Teaching Shakespeare: Best Play to Start?

I’ve been thinking about Shakespeare a lot recently–I’ve been getting into theater, I saw Something Rotten and read Twelfth Night this summer, I’m getting deeper into learning to teach English, and now my brother’s in high school and will be reading Romeo and Juliet this year.

When I heard that last item, I was a little disappointed…I saw a production of it my freshman year of high school, and there’s certainly a lot of dramatic momentum and memorable words, but it’s gained a bit of unfair stigma as a trivial, quick love story between teenagers (which is basically societal reflection on teenage relationships and the romance genre anyway). I’m worried my brother wouldn’t enjoy it as much as, say, Macbeth.

So this prompted me to reflect and I’d like to share my experience with Shakespeare in school and open up the discussion to those who have read more than me. Please comment!

  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream (freshman year): This was a great introduction. It’s wacky, fun to act out, a good exercise in keeping characters straight, and we got to say “ass” a lot and act out a play within a play.
  • Much Ado About Nothing (sophomore year): We watched the movie of this first (the 90s one), which definitely helped when we read it. This we were less concerned with the language and everything, anyway. Less wacky, but still fun?
  • Macbeth (senior year): On the serious side, here’s a lot of blood and murder and witches and dramatic tension and irony. Captivating and fun to act out.

I also had a good although not immersive experience (because I spent less time on it) with Twelfth Night this summer–definitely another fun, wacky one, and its use of gender can certainly open up discussions, engagement, and inclusivity in general.

What has been your experiences with Shakespeare in school? What plays engaged you and with what activities?

 

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LGBTQ Kidlit, Schools, and Me

I meant to publish this in April, but then I chickened out because suddenly there was so much to cover from the news that was related to this topic. So here it is, because Pride Month seemed like a good time to post it.

star crossedI’m writing this because I can’t stop thinking about this article and everything it has awakened or reawakened in me. On Thursday [March 23], Nerdy Book Club published this guest post, which I highly recommend reading for context and general importance. In the chance you didn’t bother and still aren’t reconsidering that decision, basically: Barbara Dee, author of Star-Crossed, a cute new middle grade book about an eighth grader developing a crush on a girl and discovering her bisexuality, was invited to talk to middle schoolers but was then asked by a teacher to not talk about the actual subject of the book because of worries it was [insert quotes], despite the fact it’s recommended for the age range and has had endorsements from prominent MG writers.

This affected me more than I initially realized, because never once was I surprised by this. It affected me because this–and Dee’s comment as how, as a former teacher, she understood this one’s reasoning–is exactly what I’ve been afraid of.

(I have since ordered Star-Crossed because I didn’t realize it had been released and plan to read and talk about it soon-ish, which really means this summer, because clearly I am very occupied with school.)

I am bisexual, maybe pansexual–at this point, they both seem to mean “attracted to more than one gender” and I use the former because it’s more understood by the wider public, I think (not that there aren’t a lot of misconceptions), and I’m not entirely sure how many genders I’m attracted to. “Queer” is also a general term that feels right. My sexuality is a fluid continuum–boys to girls, the romantic to the sexual and everywhere in between are options for my attractions and relationships.

I am also lucky. I wasn’t raised in a religious or socially conservative context. In fact, I figure my parents are okay enough with my sexuality that I haven’t bothered to tell them yet, because it just hasn’t come up (I’m single, not looking for a relationship right now, and am definitely not known for chatting about crushes or the attractiveness of celebrities). Heck, the only wedding I’ve actually been to was between two men. I first came out to my ex-boyfriend (after telling him about a dream I had involving a girl, leading to this revelation) almost a year and a half ago, and his response was basically “Oh, I thought I knew that already.” My friends haven’t had any problem with it. I go to a very LGBTQ-friendly school nested in a community where many local shops have pride flags displayed in their windows. I have several close bi and gay friends who have helped me feel more confident. I’m not prominent enough on the Internet that I don’t get nasty comments. I’m white and cis female, the demographic whose bi members are the least likely to commit suicide.

Then things happen that shake me out of that, reminding me that even though I can marry a girl now and get the same legal status and benefits, queer kids are far from safe and secure. The stories from some of my friends about their coming out experiences with family, exes, and/or community and school break my heart. There’s the recent YouTube “mature content”controversy, which then became them demonitizing videos on LGBTQ topics as “not advertiser friendly.” Misunderstandings about trans people are leading to “bathroom bills,” potentially even at the federal level in the future if it goes to the Supreme Court sometime.

And then there’s this.

Because if there’s one thing that does keep me up at night about my sexuality, it’s how it might intersect with my future job as an English teacher.

This post, which I am extremely proud of, may even disappear in the future because of that.

I don’t know who I’m going to fall in love with and I refuse to exclusively date men because of my fears–even though, yes, the odds that I’ll meet potential straight/bi cis male suitors are higher than queer women or anyone else under the trans umbrella, based on demographic data. It shouldn’t matter, of course, but don’t teachers’ personal lives always creep into the classroom? It’s such a normality of teachers referencing their children (especially) or other personal experiences that may bring up a partner. Sometimes students just ask questions, because they’re kids and they’re curious–I remember an awkward time in eighth grade where a student asked our teacher, clearly just trying to be friendly, if she had any kids. The clearest indication that a teacher was probably not straight was if they never talked about their personal lives and didn’t display pictures of partners or children. Many states don’t have explicit sexual orientation and gender identity non-discrimination policies.

I don’t think that it’s relevant to announce my sexual orientation in the  classroom without context as much as I haven’t found a relative context to mention it in front of my parents. But I’m going to be myself, and these things can come up in classes with curious students, and especially in an English classroom, where we’re confronted with identity and gender and history with every text.

And it goes beyond that as an English teacher. The ALA list of banned and challenged books has a pattern from the last few years: many involve gay or trans characters, with that listed as part of the reasoning behind the challenge. In 2015, elementary school teacher Omar Currie (who also happens to be openly gay) and the assistant principal of a North Carolina school resigned basically from parent complaints over reading the picture book King and King (about what you think it is) to the class after he witnessed the bullying of a boy rooted in homophobia. One of the things they told him was that it would have been okay in a more liberal area, but this particular community needed time to be ready. The thing is, though, there are still LGBTQ students there. And I hope that being a Midwestern teacher instead of fleeing to a more liberal area can allow me to foster understanding of other perspectives through literature. And yet, sometimes there’s a price to pay.

I refuse to not recommend good books that have LGBTQ characters to students who would enjoy or even need them. I refuse to not reprimand students who bully or use epithets targeting perceived gender or sexuality differences, just like I won’t allow any other forms of bullying and harassment. (The statistics of LGBT-related bullying and their long-term damaging effects are appalling, and these students are often at a higher risk of suicide.) I refuse to silence myself from any casual mentions of a girlfriend or ex-partner that wouldn’t be unusual for a straight teacher to say. I want to explore various aspects of analyzing literature, various theories, and encourage students to relate to stories personally–and for some works, that includes queer theory, LGBT history, and relating to the sexual or romantic ambiguity/orientation/relationships or gender identity of characters. I refuse to speak about abstract ideas often found in literature like love, relationships, and gender as cis-, allo-, and heteronormative.

And I refuse to stop exploring LGBTQ characters in my own middle grade and YA writing. I will not be dishonest when answering questions in interviews or Q&As or on Twitter or wherever else people ask authors about inspiration and characters and “meaning” of a work. I refuse to hide in either of my careers.

We talk a lot about the importance of representation in the media, especially with fictional characters–but real-life representation is also important. Role models, both the high-profile and the personal. And teachers have been some of my biggest role models, influencing my own desire to teach. I was fortunate enough in high school to be able to talk to one of my teachers who also had experience with anxiety and OCD during a time I was struggling with those same things. It’s one of the most amazing things to realize that people you admire, people who are successful, still share or shared your struggles. It’s human, it’s reality. And it has the potential to save lives.

That’s why we need books like Star-Crossed. That’s why authors like Barbara Dee should be able to speak about their books at schools where students are reading them and are in the target age range just as they would if the book was about anything else. And that’s why I continue to write as my characters and my stories come to me, and why I will not shut myself in the closet as a teacher. When risk of suicide and other psychological trauma is so high, I have the duty to protect my younger LGBT siblings.

Some Links:

13 Reasons Why & Prestige TV: Who’s the audience?

The following discusses graphic depictions of rape and suicide, including methods and details of the latter.

I’ve avoided writing a post about 13 Reasons Why because there are SO MANY THINGS that can be said, so many that have covered it, and every time I think about it too much I kind of combust into a ball of frustration. But alas, with the ridiculous yet unfortunately unsurprising news that it’s coming back for a second season (I was glad they were using TV to adapt books, but with the renewal of this and The Handmaid’s Tale, my trust has been betrayed), I thought I’d give it a shot.

So, since I’m fascinated by the evolution of TV, I read Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised near the end of last year (and failed to blog about it), which covers the early 2000s rise of prestige TV and the changing landscape of television. And, well, I’d been running out of things to watch so I’ve actually been watching (American) shows from this century now–Mad Men, Legion, and Battlestar Galactica, to name a few. I also took a class this past semester about the intersection of business and the cultural industries, and we talked a lot about the changes in TV. Prestige TV has been on my brain, as well as on my newsfeeds and podcasts.

Because of that, 13 Reasons Why was suddenly everywhere. The TV critics I followed were covering it, which kind of surprised me because they usually don’t bother with teen TV shows. Of course, 13RW is a Netflix property–that at least gives it a status as “might as well watch” in many circles (though A Series of Unfortunate Events–which was SO GOOD, by the way, and very postmodern and smart–didn’t drum up as much critic-talk). I should note I’d been aware of the book, as I was a teen when it was popular, but never picked it up because my only real interest in it came from wanting to read YA staples, and I was skeptical of the concept of having concrete “reasons” to commit suicide.

darn poster
Poster says “Based on the bestselling mystery” and seems to place her in an enigmatic position very unlike “girl who committed suicide” should.

Prestige TV is kind of an arbitrary monkier. It’s usually for those shows produced with an eye on the critics rather than the commercial, and as such doesn’t cave as much to advertisers and is more likely to be found on subscription services or some cable channels–usually, HBO, FX, AMC, Netflix, Hulu, Showtime, Amazon, Starz. It tends to take more narrative and content risks to challenge the audiences and show critics TV isn’t dumb and inferior to film like you used to think it was. A lot of these series are about white male antiheros and aimed toward the middle class white male demographic to boot–though they’ve been diversifying more recently. And because of the aforementioned outlets–particularly subscription services, which don’t rely on advertisers–these shows tend to tackle more mature themes and show more sex and violence. 13 Reasons Why certainly capture critiques, contained a lot of f-bombs and graphic content, and seemed to be marketed as a dark mystery/thriller.

Meanwhile, there’s young adult (YA) literature, the age market category that the novel 13 Reasons Why belongs to, and for good reason; “issue novels” and novels that contain and/or address various identities and struggles are common in YA. YA gets a bad rap, often seen as “silly vampire novels” or “dystopian novels” or love stories, which not only is a) part of our problem of looking down upon all things teenage girl, and b) completely discounts the range within YA, especially recently. (The 13 Reasons Why cast and crew has fallen into this trap, too.)  From someone who’s actively followed the YA community from the perspectives of a reader, teacher, and writer, I’ll certainly say that it’s not just teens who love YA, and hopefully good books are enjoyable to adults as well. But most authors I’ve read about or listened to keep their target audience in mind–not in a didactic way, but in a “I wish I had this book as a teen and I want to help teens understand themselves in some way.” And, regardless of how it was executed (and I’m rather skeptical of it), 13 Reasons Why’s subject matter fits right in to that.

The dissonance? The Netflix adaptation carries a TV-MA rating, likely due to language and the graphic portrayal of rape and suicide in late episodes. That’s pretty consistent with prestige TV. But it’s also targeted at teenagers, with kids as young as 12 watching it–and while I’ll be the first to admit teens can watch above the recommended age level, one has to wonder if this is really for teens why it isn’t rated TV-14. The MA rating also makes it harder for it to be screened in teen spaces like schools, which seems so contradictory to the defense that this is a good show to be a “conversation starter.” Unfortunately, not all teens have trustworthy and knowledgeable adults in their lives to discuss this with.

The graphic sexual assault and suicide scenes (and the show’s overall revenge theme) have drawn criticism from mental health professionals who are concerned about is impact on suicidal teens and suicide contagion, prompting Netflix to recently add more specific trigger warnings. This is all within good reason–the concept of triggers originates from the mental health world, after all, and for those suffering trauma from sexual assault or experiencing thoughts of self harm or suicide, graphic scenes (especially without warning) can have a very adverse affect upon mental health. One of the show’s writers, Nick Sheff, explained in an op-ed why he fought to include the suicide scene: he once heard a woman explain the complications that resaulted from her suicide attempt (via pill-taking), the memory of which saved him later when he considered taking his own life. With all respect to Mr. Sheff, he’s not really comparing apples to apples: a suicide attempt is very different from showing a successful suicide. And interestingly, in the book 13 Reasons Why, Hannah doesn’t slit her wrists and bleed out as shown in the show–she overdosed on pills. Why change that aspect if not to show something more graphic from an outside perspective?

Of course, the graphic scenes have also been well-received by critics for its artistic value, once again highlighting that dissonance between the critics’ value of graphic TV and its supposed target audience. (But, also, does all socially important content need to be graphic to be effective? I wonder sometimes.)

So, considering its viewer-unfriendliness to the suicidal and sexual assault surviors, is 13 Reasons Why really meant for the audience it claims to help: suffering teenagers who should reach out for help?

Or is it more for the “mainstream,” focused instead on the bullying issue and how you should be nice to people?

(Or may its storyline suggest that suicide can serve as successful revenge?)

The answer is, of course, varied upon the individual. I just think all of this should be considered, and it brings up some interesting commentary on where we sit with TV today.

One final note: I’ve been troubled by some of the discussions I’ve seen about whether the show shows that suicide is the right “choice” or not, the idea of people to blame and reasons why for committing suicide, and a recurring screencap/quote/gif I see that seems to suggest that Clay could have saved Hannah’s life if he’d told her he loved her. All of these seem to treat suicidal individuals as completely rational beings, which is contrary to how depression, trauma, and mental illness in general works. It’s no one’s fault, and every time I see the comment of “how could someone watch this and think suicide is the right choice?” I can’t help but feel they’re really saying it’s a choice and placing blame upon the suicidal for a decision they can’t possibly comprehend, and that isn’t helping. As humans, we like for things to make sense, but not all of our brains work the same way. You can tell someone you love them, but that doesn’t mean their brain will believe you. It isn’t your fault and it isn’t their fault.

Of course, 13 Reasons Why apparently never talks about mental health, whether it’s depression or PTSD (common in rape survivors). That’s a topic I’m not going to go into now, but let me just say that I don’t want to see this show (or the book, if it has the same omissions) referred to as “tackling mental health topics” or on a list of stories about mental health or suicide. It should not be the show/book about suicide, nevermind mental health.

And a couple sidenotes…

  • Naturally, the show became memefied (with even Netflix taking part), including as a promposal. I’ve found this extremely unsettling considering the cassette tapes represent a suicide notes with details of bullying and rape. That is not funny.
  • Brian Yorkey adapted the series, and I knew him previously as the book and lyric writer (with Tom Kitt composing) of Next to Normal (a Pulitzer Prize winner) and If/Then, two of my favorite musicals. Researching 13RW has made me reconsider Next to Normal a little bit, which is also about mental illness–although much more explicitly, focusing on a bipolar woman and her family. Apparently, the duo started it as a critique of mental health treatments of bipolar disorder (mostly electroshock therapy), which could be very frustrating if research with actual and various bipolar women was not conducted. However, I think the final version is much more concerned with the effect on the family and her relationship to them that it avoids these problems to have a lot of heart. Here’s the awesome Tony Awards performance, if you’re curious.
  • This article about teens’ experience was also worth listening to, although of course, your mileage may vary.

 

How College Has Made Me a Better Reader

So, I’m 100% back now since I’ve finished my first year of college and have three and a half months of summer stretching before me. I’ve got posts I’ve been meaning to finish for a while now, but it seemed silly to ignore how college life has changed me and my reading. So here I am.

A quick note: I don’t mean this post to be about how college makes everyone/most people better readers, or how you should go to college to be a better reader. This is very particular to my own habits and studies.

I’ve always needed a “currently reading” book to take around with me to waiting rooms and school since I can remember. There were times when I was very much into reading, and other times (like some of middle school) where I struggled to find stories that interested me. This meant that when I grew tired of a story, I would often skim or perhaps daydream while turning pages until it was over and I could move onto the next thing–very much a bad habit that means I’ve “read” many books I don’t remember much about. (Admittedly, there are books I’ve read properly that I don’t remember much about either, but that happens when you read a lot of different stories.)

My first semester of college, I didn’t read too much, honestly. It wasn’t that I had a lot of homework to do, but the homework I did have rarely involed reading–at least, not books. I read quite a few poems, short stories,a couple plays, and I did read a wriiting advice book for class. The main culprit was that I was suddenly surrounded by people all the time (I was fortunate to have a great floor), and reading is quite an alone activity. And after my rigid high school devotion to school work and getting through a book a week (even if that meant I skimmed some I wasn’t that in to, as I mentioned earlier), I did not want to be alone in my room very much.

Second semester was quite a different story. In my first semester, my classes were kind of all over the place–a creative writing class, a literary analysis skills class, a cognitive science class (the most traditional one), a speech class, and a technology in education class. I really only had to write one paper and take 2 tests that were multiple-choice, knowledge-based (both for cognitive science), not counting short stories I wrote and the literature tests that were basically just “answer basic questions and analyze this.” Everything else was a project or speech. Second semester, though? I had two literature classes, two education classes, a fun class about cultural industries, and creative writing, (well, and also yoga) and I read 17 books (plus many poems, short stories, journal articles, chapters scanned to PDFs…etc) and wrote probably around 15 papers. It’s hard to keep count on that last one.

You get the idea. I was either reading a book, reading something I’d printed, reading a PDF, or typing in a Word document. In one of my classes (20th and 21st century literature with a literary history focus…it was my favorite), we read 9 books, which turned out to be a book a week during most of the course.

But when you fit in my other classes, “a book a week” usually means reading a book in a weekend, or 100 pages in an afternoon, etc. That might not seem unusual to some of you, but for me, I struggle with “marathoning” books (or TV shows sometimes, for that matter). Part of it might be my troubles focusing on one thing at a time, but a larger part is that “reading a book over a week” has just been a part of my life since elementary school. Sure, there were some exceptions, but in those times sometimes I’d run into my old enemy, skimming, because I was more concerned about how fast I was reading than anything. With school, I can’t do that, of course. I wouldn’t say I annotated elaborately, but I kept a pencil in hand and underlined frequently. (Plus, it helped that the aforementioned class was a survey course, so we didn’t do close readings of everything.) Nevertheless, I learned how to read a large amount in a relatively short period of time without (thanks to the flexibility of college schedules) thinking more about the time than the words.

Another thing I learned was variety. I was a varied reader–at least in fiction–before college, but I was always aware of the difference I was making. I avoided nonfiction because I’d always thought of it as textbooks, gradually warming to essays and memoirs. I’d tried my hand at a few comics and graphic novels, mostly Doctor Who and Buffy spinoffs, but found I didn’t appreciate the art and got the characters confused because I was so used to reading words. So I mostly stuck with novels, and even then, when I was starting something that was “literary” or “a classic” in my leisure time, I approached it with the mindset that it was going to be somehow harder. This meant I spent less time on it, which led to–you guessed it–some skimming. Or at least, seeing the words and turning the pages while my mind is on something else because I’ve lost the thread of the story.

(The one exception to this was Donald Bartheleme’s “See the Moon?” which I got a whopping one question right on the quiz we had. This meant meant it was dropped from my final grade, and admittedly I thought we didn’t have a quiz that day and I have trouble remembering the names of characters in short stories and they made up most of the answers. Still, as much as I say I love postmodernism–and at this point I very much believe I do–it does require a different sort of reading technique, one that takes format and historical context and so on into account. I came to an epiphany in my discussion section that made it make sense to me and later wrote a paper on it I’m quite proud of.)

But this past semester I read 2 graphic novels and 2 nonfiction books. The rest were modern classics, more or less…and I approached them all the same. There wasn’t a switch that said, “Okay, I’m choosing to read something more difficult now.” It also probably helped that I began the semester with The Great Gatsby and Willa Cather’s My Antonia (as well as Native Son, which is one ofthe most straightforwardly-written novels I’ve read), two books I read back in 9th grade that made me love modern classics and literary fiction because of their complexities of relationships. (Weirdly, I had to read these two back-to-back in my two literature classes, though naturally I only read them once because I didn’t see the point in rereading just a month later on stories I know so well.

So while I struggled to fit in Nimona, The Name of the Wind, The Underground Railroad, and The Hate U Give around my class readings (and out of those, Nimona  and Underground Railroad were the only ones I finished completely while in school, not over a break, and Nimona‘s a graphic novel…), I very much think I’ve gained valuable reading skills. I mean, I came home and in a little over 24 hours finished off The Hate U Give (I’d say 30-40%?) and read the reamining 80% of Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda. And I didn’t feel like I was missing out by being absorbed in one thing or not allowing myself to “live in” the story for an entire week (only to want to just be over, probably). Then I casually picked up a nonfiction book about language on my Kindle and have no trouble (hopefully) reading that at about the same time I read the YA book I just picked up for the library (where I also picked up 2 graphic novels). I don’t feel like I need to stop because of my own superimposed rules about reading speeds.

My TBR list might actually shrink this year? Well, I don’t want to get my hopes up. And if it does, it’s probably because I’m going to be reaching for more graphic novels, plays, and poetry collections.

Me vs. Timed Writing Exams

Upon the completion of my last IB History HL paper, I am now completely done with those 4- or 5-paragraph, 40ish minute timed essays for exams. Thank goodness.

rory exhausted.gif

These are “AP-style” essays pretty much intended for timed writings. After all three AP histories, both AP Englishes, plus IB History and English (though, thankfully that one had a longer time limit and more meat to it), as well as all the accompanying practice and tests in class. (Oh, and AP French, which also included a similar essay. What a surprise.) Basically, I can crank these things out, but I hate the anticipation that builds to them and I never want to do them.

Maybe my mind will change when I’m a teacher, but honestly, the only thing I think these are useful for is getting something down on paper when there’s a time limit and, in the case of history, testing your ability to analyze from what you remember about the topic. Well, and I suppose to get something out of the students who won’t turn in their papers if you assign them at home. They serve well for that purpose–the graders aren’t extremely harsh and, furthermore, don’t spened that much time scoring them–but it just lacks something more.

I’ll do well on ever single essay, but there’s nothing I’m esepecially proud of or that I enjoyed. Okay, I admit I do enjoy the English ones if I have a cool analysis of the prompt/extract/poem and I get excited about it. But I can’t consider them among my best essays because they’re riddled with little errors (and bad handwriting) because I didn’t have the time left over to carefully reread. And while I do have to curb my habit of obsessive typo-checking, sometimes you just need to sleep on your thesis, do a bit of reading, and give yourself time to think of something that’s exactly what you want.

They’re also terribly formulaic. Context and thesis. Two or three main points with supporting evidence and analysis to connect to your thesis. Conclusion to wrap it up.There’s a limited way of going about it. You’ve also got to write linerally, and if you’re someone like me with concentration problems and accustomed to writing  (especially creatively) on a computer, it can be frustrating. I usually write on a word processor by jumping around when I have ideas or a specific way to word something and then connect and rearrange everything (and rewrite some). This is why writing something with a clear beginning and end and continuity on paper doesn’t jive well with me. And so, I don’t think the actual process of writing essays should be a one-fits-all approach.

I don’t really have a comment about the nature of standardized tests, because I haven’t had an experience with the new standards myself, and these exams are certainly not created with the same intentions. (Though I have heard some things about the approach to English…but that’s another thing. Plus, these tests are rapidly moving online.)  When I was in elementary in middle school, we always had a writing prompt that was more open-ended and creative, and I always found myself coming up with something fantastical.

That was fun. And for me, I do enjoy mad creative fervor..but I think it’s not the best way to teach writing to begin with. That isn’t what AP does necessarily, but I think with some students, the limited time and space makes it difficult for them to improve. A few take-home and extended time essays might not be enough for them to get it down in time.

So I’m not a fan (and frankly am just exhausted of these things), and I think it would be incredibly difficult to teach to all students. …And I’m also more exicted than I probably should be to have papers assigned for college.