Archive for the 'Rest in Peace' Category

To Unpathed Waters, Undreamed Shores

Saturday, April 23rd, 2016

Another April 23 is now upon us. Each year, on this day, we celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday, acknowledging occasionally that he also died on this date. But as this year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, focus has shifted to the more morbid milestone. And since it was Shakespeare who taught us, in many ways, what it means to us as humans to face our mortality, it seems only fitting to celebrate his legacy on the anniversary of his death.

Celebrity Cruises is marking the occasion with a ten-day Shakespeare-themed cruise, and they have invited me to serve as the resident expert on all things Shakespearean. I’ll be giving a series of four talks onboard the ship, moderating a round-table discussion, and escorting a shore excursion to Kronberg Castle, the real-life inspiration for Hamlet’s Elsinore.

Naturally, I’m extremely excited about the opportunity. I’m not generally one to seek out opportunities to travel, but the chance to geek out on Shakespeare for ten days with some like-minded fellow passengers will be a unique experience. And so, I am resurrecting the blog, so I have a place to chronicle my journey.

I’m writing this from London, and the cruise will embark this evening from Southampton. We will be visiting Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, ending up in Amsterdam on May 2. I’ll post updates here when I can. For example, here is a picture of me at the British Museum last night.

I’ll post more updates when time allows. Till then, unto Southampton do we shift our scene.

Shakespeare Anagram: Troilus and Cressida

Saturday, May 30th, 2015

In honor of Grant Wiggins.

From Troilus and Cressida:

And this neglection of degree it is
That by a pace goes backward, with a purpose
It hath to climb.

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

Grant Wiggins: if his white book be prescribed, compose authentically, teach, adapt to the data.

The first edition was white.

Grant Wiggins: A Look Backwards

Friday, May 29th, 2015

How do you measure a life?

One of the most important figures in the field of education died on Tuesday, and there isn’t even a Wikipedia page to update. You can read an excellent obituary for Grant Wiggins on the Education Week website, and I’d like to add a few notes about how his work has affected my own practice, and indeed the way I think about teaching and learning.

I first read Understanding by Design in 2004. The idea behind the process was simple: start with the long-term effect you want to have and work backwards to plan how you will achieve it. What evidence would tell you that you were successful? What tasks can students do to provide this evidence? How can you prepare students to be successful in these tasks? The ideas were so straightforward and intuitively obvious that it was hard to imagine doing it any other way. And yet, that had not been my approach, nor had it been the approach of many of the schools where I worked. Today, all of my schools use Understanding by Design. It was the kind of book that, once read, could not be unread.

Wiggins also wrote of the importance of transfer, the idea that students haven’t really learned the skills if they cannot apply them in unfamiliar situations. His writings on authenticity, teaching concepts using real-world scenarios, were extremely influential in the development of guidelines for the performance tasks that have been so critical to citywide assessment. In retrospect, the ideas that students could only truly demonstrate their learning by through contexts that are both real-world and unfamiliar should have been common sense, but they weren’t widespread before Grant Wiggins.

I met Wiggins in 2008. He was giving a seminar on feedback, another concept that has greatly informed my practice through his teaching. He presented how research shows that feedback — actionable information about the gap between a student’s work and the desired outcome — was a critical factor in learning growth. He discussed what good feedback looks like, and what feedback was most likely to lead to student improvement.

We took a break and I went to the side room to get a cup of coffee. When I returned, I found Grant Wiggins adoringly caressing my brand-new Macbook Air. As I have to carry my computer with me all day, I had bought the super-thin laptop the day it came out, and this was the first time Wiggins had seen one. We had a very pleasant chat about technology, schools, and culture.

Since then, Wiggins has been a voice that I have followed closely on issues of education. His excellent blog provided regular commentary on the field. He usually came down on the same side of controversies as I did, and those rare instances when he didn’t were welcome invitations for me to reexamine my own thinking. I took comfort that his recent call for the state to release the standardized tests was completely in line with my own opinions on the subject. His frequent defense of the Common Core was always based in teaching and learning, rather than politics, which is a refreshing perspective. His voice will be greatly missed.

I once attended a lecture by his Understanding by Design co-author Jay McTighe. He said that none of the teachers in Grant’s kids’ school wanted the Wiggins children in their classes. Can you imagine Grant Wiggins coming in to examine your work on parent-teacher night? But that’s who he was for all of us, the unreserved truth-teller who wasn’t afraid to give us the honest feedback that would lead to our growth. And it did. In a world where academics often use flowery language to impress their colleagues while actually accomplishing very little, Grant Wiggins had the power to shift the thinking of an entire field using concepts that could be expressed, if one so desired, in monosyllabic words. His eloquent expression of those concepts made them even more powerful. It’s almost as though he started with the impact he wanted his writing to have, and then chose words that would be most effective in having that impact.

Rest in peace, Grant Wiggins. By all available measurements, you did what you set out to do.

Shakespeare Anagram: Julius Caesar

Saturday, December 7th, 2013

From Julius Caesar:

The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones;

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

Hint: Don’t believe the Twitter shot.

Mandela’s this freedom fighter.

I vote hero.

Shakespeare Anagram: Hamlet

Saturday, June 22nd, 2013

From Hamlet:

Alas! poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

Rest in Peace, James Gandolfini.

An obnoxious kooky mobster? No. I watch him act it.

He wasn’t Tony… rather, I feel, a man of honor in all of his ability.

So, did he know when it came for him?

Shakespeare Anagram: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Saturday, April 6th, 2013

From A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

A play there is, my lord, some ten words long,
Which is as brief as I have known a play;
But by ten words, my lord, it is too long,
Which makes it tedious.

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

My mood? Vocal Roger Ebert had a symbiotic relationship with dry Gene Siskel, then shone solo.

If it was thumbs up or down, it was always kindly.

Shakespeare Anagram: Sonnet XLVIII

Saturday, January 30th, 2010

From Sonnet XLVIII:

And even thence thou wilt be stol’n, I fear,
For truth proves thievish for a prize so dear.

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

Irreverent historian Howard Zinn offered to let vast upbeat hope touch fresh lives.

The People’s Historian

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

“‘History is the memory of states,’ wrote Henry Kissinger in his first book, A World Restored, in which he proceeded to tell the history of nineteenth-century Europe from the viewpoint of the leaders of Austria and England, ignoring the millions who suffered from those statesmen’s policies. From his standpoint, the ‘peace’ that Europe had before the French Revolution was ‘restored’ by the diplomacy of a few national leaders. But for factory workers in England, farmers in France, colored people in Asia and Africa, women and children everywhere except in the upper classes, it was a world of conquest, violence, hunger, exploitation – a world not restored but disintegrated.

“My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.

“Thus, in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army, of the rise of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen by peons in Latin America. And so on, to the limited extent that any one person, however he or she strains, can ‘see’ history from the standpoint of others.

“My point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short run (and so far, human history has consisted only of short runs), the victims, themselves desperate and tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims.

“Still, understanding the complexities, this book will be skeptical of governments and their attempts, through politics and culture, to ensnare ordinary people in a giant web of nationhood pretending to a common interest. I will try not to overlook the cruelties that victims inflict on one another as they are jammed together in the boxcars of the system. I don’t want to romanticize them. But I do remember (in rough paraphrase) a statement I once read: ‘The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don’t listen to it, you will never know what justice is.’

“I don’t want to invent victories for people’s movements. But to think that history-writing must aim simply to recapitulate the failures that dominate the past is to make historians collaborators in an endless cycle of defeat. If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win. I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.

“That, being as blunt as I can, is my approach to the history of the United States. The reader may as well know that before going on.”

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn (1922 – 2010)

Augusto Boal (1931 – 2009)

Sunday, May 3rd, 2009

I learned this morning that Brazilian theatre activist Augusto Boal passed away yesterday at the age of 78. His death has received little attention in the news, which shouldn’t be too surprising, but I thought there was a chance that his Nobel Peace Prize nomination last year might at least get him on Stephanopoulos this morning. It did not.

There are many places on the Internet to learn about Boal, so there’s no need for an obituary from me, but I did want to say a few words about how Boal has impacted my life and my work. I can easily say that Boal’s writings have had a greater influence on me than any other author’s. (Shakespeare doesn’t really count as an influence.) I apologize in advance if this post seems indulgent, but I could think of no better place to record my thoughts about the man whose work has meant so much to me over the years.

In 1993, as a young graduate student, I read Theatre of the Oppressed for a class, and it blew my mind. Boal examines the conception of theatre from Aristotelian, Hegelian, and Brechtian standpoints, and redefines the theatrical event as a political act. Aristotle’s concept of a catharsis, explains Boal, purges the audience of the impulse to act and to make a change in society. The spectator gives away the right to act to another person, who is even referred to as the actor. Just as Paolo Freire before him had demonstrated the need for teachers to learn from their students, breaking down the artificial barrier between them, Boal calls for a new theatre, one where the barrier between actor and spectator is broken down, and the theatrical event increases the impulse to act instead of purging it.

My interest stimulated, I sought out Boal’s other key work, Games for Actors and Non-Actors, which contained a wealth of activities I’ve been able to draw from for the past 15 years. In 1996, I had the opportunity to take a class with Boal himself at the Brecht Forum here in New York City. The class was on the then-new techniques he had developed for using Theatre of the Oppressed techniques for therapeutic purposes. It was an incredible experience. I had read Boal’s book on the subject, The Rainbow of Desire, but wasn’t able to make any sense of it. Actually getting a chance to use the techniques under Boal’s guidance was an invaluable experience I’ll never forget.

Boal was not like I thought he would be. I was expecting him to be a serious revolutionary type, but he had a jovial, even avuncular, demeanor. Even when telling a story about how he was tortured in Brazil, he had such a positive energy and good humour that you’d think he was talking about riding his bicycle in the park. (The punchline was that he was being tortured for going to other countries and saying that Brazil used torture.) He also told us about his recent experiment in what he called legislative theatre. He returned to Brazil (many years after his torture experience) and successfully ran for public office. As an elected official, he had his theatre group conduct Theatre of the Oppressed workshops with the people to learn what they needed, and then he would introduce the ideas into legislation. The experience is chronicled in an entertaining and enlightening way in Boal’s book Legislative Theatre.

In 1997, I started using Boal’s Forum Theatre technique as a staff development activity within the organization where I work. I have since used it in a variety of settings and it remains the sharpest tool in my kit. For a while, it looked like I might do my doctoral dissertation on Boal, though I ended up returning to Shakespeare in the end. But while I was doing my coursework, I was planning to write about Boal, so a great deal of my graduate studies focused on his work.

For the past twelve years, I’ve been teaching a graduate class at NYU on using drama as a teaching tool in the English classroom, and Boal’s influence is ubiquitous. Not only do I devote an entire class session to using Theatre of the Oppressed techniques in the classroom, but a major theme of the course is taken directly from a speech that Boal gave when Paulo Freire died, which I read during the second session of class each year. (The speech can be found in Legislative Theatre.) Boal describes how power relationships too often create a monologue, where only one party has the right to speak. Freire’s insight, according to Boal, is that education is much more effective when it becomes a dialogue between teacher and student. This forms one of the core philosophical principles of my course. The theatrical metaphor is significant, as dramatic activities can empower students to find their voice, drawing upon their prior experience and cultural values. This makes the learning experience more relevant to them.

You may have noticed this blog is more interactive than most. I certainly share my own opinions about the matters at hand, but almost all of my regular features are interactive. This blog is nothing without you. That’s because I believe that the power of Web 2.0 tools is that they break down the barrier between writer and reader. This is a philosophy I may not have embraced if it weren’t for Boal and Freire.

We lost a giant this weekend. But his legacy lives on in me, and the many, many others who have been influenced by his work and his writings. And I invite here all of them who wish to say along with me what Boal said upon Freire’s passing:

I am very sad. I have lost my last father. Now all I have are brothers and sisters.