Archive for the 'PBS' Category

Book: That Shakespeare Kid by Michael LoMonico

Sunday, November 10th, 2013

“Why can’t you remember your Shakespeare and forget the third-raters,” James Tyrone asks his son Edmund in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. “You’ll find what you’re trying to say in him — as you’ll find everything else worth saying.” Author Michael LoMonico puts this claim to the test in his new novel, That Shakespeare Kid, about a boy named Peter who gets hit on the head with a Riverside Shakespeare and awakes to find he can only speak Shakespeare’s words.

Now, I should mention that I know Mike, and I’ve worked with him before on projects such as the Folger’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute, their Elementary Education Conference, and PBS’s Shakespeare Uncovered educational advisory panel. I’m thanked in the book, and read it from a copy signed by the author. So, this will hardly be an unbiased review. But it’s about a kid who can’t stop speaking Shakespeare, so would you expect any less than an enthusiastic response from me regardless? And actually, knowing Mike enhances one’s appreciation of the book, as his time-tested philosophies of teaching and learning Shakespeare are fundamental to the story.

The book is addressed to “the great variety of readers” and, indeed, there are very specific demographics that I think will appreciate it for different reasons. On the surface, it’s a young adult novel, and I think it works on those terms. LoMonico sets the scene in the world of the child, and the story is told through the eyes of Peter’s friend Emma. So while the teacher in the book may be excited about covering Shakespeare, the kids start off creeping unwillingly to school. The characters of Peter and Emma are well developed and likable; they are kids you know and kids you’d like to know. And if the young reader is entirely unfamiliar with Shakespeare, you couldn’t ask for a better introduction.

But as excited as I am to recommend this to my nephew, I think my graduate students would appreciate it even more. In the book, LoMonico depicts numerous Shakespeare class lessons. He illustrates what works and what doesn’t work, and since we hear it all in Emma’s voice, we understand why. Mike is recognized as a national expert on teaching Shakespeare, with experience working with thousands of teachers and students. This novel is practically a textbook on how to teach Shakespeare on the middle-school level (and next semester, perhaps literally a textbook). If you’re interested in learning how to make Shakespeare fun for kids, let Mike walk you through it. The key, of course, is in providing numerous opportunities for students to speak the text out loud. Peter has no choice, but the rest of the students learn to enjoy it as well.

So kids will love this novel, as will teachers who wish to learn the fundamentals of teaching Shakespeare. What about experienced Shakespeare teachers who already have a passion for the stuff? I have to admit that part of the fun for me was in trying to identify the passages that Peter found himself reciting. LoMonico anticipates this; the answers are in the back. Every play by Shakespeare is represented, as well as Sonnet 18. The quotes range from the famous to the obscure, so the unstated game remains fun for all fans of Shakespeare, whether casual or die-hard. And teachers of Shakespeare will appreciate the familiar classroom moments, such as when students encounter the word “ho” or when the script requires your middle-school actors to kiss.

At the heart of That Shakespeare Kid is a love of Shakespeare’s language and how that love is expressed through speaking the text. Peter’s thoughts and writing are unaffected by his affliction; it only affects his speech. But for LoMonico, that’s where Shakespeare lives, in the spoken word, so that’s where teachers and students need to look for him. Peter’s curse becomes a joyful blessing in those sections where he has fun playing with these amazing words he suddenly has unlimited access to, such as when he uses lines from across the canon to describe his experiences at a Mets game, or when he accepts a challenge from his classmates to find quotes that use a given word.

LoMonico has some fun of his own; all of the chapter titles and most of the character names are Shakespeare references. In fact, the entire story can be seen as an allegory for learning Shakespeare’s language. When the students first learn of Peter’s condition, they find it scary and alienating. As they get used to it, they realize that it becomes easier to understand, and they eventually learn to celebrate it.

This is a book about teaching Shakespeare, and about learning it. About liking it, and about loving it. It is for teachers and for students and for Shakespeare fans of all ages. It’s a book for each of us who, at one point in our lives, got hit over the head by a Riverside Shakespeare and found ourselves unable to resist speaking these incredible words. We may have gotten some strange looks from our friends and loved ones at first, but they eventually came to accept it as a part of who we are. Peter’s journey may be fantastical, but it’s not entirely unfamiliar.

That Shakespeare Kid is available at Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle versions.

UPDATE: Mike has set it up on Amazon.com that if you buy the print edition, you can get the Kindle edition for free.

Video: Henry V (The Hollow Crown)

Sunday, October 20th, 2013

This is the last of four reviews of The Hollow Crown, a series of BBC productions of Shakespeare’s second tetralogy of history plays: Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, and the subject of this final review, Henry V.

Henry V is a great play in its own right. But watching it just after you’ve seen the same actors in the Henry IV plays adds a whole new dimension to the experience. From the Dauphin’s insult to the execution of Bardolph to the wooing of Katherine, we can view the actions of the young king through the lens of his wayward youth and seemingly miraculous reformation.

Early on, I was very impressed with the actor who played Exeter. He’s exactly the kind of actor I like; he makes crisp clear decisions, and you always know what he’s thinking. But when I looked up his name, I found it was Anton Lesser, one of my favorite audio performers. I guess I just didn’t recognize him with a face.

The cast as a whole was outstanding, with some very fine moments delivered by the smallest of roles. But there is one star in this play, and Tom Hiddleston gives an outstanding performance as Henry V. He very clearly conquers Harfleur with a single speech. His exchanges with Montjoy are earnest and passionate. And when he gets to the big moment, the St. Cripin’s Day speech, he really brings it home. When Olivier and Branagh did it, they started by talking to Westmoreland and the inner circle and gradually transitioned into a speech to the troops. Hiddleston’s Henry keeps the speech in the circle. Even though it is a monologue, Henry’s audience members contribute as much to the speech as he does, the inspiration beaming in their faces as Henry speaks of honor and glory.

Director Thea Sharrock keeps the action moving and the story clear. This may be the first time I’ve ever really understood the Fluellen/Pistol relationship. In the lead up to the battle, the look and feel of the grimy English soldiers contrasted with the clean French nobles made it clear who was going to be the home team. The Agincourt battle itself was extremely well done, brilliantly capturing the managed chaos of medieval warfare.

The Chorus was done as a voice-over, and it worked here. John Hurt’s enticing performance does a fine job of drawing us into the story, while the images on screen support the narration rather than distracting from it. I don’t want to give too much away here, but it will suffice to say that I absolutely loved the framing device used in the very beginning and the very end. I thought it was incredibly moving and really quite brilliant.

This production was a very fitting conclusion to a sterling collection. Owning the DVD set, I feel as though I am myself a king, and at my command are Ben Wishaw, Jeremy Irons, Simon Russell Beale, and Tom Hiddleston who will, on my merest whim, perform this masterpiece tetralogy for my entertainment.

If you want to get in on the action, you can watch the whole play on the PBS website.

Video: Henry IV, Part 2 (The Hollow Crown)

Sunday, October 13th, 2013

Welcome the third of four reviews of The Hollow Crown, the new BBC video adaptations of Shakespeare’s history plays. The first two reviews covered Richard II and Henry IV, Part 1. This review will focus on Henry IV, Part 2, which I watched on DVD, but is also available for live streaming on the PBS website.

Let me start by saying that this was an amazing production. I felt that same exhiliarating rush of Shakespeare I felt watching Richard II. Henry IV, Part 2 is a wonderful play, and it was realized wonderfully here. But before I go on, I should issue a word of caution. If you’re unfamiliar with this play, you should probably see it before reading my review, as I will give away a few plot elements that are much better experienced in the theatrical moment. So, beware: spoilers ahead!

And it’s understandable if you’re not familiar with the play. You don’t often see stand-alone productions of it, possibly because of the stigma associated with “Part 2″ which, The Godfather excepted, rarely bodes well. But, Hollow Crown title cards and DVD packaging notwithstanding, these are two different plays, not two parts of the same play. Henry IV, Part 2 is a darker and more serious play than its predecessor, and about as underrated as Shakespeare’s works get.

In his very best plays, Shakespeare shows his skill as a dramatist in the composition of his scenes. Each scene has a rising and falling action, conflict and resolution, and internal cohesion. Each could stand alone as an entertaining mini-play, even as he advances his plot and character development for the work as a whole. Hamlet and King Lear are particularly striking examples of this. Watch a good performance of any one scene and you might allow yourself temporarily to believe it’s the most important scene of the play. The result of this is that, if you don’t know the play very well, you are captivated by the dramatic tension and unexpected development of each scene and are able to stay in the moment for a long period of time. And if you do already know the play, you hang in anticipation for your favorite moments.

Henry IV, Part 2 is a cohesive dramatic work that tells a single story. But it is also a collection of incredibly entertaining scenes and powerful individual moments. And if you know what they are, you might find yourself as a kid on a roller coaster you’ve been on a hundred times. You know exactly where the dips and spins are coming, but that knowledge does nothing to diminish your anticipation and enjoyment. If that’s you, you won’t be disappointed by the version presented in The Hollow Crown. (If it’s not you, then even better, but stop reading now!) The direction is much sharper than it was in Part 1, and all of those lovely moments are clearly articulated and in many cases given new life.

Take, for example, the scene in which Hal and Poins spy on Falstaff talking to Doll Tearsheet. Shakespeare set this scene in a crowded tavern, with characters entering and exiting throughout. The Hollow Crown sets the scene in a more private room, where Falstaff and Doll can get more intimate. Instead of entering disguised, Hal and Poins are hidden, adding a sinister feel to the scene that wasn’t there before. And when Hal finally calls out Falstaff for his behavior, his tone is stern and cold. This foreshadows the later rejection scene beautifully. Simon Russell Beale (Falstaff) fills the iconic role with boisterous joy once again, but now tinged with just the right amount of sentimentality. Julie Walters (Mistress Quickly) and Maxine Peake (Doll Tearsheet) add considerably to the comic energy of the scene.

I’m a big fan of the king’s insomnia speech, and Jeremy Irons (King Henry IV) delivers. Most of the speech was presented in very wide shots, with the king as a tiny figure overwhelmed by very large spaces decked with the ornate trappings of royalty. I think it was a strong choice, though I would have liked to have seen the actor’s face a bit more. But the speech wasn’t done in voice-over, so I can’t really complain too much. And we get to see Irons very much up close and personal in his final scene with Tom Hiddleston (Hal). This is what I would call the deathbed scene, but the king leaves his bed here. They move to the throne room, which allows director Richard Eyre the opportunity to play with vertical levels and royal symbolism galore.

It’s at this point that Shakespeare fans are ready for the rejection scene. Quite possibly, it is the most memorable scene in the play, and it is often described as the saddest scene in Shakespeare. But too often overlooked is the other side of the equation: the new king embracing the policeman who chased him down in his youth. Geoffrey Palmer (Lord Chief Justice) gives a masterful performance throughout the play, but nowhere better than in this scene. He bravely looks the new king in the eye and mounts a righteous defense of his actions and duty, even as his body betrays him by gently quaking in fear. To me, this is no less powerful a moment in the play than Falstaff’s rejection.

That being said, Falstaff’s rejection was quite powerful as well. When Shakespeare’s done right, there’s nothing else like it, and this is Shakespeare done right.

One more play to go, my friends. Once more into the breach…

Video: Henry IV, Part 1 (The Hollow Crown)

Sunday, October 6th, 2013

This is the second of what I intend to be four reviews of The Hollow Crown, the new BBC video adaptations of Shakespeare’s history plays, currently being broadcast on PBS and available for streaming on their website. They are also available on DVD, which is how I’m viewing the series. The series comprises Richard II; Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; and Henry V. A complete plot summary might be cumbersome, but if you want to follow along with song parodies, they were set to the tunes of “Single Ladies,” “Tik Tok,” “Blurred Lines,” and “One More Night.”. Last week, I reviewed Richard II. This review will focus on Henry IV, Part 1.

Let me start by saying that it was really well done and I enjoyed it a great deal. There were a few elements about the adaptation that I didn’t like, and I will explain below what they were and why they are important to me. But overall, I give the production a big thumbs up, and recommend it highly.

The opening sequence lets us know that this is going to be a very different play from Richard II. While that play consisted largely of scenes set among nobility in the sterile court, this play opens with the streets bustling with the common people in all of their grimy splendor. Filthy peasants chop up dead animals for commerce and consumption beneath a window where a woman shakes dirt out of a rug. A dog licks at a dead pig, as merchants and consumers crowd into the marketplace, warmly greeting each other to exchange merchandise and soot. A clean dapper figure, Tom Hiddleston, giddily walks among them. It makes sense that he’s playing Hal, as I know he’ll be playing Henry V in the last play. But then he wanders into a tavern and wakes up a man who obviously must be Falstaff, and it turns out to be Simon Russell Beale. Oh yeah.

The first two scenes are intertwined, which I thought worked well in introducing the characters. This is something easier to do crisply on the screen than it is on stage, and I think it was done well. I also really liked the way the battle scenes were handled. The tavern scenes were well acted, but I think the production missed the disorderly energetic feeling of a tavern atmosphere. The patrons mostly seemed to stand around watching the principles perform, which was a little too tidy for my tastes.

In addition to Hiddleston and Beale, I thought the cast was very good, and enjoyed a number of outstanding performances in small roles. I thought that David Hayman (Worcester) and Michelle Dockery (Kate) were particularly worth mentioning. I also have to put Jeremy Irons (King Henry IV) in this category. I loved the scenes he was in, but the title role is a small part in this play, and I look forward to seeing more of him in the next one. I can’t wait for the final scene between Irons and Hiddleston. I just know that’s going to be amazing. To hold you over, there’s a scene in this play where Hal imitates his father, and I just wanted to give a shout out of appreciation for Tom Hiddleston’s impression of Jeremy Irons.

The Percy family all had the same accent, and this may mean something to an English audience that I’m missing, though I think I can take an educated guess. I think they were doing what the English call a “Northern” accent, which would make sense for Northumberland. And a little research shows that Joe Armstrong (Hotspur) is the real-life son of Alun Armstrong (Northumberland), who grew up in County Durham, which actually borders Northumberland. So it would appear that someone went to a lot of effort to make this piece of it authentic, and I can appreciate that.

One thing I didn’t like was the use of voice-over for two of the soliloquies in the play. Both Hal and Falstaff have speeches that are here presented in voice-over as they make their way through crowds. Voice-over was a technique that Olivier used in his 1948 movie of Hamlet. Olivier was shot in close up, though, making facial expressions to show that he was thinking the words we were hearing. It does seem a bit silly, but I understand what he was going for. In trying to adapt the play from one medium to another, he wanted to use the lexicography of the new medium, and that included the ability to hear the character’s thoughts without him having to speak them. It was a necessary experiment, but I don’t think it worked. There’s an intimacy when an actor speaks directly to the audience, as the air escapes his lungs and his emotions radiate from his eyes, that has a potency to make a connection. Shakespeare understood this potency and used it often. That connection can actually transfer to a screen production, but in my opinion, it doesn’t survive the additional layer of distancing that voice-over brings.

That’s why it didn’t work for Olivier, but I think it’s even worse here. At least Olivier attempted to be present for the soliloquies; you could see he was actually thinking the speech we were hearing. In these scenes, Hal and Falstaff are just going about their business. There’s no sense that the actor even knows where in the speech we are. And it’s true that we often have thoughts running through our minds as we proceed through our day, but that lessens the importance of the speech. What’s more, in the screen lexicography of our day, the voice-over does not necessarily signify a character’s inner thoughts. Quite often, a voice-over indicates the character’s voice from the future narrating past events. That is entirely the wrong choice here.

The “I know you all” speech sets up Hal’s character arc. The later King Henry V will be one of the greatest heroes for Shakespeare’s England, and Shakespeare wants to be very clear in establishing that the young prince’s history of debauchery was a calculated plan from the very beginning. Thus, we need to hear him give this speech at this very moment, after he has agreed to participate in the shenanigans but before he actually does it, so that he can establish that he knows what he’s doing. If it’s a disembodied voice from the future, then it sounds like rationalizing after the fact, an impression Shakespeare was trying very hard not to give. And even if we do accept the voice as Hal’s thoughts, they are presented in such a way as to minimize their importance, rather than being one of the defining moments of his character. The payoff doesn’t come for another two plays, so it’s important to really emphasize it now.

Less damaging is Falstaff’s “honor” speech done as a voice-over, but this speech really needs an actor. We forgive Falstaff his trespasses because he’s so charming and describes his philosophy with a twinkle in his eye. No twinkle, no empathy, and the “honor” speech diminishes Falstaff’s character. The payoff for this speech comes only a short time later on the battlefield when Falstaff discovers the body of Sir Walter Blunt and says “There’s honor for you.” But without the speech, there is no shared reference with the audience, and the line is thrown away.

And while I’m railing about details, where was the Douglas? I understand cuts have to be made, but this is a really fun character that also happens to add a lot to plot and character development for the play as a whole. You can live without the Douglas, I suppose, instead of adding to the sense of menace that the rebels present. And you can live without the Douglas, I suppose, instead of creating a brilliant stage moment when the unlikely opponent Falstaff has to face off against him. And you can live without the Douglas, I suppose, when Hal has the opportunity to display mercy by letting him go at the end. But what happens when you lose the Douglas in the scene where Hal comes to his father’s defense in battle? This is a kid who everyone thinks is a degenerate hooligan, and then he risks his own life to save his father’s, even when his father’s death would win him the crown. This is a pretty important moment for understanding Hal, wouldn’t you say?

So yes, I did have some quibbles with some of the individual choices, but as I said, I did enjoy the production overall, and it’s my pleasure to recommend it to you. I’m also looking forward to the next play with great anticipation. I’ll let you know when I’ve seen it.

You can watch the entire video for free on the PBS website.

Video: Richard II (The Hollow Crown)

Sunday, September 29th, 2013

This.

Enthusiastic and meme-hip as it is, my one-word review of The Hollow Crown, Sam Mendes’s four-part television adaptation of Shakespeare’s second tetralogy, probably deserves further elaboration. I’ll be watching the productions on DVD, so I may be somewhat out of sync with your local PBS airing currently underway. But you can also catch the series on streaming video through the PBS website, so it’s all good. This review will focus mostly on Richard II, the first of the four plays, because I haven’t watched the other three yet.

Now, if you’re a faithful reader of this blog or, well, met me once, you know this is the kind of thing I live for, and you’ll be prepared for the breathless effluence of a hardcore fan. But truth be told, I can be a tough audience. Because I know the play so well, it’s hard to get me to suspend my disbelief. And this is a tough play. The language is lofty and poetic, even by Shakespeare’s standards, so it’s harder to get the words to sound natural.

And yet, I found myself riveted by the dramatic tension of the scenes, despite knowing not only what was about to happen, but also the exact words that were about to be spoken. I don’t know how that’s possible, but truly I was engrossed the whole time. The actors were top-notch across the board, and the direction was very clear in telling the story. The scenes were beautifully shot and in high definition. True, I was watching it on DVD, but I checked out the streaming feed for this review, and was very impressed at how high you could set the picture quality. Welcome to the future of Shakespeare.

The opening scene started with voice-over of Richard’s “let’s talk of graves” speech, the speech that “the hollow crown” comes from. I must confess feeling a moment’s hesitation, as I worried the director was going to get cute with the play. But then Richard calls for his uncle, John of Gaunt, and it’s Patrick Stewart. Lines are spoken, and I’m feeling the brain burst. This is going to be a wild 148 minutes.

We don’t get much Patrick Stewart, but we do get the “royal throne of kings” speech with full Tom Hooper Les Miz close-up. It’s fantastic, of course, but it’s the subsequent scene between Gaunt and Richard that I had to put back and watch again. And then (spoiler) Stewart’s gone, but we’re given no less than David Suchet (York) to take up the baton. And those are just the supporting players.

Worth mentioning is Rory Kinnear as Bolingbroke. His demeanor is somewhat understated, as is appropriate to the character, but he has some really nice subtleties to his performance. But the real standout in the cast was Ben Wishaw as Richard. I didn’t know much about him outside of Shakespeare Uncovered and James Bond, so I was completely unprepared for just how good he was going to be. Wishaw creates a soft, pampered Richard through his body posture, vocal intonations, and a not-insigificant contribution from a monkey. But then, as his place is challenged, his character arc transitions from entitlement-fueled rage to deep melancholy despair without losing any of the qualities Wishaw had established for Richard. He made me feel the “let’s talk of graves” speech, which I’ve taught phrase-by-phrase, as though I was hearing it for the first time. His performance in the (spoiler) abdication scene alone elevates him to a level of greatness where I can say that his participation in any future project will be no less of a draw for me than a Patrick Stewart or a David Suchet, and that’s no small compliment.

I do have some very minor quibbles that have much more to do with my own Shakespeare pedantry than anything lacking in this production. Some lines I like got cut, but I’ll get over it. Northumberland and especially Henry Percy are underdeveloped. This wouldn’t be a big deal if it were a stand-alone production of Richard II, but the characters reappear in later plays, and the fact that the Percys supported Richard’s ascension in this play adds an ironic layer that’s only possible when you do the plays together. But I understand Jeremy Irons will be playing Henry IV, so maybe the other actors will be replaced as well. Also, I missed the Duchess of Gloucester. Would it really been so hard to have called up Helen Mirren or Vanessa Redgrave or somebody and ask if she had a day to come in and do a scene with Patrick Stewart?

But these are my problems and not yours. If you like to order your Shakespeare well done, you won’t be disappointed. If you’re not a fan of Shakespeare, this might be your way in. And if you are a fan of Shakespeare, but not the histories (Duane), you owe yourself this unique opportunity to see what all the fuss is about.

I’ll post more reviews as I watch the rest of the series.

ETA: Duane’s already on it.

Cleopatra’s Facebook

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

Last night, PBS and the Folger Shakespeare Library hosted a Twitter party, a real-time online conversation about teaching Shakespeare with experts from the Folger and teachers from across the country. It was a great opportunity to connect with like-minded educators and share innovative practices, although, because it was on Twitter, the party was most definitely BYOB.

I had the opportunity to share a cool project I did two years ago, and I realized that I never actually posted the final product here. Long-time readers may remember my working with a class of sixth-grade students on Antony and Cleopatra back in the spring of 2011. The students were learning about ancient Egypt in social studies, and it was a good opportunity to make connections in ELA. We did in-class readings of selected scenes and discussed how they relate to our lives and world today.

One thing that made this project a little different was that we used an online Moodle classroom to manage our unit. This school happened to be part of two unrelated projects, one that gave the students laptops in school and another that gave them desktops at home, so it was a perfect environment to experiment with blended learning models for teaching Shakespeare. I uploaded links to the scenes and additional resources we could draw from to increase our understanding, as well as message boards for each lesson, so students could continue discussing the themes of the lesson beyond the school day.

Once we finished the play, we discussed our project. My thinking was that we would make a video. The kids thought the play was like a soap opera (and that Cleopatra was a “drama queen”!) and that seemed to be a promising thread for a while. But the more we talked about the project, the more the kids wanted to go another way. They decided that they wanted to retell the story of Antony and Cleopatra through social media, which later got refined into the idea of creating Cleopatra’s Facebook page during the events of the play. The students were too young to actually go on Facebook, so our project would be an offline mock-up.

I set up an area on the Moodle classroom where students could brainstorm ideas as well as post their favorite lines from the play. We broke up into five groups, and each was assigned a different act. Each group also designed a tableau to represent their act. Actors volunteered, and were chosen to select their preferred part by random lot. We found various locations around the school to take pictures of our tableaux and Facebook profile headshots. Our costume scheme was simple: “Romans are Red, Egyptians are Blue, Cleopatra wears White, and the snake does too.” The snake, by the way, was a real snake generously lent by the science teacher, though it made our Cleopatra skittish. The actor who played the clown had the idea that he would photobomb the earlier pictures, and then appear completely serious in the final image.

Meanwhile, other students were taking the ideas posted to the Moodle classroom by each of the groups and creating a Facebook-style narrative tracing the plot of the play. A particularly tech-savvy student volunteered to put it all together in the visual style of Facebook, which she did on her own. The final product can be seen below (click for a larger image).

Enjoy!

Shakespeare Uncovered Website

Wednesday, March 20th, 2013

I promised to let you know when the Shakespeare Uncovered website was up. It is, and it’s a fantastic resource all Shakespeare teachers should know about.

First of all, you can actually watch full episodes of the series online. So even if you missed out the first time, it’s all there waiting for you now.

The Education section, the part where I contributed, boasts a collection of fantastic lesson plans on Shakespeare that use clips from the television show in class. The lessons are relatively short, so they can either be used on their own or worked into longer Shakespeare units you may already be planning. And if you want to see the bios for all of the members of the Advisory Board, you can find them here (mine is the fifth one down).

The series may be over, but the website is the gift that keeps on giving. So head on over to watch the show, play the games, and teach the lessons!

Shakespeare Uncovered

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

I hope you’re as excited as I am for Shakespeare Uncovered, “a new six part PBS series combining history, biography, iconic performances, new analysis and the personal passion to tell the story behind the stories of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.”

I served as a member of an Advisory Board convened by the producing station—New York City’s WNET—to help develop a comprehensive suite of free online educational resources based on the series, which I’m told will soon be available to high school educators on the series website. I’ll post another link once they’re up.

The series premieres this Friday, January 25th. In the first episode, Ethan Hawke takes us on a dark and dangerous journey through the psychology, history, and artistry of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Watch Hawke make breakthroughs in his understanding of the character he’s always wanted to play, even as he accidentally damages a priceless First Folio on camera. Travel to Dunsinane to see what we can discover about this historic setting. Explore the relationship between the Macbeths and peer into the minds and hearts of killers. Learn about how the passions, words, and themes of Shakespeare are relevant to our lives even today.

Sounds pretty sweet, right? And that’s just the first episode. Whether you’re interested in the poetry, history, or biography of Shakespeare, you won’t want to miss this series. Check your local PBS listings for dates and times of the rest of the episodes.

Watch Macbeth with Ethan Hawke on PBS. See more from Shakespeare Uncovered.

Eating Ambrosia on Mount Olympus

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

As the year is winding down, I’m looking back over the last twelve months of Shakespeare Teacher to prepare for the annual Top Ten Posts list, which will be up tomorrow. I admit that this has not been my most prolific year, but I’ve been extremely busy. Busyness is often cited as a complaint, but I have no complaints. Rather, my busyness has been the result of having too many opportunities that were too good to pass up. Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?

One of the things that has been occupying my time has been a new graduate-level course I’m teaching for NYU on evaluation for school administrators. I didn’t know I’d be teaching it until the course actually started, so I’ve been burning the candle at both ends trying to stay prepared each week. The effort has been worthwhile, as the students have been giving glowing feedback to the department, and I’ve been hired to teach it again in the spring. I’ll also be teaching my regular course for English teachers on using drama as a teaching tool, so I should still be pretty busy… the good busy, but busy nevertheless.

Still, I’d like to be using the blog to write about the things that I’m doing and to process what I’m learning while I’m doing them. I haven’t been doing that, and my New Year’s Resolution is to return to doing that. So busyness isn’t an excuse to avoid writing; it should be a call to write. Readers have continued to enjoy the regular features, and I’ve enjoyed writing them, but they were never what this blog was supposed to be about. I recently had one experience in particular that I’ve regretted not taking the time to share with the readers of this website, so I’d like to do so now. Better late than never.

Thirteen (WNET) has produced a series called Shakespeare Uncovered which will premiere on PBS stations on January 25. I had nothing to do with the creation of the series, but Thirteen asked me to sit on an advisory board to consult on the educational outreach component that accompanies their programming. So far, this has consisted of previewing the series and having a day-long meeting with Thirteen educators and other members of the advisory board.

I was excited enough to work with Thirteen and on teaching Shakespeare no less, but when I found out who the other members of the board were going to be, I was floored. These are my teaching Shakespeare heroes, some of whom I’ve met through my dealings with the Folger, others of whom I know by reputation. My claim to fame, on the other hand, is that I snatched a good Internet domain name when the snatching was good. But I think my enthusiasm for the subject matter made up the difference. Having the chance to spend an entire day discussing the teaching of Shakespeare with a team of experts was like being invited to eat ambrosia on the top of Mount Olympus. And I’ve been yearning to tell you about it ever since.

By the way, the Shakespeare Uncovered series is amazing, and you should watch it when it airs. If you’re into Shakespeare, you’ll appreciate all of the different angles the series covers. And if you’re not a Shakespeare fan, you may come to understand why some of us are.

I had hoped that this post wouldn’t come off as too self-critical or apologetic. But now that I read over it, it comes off as one big humblebrag. I can live with that. The Top Ten list will be posted tomorrow.

Fifty Apps for the iPad

Sunday, January 9th, 2011

Last year, I wrote that I didn’t need an iPad, because I had an iPhone and a Macbook Air. I still have them both, and they are still working out great. But my nephews got iPads for the holidays, and this is how I bond with them, so I had to get an iPad too. How’s that for a rationalization?

But now that I’ve bought one, I’m glad I did, because it’s adding value in ways I hadn’t anticipated. True, it is basically an iPod Touch with a larger screen, but that larger screen makes a big difference. There are a lot of things I can technically do with my iPhone, but usually don’t because the screen size is too small. And I’m finding it easier to do those things on the iPad.

So here are the top ten things you can do on an iPhone or iPod Touch that you can do better on an iPad:

1. Watch: I’ve been carrying around movies and TV shows on my iPhone for years, but I’ve watched more on the iPad in the last couple of months than I ever watched on the little screen. The Videos app (Included) is the very first app on my iPad. But I’ve also signed up for accounts with Netflix (Free app + $7.99/mo.) and Hulu Plus (Free app + $7.99/mo.) that let me stream video content from their impressive libraries. The combined monthly cost is far, far less than the Cable TV I’m canceling. And apps for YouTube (Included) and ABC Player (Free) help establish the iPad as a truly flexible video viewer you can take anywhere.

2. Connect: The power of social media has risen incredibly in the past year, and the App Store (Included) has kept pace. There are a variety of apps to help keep you connected, but I use Reeder ($4.99) as my Google Reader client, Friendly (Free) as my Facebook client, and Twitter (Free) as my client to access the Twitter account I finally broke down and created so that I could follow the national conversation where it seems to have gone. You can also consolidate the three, and much more, in one app called Flipboard (Free), which formats the content into a friendly magazine layout for casual browsing. There is also a WordPress app (Free), which allows me to blog on the go, and Yahoo! Messenger (Free) – actually an iPhone app – which lets users exchange text messages and participate in voice chat. And the iPad Mail interface (Included), designed for the larger screen, is much easier to use than its iPhone counterpart.

3. Read: The biggest surprise for me on the iPad is how much I love my Kindle app (Free), which lets me download books from Amazon and read them on the iPad. And these are real books that I actually want to read, not the limited eBook selection available through Apple. However, there are a lot of places online to get free books in ePub format, which can then be imported into your iTunes library and read on iBooks (Free), so you should definitely get it. I’m a fan of Offline Pages ($4.99), which allows you to save websites (from the iPad or from your home computer) and read them on the iPad, even after you’re no longer connected to the Internet. I also highly recommend the Shakespeare Pro app ($9.99) if Shakespeare’s your thing, and the Newspapers app ($2.99), which lets you access local newspapers from across the country on a daily basis.

4. Play: Any game you can play on the iPhone, you can play on the iPad, either in the original size, or expanded to fit the screen (sometimes with the expected loss of quality). But the expanded real estate has given developers something to code about, so there is a whole spate of new games and revamped versions of old games at the ready. Plants vs. Zombies is the absolute best game to ever grace the iPhone, and Plants vs. Zombies HD ($6.99) is even better on the iPad. Games like Cover Orange HD ($0.99) and Cut the Rope HD ($1.99), which combine tricky puzzles with engaging animations, demonstrate a new level of what is possible in portable gaming. Even the simple games, like Saving Seeds HD ($0.99) or Aces Traffic Pack HD ($2.99), really make you feel like you’re using a next generation device. I was able to play GT Racing: Motor Academy ($0.99) with my two nephews, each of us on our own iPads, racing each other on the same track. This was cool on a level they could not possibly appreciate.

5. View: I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss how viewing photos is better on the larger screen, obvious as it may be. The iPad has a built-in Picture Frame feature, which lets the device function as a digital picture frame when it’s not otherwise in use. There are also apps that take advantage of the view, like Beautiful Planet HD ($0.99) that shows high-quality images from across the globe, and The Guardian Eyewitness (Free), which shows a different news photo every day. And The Elements ($13.99), the flagship app of the iPad, is everything it’s hyped to be: an interactive periodic table in which you can rotate high-quality 3D images of each of the elements. But it does take up almost 2GB of storage space, so don’t even bother with it if you’re only working with 16GB.

6. Work: The iPad is expensive to begin with, so it seems worth it to me to invest just a bit more in the iWork suite – Pages ($9.99), Numbers ($9.99), and Keynote ($9.99) – to add value to your device. I’ve also become fond of GoodReader ($2.99), which reads PDF files, and Teleprompt+ ($9.99), which allows you to load up text documents from your desktop and use the iPad as your own portable teleprompter. Try that with an iPhone.

7. Organize: I’ve actually not had a problem with the Calendar app on the iPhone, but the iPad’s Calendar interface (Included) makes it possible to see my whole month at a glance, which is a useful feature. As a MobileMe user, I like to use iDisk (Free app + $99/yr. for MobileMe) to coordinate between my desktop, laptop, iPhone, and iPad, but if you’re not a member, I’ve heard good things about Dropbox (Free app + Dropbox account). And I have to mention the Delivery Status app ($4.99), which lets you follow multiple packages from FedEx, UPS, etc. as they are tracked through the system.

8. Browse: The fact that the iPhone had a fully functioning web browser was a major breakthrough, but the iPad takes it a step further. It’s not only that the screen is larger, but also the fact that it allows you to view the full versions of your favorite websites, as opposed to the version optimized for mobile devices. Safari (Included) also syncs your bookmarks bar from its desktop counterpart (via MobileMe, I think), which I have found very convenient. It’s worth checking to see if the websites you frequent have their own apps as well. I recommend Google (Free), WolframAlpha ($1.99), and Articles ($4.99), which is a sharp-looking Wikipedia client.

9. Explore: Here’s how you know you are living in the future. Download GoSkyWatch Planetarium (Free) to your iPad. Then point it at the sky at night. It will display for you the same stars at which you are gazing, along with their names and even the constellations drawn in. Move the iPad around and the display will adjust. It’s also worth getting Solar Walk ($2.99), which gives you more freedom to move around the solar system and see what’s going on, including watching our own artificial satellites as they orbit around the Earth. The more expansive interface also breathes new life into old favorites such as Maps (Included) and Google Earth (Free).

10. Distract: So you’ve bought your iPad and now the kids want to play with it. What can you download to keep them out of your online banking app? The boys have their favorites, but Elena, who is now almost two, can work the icons along with the best of them, even knowing to hit the menu button when she’s bored with one app and wants to switch to another. Voting with her fingers, she recommends Sound Touch ($2.99), Art in Motion ($2.99), Tesla Toy ($1.99), and Drawing Pad ($0.99). Ian (age six) is really into roller coasters, so he enjoys games like New York 3D Rollercoaster Rush HD ($4.99) and Underground 3D Rollercoaster Rush HD ($4.99). But he really loves an app called Coaster Physics ($0.99), which lets him design his own roller coaster and then ride on it as he learns about kinetic and potential energy. He also likes to practice his Dolch sight words with All Sight Words ($0.99) and play Math Bingo ($0.99), while his older brother Jason (age eight) prefers MathBoard ($3.99) to hone his arithmetic skills. I highly recommend the BrainPOP Featured Movie (Free) and PBS’s SUPER WHY! ($3.99), two excellent educational apps by sources from whom we’d expect no less. And there are a whole host of apps that simulate baking different sugary confections, but Cupcakes! XL ($0.99) makes the best use of the iPad’s capabilities.

I certainly mean no disrespect to the iPhone. It’s still, hands down, the coolest thing I’ve ever owned, including the iPad. It has a phone and a camera and it fits in my pocket, so the new kid is really no threat. The iPhone is also better for listening to audio, recording voice memos, MusicID, and playing Doodle Jump or Catan. Most of the things I do with the iPad are things I wasn’t really doing with the iPhone anyway. So the iPad did add value after all.

And now all of my portable digital requirements really are met, and I therefore have no need for any new thing that should happen to be introduced by Apple or anyone else.

Do I?