Archive for the 'Teaching Shakespeare' Category

Family Trees for Shakespeare’s Histories

Friday, September 19th, 2014

My monthly Shakespeare reading group is gearing up to do the history plays. For the next eight months, starting this Sunday, we’re going to be working our way through the two tetralogies.

Shakespeare, working in the late sixteenth century, was writing about his own country’s history spanning most of the fifteenth century. He could assume his audience was familiar with the stories and the characters to some degree. Our perspective, over four hundred years later and in another country, does not provide the same level of context.

Imagine we were watching a play about the American Civil War and characters made various passing references to “the president,” “Lincoln,” and “Honest Abe.” We would understand these are all the same person, no explanation needed. But someone unfamiliar with our history might get confused. In Shakespeare’s histories, characters refer to each other by last name, nickname, and title interchangeably, and their iconic status in English memory requires very little exposition. When we do actually get a first name, it’s usually one of the same six or seven names recycled endlessly throughout the generations, relying again on context for specificity.

Thus, in order to facilitate the readings, I have created a family tree for the Plantagenets that spans all eight plays. For each play, I have put together a version of the tree that shows the current state of the family as the action begins. It shows who’s living, who’s dead, who’s related to whom, who is actually in the play, and what names might be used to reference them. What’s more, it all fits on one page, so it makes a convenient handout for a reading.

It was quite a project, but now that I’m finished, it’s my pleasure to share the results with the Shakespeare Teacher community:

Whether these charts end up providing more clarity or only more confusion will remain to be seen. I’ll be field testing them with my group and may find a need to do a rewrite in eight months time. If anyone out there sees anything seriously wrong or just has a helpful suggestion, please leave a note in the comments so I can address it in the next round of revisions.

A few notes may be helpful. A shaded box means that the character is dead before the play begins. A bold-faced box means that the character appears in the current play. Each space represents the same character across all eight plays, but there are two characters (Anne Mortimer and Isabella Neville) that are duplicated on the chart because they married across family lines. These are represented by circled numbers.

For the most part, Shakespeare sticks with history as far as the genealogy and chronology are concerned, but where he breaks with history, I generally went with Shakespeare’s version. I did this because the purpose of the chart was to make the readings easier. So if Shakespeare, for example, refers to a character by a title he technically didn’t have yet, I used that title on my chart.

One major exception to this is the case of Edmund Mortimer. Historically, there were two different men named Edmund Mortimer in this story: Sir Edmund Mortimer, and his nephew Edmund, Earl of March. An Edmund Mortimer appears in Henry IV, Part One and an Edmund Mortimer appears in Henry VI, Part One. It appears that Shakespeare has conflated the two men into a single character, as he ascribes to the character biographical details from both men in both plays. I went with the more historically appropriate choice to put Sir Edmund in 1H4 and the Earl of March in 1H6, but you should know that when using these charts with those plays.

A lot of the information in these charts were taken from the plays themselves. But the charts also include a lot of historical information, and for that, I used other sources. I took advantage of the excellent genealogical tables in The Riverside Shakespeare (G. Blakemore Evans, ed.) as well as the Arden editions of Henry V (T.W. Craik, ed.) and Henry VI, Part Three (John D. Cox and Eric Rasmussen, eds.). I found The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s History Plays (Michael Hattaway, ed.) very helpful. I also consulted the official website of the British Monarchy, as well as other online sources as needed.

Enjoy!

Teach Along with the Frozen Soundtrack

Monday, June 2nd, 2014

So, you want to teach your students about literary devices, but they’re too preoccupied with the music from Disney’s Frozen? If so, this post is for you.

The Frozen soundtrack is actually full of literary, poetic, and rhetorical devices that you can point out for students, or have them find for you. Join me as I throw open the gates of Arendelle so that I may unlock its secrets and exploit its riches. (Did I say that out loud?)

“Frozen Heart”

This song introduces a number of motifs in the movie, including ice, snow, and the heart (frozen or otherwise). The lyrics use vibrant imagery throughout, and help establish the Nordic setting of the movie. Within the lyrics, anaphora is used as a device (”strike for love and strike for fear”), and there is a string of bold adjectives that form an asyndeton (Beautiful! Powerful! Dangerous! Cold!).

“Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”

It doesn’t have to be a snowman, because the snowman is a symbol for the bond between the sisters formed during childhood play. The song passes over long periods of time, forming an ellipsis. The lyrics make good use of alliteration, and there’s even an allusion to Joan of Arc. The lyrics say “Tick Tock,” which would be onomatopoeia, though in the movie, Anna clicks her tongue to simulate the sound.

“For the First Time in Forever”

The title is a great example of hyperbole, and the song foreshadows later events in that it explains why Anna is so quick to want to marry Hans. “Stuff some chocolate in my face” is metonymy. There is an intertextual moment when Anna passes Rapunzel from Disney’s Tangled. There is also a juxtaposition at the end when she sings that nothing’s in her way before running smack into a horse.

“Love Is an Open Door”

The title is a great example of a metaphor. “Can I just say something crazy?” is actually a rhetorical question. The lyrics make a lot of use of repetition, both with Anna and Hans repeating each other and themselves. But they also have shared lines. (The link is to the Macbeths finishing each other’s sandwiches at lines 21-24.) There is also some good Tier II vocabulary in this song, if you were looking for some.

“Let It Go”

The song can easily be taken as an allegory, but for what will vary by audience member. The lyrics are filled with antithesis and rhyme (both internal rhyme and end rhyme). There are also some clear similes in the text. “The cold never bothered me anyway” is litotes, a rhetorical understatement. Also… Damn, Idina Menzel can sing. That’s not a literary device or anything, but damn!

“Reindeer(s) Are Better Than People”

Kristof uses personification to sing Sven’s part of the song, though in the movie it is clear that Sven is completely aware that its his part and what the lyrics are going to be. The movie uses the song to characterize Kristof as being less comfortable around other people. The song itself is doggerel verse that uses polysyndeton and epistrophe (”people will beat you and curse you and cheat you”).

“In Summer”

This is a perfect example of dramatic irony, in that the audience knows something that Olaf does not. A singing snowman is an example of anthropomorphism. The lyrics play around with oxymoron, and employ some puns. There is also an implied rhyme when Olaf says “happy snowman” when he clearly was going to say “puddle.” (The link is to a similar moment when Hamlet declines the rhyme “ass” at line 216.)

“For the First Time in Forever (Reprise)”

There is a lot of intratextuality here, not just with the callback to “For the First Time in Forever” but to several other songs in the soundtrack. The sisters sing in counterpoint, highlighting one of the movie’s central conflicts. The song begins with a flashback. And there is situational irony, as Elsa sends Anna away in an attempt to protect her, and in doing so, causes her a life-threatening injury.

“Fixer Upper”

The trolls employ an analogy in describing Kristof with a term of real-estate jargon, which is itself a euphemism. The list of Kristof’s faults is a form of proslepsis, as the trolls are listing faults they think Anna should overlook, while introducing new ones she might not be aware of. The song also highlights one of the major themes of the movie: that love has the power to heal each of us.

A Good Pairing

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

Last week, I was working with a Shakespeare teacher who was looking for ways to help students better appreciate the language. He liked the idea of using song lyrics, and Usher’s “More” in particular. For easy reference, I reprint the excerpt and devices from the earlier post.

From “More” as performed by Usher
Written by Hinshaw, Khayat, and Raymond

Watch me as I dance under the spotlight-
Listen to the people screaming out more and more,
‘Coz I create the feeling that keep ‘em coming back,
Yeah, I create the feeling that keep ‘em coming back,
So captivating when I get it on the floor.

Know y’all been patiently waiting, I know you need me, I can feel it,
I’m a beast, I’m an animal, I’m that monster in the mirror,
The headliner, finisher, I’m the closer, winner.
Best when under pressure with seconds left I show up.

If you really want more, scream it out louder,
Get it on the floor, bring out the fire,
And light it up, take it up higher,
Gonna push it to the limit, give it more.

Literary devices

Repetition: “more and more,” “I create the feeling that keep ‘em coming back”

Rhyme: more/floor, fire/higher

Alliteration: “monster in the mirror,” create/coming/captivating

Assonance: “patiently waiting,” finisher/winner, Best/pressure/seconds, “limit/give it”

Lists: “I’m a beast, I’m an animal, I’m that monster in the mirror, the headliner, finisher, I’m the closer, winner.”

Antithesis: Get it on the floor/take it up higher

But then the question arose as to which passage from Shakespeare to use. When I used to do this activity using “Mosh,” I’d have students compare Eminem’s use of literary devices in the song to Shakespeare use of the same devices in the Prologue from Romeo and Juliet. But that text doesn’t use the same literary devices as “More,” so we needed another choice.

Et voilà!

Sonnet 130
by William Shakespeare

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Literary devices

Repetition: red, wires, roses

Rhyme: sun/dun, red/head, etc.

Alliteration: “I grant I never saw a goddess go,” “when she walks”

Assonance: “nothing like the sun,” “then her breasts,” “and yet, by heaven”

Lists: The whole poem, basically

Antithesis: The whole poem, basically

What’s nice about this selection is that many of the poetic devices are actually easier to identify in the Shakespeare, making the activity more likely to succeed in helping students connect with the language.

Shakespeare Teacher: your sonnet sommelier.

Shakespeare Clickbait

Wednesday, December 25th, 2013

How far should we go to get people to read Shakespeare? I say we do whatever it takes.

You may also enjoy these stories:

The secret herb that will make women fall for you… INSTANTLY!
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The one shocking diet trick that is GUARANTEED to help you lose weight!
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Do these three women really have the secret for seeing into the FUTURE?

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Some senators challenged this interracial couple’s marriage, and THIS is what they said…
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A dying father called for his son, and what he said will blow you AWAY!
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Most people don’t know the one food you should NEVER eat…

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The 7 tell-tale signs of AGING that men can’t afford to ignore!
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Learn one weird trick for erasing ALL of your debt (without paying a penny)!
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This single act of forgiveness will restore your faith in HUMANITY!

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Click the images above to read more!

My teenage daughter and her friends think that posts like this can’t go viral. Please help me teach them an important lesson by sharing this on Facebook and Twitter.

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.

The Wager

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

The year was 2002. I was teaching an advanced graduate course on Shakespeare, and I chose to give my final exam as a take-home. The questions included true/false, short answer, extended response, and one long essay.

I mentioned this while having dinner one night with friends. Brian, who runs a successful business he built himself, scoffed at the very notion of a take-home final in the age of the Internet. Couldn’t the students just look up all of the answers? This was around the time when people were starting to use “Google” as a verb, and many students were more tech-savvy than their professors. I assured Brian that the test would still be challenging as a take-home, but he remained unconvinced.

Brian offered me a wager. He would take the exam along with my students, despite not having taken the course or even knowing very much about Shakespeare. As long as he could research and plagiarize as much as he wanted, he claimed he could pass my final. I accepted the bet.

In the weeks to come, Brian became consumed with the task. He researched each question, writing and rewriting answers to perfection. He put way more time into that final than any of the students, and he plagiarized without shame. But, he completed the final on the same schedule as the students, and ended up scoring a 91 out of a possible 100 points. This was slightly below the class average, but he clearly won the bet.

However, he did admit that, in order to be successful on the final, he had to learn a whole lot about Shakespeare along the way. He may not have taken the course, but he ended up doing much of the work he would have had to do anyway, engaging with the material throughout the process.

It’s worth noting at this point that the exam only represented 10% of the final grade. Much more of the course was about participation in class discussions and completing projects. But with Brian’s self-guided work, he was able to earn 9.1% of the course grade without ever setting foot in my classroom. Had he attempted some of the projects, and applied the same level of drive to them, he could have earned even more points, learning even more about Shakespeare in the process.

This is a good way to think about assessment. We define what students should be able to do after a unit of study, and we define a way to measure whether or not they’ve learned it. The unit of study, then, should be designed to help students succeed in the measurement. If that sounds too much like teaching to the test, that’s fine, but then we should start designing tests worth teaching to.

This is the idea of the performance task. Rather than having students fill out multiple-choice bubble sheets, they do authentic tasks. They understand how the skills they are learning in school are applied in the real world. And when students show they are able to transfer their learning into unfamiliar contexts, as they should in any good performance task, they demonstrate deep understanding of the skills and concepts being covered.

So, if a student can succeed in the teacher-created assessment before the instruction, is the instruction really necessary? If students can take the initiative to demonstrate their meeting the same learning goals some other way, shouldn’t they get credit for it? And if real-world authenticity is the aim, shouldn’t students be able to use the same tools a real-world businessman would use when working toward the same goal?

These are questions we’re now grappling with in assessment. But I thank Brian for giving me a head start in thinking about them so many years ago.

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!

In the Zone

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

As we begin implementing the Common Core State Standards this year, many of the schools I advise are having very similar problems with grade-level readiness. This isn’t a new problem, to be sure, but it has become intensified by Common Core expectations. The Common Core standards are more rigorous than last year’s New York State standards, so even students who were on grade level last year have some catching up to do. Also, built into the DNA of the Common Core is the idea of a “staircase of complexity” in which students must master the standards of the prior year before they are ready for the standards of the current year. In other words, they must master the 5th-grade standards in order to become 6th-grade ready.

For example, students in Kindergarten learn to state an opinion (”My favorite book is…”). In Grade 1, they provide a reason for their opinion. In Grade 4, they support their reasons with information, while in Grade 6 they write arguments to support claims with reasons and evidence. In math, students are expected to be effortlessly fluent in addition and subtraction by the end of Grade 2, so they will be ready to begin fractions in Grade 3. By the end of Grade 5, their understanding of fractions is thorough enough to begin algebra in the 6th grade. It’s a well-structured progression that brings students step-by-step from Kindergarten to college and career readiness by providing incremental support based on the learning that has accrued through the previous years of instruction in every grade.

What happens, then, during the first year of implementation? Our students aren’t even coming in on grade level based on the old standards, let alone the more rigorous standards demanded by (and required for) the Common Core. Our 6th graders aren’t coming in having mastered fractions or the opinion essay. Their reading levels do not prepare them to approach the complex texts in the new reading band levels, which themselves are set higher than previous levels by the Common Core (as can be seen in the chart at the bottom of page 8 of the ELA Appendix A):

(Click for a larger image.)

And this problem is even more profound in high school, where the high-stakes Regents Exams are looming, and many students aren’t even prepared to read the instructions.

In a December 2011 keynote titled “What Must Be Done in the Next Two Years” (you can download the transcript here), David Coleman, the architect of the Common Core Standards, addresses the idea of grade-level readiness. He’s a brilliant man who speaks with a persuasive confidence, but he’s on the wrong side of this particular issue.

But for your sakes, the really exciting thing is for the first time there’s a measure in the standards that insists that students at each level are encountering texts of adequate complexity.

Nonetheless, you could nonetheless be defeated, because the most popular instructional practice for students who are behind is to replace their core reading with leveled text at their level, right? So if you were to actually look at what your kids are being given, they are constantly matched in this seeming noble idea that you should match everything they read to where they are today, often called a proximal zone of development, et cetera.

Let me be rather clear. Leveled readers and reading at your own level has a crucial role to play for kids in terms of their vocabulary growth, their love of reading, and has a very important role, so I’m not saying kind of just get rid of it. But what I am saying is the core of instruction, if we want kids to catch up, has to be the deliberate study of sufficiently complex texts, again and – we cannot exclude students from that and expect them to magically catch up. That’s a scaffolded environment, do you get me? Where their frustration – they are expected to be frustrated. That frustration is managed. It’s part of the classroom community, and they engage repeatedly in dealing with things that are more difficult than they can handle.

First of all, it’s the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), not the “proximal zone of development, et cetera.” I’m less bothered by his mixing the words around than I am by the “et cetera,” as if to say “yeah, there was more but I couldn’t be bothered to absorb it.” The ZPD is the range between what a child can do independently and what that same child can do with support. The concept was first described by Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky in the 1930’s, and has had a profound impact on developmental psychology and learning science. You can’t be dismissive of the ZPD in one breath, and then go on to recommend scaffolding in the next. The very idea of scaffolding is based on a Vygostkian model of development. The term was introduced by American psychologist Jerome Bruner, and it refers to the supports that we provide students within their ZPD to help them achieve at higher levels. As the metaphor suggests, once students can do these tasks independently, we can remove the scaffolding.

Coleman’s right that there should be managed frustration. If students read texts that are too easy for them, they may enjoy those texts, but it’s not the best way to support reading progress. When students have to read within their ZPD, they feel a frustration we might accurately describe as growing pains. They experience a stretch, and in that stretch, learning can actually help drive cognitive development. If, on the other hand, the material is above the upper limit of their ZPD, they will not experience that productive frustration. They will simply shut down and not attempt to read the material at all. And there is no amount of scaffolding that will make it possible. Think of a weight you can lift easily, a weight that requires some effort to lift, and a weight you can’t budge at all. Which of those three weights would you choose if you wanted to promote muscle growth?

So if you have students who are one or two grades below grade level, it might be worth trying to push them in the way Coleman describes. But students who are four, five, six years below their grade level, aren’t going to be reading on grade level by the end of the year no matter whose philosophical outlook you subscribe to. Nobody is expecting them to “magically catch up.” The idea is to support them in making the greatest progress possible. It is Coleman who is invoking magic when he expects that these students will be able to catch up simply through teacher patience, student frustration, and intense scaffolding.

But if anybody should be a proponent of Vygotsky, it’s David Coleman himself, for Vygotsky provides a clear developmental framework for the Common Core. If learning really can drive development, and I believe it can, then having a rigorous set of standards defined for each grade level organized into a staircase of complexity makes a lot of sense. If we adhere to these standards from Kindergarten, making sure that students receive support in a multi-tiered Response to Intervention system to ensure that they remain on grade level at the end of each year, then the Common Core might actually be a blueprint for making sure that our students are well prepared for the rigors of college and the workplace by the end of Grade 12. Wouldn’t it be a shame if that were all true and the Common Core really is a better way of doing business, but nobody ever knew it because the implementation was so badly botched?

So what can we do? If I were in charge of implementation, I would have had two years of bridge standards before fully adopting the Common Core. If the 5th grade NYS standards say ABC and the 8th grade Common Core standards say JKL, then we develop a logical DEF for 6th grade and a 7th-grade GHI that allow us to incrementally meet the higher standards. Instead, we’re going right from 5th-grade NYS to 6th-grade Common Core, and even students that were on grade level last year are being left behind. The folks at the New York City Department of Education, for their part, seem to understand the difficulties involved, and are trying to make the changes as gradually as possible to support teachers. But no such support is available for students, as the level of rigor expected for them is coming from Albany, and is out of the city’s hands.

I can’t tell you what the statewide assessments are going to look like at the end of this year, but I’m pretty sure the students are going to be expected to read on what is now considered grade level, and this is the problem. What do you do if you have 8th-grade students reading on a 4th-grade level, when you know you are going to be accountable for them passing an 8th-grade test at the end of the year? One option is, as Coleman describes, to give them 8th-grade reading selections anyway, have them read fewer overall texts, and heavily scaffold the texts being read. Another option is to try to give them two years of instruction in a year, committing to bring them from a 4th-grade level to 6th-grade level. Neither strategy will prepare them to read on the 8th-grade level by test time, but I prefer the latter method. It’s better to make meaningful progress in the time that you have than to squander the opportunity by fumbling around with inappropriately difficult texts. I understand, respect, and even admire Coleman’s desire to get everyone on grade level. It’s not going to happen this year.

Given that some of the quantitative targets may not be possible this year, another option is to focus on the qualitative shifts. Give students more exposure to informational texts. Give them more complex texts than they are reading now. Have them read more independently, and give them opportunities to cite evidence from the things they read to support their writing. These are all Common Core-aligned shifts, and can be implemented right away, regardless of student reading levels.

Finally, teachers can make a big difference by differentiating instruction. Some students may have higher upper bounds in their ZPD than might be apparent at first. And if you’ve agreed with me up until now, follow me the rest of the way. It’s important for teachers to challenge their students to the highest extent as is possible for them. Students will push back, but being a teacher means to encourage students to do more than they ever thought they could. Now is the time to do that. Please don’t mistake my nuanced understanding of cognitive development for timidity. I’ve taught Shakespeare, in the original language, to low-performing 5th graders. But to do that, I had to have some confidence that my learning goals were within their Zone of Proximal Development. And when they were, it turned out that it was possible!

As for the end-of-the-year tests, the whole state is in the same bind, so relative success is still very much in reach given the right strategies. Students feel growing pains, and so do teachers. But that pain just means that we’re working outside of our comfort zone, and are instead in a zone that is more conducive to growth.

Shakespeare and the Common Core

Sunday, January 6th, 2013

Across the United States, education is undergoing a sea-change (into something rich and strange) surrounding the adoption of something called the Common Core State Standards.

Standards are simply a list of what students should be able to do by the end of each grade. Traditionally, these have been defined by states, with a requirement for them to do so by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. States still define their own standards, but, in an unprecedented act of coordination, 45 states (plus the District of Columbia and a few of the territories) have adopted the Common Core as their state standards. Full adoption has been targeted for next year, though New York has started phasing in significant portions of it this year.

Love it or hate it, the Common Core represents a new direction in pedagogical thinking, both qualitatively and quantitatively. Personally, I think the Common Core standards are a lot better than the existing New York State Standards, but we’re going to have to suffer through a difficult transition period before we can reap the benefits of that improvement. Right now is probably the most difficult time, as we have to deal with students who are not starting on what the new structure defines as grade-level, a lack of Common Core-aligned teaching materials, and uncertainty surrounding precisely how these new standards will be assessed. May you live in interesting times.

As with anything new and complex, there are going to be a number of misconceptions floating around about it. One of the most prevalent I’ve seen is that the Common Core eliminates (or at least de-emphasizes) literature, in favor of informational texts. In particular, many are convinced that Shakespeare will be replaced entirely by non-fiction, as public education descends into a Dickensian nightmare of Shakespeare-deprived conformity and standardization.

In fact, Shakespeare is mandated by the Common Core.

The confusion seems to stem from a chart that appears on page 5 of the English Language Arts Standards document, outlining the percentages of literary vs. informational texts included in the National Assessment of Educational Progress:

(Click for a larger image.)

The Common Core is explicit about aligning curricula with this framework, but it is just as explicit about how that alignment should be distributed:

Fulfilling the Standards for 6–12 ELA requires much greater attention to a specific category of informational text—literary nonfiction—than has been traditional. Because the ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary nonfiction, a great deal of informational reading in grades 6–12 must take place in other classes if the NAEP assessment framework is to be matched instructionally.

So, despite the canard that high-school English classes will only be allowed to teach literature 30% of the time, the 70% informational text requirement refers to the entirety of student reading across the curriculum. Given that one of the major shifts is an increase in reading and writing in the content areas, the ratio makes sense.

Let’s say that, over the course of a particular unit, a high-school English teacher is assigning 3 literary texts and 1 informational text. That means that (text length aside) students are reading 75% literature in English class. And if this is the only reading the students are doing, then they are reading 75% literature overall. But now imagine that, during the same timeframe, they are also reading 2 informational texts in social studies, 2 informational texts in science, and 2 informational texts in all of their other classes combined. They are still reading 75% literature in English class, but this now represents 30% of their reading overall.

And, far from being lost in the informational-text shuffle, Shakespeare now becomes the man of the hour. As the only author explicitly required by the Common Core, Shakespeare must be taught in grades 11 and 12 (see page 38, right column, Standards 4 and 7). Shakespeare is also included in the recommended texts for grades 9 and 10 (see page 58, left column, center). And Shakespeare is not excluded for younger students either, as the standards outline only the minimum of what must be taught in each grade. The Common Core does stress using authentic texts, so updated language versions of Shakespeare would be frowned upon, but that’s actually an adjustment I can get behind.

There is a lot of controversy surrounding the Common Core, and a lot of objections surrounding the new changes. Some of these objections are legitimate, and some are not. I look forward to continuing that conversation as the implementation develops. But rest assured that Shakespeare isn’t going anywhere.