseeing Miranda's entry into adulthood; Ariel's quest to be free; Caliban's desire to be seen as human; Prospero's revenge on Antonio and Alonso; Antonio and Alonso's plots against each other; the romance between Ferdinand and Miranda; the hijinks among Stephano and Trinculo, as manipulated by Ariel.  And then there is the magical disappearing banquet, not to mention all the strange magic surrounding the titular tempest.

Moreover, many characters grow and change and learn, which, it would seem to me, should be a good thing in a videogame, whereas in Shakespeare, such growth and change often happens to a single character, such as Lear, who is chastened by his experience, whereas everyone else has been merely punished by the consequences of his foolishness.

JULIUS CAESAR, for one, is particularly trapped by the facts of history.  It is one of Shakespeare's most accurate exercises in history, especially when contrasted with something like RICHARD III or MACBETH (which is based on a more legendary history) in which, largely for political persons, Shakespeare inverts the real historical heroes and villains.  Today we might say works like this are "inspired" by history.  But even they have a  hard bright line around them in the form of historical fact.  This closes down alternatives -- Julius can never not be killed by assassins; Macbeth can never not ascend to the throne and then be killed in battle.

Of course, I am conducting my analysis under a handicap -- I am not as familiar with the format of videogames as you are with plays in the theater.  I recognize that all games do have a closed ending, a conclusion, some point at which some players have succeed and some have not.  It raises a philosophical question -- as narrative aspires to closure, do games in a perfect universe aspire to perpetual play?  Is ending a game merely an acknowledgment of either our desire to identify winners and losers or our need to stop playing periodically and eat and sleep and attend to other bodily necessities?  Or do games also need to end as an inherent part of their nature?  And do we even need to address this question in order to further our conversation?

So I bounce it back to you, Rob.  Of all 37 or 38 of Shakespeare's theatrical works, what caused you to light on JULIUS CAESAR as a potential videogame?  Perhaps your answer will instruct me in an aspect of gaming of which I was unaware.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Dig and Be Dug

If you had told me back when I started teaching full time, almost ten years ago, that I would be in a room with 200 teachers screaming--screaming, I tell you--over poetry--yes, poetry; that fellow students reciting poetry would trigger an ear-splitting demonstration of enthusiasm, I would ask for a sample of whatever you were ingesting.

It happened last Friday, April 27, at American History High.  We held what we called a Poetry Slam (although it was not truly a Slam, particularly as it was non-competitive) in our main auditorium (well, "cafetorium" actually), with 20 poets from our Public Speaking classes and an audience of mostly juniors and seniors.  The subjects covered everything on students' minds -- love, violence, drugs, identity, pregnancy, broken families, broken friendships, beauty, truth, all that good poetry-type stuff.

I don't deserve much credit for this.  My students live in a world with few tools for them to combat their circumstances.  They have been brought up to understand how important words are and what they can do.  History has taught them the jiu jitsu of using the words of our Founding Fathers to achieve goals that those long-ago limited men could never have dreamed of.  They see doors opened and walls collapsed with words.  We are a nation based on an idea and a promise rooted in that idea, so that for all the tanks and bombs and mighty mountains and amber waves of grain, our true nationhood is one of words.

And they love their new word-tools.  I learned this year to stop fighting the phones and use my own jiu-jitsu and incorporate them.  My wife talks about being in the Look It Up Club back in her school days.  Now every student with a smart phone can be part of that club.  And if they don't have one, their friend they sit with probably does.  If I don't give them something to do with those phones, they'll be texting.  Think about that -- they'll be writing.  Once our predecessors bemoaned the advent of cheap telephone service as the herald of the end of writing.  Now young people can't stop writing; texting, IM'ing, blogging, even e-mailing (although that is very old-fashioned).  As long as it isn't official, approved or assigned, they will do that writing.

Not to mention that students today have grown up entirely in the age of rap, in which the most talented rhymers are raking in seven-figure incomes, a fact that must be making Robert Browning and John Keats absolutely furious in their graves, thinking of the bucks they coulda scored in their day.  (Robert Burns even wrote pop tunes!)

So perhaps it was predictable, that students would go wild for the wordsmiths, who stir sound and sense into a new Newark gumbo all our own.  Special props, however, to one of our most gifted performers in the school, who capped his poetry recitation, with a walk down the auditorium aisle, flower in hand, to ask his long-time squeeze to the prom.

The explosion in the room for that exquisite romantic gesture -- well, there are no words.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Prize Winner of Newark, New Jersey

That rather precious title of this post refers to me, as the leader of one of the 25 teacher teams in Newark who won grants from the Teacher Innovation Fund from the Foundation for Newark's Future. (Reportedly there were several hundred applications.) FNF was created to administer what is popularly referred to as "the Facebook money," the large grant of Facebook stock gifted by Mark Zuckerberg to the city of Newark to invest in and improve its schools. In addition to the honor itself, we attended a nice reception on Thursday night, February 23rd, attended by Superintendent Cami Anderson and Mayor Cory Booker, both of whom I got to meet and speak to. So bully for me.

Even more exciting for me is the project itself, which is something I have been nurturing in my mind for nearly six months, since the possibility of working at History High first arose. Very simply, teachers will mentor students in conducting original historical research, which we will edit into a dramatic form and produce as a play. Such a play is part of a relatively new but fairly well-established genre with roots back into the early 20th century, with the work of Erwin Piscator and the Living Newspapers of the Federal Theater.

The form got a reboot in the mid-1980s with Emily Mann's play Execution of Justice, about the trial of Dan White for the murder of San Francisco mayor George Moscone and councilman Harvey Milk (an event popularly remembered for White's "Twinkie defense"). Unlike the tradition of historical drama represented by pieces such as Inherit the Wind and Sunrise at Campobello, Execution used multimedia and, most importantly, the actual words of participants and interviewees. It was the spiritual parent to The Laramie Project about the gay-biased murder of Mathew Shepherd and produced in literally hundreds of high schools across America; of the solo work of Ann Deveare Smith, most notably Twilight: Los Angeles and Fires in the Mirror some of them developed under Emily Mann's guidance; and The Exonerated, by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, who have popularized the term "verbatim theater" by which is meant that only documented words are used, without embellishment or comment by the playwrights.

Laramie and Exonerated are works of advocacy. Anna Deavere Smith and The Vagina Monologues are a sort of elevated journalism (the way that In Cold Blood is both journalism and art). This seems to us to be the proper approach for a school project. We have no business taking a point of view, not for a group project, nor do we feel entitled to draw a conclusion. In the manner of Piscator and Brecht, we will trust the audience to hear what we have found it and process it for themselves according to their own lights.

We considered a number of turning points in the modern history of Newark. (We selected Newark history as a matter of connecting to our students, as a matter of chauvinism, and by what primary sources will be most readily available, given reasonable limits of time and money.) The team picked the 1970 election of Kenneth Gibson, the first black mayor not only of Newark, but of any major northeastern city. It was the first major turn of events after the crisis of the 1967 riots which were both precipitated by, accelerated and crystallized the problem of white flight and the ensuing crumbling of the public and private infrastructure of the city. In the wake of these events, a Black Nationalist movement grew in strength, lead by, among others, the playwright and poet Amiri Baraka (formerly Leroi Jones, author of Dutchman). Baraka led the effort to focus this energy into putting Gibson in office, driving out the exceptionally cynical and corrupt administration of Hugh Addonizio.

So Gibson's election has a resonance and symbolism far beyond electoral politics; it goes to the heart of African-American power and self-determination in the course of American history.

As I write this, the plan is to begin research as soon as possible and to have the bulk completed by the end of the school year, to begin composition before the end of the year with the summer hiatus to gather our thoughts and to complete the script and produce the play in the fall semester, preferably before the winter holiday break. Naturally, the material will lead us, so the plans are subject to change.

What I am really looking forward to is to see what effect the students will have on the project and, hopefully, the project will have on them. I don't mind saying that if this is successful, I would like to see it became a tradition and a hallmark of History High.

But first, we begin.