The Bard, Field trips and Nail Biting

Each and every year, I embark on a perilous journey.  One that defies all things known and makes the impossible possible.  One that is a black hole with a narrow escape.  One that encompasses magical powers beyond the scope of nature.  What is this odyssey?  Why, it is taking students on field trips to see a Shakespeare play.

This year, I enlisted the help of my trusted friend and confidant, Brainvomit40.  She and I gathered all of the courage and tenacity we could muster to organize this massive undertaking.  She is the reason I made it through the day.

Let me back up in time and explain the path of the most recent journey we were destined to travel.  It was year 2002, and I was summoned to a grand place in the land of Cleveland known only as The Great Lakes Theater Festival.  From this moment on, I was entranced by their powers.  Enamored by their gently use of The Bard’s great words.  Encased in their sheer talents.  I was, to put it mildly, hooked.  As Juliet would say, “This bud of love, by summer’s ripening breath, May prove a beauteous flower when next we meet.”  Yes, indeed.

From then on, I took students to see these incredible works of art each year.  It was a time to develop young minds, and show (not tell) them how important and timeless the plays of Shakespeare really were.  It was mystical.

But not always.  Many times there were alien students among us.  One particular one did the worst thing possible – he tripped an actor.  According to E.T., his legs needed “extra room” so he put them in the aisle.  Bad, bad alien student.  Another Alf-like creature listened to his iPod through Act I, Scene II of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  His excuse?  “I don’t understand what they are saying.”  My response, “We covered it in class.”  One Mork actually fell into a deep slumber during Twelfth Night.   His rebuttal after other students woke him up with furious tapping and shaking?  “The girl is dressed like a guy and it creeped me out.”  Classy.  These are the villains of my days with The Bard.

But, alas, I have held true to my word and provided the non-alien youth with the best gift of all: the gift of live theater.

The cover looks like Twilight meets R&J.

This year’s presentation was Romeo and Juliet.  I was ecstatic for a few reasons.  First, this is actually one in our literature books, and second, I teach it every year.  Double score!  Brainvomit40 and I got crazy-eyed with happy thoughts and reserved not the usual 40 tickets, but a whopping 80 tickets with visions of Romeo dancing in our heads.

Yikes.  But we had high hopes. Maybe too high as Mercutio states, “True, I talk of dreams, which are the children of an idle brain, begot of nothing by vain fantasy.”

Let me just state that, for the days approaching the trip, it was as if “the mad blood stirring” was a reality.  Everything that could go wrong, went wrong.  Brainvomit40 wrote an excellent post about how asinine the entire process was.

Finally the big day arrived.  We herded 80 students into two school buses at the blistering early time of 7:35 a.m.  We ventured on the hour and a half bus ride to Cleveland.  We gathered all of the students and promptly got them seated in the theater.  We smiled as we sat down in our seats, breathing a collective sigh of relief.

The set. Taken without a flash before the show began.

Intermission came.  Our students deserved halos for their amazing behavior during the first half of the performance.  Brainvomit40 looked at her watch: 11:39.  The buses had to be back by 2:25 for their routes.  Would the show be finished and we be out the door before 1 p.m.?  Enter nail biting.

Throughout the second half (and I must say half, it was technically Acts III, IV, V), I couldn’t focus.  All I could think about was what was coming next.  Here is a look into my mind:

“OK.  She is getting the sleeping potion.  Finally.  Good.  Now she is going to have a monologue and drink it.  Fine.  Now Romeo is going to find out she died.  OK.  We’re good on time.  Crap.  Romeo still has to fight and kill Paris and there is dialogue.  Darn.  OK, he took care of Paris.  Now the death scene.  Geez.  Totally blanked that the Friar’s so many lines here.  Come on already and bring out the Prince to wrap this up!”

By this time, I have no nails left to speak of.  I would be lying if I didn’t confess that Brainvomit40 and I were about to cheer when Juliet said, “O happy dagger!”

The play ended, and we made it on the buses by 1:06.  We made it back to the school by 2:22.  Whew.  I should have been feeling down because it was over, “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” but instead I was thinking thank goodness this is once a year.

I still love the Bard, and I appreciate the opportunity to showcase how incredible his words come alive in a live performance.  “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, My love as deep; the more I give to thee, The more I have, for both are infinite.”

To Shakespeare!

Here is another post I wrote about the Bard.  Enjoy!

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A Teacher’s Mantra

As a teacher, there are certain days of the year when relief surrounds us.  That day is today.  I just finished (although it is 11:44 p.m.) grading all of my midterm exams.  All 122 of them.  Here is the kicker – I created the exams.  I could have made it really easy on myself.  I could have given the students the same test from last year.  Yet that is not my MO.  I made brand new exams AND put time-consuming (to grade) essays on them.  Why would I do that?  Isn’t that a crazy person?  Well, it is because I didn’t want to scrimp on their learning.

Teachers get a bad rap.  We actually do go the extra mile.  We don’t finish all of our work in our 7 a.m. to 2:35 p.m. day.  We take things home.  We create things at home.  We even worry about our students’ well being at home.  Our job doesn’t end in the summer either.  We take classes.  We read educational books.  We create more lessons and try to improve upon the year before.  We are constantly assessing and reflecting on our own work.  We consistently re-invent the wheel for the betterment of students.

I read an excellent article in 2002 and, if I could find it, I would proudly cite it and boldly link to it. Here is what the article simply stated:  Teachers are many things to their students.  They are cops, counselors, parents, referees and coaches.  They are a shoulder to cry on and a deliverer of tough love.  They are there for their students sometimes more than the real parents are.  They are teachers and they are important.

That is why I do what I do.  That is my mantra.  The tests are graded.  I am relieved.  Now onto creating a couple of cool lessons for The Scarlet Letter.  🙂

Ready for the next round.

To let go of To Kill a Mockingbird

In my past zillion nine years of teaching, I have mainly taught freshman. Freshman are unusual creatures. They usually still like some aspects of school and they are easily entertained through humor – or what I refer to as my stand-up comedy teaching routine. This works when we read my ultimate favorite novel of all time: Harper Lee’s amazing To Kill a Mockingbird. Each year I have perfected my Mockingbird teaching like when I performed a podcast reading of the first chapter with a Southern accent. Or when I took a super-cool (to me, that is) informative slideshow and turned it into a video introducing the novel.  That novel and I are soul sisters and teaching it gave me an excuse to shout it out to the mountaintops (well, to the ninth graders) and make them love it as much as I did.  Some did.  Others did not.  Some didn’t read a bit of it.  Still, this was the book I loved teaching.  Until this past year.

For some reason, the class of 2014 did not take kindly to the book.  Some had a lot of trouble with the dialogue, some were confused with the parallel story lines and some were just breathing in oxygen.  I started getting random questions as we were nearing the end of the novel.  The straw that broke the camels back was when a young dude wearing a LeBron James traitor to the Cavs jersey asked why the narrator was so smart for a six-year-old.  There needed to be a change.

So, I held my quivering chin up and discussed the situation with my amazing colleague.  She suggested moving the sophomore novella, Of Mice and Men, to the freshman level and my beloved To Kill a Mockingbird to the sophomore level.  The only heartbreaking thing is that I don’t teach sophomore English.  So bye bye to TKM.  Sniff sniff.

I went into panic mode.  It was October and I hadn’t read Of Mice and Men since my sophomore year many moons ago.  I think I was also in a class behind the cutest guy named Tim and I don’t think I even concentrated at all on the class discussion.  I believe my sophomore year was The Year of Tim, and one where I didn’t even realize my hair was burning (hey, silly girl with major Crush on Tim, meet the Bunsen burner!) until I smelled it.  Yeah, Tim was in that class, too.  Sigh.

Needless to say I was in panic mode.  Severe.  My super-dee-duper colleague came to my rescue like Superman to a runaway elevator.  She gently led me through activities, discussion topics, study guides and helped me find some much needed courage.

Amazingly enough, it has worked out well so far.  My freshman love Lenny and George, and even want to get up in front of the classroom and read the dialogue from the novel – which is a great use of oxygen!  Hooray!  I even got a little teary-eyed at the part about Candy’s dog (let’s be honest here – who wouldn’t?!)  And I was lucky enough to have an excellent teacher helping me through this transition.

As Atticus Finch would say, “It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.  You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”  Ah, Atticus, my hero.  I am really going to miss you. But, I do think I will refer to you now and again AND I think I may use that quote tomorrow when I teach The Scarlet Letter for the first. time. ever.

And I repeat…

When I was working in business, I remember a particular conversation with my boss.  His name was just initials, and to protect his identity (because I may say not so nice things about him in later posts) I will call him BK.  Not as a reference to Burger King, but to Butt Kisser which he was legendary for.

One afternoon, when the leaves had just started falling (I remember this because I absolutely was in no mood for BK and instead wanted to stay home and play in the leaves with my dog), BK wandered over to my desk.  For some reason he liked to have my desk planted in the most awkward areas of the office.  It was right by the men’s restroom.  I could seriously hear the flushing, zipping and washing hands (or not washing hands) happening.  Yikes.  But, once again, I digress.  Here is the conversation:

He cleared his throat (think Office Space) and said, “Do you want to know what words you say a lot?”

I replied, “Hmmm.  Not really.  Why?”

“You say ‘cool’ and ‘awesome’ and ‘like’ a lot.”

I sat there are stared at him thinking what in the world was he talking about?  “Oh,” I sheepishly stated.

“Why do you think you say those words so much?” BK inquired.

“I don’t know,” I answered, confused. “Maybe it is because I lived in New Jersey in the mid 80s,” I responded as if this was the end all be all statement to end this super strange dialogue.

“No, I don’t think that has anything to do with it,” he stated matter of fact like and turned on his heels and walked away.

Stumped, I sat there at my desk.  Was I supposed to follow him?  Hmm.  Of course, my semi-ADD and paranoid self couldn’t get back to work.  So I turned on my Flying Toaster screen saver and walked to his office (which had a great view of the county jail and the parking lot and was not awkwardly placed at all).

“BK, what was that conversation all about?  Is there anything I need to work on?” I asked, innocently, trying not to sound neurotic or annoyed.

“Nope. Just thought you needed to know your faults,” he said.

“Cool,” I replied while some of the confidence began to seep back into my body, “Awesome.  So, like, it was just to let me know my faults but I, like, don’t need to fix anything?”

“Yeah.  Something like that,” he curtly said and turned back to his paperwork.

“Awesome.  See you in a few,” I said as I backed out of the office.

And so it goes.  I believe there are words in our speech we use often.  I still overuse “cool” to this day.  But, I don’t see that there is really much harm in it as long as the audience is OK with it.

As a high school English teacher, students always catch words, phrases and even non-verbals that I use.  Sometimes, they just catch the mix of accents I have inherited from the wide range of places I have lived, but this is for another post.

This past week, my word was “sweet.” Every time someone said something I agreed with, I would say, “sweet!”  I used it to replace awesome, cool and other words my long ago boss from hell told me I overused.  Let’s just say the students didn’t like “sweet” and by 8th period, they were teasing me about it. So I changed it back to “cool.”

My friend, who has a great blog http://brainvomit40.wordpress.com, told me that her word of the week has been fabulous.  When I asked her if she noticed me saying any particular words a lot, she replied, “No.  You’re fabulous.”  Love her.

Being a teacher is like being on stage where the audience can interact, and even critique, on a regular basis.  I have an audience of over 148 students I see daily. Yes, 148.  It was an even 150, but two kids moved.  Sometimes my stand-up routine is good, other times it is not.  But the most interesting part about it is that it is always different. Except for some of the words I use, of course.

Besides the words awesome, cool and like I “overused” in my old job (BT – before teaching), here are some things I say a lot.

To express shock:  “Really?!” or “No way!”

To express compassion: “Oh, Sugar”

To call someone when I can’t recall their name (which happens frequently): “Honey” or “Sweetheart”

To describe almost anything: “Cute”

And here are some of the sayings I use frequently:

To students when they aren’t working on their own:  “It’s time to start paddling your own canoe.”

To a group of students who can’t stop looking out the window at the rain: “It’s raining so much the frogs are drowning.”

To a student who was making fun of me writing on the white board: “I’ve been spelling a lot longer than you’ve been pooping.”

When a student wasn’t being honest:  “And I just pulled a Christmas tree out of my butt.” (Not the nicest or most tactful saying, but one I have had to pull out now and then!)

So, as I repeat directions to my class of 30, send someone on a bathroom pass and write the name “Sweetheart” on the top, and tell one kid that his shoes are cool, I once again think of my old boss BK and remind myself that I am pretty awesome no matter what he said.  🙂

Comedy of Errors or Sacrifices for the Bard

In the spring of 2009, fellow English teachers and I went to a Shakespeare conference.  Let me say that Shakespeare is like a drug to high school English teachers.  We love him.  He is our lover from a past life.  We are jealous of any teacher who seems to know him better than we do.  We want to live in Stratford-upon-Avon and have his children hundreds of years later.  He is that awesome.

At this conference, it is tradition to celebrate the Bard’s birthday (and death day) with a cake.  No one blows out the candles on the cake, though, because that would be just weird.  Lol.

During these Shakespeare English Teacher love festivals (think the 60s but the dude is not alive and no one has any hallucinogenic drugs), we are usually given some kind of quote from the play being highlighted and we have to think and write about it.  I think some of the teachers go into multiple orgasms with this assignment, and one woman even peed herself with excitement.  Gasp.

I, however, did not get that warm and fuzzy feeling.  Instead, I wanted to crawl under the desk.  As much as I love the Bard, I didn’t want to write about one of his quotes under the scrutiny of all of the other English teachers.  So I sat there.  And sat there.  Even my purple Sharpie couldn’t snap me out of it.  Here is my quote:

“Am I in Earth, in Heaven, or in Hell?  Sleeping or waking, mad or well advised?  Known unto these and to myself disguised.  I’ll say as they say and persevere so and in this mist all adventures go.”

What the hell did this mean?  I looked around the room in horror.  I felt that masterpieces were being written and I was just sitting there sniffing my Sharpie.  Finally, I put my pen to the paper and here is my (pathetic) response:

OK.  I absolutely hate starting writing prompts because I can never figure out what would be the best way to begin.  Yet, I give students a prompt almost daily so they can write some BS about whatever I choose is important for them at the time.

Is it a fraud?  Am I a fraud?  As I look into myself, I was always the “classic underachiever.”  I even had a Bart Simpson t-shirt with those exact words on it.  I thought it was funny, but after awhile, my mom – the queen of reality checks – said it wasn’t.  She went on to say that it was my way to “somewhat” excuse my mediocre grades in high school or to placate my dad when my science and math grades were less than he would have liked (hideous).  Self-fulfilling prophecy?  Crap.  “Allison is horrible at math and science.”  Oh. Maybe that is why I didn’t like math from 10th grade on.  Hey, Jimmy Buffet wrote a song saying Math Sucks. I am not alone, right? Anyhow.

Sometimes I feel like I am a big fraud as a teacher and it is only a matter of time until I am called out on it. Thanks, Mrs. W., for telling me I didn’t know the first thing about grammar or literary analysis or English.  I really appreciate the caring support you gave to a new student – in 11th grade no less, who was brand, spanking new not only to the school district but to the state of Ohio.  Who was she to put those incredibly disparaging thoughts into my head?  I didn’t ask for that.  I really was just trying not to drown in a new town – torn away from all I had known and understood and finally figured out.  I was directly deposited into a whole new set of circumstances and patterns and humans I did not know.  Difficult? Yeah.  A fraud?  Who knows.

So, to this day as a teacher, I have had to prove to myself that I am not wearing a disguise.  I am not a fraud, although some days feel like it. I am doing exactly what I should be doing with my life. This is what I need to do.  And, I even try to make learning fun – because it wasn’t for me and I don’t want any of my students writing about me 20 years later as to how I crushed their spirit.

The quote from Comedy of Errors?  It is just an adventure.  An adventure in teaching and in knowing, deep down, that I am really not a fraud.  Even these excitable English teachers are not frauds.  Except for, maybe, Mrs. W., who isn’t here because she doesn’t love Shakespeare like us real English teachers do.