Monthly Archives: December 2012

Week 15 – Of Shakespeare’s Heartbeat


That time of year thou mayest in class behold

When students play with metered poetry!

Hee hee!

Right before break it was Shakespeare time, and that means one thing: reading a play and learning metered verse.  (Oops, that’s two things. I’m just so excited!)  I love this time.  I love listening to students wrestle with something so normal and boring as syllables and stress.  That light-bulb moment when they hear, they actually hear, the accented syllable and aren’t just posturing.  One student said to me, “I didn’t realize syllables could be so complicated!”

I have to come clean here and admit that poetry in general has never been my bag.  I find it obtuse and tricky and often a great way for some know-it-all to get punched in the snout.  (I know, I know, I’m a pacifist.  But, I want to punch pontificating blowhards in the snout. No? Oh well.)  Anyway, after my first year teaching As You Like It, and watching the writhings of students in pain, I realized that if I was going to make a go of this, I would need to put in some serious legwork.  So, I read a lot about the old man, watched Michael Wood’s In Search of Shakespeare, and found many, many dictionaries of Shakespeare’s words.  And still, something wasn’t quite right.

And then I figured it out.  Most of what Shakespeare and company wrote is poetry. (Remember children, he was a “jobbing playwright” which means we still aren’t sure which parts of the plays are his.  There are some clues, and we are pretty damn certain that that “Bubble, bubble” crap wasn’t his).  In fact, it could be argued that his plays should be in the poetry section.  I would say that about 80% of Midsummer is in metered verse.  I know this because I just read it with my yahoots.  (I spent a splendid hour in Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, Oregon, arguing just that with a clerk.  Good times, good times.)

So, I needed to teach Iambic Pentameter.  As a refresher course, iambic is when you have a weakly stressed syllable, and then a strongly stressed syllable.  As in “ti-tum“.  Five of those “ti-tum“s is the penta (five)meter.  (See the lines above for a really bad example of a couplet.) And the hero award goes not to Michael Wood, but to another great British geezer, Stephen Fry.  At about this time, he published his The Ode Less Traveled.  On a whim, I picked it up and read it.  It changed my mind about poetry in general, let alone metered.  For the first time, someone had scaffolded for me the how-to-it-ive-ness of that great beast known as poetry.  I fell in love.

But then I ran into a problem.  Stephen Fry, whom clearly I adore, is a proudly homosexual man (fine), but because much of his writing is not really PG, I couldn’t just photocopy his text for my kidlettes.  I ended up re-writing much of his work so that I could present it to my students without getting fired.  And it worked.  I have two PowerPoint presentations that move students through the basics of Iambic Pentameter with as little fuss as you are going to get with what is essentially all jargon.  Thank you, Stephen!! (Note two exclamation marks.  I really mean it.)

All students start by having to take Stephen’s Pledge.  They do this very solemnly, with hands over hearts: I promise to take my time.  I promise not to force meaning.  I promise to practice writing, even when it’s bad.  And then I ask them to find their pulse on their wrist or neck.  Once they have found it, I ask them to make a quiet “bump” noise when feel their heart pump.  After a few seconds of goofing around, all students are quietly sounding out their heart’s rhythm.  It sounds like a forest full of little frogs.  Then, as if by magic, they start to get into sync.  There comes a moment when the whole class, including me, have their heart pumping in beat with each other.  Bump, bump…bump, bump…bump, bump.  And before they get out of sync again, as they will, I tell them that when they are reading the iambic pentameter that Shakespeare wrote, they are essentially listening to his heartbeat.

By that point, I couldn’t tear them away from him if I tried.

Week 15 – Heartfelt Sympathies


Dear Friends and Teachers,

Today is a dark, dark day for us. I cannot express the depth of my grief and shock at hearing what has happened in Connecticut today.  We are sending all of our love, thoughts, and prayers to the people of the Newtown Community.

The clocks have stopped.

The flags hang at half mast. 

Sorrow runs deep.

Week 14 – Art Vs. Skill! Battle It Out! in the Expository Writing Ring!!! Hoo-Wah!


It always saddens me that expository writing (defined by the oracle, Merriam Webster, as: EXPOSITION 1: a setting forth of the meaning or purpose (as of a writing), 2 a : discourse or an example of it designed to convey information or explain what is difficult to understand.) is not considered an art form.

But before I wax rhapsodic about it, I think it is important to understand why it needs to be taught from a skill based curriculum.

Time out! Skill based and art? In the same thought.  Is’t possible?!  I know a lot of people who believe that art (true art) can only be achieved by giving students a problem and asking them to solve it, giving them no more than a smile and their unflagging faith that they can do it.  Personally, I think this is just mean. Sure, some students can.  Just like some students will learn to read with minimal guiding.  The last number I read was 60% of children can learn to read this way.  As one of the 40% who couldn’t, I think good intention can take a back seat to skills.  And for those who were somewhere between the 60 and the 40, wouldn’t it be better for them not to reinvent the wheel?  Couldn’t they flex their intellectual muscles a little better if they were given tools to help them be frustrated less?

This always leads my mind to the urban myth about 3rd grade reading levels being how we plan for the numbers of prisons to build.  Although a myth in actual fact, if you look at the educational history of prison inmates, many of them couldn’t read before entering middle school.  It leads me to wonder if, when they were in school, were they subjected (as I was) to the travesty of “Whole Language“.  The way it was practiced on me, and the way I have seen it taught, basically asks the teacher to just read a lot to their students and allow them to come up with their own definitions and spellings.  It’s criminal.  Words mean something, and as archaic as our spelling might be, if you can’t spell, you can’t look a word up.  I’d love to see people try this with Japanese.

If you want better than 60% of our population to be literate, you have to teach reading.

So, if that’s reading fluency, what of writing fluency?  Why would it be any different?  My students are currently outlining and writing their first drafts.  They only need me occasionally which is why I can be writing this.  One of my students is working on her thesis statement.  She is frustrated because she knows she needs to tell her reader what her paper is about, but she doesn’t want to say, “My paper is about character, setting, and plot,” because she knows it boring; it’s not artful. In fact, she’s eating up a lot of class time worrying about it.  Bless her, she, like many students, chooses doing nothing over writing what she believes other people will think as “not good enough”, not knowing that the only way out of it is through it.

She would do better not worrying about the artfulness right now.  I have been telling her to go ahead and write the boring sentence.  Get it on the page.  At least, it removes the road block and allows her to get on with it.  I have also been telling her that in time, as she gets comfortable with the process, she will gain the confidence to write more interesting theses.  This is what scaffolding is about.  (I said this to her about seven times today. It wasn’t until I paired her with another student who has been through this and come out the other side, that she actually wrote it.  Sigh.)

I call it “burning through the boring”. We get to art when we have confidence, and we have confidence when we have skill.  If we want better than 60% of the population to be able to write, we have to teach writing.

Not art vs. skill.  Skill to Art.  Then Art and Skill.

Week 14 – Dodge Wii? Dodge What?



My Senators of Toad have created a new game.  They call it “Dodge Wii”.  Those of you who read the post Senators of Toad will know how I feel about dodge ball as an activity in general.

They will also know that I categorically refuse to allow students to play it.  However, the absolute need to throw something at another student is so strong among my yahoots that we are always looking for a safe way to meet their precipitative desires.

Then last week, one of my students decided we needed a Yoshi to add to our Toads.  Yoshi is another delightful critter from the Nintendo pantheon.  It is a cute, green, little dinosaur/lizard guy who helps Mario beat the bad guy, Bowzer.  It just so happened that my husband also thought I needed one, and he bought me one at his office.  Like the Toads, they are about six inches high and have no hard parts that might put an eye out.bowzer

The kids were delighted to discover that they now had four critters to use as projectiles.  And at just the moment when they were getting tired of Three Step Toad.  Serendipity!  Immediately, all thoughts turned to how they might be allowed throw them at each other.  The students shyly asked if they could use the four critters to play dodge ball.  What could I do?  They’ve been throwing one at each other all this year and last.  I couldn’t say no.

Students immediately knew that the rules had to be different because there would be only four projectiles in play (as opposed to the usual ten balls or so when they play dodge ball).  This is what they came up with:

1) No throwing the critters too hard.  If you can hear the beans in the stuffed animal hit the wall, it’s too hard.

2) No head shots.

3) No tug of war with the critters.  (They rip.)

4) You must be behind the line to throw.

5) If you catch the critter, the thrower is out.

6) You can’t hoard projectiles.  One critter per thrower.

Which led us to an interesting problem.  The object of PE is to run around.  With only four “balls” most of the class would be standing around in “jail” for the whole time.  Yuck.  This led us to rule #6.

6) There is no jail.  If you are hit, you simply proceed to the opposite side’s team and start playing for them.

I thought this was genius.  It means that the students are in motion at all times.  It is chaotic, but it works.  They rarely stop moving.  In fact, last Wednesday, when we first played, the kids were rushing from side to side, and the critters were flying.  When I called time, all the kids sagged and exclaimed about how fast the time went.  I’ve never seen them so tired.  They’ve been playing it with their regular PE teacher since that time, and so the novelty is a little worn off, but even today, with the addition of a rule about not throwing at a student crossing the line, they were hustling.

And the winner?  I still haven’t figured out how to tell who won.  Today, I thought that the last student standing on one side would be the winner, and I called it as such.  But, the students told me that, in fact, the winners were the side with all the people on it.  Which is pretty darned impossible.  It also means that everybody, including the last man standing, wins.  Brilliant! Talk about inclusive.

When I heard this last bit, I almost challenged them on it.  But the god or goddess of teaching smacked me upside the head just in time.  I’m going to ask children who are being kind and community-minded to stop and be competitive?  No.  Either they have already figured out that there is little chance of a win, or they haven’t.  At this point, it seems they are simply enjoying running around and throwing Toads and a Yoshi at each other.  Which is really what it’s all about, isn’t it?  I hope it lasts for a long, long time.