Archive for the 'Question' Category

Question of the Week

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

So, today was my birthday.

People always seem to want to know how you spent your birthday. Frankly, it’s just another day to me, so it doesn’t bother me that I spent much of it preparing for a workshop tomorrow.

The workshop is going to be on the Danielson Framework for Teaching, a 22-component system for evaluating teacher effectiveness. Last year, New York City was using three of these components, and we all had to learn them inside out. This year, we’ll be using all 22, and everyone is scrambling to catch up.

Over the next two days, my job will be to train all of the teachers in one high school on the extremely comprehensive criteria on which they will be judged.

I did some trainings on the Framework over the summer. Teachers approach it with skepticism, as experience has taught them to be cautious of new initiatives. Added to this is the reasonable perception that the system can often be hostile to teachers. But once we actually delved into the measures, the teachers generally agreed that they are fair, assuming the evaluations are implemented fairly.

I’m guessing that the Danielson Framework will be a very important part of my life between now and my next birthday, so I should say a few words about it. The 22 components are organized in four domains:

Domain 1: Planning and Preparation
Domain 2: The Classroom Environment
Domain 3: Instruction
Domain 4: Professional Responsibilities

New York City is using the ratings based on the Framework as a portion of overall teacher evaluation, and Domains 2 and 3 will be 75% of that portion.

As an interesting side note, I was in Pennsylvania visiting my sister last week, and I happened to be there on the day that the kids were assigned their teachers. Parents were texting and calling each other like mad trying to determine who got what teacher and how the classes would be made up.

Out of curiosity, I asked my sister what parents look for when they decide what teachers they want their children to have. She listed a number of qualities that mainly fall into Domain 2. I asked her if parents in her community care about how much test scores improved for the class the teacher had the previous year. They couldn’t care less.

So that’s not a scientific study, but it is an enlightening data point. As we head back to school, I’d love to turn the question over to the Shakespeare teacher community.

When you send your own children back to school, what do you look for in a teacher?

I Talk About Politics

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

I wanted to address a question that isn’t Frequently Asked, but one that is often raised in more subtle ways: Why would a blog dedicated to the teaching of Shakespeare talk so much about politics? Why risk alienating Shakespeare fans that may not agree with my viewpoints? Wouldn’t it be better to build a community of Shakespeare teachers without venturing into the socially impolite topic of partisan politics?

First of all, allow me to clarify that this blog isn’t entirely dedicated to teaching Shakespeare, as you may have noticed. “Shakespeare Teacher” is simply meant to be my blogger handle. The blog has always been about whatever I happen to find interesting at the moment, which often includes education and Shakespeare, but it also will include politics from time to time. But the question does lead to a more interesting question about how contemporary politics and Shakespeare are related in the roles they play in our lives.

In The Theatre of the Oppressed, Augusto Boal tells us that “all theater is necessarily political, because all the activities of man are political and theater is one of them.” What’s the point of studying Shakespeare if we’re not going to learn from him? And what’s the point of learning from him if we’re not going to apply what we’ve learned to build a better world? People who study that other great work of literature never hesitate to cite passages from it to imply an endorsement of their political views. We should not be timid to bring Shakespeare into the discussion when his insights would add a vital perspective.

I sometimes try to do this with the anagram, and this example from King Lear is perhaps illustrative. Lear is looking at the helpless victims of a storm and recognizing that he is partly responsible for their plight. “O! I have ta’en/ Too little care of this.” And if we can be moved by his words, it’s only fair to ask: moved to what? If we can be moved to tears, we can be moved to action. Because what moves us in that line is our recognition of the things in the world that we ourselves have ta’en too little care of. Like, for example, the helpless victims of a storm, and our responsibility to them.

We venerate Shakespeare for his wisdom about the human condition. Some go so far as to say that he teaches us what it means to be human. But how does this understanding manifest itself in our society if not in the decisions we make as public policy? How do we define ourselves? How do we treat each other? How can we meet our most fundamental human needs? How do we deal with the unexpected? What are our priorities? What is our responsibility to one another? How we answer these questions for ourselves determines how we make the big decisions about the kind of society we want to be and the kind of world we want to live in. These decisions are swayed by policy, policy is swayed by elections, and elections are swayed by public opinion. Can Shakespeare be a voice in that discussion?

I talk about Shakespeare. I talk about politics. I welcome you to the conversation.

Question of the Week

Monday, January 3rd, 2011

Last month, I was giving a workshop for principals on Instructional Rounds, a method of structuring conversations about best practices based on classroom observations conducted in teams, when an interesting question arose. I asked them if teaching was an art or a science.

In this context, it was more than just a philosophical question. If teaching is an art, like music or painting, then each teacher should be allowed as much freedom and creativity as possible in developing a personal teaching style. If, on the other hand, teaching is a science, like medicine or physics, then we must determine best practices through research and establish standards and methodologies for the profession that all are expected to follow.

Carol Ann Tomlinson calls teaching a science-informed art, an answer the group liked, but I’d like to take a closer look at the question. The way we view the profession affects everything from how we train teachers to how we evaluate their performance. So is it an art, or is it a science?

Perhaps the distinction between the two isn’t as clear-cut as we think. Teaching may be a “science-informed art,” but what art hasn’t been influenced by the sciences? Each artistic discipline codifies what works and what doesn’t, and even the most promising young talents must study for many years to perfect their craft. There are certainly examples of highly successful art forms and artists that are defined largely by breaking the rules, like jazz or Picasso, but even they are influenced by science. Would Picasso’s “Blue Period” have been possible if Heinrich Diesbach hadn’t developed an affordable blue paint? And you can’t just play anything you like in improvisational jazz; you really have to know what you’re doing. In other words, it doesn’t mean a thing if it hasn’t got that swing.

Science, on the other hand, has a lot more intuition and creativity than it generally gets credit for. It comforts us to think of medicine as a hard science, but a lot of times doctors just have to go with their best instincts. I may have seen too many episodes of House, but let me ask you this: If you had to go in for surgery, would you prefer a young surgeon who recently graduated from a top medical school with a high GPA, or would you prefer a doctor with 25 years of experience doing this kind of surgery with a high success rate? And the most creative, mind-blowing stuff we’ve seen lately is coming out of the field of theoretical physics. Einstein famously said that imagination was more important than knowledge, and we have more knowledge because of his imagination.

So in deciding if teaching is an art or a science, we have to look at art and science for what they really are: two ends of a continuum, rather than binary opposites. But where on the continuum does teaching belong? The term “Instructional Rounds” borrows its name from the medical profession. But others refer to a similar activity as a “Gallery Walk” which takes its title from the arts.

There is, of course, a third option that falls outside of this continuum. In this option, teaching is neither an art nor a science, as each word implies a skilled and knowledgeable practitioner. It is simply a trade, one that can be standardized and learned. In this view, teaching is not a profession at all. I reject this idea, but it becomes part of the conversation nevertheless. And so, I bring back the Question of the Week by asking you this:

Is teaching an art or a science?

Question of the Week

Friday, July 24th, 2009

Apple has chosen, as App Store Pick of the Week, an app called Shakespeare that was put together by and Readdle. It’s a great app. I have it on my iPhone, and it’s really useful for looking up a reference or browsing through the plays. It doesn’t do anything fancy; it’s just an easy way to navigate the text of the Complete Works.

When it got the Apple nod, I returned to the store to read the description of the app, which I was surprised to find now includes a warning that it may not be suitable for children under 12:

Rated 12+ for the following:
Infrequent/Mild Profanity or Crude Humor
Infrequent/Mild Alcohol, Tobacco, or Drug Use or Reference
Infrequent/Mild Sexual Content or Nudity
Infrequent/Mild Horror/Fear Themes
Frequent/Intense Realistic Violence
Infrequent/Mild Mature/Suggestive Themes
Frequent/Intense Cartoon or Fantasy Violence

Parents, you’ve been warned.

I put the question to my readers: What might we be afraid our younger children will do after reading Shakespeare on their iPhones?

Poison their sisters? Usurp the crown? Dress like a boy and flee into the forest?

Let me know what you think.

Larger Questions

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

Monday’s Question of the Week was about the President’s new policy of “prolonged detention” for terror suspects who seemingly cannot be tried and cannot be released, and what larger implications this practice might have in the future. So far, nobody has touched it. It’s possible some are still pondering this question, while others are composing their carefully-worded responses. However, it’s also possible that I chose the wrong question. Let’s try another angle…

What icon will Doonesbury use to represent President Obama? In the past, Bill Clinton was represented as a waffle, while first-term George W. Bush was represented as an asterisk in a cowboy hat (later changed to a helmet from the Roman empire). The Doonesbury FAQ offers the following:

We appreciate the interest of the hundreds of readers who have written to ask — with varying degrees of impatience — whether there will be a Doonesbury icon for President Obama. Suggestions for an image have been generously forthcoming — halo, basketball, Ray-Bans, Blackberry, teleprompter.

My vote is coins. This represents “change” in one sense, and in another the financial challenges he inherited. What do you think?

What icon should Doonesbury use to represent Obama?

Question of the Week

Monday, May 25th, 2009

On this Memorial Day, we remember and honor the men and women who have given their lives in the service of our country. Their sacrifices have helped keep us safe from harm, protected from tyranny, and secure in a way of life that upholds the values we cherish. This week’s Question invites us to examine what it was we believe they fought and died for, and how we can best honor their memories.

President Obama is doing the right thing by closing the detention camp at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. In some cases, this will mean a transfer of prisoners, while in other cases, it will lead to a trial. But there is one group that has triggered a serious policy discussion that has challenged the President to demonstrate how he will keep us safe while upholding the ideals that are fundamental to our nation.

What do we do with foreign nationals whom we do have a credible reason to believe are intent on doing harm to Americans, but whom we are not able to prosecute because they were tortured under the Bush administration and would therefore have to be released?

President Obama’s solution is “prolonged detention,” which means that they will be held without trial indefinitely. This is a preventative measure, intended to protect potential victims of future terrorist attacks. But many believe that holding suspects indefinitely, even suspects who openly declare their desire to harm Americans, crosses a line that America ought not cross.

Some would brand them as Prisoners of War, but that doesn’t quite work, since we are in a conceptual war with no conceivable end. Others would suggest bringing them to trial anyway, but we then risk setting them free. That doesn’t seem like such a great idea either. That may very well be the worst possible option, except for all of the others.

And you may be comfortable with President Obama having the right to decide who should be held in “prolonged detention” in 2009. But would you feel just as comfortable with President Cheney having that power in 2013? What we do now sets a precedent, and sends a powerful message about who we are as a nation. We can’t take that lightly.

But some of these prisoners, if released, could pose a serious threat. That can’t be taken lightly either.

What should we do?

Question of the Week

Monday, May 18th, 2009

WARNING: There are spoilers for this season of 24 below. If you haven’t watched it yet, and you intend to, stop reading now.

After watching the Season Finale of 24, tonight’s Question of the Week was going to be this:

What part of “Season Finale” don’t you understand, 24?

But I have a bigger question that was inspired by some of the events in the last few episodes. If you haven’t seen them, here are the main points relevant to my question:

Olivia has a serious grudge against Jonas. She contacts her friend Martin and asks if he knows someone who can kill Jonas for her. Martin gives her number to an anonymous Hitman. Hitman calls Olivia and gives her a bank account number and a price. He tells her that, after she transfers the money into the bank account, he will kill Jonas. She agrees, but after she gets off the phone, she gets cold feet and decides not to transfer the money. She has no way to contact Hitman directly. Hitman realizes he will soon lose his window of opportunity to kill Jonas, and contacts Martin, who vouches for Olivia being good for the money. Hitman kills Jonas. Olivia contacts Martin, who tells her that she should transfer the money because Hitman isn’t the kind of guy you want to mess with. Out of fear, Olivia transfers the money.

The Question of the Week is this:

Is Olivia guilty of murder? If so, what category?

You can also feel free to post your thoughts on this season of 24, or the Season Finale.

WARNING: Comments may contain additional spoilers.

Question of the Week

Monday, May 11th, 2009

With headlines dominated by the financial crisis, porcine influenza pandemic, and international terrorism, it’s not hard to find things to be afraid of today.

Other problems like unchecked nuclear proliferation, global oil depletion, and the destruction of the environment seem to be ever present.

Which of these are real threats and which are distractions? What threats lurk under the radar?

What should we really be panicking about?

Question of the Week

Monday, May 4th, 2009

In a recent review of Shakespeare and Modern Culture by Marjorie Garber, the Shakespeare Geek mentions that Garber completely dismisses the idea that The Tempest was Shakespeare’s “farewell” play. I thought I’d take a closer look at her argument, and perhaps offer a different perspective, with the greatest of respect.

She cites the passage that is most commonly used to make the claim:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

She then goes on to praise the high quality of the speech, before turning to the matter at hand:

But what this passage certainly is not is “Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage.” The imagined social pathos of his departure from London – which would not come for more than a year after The Tempest, and after he had written at least one more play, Henry VIII, or All Is True, and possibly parts of some others – is something some readers and commentators have wanted to elicit from these words, for a variety of reasons. So far from being “Shakespeare’s farewell,” it is not even, in the play, “Prospero’s farewell,” since it takes place in the fourth act of a five act play. (14)

So she uses the same argument as Alan that this wasn’t his last play, plus she adds in that the speech comes in Act 4. The rest of her argument basically boils down to ascribing psychological motivations to those who don’t share her certainty.

I can’t say for certain that this play was his farewell to the theatre, but I’m not convinced by this argument that it wasn’t. First of all, it’s not entirely certain whether Shakespeare did write Henry VIII, or under what circumstances. It may have been a collaboration. So what we actually see following The Tempest may very well be an end to Shakespeare’s solo writing career and the beginning of a year-long period of mentoring John Fletcher who would replace him as playwright for the King’s Men. If so, the Shakespeare who wrote The Tempest would have been pretty well geared up for retirement. The fact that it took him an extra year to leave London is just life happening while you’re busy making other plans. And that brings me to my next point. Even if this wasn’t Shakespeare’s last play, he would have no way of knowing so while writing it.

As for the point that the speech is given in Act 4, I don’t see why it should make a difference. Even if the speech isn’t Prospero’s farewell in the play, Shakespeare might be expressing his own sentiments about leaving the theatre in this speech. But if this is still a problem for you, let’s take a look at a speech from Prospero in the final scene of the play:

I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ’twixt the green sea and the azur’d vault
Set roaring war: to the dread-rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt: the strong-bas’d promontory
Have I made shake; and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have wak’d their sleepers, op’d, and let them forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure; and, when I have requir’d
Some heavenly music,—which even now I do,—
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And, deeper than did ever plummet sound,
I’ll drown my book.

An early quarto continues this speech:

Upon three score and ten I can expect
To end my labors, for I may collect
My years of 401(k) contributions
Through required minimum distributions.

Okay, I made that last part up. And I’m not saying definitively that this play is his farewell to the theatre. I just take exception to Garber saying that it “certainly is not.” That’s always a tough sell when talking about Shakespeare. But I’m interested to hear what you think.

Is The Tempest Shakespeare’s farewell to the theatre?

Question of the Week

Monday, January 19th, 2009

On the last evening of the George W. Bush administration, I’d like to end on a positive note, and invite my readers to opine on the very best thing that President Bush did while in office.

It would be too easy to list failures. Indeed, the Internet is teeming with lists of what the Bush administration did wrong. But in eight years, he must have done at least one thing right. It hardly seems possible that every decision was the diametrical opposite of what he should have done. Surely, even the harshest critic of President Bush can, on the final evening of his presidency, muster up a single word of praise.

Note that I am not looking for sarcasm. I am not looking for you to damn him with faint praise. I am not looking for you to say how his failures made it possible for something better or created an environment where something was possible. This should be a genuine compliment. (Though you can preface it with a broad condemnation if that will help the medicine go down.)

What is the best thing that George W. Bush did as president?

And if I can think of anything, I may even join the conversation.