Going Low-Tech — And keeping things social

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Preview of my NCTE presentation: Mashup The Shakespeare!


Shakespeare's words are where the power lies.  Your students' active connection with these words is the greatest gift you can give them.

–Peggy O’Brien, Director of Education at the Folger Shakespeare Library


We teach Shakespeare so that students can experience Shakespeare’s Language.  Everything the students do, therefore, should bring them INTO the text.  Mashups are a technique to do just that.

Why Mashups?

Shakespeare wrote at the turn of the century.  Not 1999, not even 1899.  It was 1599.  So his language sounds different.  Our Students Can Deal with That, if we let them!  Often, however, in a misguided and counterproductive effort to make the texts “accessible” to students, we ask students to “translate” the scenes into modern language — or we provide them with these translation.  Doing so actually DISTANCES students from Shakespeare’s language.  Notice how far out “in the suburbs” paraphrasing falls in the illustration above.  Paraphrasing, if done as an end in itself, takes students away from the text and makes them worry.  They’ll worry about getting the translation “right,” or they study someone else’s modern version so that they remember the “correct” interpretation.  Rather than trying to “paraphrase” or “translate,” students have to bring themselves INTO the language.

So here’s an idea:

Rather than trying to drag Shakespeare forward, let’s bring ourselves to Shakespeare.  By bringing our own thoughts to the text — or by bringing lyrics or literature from our own time into contact with the Bard’s words — we connect to the text.  We see nuances of language that make Shakespeare Shakespeare, and we recognize multiple possibilities for performing the play.

Example 1 — Mashing Text with Subtext

No matter what people say, they’re often thinking something different.  Lady Macbeth tells her husband to “look like th’ Innocent flower, but Be the serpent under’t.  One way to bring students INTO the text, then, is to invite them to consider what the character is thinking but not saying.

Here’s an example.  Click here to see it on its own page:

In order to insert the character’s thoughts into the dialog, students have to know the context of the conversation, and they have to have a strong sense of its literal meaning.  By sharing their ideas of what the characters are thinking (without the obstacle of trying to get a “right answer”) they have to come back INTO the text — in order to justify their ideas and ultimately act out the conversation.  The comment feature of Google Docs works great for this exercise, because students can work simultaneously on the same excerpt, and their work can be public to the rest of the class and beyond.

Example 2 — The Modern Lyrics Mashup  

Back when I was closer to my students’ ages, I viewed the English teacher’s job as “explainer in chief.”  In this role, I tried to allude to pop culture to help students see relevance.  Now I let the students find their own connections.

Here’s a link that includes some examples of why my students did with the assignment.

In the left column, the student has a conversation between Othello and Desdemona.  It comes from the point in the play where Othello, convinced that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him, accuses her and strikes her.  On the right side, he has the lyrics from “Harder to Breathe” by Maroon 5.  Just by putting the two texts together, the student is already explaining the passage through analogy.

It gets even better when he combines the two:

Shakespeare’s lines (in blue) stay intact.  The lines from Maroon Five (in black) provide commentary.  When students explain their choices (both of the selections from Shakespeare and their modern lyrics) they connect their own experiences with Shakespeare’s language.

In the process, they Forget that Shakespeare is hard to understand.

Both of these exercises invite students to bring themselves into Shakespeare’s world and experience the characters and language in a way that is natural and relevant to them.  The natural connections that students discover are powerful ways to draw them closer to the texts.

And the ability to share these connections with others can transform the students into guides.

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Sharing the Joy of Reading

My Favorite Summer Reading Text of the year.

Our English department always required some summer reading.

…and historically, nobody did it.

…Well, OK.  Some students did it.  Some LOVED it!  and many, many more didn’t bother.

Then we got really good: we required students to ANNOTATE the summer reading.

…and again, nobody read the books… except for those few who loved it previously.  For them, we managed to suck whatever pleasure they got from the books from their experience.

For everyone else… well, I saw them sitting in the hallways.  They were flipping through pages, making random marks and writing sporadic, yet convincing notes, like “wow!” and “hmmmmm.”  Once I saw a student copiously flipping through a friend’s book, copying his peer’s pointless marks.

Hmmmmm… Note to self:

Required reading, for students who don’t like to read, is likely to be torture.  Required annotation, when done without direction or purpose, may be the worst assignment ever invented. 

At this point I extend heartfelt apologies to my students from this dark and misguided period of my teaching career.

And then…A better idea!

A couple of years ago the English department got together with the librarians to compose lists of works that would be engaging and interesting for students to read.  We learned an important lesson:  LIBRARIANS KNOW STUFF.  They particularly know about the hundreds of books that are published every year with a young audience in mind.  So this year’s book selection contained many Young Adult titles.  To be honest, I wasn’t sold on the idea at first… but then, I red the summer reading titles with my daughter, and it all made sense to me.

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

I left our summer reading titles lying around, and one day, my daughter picked up Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline.  For an entire July day, her eyes were glued to the text.  Since she liked it so much, I read it the next day.  It was fantastic!  I haven’t been so absorbed in a book since I sailing through The Odyssey on a Labor Day weekend back in the ’90′s.  I found Cline’s story so compelling — and so much fun — that I absolutely couldn’t put it down.  At 2:30 a.m. my dad came down to the kitchen and found me wide awake, reading the final chapter.

“What are you doing up”

“Just have to finish this book.”

I wouldn’t say that my daughter and I conducted a book club meeting, or that I led a literary discussion of the text, or even that I explained all of the wonderful references to ’80′s pop culture.  But we did share the real joy of having entered the world of this book, explored it for ourselves, interpreted it, and shared in the lives of Cline’s characters.  For a summer reading assignment, who could ask for anything more?

And we got rid of the annotation requirement.

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My Senior Speech

Congratulations!  You have just about finished your high school careers.  Your airplane has landed, and we’re on the runway, making the taxi to the terminal.  You may turn on your electronic devices now!

Actually, I’m kidding… I can’t tell you that.   I know that you already had them on, anyway.

And I also know that some of you are likely to peek at your phone at some point during this little talk.  Even though it’s totally riveting.  But I hope that you’ll pay more attention to me as I give this speech than you give to the flight attendant at the end of the trip… especially when I say DO NOT STAND UP UNTIL THE PLANE HAS COME TO A COMPLETE STOP AND THE SEATBELT SIGN HAS BEEN TURNED OFF.

Yes, we’re almost done.  But don’t get up and open the overhead bins just yet.  I won’t, since I’ll be staying on this plane for a bit longer than you.  Nevertheless, your imminent graduation presents an opportunity for me to reflect a bit on my own experience this year.  I hope that you’ll find my observations relevant to your own lives.

As you may remember, this year I finished my 20th year as a full-time educator.  During your lifetimes, I have learned a lot about teaching, and like you, I feel that this last year has represented a kind of graduation for me.  For the past four years, I’ve tried to focus lessons on your knowledge — on helping you to discover and share things about literature an language.  That’s a big shift from where I started — which was focusing on sharing MY knowledge with students.  And while I don’t think that I’ve become truly effective yet, I do believe that I managed to keep my focus on you, rather than on myself.

This year is also a bit different for me, because the classes have large numbers of students who don’t have English as their native language.  For those of you who have been learning English, I’d like to say Thank you for taking a year or more to learn about my home culture and language.  You took a big risk in coming here to live and learn.  I’m sure that you experienced a lot of challenges during your time here.  To all of you who have reached out to someone from a culture different from your own, congratulations!  You’ve chosen to make your lives a little richer by sharing yourself with someone else.  In order to make the world better, we all need to follow your example.

For some of you, the experience of English class may still leave you with a fundamental question:  Why do we do this?  For you, here’s is one final attempt at answering it:

All academic study gives us knowledge.  I hope that in English class, you have shared some of the joy that I get from knowing things.  I also hope that other classes have done the same for you.  Mathematics gives us order and provides models so that we can make reliable predictions.  History shows us where we came from and gives us a sense of where we may be going.  The sciences show us what we’re made of and how all of these forces and chemicals and atoms combine to make our world and our universe function as it does.  But what about English?

I believe that Literature is special because it gives us a kind of knowledge reserved for us humans:  It shows us how people feel.  Literature gives us a chance to get inside of someone’s soul and live, for a time, that other person’s joy and suffering.  I hope that over the year you have felt some of the joy that I find in reading great literature.  As I look back on the year, there are a few moments that shine for me, as I remember conversations with a few of you, where you have shown me that you’ve felt Olivia’s confusion, or Malvolio’s misery — where you have been shocked by the sadness of Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam experiences or puzzled through Albee’s social criticism.  If you didn’t, well, I hope that some day you’ll give literature another chance.  I also hope that this class offered something to those of you who didn’t feel the direct benefits of the books.

My biggest hope for each of you is that you see yourself as a contributor — as a person with something valuable to share with the rest of the world.  That’s why I set aside a lot of time for you to develop your blogs, and that’s also why I’ve tried to build a lot of activities that asked you to work together in groups.  Ultimately, I hope that as you move on — as you deplane from this leg of life’s journey — you take with you a sense of possibility, as well as a sense of responsibility.  You have the ability to learn, to accomplish, and to share with others.  As you continue on your journey, you’ll be expected to put that ability to good use.  So make sure that you check around your seats for any personal potential that you may have forgotten about — You’ll definitely need it wherever you’re going.

As I look back on this year, and think about what I’ve learned and tried to accomplish, I’m hopeful that you have found an opportunity, one way or another, to share in the celebration of the human condition – in all of its  beauty, horror, sadness and joy, and perhaps above all, in wonder.  Thank you all for giving English class a chance, for taking your own risks, and for sharing yourselves with me and with each other.  I feel privileged to have been your teacher for a year.

Have a great life!


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Address to the Poetry Out Loud Audience, Tallahassee, FL


Thank you, Sandy and Ken, for inviting me to speak at today’s event.  More importantly, thank you for hosting an event that has continued to for both my brain and for my heart over the past six years.  The annual drive up here has become a favorite milestone of my annual school calendar, and the weeks leading up to this event always include moments that remind me of why I love to be a teacher.

Ken asked me to speak about the value of Poetry Out Loud for teachers:  Well, as the Poetry Out Loud web page will tell you, this activity is great for students.  It meets the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) standards numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11, 12.  Not many people know what those numbers mean, but that’s a lot of standards!  The secret, however, is that Poetry Out Loud isn’t just good for students.  It’s good for me, too.  Here are some of the things that I’ve learned as a teacher of Poetry Out Loud.

There are many great poems and poets out there!  Happily, the ones at the beginning of the alphabet are no exception:  The last years of working with students who select their poems on line have left me quite fond of

“Abandoned Farmhouse”

“Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight”


and “Adam’s Curse.”

I’ve also discovered some other great poems, some of which do not begin with the letter “A.”  One way I did that was by encouraging students to look at the pictures of the poets, and to browse for poems by clicking on poets who looked like interesting people.  Somehow the photos help students to get past get past

Chris Abani

Virginia Hamilton Adair

Kim Addonizio, and


Alphabetically or otherwise, I have found that working with students on Poetry Out Loud has been an exercise of discovery for me.  Every year, students select poems that are completely new to me, and I get to share the joy of getting acquainted with and learning about these poets and poems that I was previously ignorant about.  And I have found particular joy in exploring these poems with students who have learned them by heart, and who, through study and performance — and further study — and practice — have taken made their poems a part of themselves.

For some of you, the experience of watching this event may still leave you with a fundamental question:  Why do we do it?  My students often ask this question, and here is my best shot at answering it:

All study gives us knowledge, and we can get utility and joy from appreciating, knowing, and understanding things.  By knowing stuff, we are able to understand how the world works and, one would hope, we are able to predict how things are going to turn out.  Mathematics gives us order and provides models so that we can make reliable predictions.  History shows us where we came from and gives us a sense of where we may be going.  The sciences show us what we’re made of and how all of these forces and chemicals and atoms combine to make our world and our universe function as it does.  But what about Poetry?

I believe that Poetry is special because it gives us a kind of knowledge reserved for us humans:  It shows us how people feel.  Poetry gives us a chance to get inside of someone’s soul and live, for a time, that other person’s joy or suffering.  For all the contestants out there, I hope that over the year you have felt some of the joy that my colleagues and I find in reading great Poems.  If at some point, you wonder at this mysterious person who Shakespeare compares to a summer’s day, that’s great.  If you suffer and laugh with Billy Collins at the death of Allegory, or if you feel the fear, the urgency, and sadness of Dylan Thomas as he exhorts his father not to Go Gentle Into That Good Night — That is, if you take the poets’ words into your own minds and hearts, and if you share what they feel — Well, you’re making yourself that much more of a complete human being.

I get a lot of joy out of my annual visit to Tallahassee.  It’s a long drive, but every year I encounter remarkable students who, by learning three poems by heart and sharing them with me, have enriched my life.  I look forward to my annual trip up here because I always encounter students who recite with power and conviction, and beauty.  And the memory of these performances can move me to tears, especially when I go back and re-read what they have shared with me and remember how they made me feel.

Watching this event always leaves me happy with the knowledge that students around the country are sharing in a celebration of the human condition – in all of its  beauty, horror, sadness and joy, and perhaps above all, in wonder.  Thank you, parents, fellow teachers, judges, and everyone involved in today’s event for making this celebration possible.  For helping students to take the risk of sharing themselves with poetry and with us, and with each other.  I’m very happy to be part of this celebration.

Enjoy the rest of this party!


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Need a Writing Prompt for Friday? Try this one!

The last tool you’ll ever need!

Even the Swiss Army Knife doesn’t have one of these… or does it?

The products on display here (the Hutzler 571 Banana slicer and the Wenger GIANT Swiss Army Knife with 87 tools, for only $1400) invite sarcastic and often wildly funny product reviews from Amazon browsers and customers.  I discovered these reviews through a Facebook post, and after a little research, I’ve found that this sub-genre of satiric writing has been going on for quite some time.  The earliest compilation of these that I have found came from the blogger Hyojin, in Geek in Heels.   That was back in October of 2008.   Her post included product reviews that had been written as early as October 2006.  Cracked.com published a compilation of these back in 2010.  Now, six years behind the curve, and fascinated and delighted by the humor that I can find on Amazon…Especially when it comes from my own students — as in this example:


If you haven’t read them yet, you have to check out the reviews — they gave my English classes the most laughs of anything I’ve tried with them all year, and I’ve spent hours perusing the 2500 different reviews of the banana slicer alone.  Within these reviews, there are also product forums, where “users”  “discuss” the products — and these conversations can be very funny.  Additionally, the reviews are subject to ratings (“How useful was this review to you?).  Some particularly funny reviews are rated thousands of times for their usefulness. 

If your students have Amazon accounts, they can publish product reviews (as my student did in the example above).   If they do, they will be interacting with a real community of very funny writers — and an extremely authentic audience.  Even if they don’t, the fake product reviews provide open lessons in irony and rhetorical humor for many different levels of student.

So if you need a Friday lesson, give it a try.


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Mash Up The Shakespeare!

Ludacris channels Othello?  Justin Timberlake in conversation with Desdemona?  Bob Marley meets the characters of Twelfth Night?  It all happened last week in my English classes, and students made it work.

I got the concept of mashed-up literature from Chris Shamburg, who has developed the idea and shared it with many teachers.   Chris keeps his students at the center of every lesson, letting them be “simultaneous consumers and creators” of media and Shakespeare.

Here it is:

Students picked a character, theme, or a scene from one of the Shakespeare plays that they have been studying, and then they found a song from their own music library that had lyrics that related to the segment they chose.

On their blogs, students posted the lines that they selected from Shakespeare alongside the lyrics of the song that they were using.  Then they mashed the two together.  I found that:

    1. Students chose their own texts, both from Shakespeare and from pop culture — So they tended to pick things that resonated with them.
    2. Students demonstrated understanding of the excerpts of the play that they selected.
    3. It was fun.

Here are some links:

Desdemona’s duet with Justin Timberlake on “Cry Me a River” 

Billy Joel’s “Pressure” comments on Othello’s emotions in Act III

Desdemona meets replies by Rhiana (taking Othello’s point of view).

Maroon 5 meets Othello

Bob Marley sings along with Sebastian, Viola, and Olivia in Twelfth Night

My model assignment

The more I do this kind of assignments with my students, the more I understand that the only way for students to understand engage with literature and language is to work with it themselves.  In order to GET Shakespeare, students have to DO Shakespeare.

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