Being Present in the Classroom

Have you ever looked out at your class and realized that a large percentage of your class isn’t engaged?  The reality is that sometimes what we have to do in our curriculum isn’t always interesting to our students today.  No matter our bells and whistles, our acrobatics, our attempts to make it fun, students won’t be engaged unless they are present.  This is a lesson for us all.  We must be present and truthful in everything we do in life.  We must acknowledge the fact there are things beyond our control that don’t allow us, or our students, to always be present, but it is an idea, a skill, that we should discuss in our classrooms.  Below is a video clip of Patsy Rodenburg discussing her “why.”  Although this is about theater, it is relevant to us all, teachers and students alike.  I have shown this video clip and discussed the idea of being present in drama classes, English classes, and with my drama club.  The ending is powerful and will leave your students thinking.

Approaching Shakespeare

Last weekend I went to school to watch a student production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It.  Although I am on maternity leave, I didn’t want to miss the performance, so I took my two month old daughter to see her first Shakespeare production.  Leaving the building, two things came to mind. First, it was very apparent that this show was one that the students had a hand in creating and it was fun.  Two, so many people think that our children today don’t like Shakespeare, or can’t like it, or won’t like it. Those skeptics are wrong.  

Source: Shakespeare and Company’s facebook page

I have been working with the Shakespeare program as a faculty liaison for many years, as the school I work for has been opting to buy into a program that brings in visiting directors and ends in a festival.  The school has been participating in the Fall Festival of Shakespeare for nearly twenty years.  It is a program that is run by Shakespeare and Company, a professional theater company in Lenox, MA. Ten schools in our region participate.  Students work together with the directors from Shakespeare and Company to create a unique production of Shakespeare that is performed at the Fall Festival on Shakespeare and Company’s stage.  It is a wonderful program that helps students bring Shakespeare’s works to life today in a way that is relevant and fun.  And of course, students learn a whole lot more than a piece of classic literature, just as they would in creating any theater production.

I have met a few English teachers over the years that tell me that they “don’t like Shakespeare.”  They don’t teach this classic literature unless forced, and even then they don’t do such a great job at it.  (Their words, not mine.)  So how does this onstage success that I spoke of above translate to the classroom if you are an English teacher who doesn’t have such a program in your school and you are not in a position to run a whole production on stage?  Having taught one of Shakespeare’s works in every course I have ever taught in the high school, I can tell you that students can and do love and embrace Shakespeare’s work.  

(Video Source:  Video taken by Donna Hilbrandt at a Taconic Hills High School rehearsal of Richard III which was performed as part of the Fall Festival of Shakespeare several years ago.)

Here are a few thoughts to start you thinking (or rethinking) about your approach to teaching Shakespeare:

Students think that they don’t understand the language and that Shakespeare is “too difficult.”

At the start of teaching a unit on Shakespeare’s work, I always give my students a short anticipation exercise which includes the question: Write one thing you think you dislike or fear about Shakespeare or his work.  (I don’t know is not an acceptable answer.)  Without fail, the answer to this question tends to be a string of answers that show that students don’t think they will understand the language.  They think it is Old English.  They also fear boredom, which I address below.  

With the idea hanging in the air, I address the language before we even begin.  Shakespeare is poetic and a bit old fashioned, but it is not Old English.  Sometimes, if students challenge me on that front, I show them a document written in Old English so that they can see that Old English is foreign to us, where as Shakespeare is just more formal, old fashioned, and poetic.  However, it is English.  Plain English that we all can read.  

I also address the idea that Shakespeare’s work will be “too difficult.”  I express to students that there are people who study Shakespeare’s work for many, many years.  These plays have layers, and it is our job as a class to uncover a layer or two.  I explain to them that I have been teaching Romeo and Juliet for over ten years, sometimes several times a day, and they I often find and discover new things when I read and study it again.  I give them a goal to merely understand the basic story line and to understand the main characters.  We often go much deeper than this as a class, but as we anticipate the study of a work of Shakespeare, this goal feels approachable to students.

Students think that the story of the play won’t be relevant to their lives.

When I approach teaching a Shakespeare play, I take the time to make it relevant for my students.  I read a children’s story version of the play with them so that they know the basic story line and can start to connect to that story.  (I use Tina Packer’s Tales from Shakespeare.  See the Amazon link above.) I use anticipation guides or have a discussion about the big ideas that I know will be relevant to them.  For example, in Hamlet, Hamlet’s devastated by the hasty marriage of his mother to his uncle.  I ask students, “how would you feel if you were Hamlet?”  They can connect to that for sure!  Or when I teach Romeo and Juliet, we discuss young love and lust and being a rebellious teenager.  High school students can definitely see the relevance in those ideas.

Students think it is boring and old-fashioned.

On this front I am direct.  There is nothing boring about sword fights and plots to kill the King.  There is nothing boring about love at first sight and feuds between families.  I tell my students that if they are bored, it is because they are not paying attention.  They can disagree with me, but it won’t get them far, as I believe boredom is self-inflicted and I tell them so. I also have a two standing rules in my classroom:  1.  I expect students to come to class with a positive attitude and approach. 2. I tell students that I reserve the right to fail any student who disses the subject of Shakespeare, as it is one of my great passions in life. The first is a real expectation.  The second I do say, but of course I do so with a smile and tongue in cheek.  However, they see my humor and my point, and I rarely have to deal with the subject of boredom after that.

(I receive no compensation for my plug of Shakespeare and Company.  I just believe that they do great work.

I am an Amazon Associate.  I earn a commission on ANY purchase you make on Amazon after you click through to Amazon.)

The Monologue

For actors, especially student actors, the monologue is a staple exercise.  Monologues are used as an exercise so that student actors, and I suppose actors in general, can build character development skills.  Monologues are often used as audition pieces as well.

When I teach the introduction to drama classes that I have developed, I always incorporate a monologue unit into the class.  I have developed two introductory drama classes.  One focuses on performance and the other has a bit more of a focus on creating and writing.

Photo taken and manipulated by Donna Hilbrandt.

In the performance focused class, I always have students prepare a monologue from my exhaustive pile of resources.  I urge them to read several and play with several before they choose the one they will perform.  This exploration process is important, as it exposes my students to several monologues instead of just one or two.  I set aside class time for this process so that homework time management doesn’t interfere with the process.

In the class that focuses more on writing, I have students choose a topic to focus on and then they write their own monologue.  Students in this class are always required to take the performance class as a prerequisite, so they have been exposed to many examples of monologues when they are finally challenged to write one.  We discuss length and structure.  I have students spend time working with peers for feedback as well.


Photo taken and manipulated by Donna Hilbrandt.

I also share with students my own writing.  I think it is important as an educator to model for students whenever possible.  I have one of my monologues published on my Hubpages site.  I may move it here in  the future, but for now you can read it by clicking here.   It is titled “What a Day!”  It is a depiction of the day in the life of a high school student.  Feel free to use this monologue as a class exercise or for performance.  

Close Reading and Annotating Text

When the Common Core learning standards came out, there was an expectation that teachers would focus on the skills of close reading and annotating text in their lessons.  Although this wasn’t a new skill by any means, it was a new focus in all subject areas.  I put together a presentation which I presented to the faculty in my district that gives a basic overview of close reading and annotating text.  I created a video of this presentation (above).

I also use a version of this same presentation, with less slides, in my classroom every year when I introduce and review this concept.  I explain to students, in both 9th and 11th grades, that the phrases “close reading” and “annotating text” are going to be common phrases that they hear in the English department from year to year and possibly in their other subject areas as well.  This overview is a nice way to remind us all of the basic components of this skill.

In the video, I refer to the PEE Principle.  The PEE Principle is a technique for writing that I learned when I taught secondary English in London many years ago.  It is always a fun day when I get to tell my students that they are going to get to PEE down their page! Besides that, it has been the single most effective technique that I have taught in my classroom that has led to student success in academic writing.  I wrote more about the PEE Principle in an article and video that I have published on Hubpages.  To read that article click here.

Black Mirror by Nancy Werlin

For this year’s summer school novel, I picked Nancy Werlin’s Black Mirror.  This is a gripping, young adult mystery novel that I find myself coming back to time and time again.  I have used it in my ninth grade English classroom and in summer school sessions with both ninth and tenth graders who are reluctant readers.  Written on about a seventh grade level, I would recommend this novel for high school students in ninth grade who struggle with reading or reading motivation.

Black Mirror tells the story of Frances Leventhal, an awkward, self-conscience teenage girl attending a prestigious, private preparatory school on scholarship.  From the start of the novel, readers find out that her older brother, Daniel, has died of a drug overdose.  As the story unfolds, readers watch as Frances struggles with her identity and the loss of her brother.  With each turn of the page, readers will speculate about who was involved in the events that led to Daniels death.  Was it suicide or murder?  If it was suicide, why?  If it was murder, who did it?  

The subject matter in this 250

 page novel is a bit mature for a middle school audience.  It deals with drugs and has a bit of unnecessary profanity. However, it is fine for a ninth grade reader and beyond, in my humble opinion.  This is a mystery novel that will keep young readers turning the page.  Werlin ingeniously ended many of the chapters with exciting cliffhangers, leaving students asking if we could read just one more chapter before the end of class. As a teacher, I can’t ask for more than that kind of enthusiasm, especially from reluctant readers. If you are looking for a unique, contemporary mystery combined with a coming of age novel, this might be the right pick for you.  

Check out the ELA Lessons section for lesson ideas for this novel.  (Coming soon!)

Black Mirror by Nancy Werlin

Writing for the Stage – A Reflection

Dug out of my files, I am sharing a piece here that I wrote in a college theatre class many years ago.  The questions posed at the end of the first paragraph make a great prompt for writing in a drama or theater classroom.  Enjoy!

Art is created in many forms: painting, sculpture, music, dance, poetry, theatre, and much more.  It is the creative work produced from craft, skill, and imagination.  The art of theatre can be broken into parts.  Acting, directing, playwriting, scene design, choreography, costume design, etc. are different types of art that come together to create the art of theatre.  I was in a discussion recently where the suggestion was made that theatre would not exist without a script.  The question was then posed: why do playwrights write plays?  What makes these artists create?

A play reflects life.  Many plays teach a lesson or moral value to a society.  Some support a cause, whether it is political or social.  Playwrights expose human nature, sometimes to the extreme.  They explore the mysteries of life.  A playwright creates an art that leaves an audience asking who are we and what are we doing here?

The question still stands:  why do they write? I don’t think there is a concrete answer.  Maybe they have something personal to share. Maybe they feel that they have an obligation to society.  I think that they do.  The late African writer, Chinua Achebe once said, “storytellers create history.”  They do.  In fact they shape our perceptions of history.  That is a powerful platform.  However it is a platform they share with all writers.

So why do they write plays instead of novels or poetry? I believe that for some it stems from a love of theatre and the challenge of writing a play.  It is difficult to write anything well. It is difficult to write for the theatre.  In a novel, the writer has room to create characters and their stories in an endless number of pages.  A playwright is more confined.  A playwright writes for the stage.  In a novel, characters can travel to a number of places.  In a play, the scene is often set in only one or a few places.  A novel can present the background of a character in detail.  This is more difficult to do in a play, and often the details of the background come through the performance.  An actor has to interpret the character’s past using character analysis.  Although it is difficult to write anything well, writing for the stage presents a unique challenge.  My guess is that most playwrights live for that challenge.

It is a unique art, as playwrights eventually give up their creation, the script, to directors, actors, and technical artists.  These artists give life to the playwright’s art.  The script translates into ideas in motion.  We can never really know what inspires others to produce their art, but we certainly can appreciate their art.

What I am reading…

About a week ago, I was wide awake and searching my bookshelf for a book to take to bed with me.  It was about 10pm, and I figured I would be asleep after a chapter or so.  My pick?  Mountain Whippoorwill by Suellen Holland.  Published in 1985, this is an oldie but a goody.  I was pleasantly surprised to find the old, tattered copy of this short novel on my shelf.  Having read it tons of times when I was a young girl, I thought it would be a fun read down memory lane.

Mountain Whippoorwill tells the story of Tara, a teenage girl who lives with her bad-tempered, widower father in the Ozarks.  A budding fiddle player, Tara is coming into her own as she comes of age.  Readers watch her as she accompanies her teacher, and neighbor, to bluegrass jamborees where she overcomes her nerves to play and wow the crowds.  Her coming of age is further developed when she meets Dusty, a fellow musician.  As Tara learns more about herself and her music, she gains confidence and falls in love with Dusty.  As the story unfolds, Tara faces embarrassing teenage moments and more loss in her life.  Her triumphs prevail, however, and the story ends on a high note.

Throughout this beautiful story, Holland weaves the lines of “The Mountain Whippoorwill,” a poem by Steven Vincent Benet.  She describes the musical moments and brings the musicians to life.  If you listen hard, you can almost hear the music coming off the pages of this beautifully written story.  I highly recommend this novel, which I stayed up half the night to read again.  It is hard to put down, and it will leave your feeling warm and good about the world.

Mountain Whippoorwill by Suellen Holland

Welcome to Pencils and Props!

Welcome to Pencils and Props!

I am a high school English teacher, drama director and adviser, and a mom.  Pencils and Props is my new creative endeavor where I will reflect on my teaching practice and share my ideas and experience with readers.  I hope that you enjoy this site and that it is helpful to you in your teaching experience.