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Making of a Monster

Posted by jodi.rice Mar 28, 2016

This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.


(Note to self: when required to check your daypack/purse at a museum, remember to keep your notebook with you. Inspiration could strike at any time, and you could be forced to take notes for your blog posts by borrowing a pen from a museum guard and scribbling in the margins of your museum program. Or you could get creative and send several e-postcards from the museum's terminals with your notes attached to electronic reproductions of famous paintings. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes it hard to compose the blog draft on the train when you don't have access to your e-mail!)


In my last post I wrote about keeping a journal while travelling. See above note to self---it's taken me some time to put together my next post, which has been languishing in note form since I was in the Netherlands over two weeks ago. But I was glad for my habit of keeping notes (in one form or another) about my blog inspirations while on the road, and I can finally put together my thoughts about visiting the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.


Like few other museums I've visited, this one, dedicated entirely to the work of Vincent Van Gogh, demonstrated how a single artist's painterly voice developed over time. Even more revealing was the exhibit currently featured there: a selection of Van Gogh's hundreds of letters to his brother Theo and other family and friends has been sensitively paired with paintings and sketches to illustrate the process by which his troubled but talented genius emerged so distinctively.

When Van Gogh decided in his late twenties that he wanted to become a painter, he had no formal training. Instead, taking it upon himself to study masters like Rembrandt, he taught himself the techniques of composition and colour, the mixing of materials and the use of implements. He greatly admired painters like Delacroix, even at times creating his own versions of their own works as studies. He even went through a period of collecting and imitating Japanese prints, resulting in work that is lesser-known but still striking.


Emulation is a time-tested strategy for learning what makes a piece of work tick. I have had my students emulate the "This I Believe" series from NPR, "Of Studies" by Francis Bacon, and "A Modest Proposal" by Jonathan Swift. Some of these assignments go over better than others (many groans over the Bacon, let me tell you!), but students never fail to learn something about the method behind the madness of the master, and after a while the perennial question of  "But did the writer really mean for this piece to have those features?" tends to fade.


I often use art as an analogy in my AP® Language class to discuss that particular question/complaint. My argument is this: Yes, the writer knows, on some level, what he or she is doing. At first, it's through application of a conscious effort to include certain strategies. Picasso knew very well how to paint the human form realistically. (Many students are surprised to learn that early Picasso portraits did not have sideways noses and three breasts.)


It's after internalizing those strategies---often through a period that includes emulation of styles from which he or she can learn---that the artist makes the shift to including compositional techniques that define his or her own style. Picasso's sideways noses have a purpose; he's not painting that way because he doesn't know how to represent a human face properly. Learn the rules first, practice them, and then you can begin to play with them.

Van Gogh had a natural genius, but he was a self-taught master, and the range of pieces in the museum show plainly how hard he worked to achieve such a  unique style, so different from anything else at that time that most people can instantly recognize a Van Gogh painting as a Van Gogh. The man worked hard! So hard he was full of an ultimately destructive combination of passion and self-doubt.


His letters document that work, as a student's writing journal or portfolio that includes self-reflective piece might. Self-reflective or metacognitive pieces about their writing process might include "letters" to a trusted confidant about what's inspiring to them, what's frustrating, what they admire in the words of others. Brainstorm with students what a struggling artist or writer might want to write about in his or her diary to help them understand that these metacognitive pieces needn't be perfect and eloquent in themselves---what counts is willingness to think about the process, to feel it as a struggle and an effort, but one with forward movement and potential, even when setbacks occur.


You can browse some of Van Gogh's letters at the museum's Web site for inspiration about what such letters might look and sound like. “One must work and be bold if one really wants to live,” he wrote to Theo in April 1885, just before he left for Paris to find better opportunities to learn his art. But the rewards of hard work can be a fire lit from within, and a confidence that allows one to persevere and apply inspiration from others: "While I'm working I feel an unlimited confidence in art and that I'll succeed".



®AP is a trademark registered and/or owned by the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this product.

Hamletas Play

Posted by jesse.tangen Mar 28, 2016

This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.


The importance of Hamlet seems nearly inarguable. References and allusions to Hamlet abound in American culture, as do theatrical productions and films: in the last decade I’ve seen nearly a dozen takes on the bard’s longest play, from the Royal Shakespeare Company to Shakespeare in the Park to the experimental Wooster Group. Our department decided to teach at least one Shakespeare play in each grade, and thankfully Hamlet became part of the AP® Literature curriculum.


I think Shakespeare at the high school level invites a sort of damned if you do, damned if you don’t attitude in teachers. If you teach it, you face the daunting prospect of having to inspire a love of  Shakespeare in your students; if you skip it, you’ve denied your students the privilege of having studied Shakespeare.


Luckily, Hamlet is a masterpiece that is flawlessly constructed, painfully resolved, and has a protagonist who is irresistible to young adults. Still, despite its many strengths I often find myself reminding students that it is, in fact, a play intended to be experienced, not a book intended to be read. But how do I provide students with an authentic but entertaining Shakespeare experience? Should I just keep repeating, “See, this is really fun”?


So, I took Hamlet to the stage, as I have now for a few years. Luckily at my school I have Internet access, a computer, and a projector, so I’ve been able use films and recorded performance to accompany the script each step of the way. Rather than assign students a scene to read, I assigned watching/reading: students were to watch a scene, then respond to it in their blog, discussing interesting phrases, words, even rhymes.


As anyone who has studied a foreign language will tell you, context is everything. Watching Shakespeare performed is much easier than reading the text on its own. By exposing students to as many film versions of Hamlet as I could to dispel any notions of a singular, correct version of Hamlet, I also wanted to show students that actors and directors interpret Shakespeare’s words and characters differently.


This is a much more sophisticated notion than it would seem, at least more so than the usual book versus movies conversation. I asked students to focus on very specific moments and several textual points of comparison.


The Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2009 version of Hamlet, starring David Tennant (of Doctor Who fame) received rave reviews, and rightly so. Tennant’s boyish frustrated Hamlet is certainly among the best on film.

Kenneth Brannagh’s Hamlet is perhaps the best known of recent film adaptations. Set in a castle, sometime in the mid-nineteenth century, Brannagh’s classic take on the Danish prince offers an excellent point of contrast with the clip above.

If students remained doubtful as to the depth of actors’ and directors’ analysis of Hamlet, I would have them watch a sort of “making-of” Hamlet, called Discovering Hamlet, in addition to listening to This American Life’s fantastic episode about a production of Hamlet performed by inmates at a prison.  One of my students, Laura Duarte, reacted to the radio clip this way:


“These men are playing the roles they've played all their life. They truly mean the lines they say. They've been through what Hamlet's has been through, done what Claudius has done. In other words, they are murderers playing the roles of murderers. Can there be a better interpretation?”


The other great thing about teaching Hamlet—its popularity aside—is the plethora of major writers and artists that have written about the play. Freud outlines what would later be called the Oedipal Complex using Hamlet as an example in The Interpretation of Dreams. T.S. Eliot pulls the play apart in his essay, “Hamlet and His Problems.” Both offer unique—and well-known—takes on the Danish prince’s story.

To end our unit, my students were assigned a short scene to perform. They were expected to demonstrate a distinct interpretation from those that they had seen and written about. (This was in addition to a traditional paper in which I encouraged them to focus on the scenes they had memorized.) I was able to give the students dramaturgical direction once or twice in the month leading up to our Hamlet performance, but it was mostly up to them to rehearse their scene.


The day of the performance, students showed up early, nervously pacing around reciting their lines and readying their costumes. With three sections of AP® Literature, it took over two hours—after school—to get through all of the scenes and yet everyone, myself included, was enraptured in the age-old tradition of entering a dark theater to watch life manifest itself.


Students were graded individually [based on their interpretation and delivery].  When we finished after 5 o’clock, over pizza and soda, the students told me how much they had enjoyed the activity, and at the same time they found it nerve-wracking and extremely challenging. That, to me, meant success.


As Hamlet demonstrates in the play he stages for Claudius, the cathartic power of theater is often more revealing than any sort of rhetoric. Best to let the play be the thing to catch the consciences of students.


®AP is a trademark registered and/or owned by the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this product.

This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.


So I'm not going back to school this year, as I mentioned in my previous post. Somehow, though, I still find myself reading books that I've had my eye on for my AP® Language class. And they make for some good reading.


I didn't used to be very keen on reading nonfiction, but teaching Language has changed my perspective. Or perhaps my perspective's been changed by my own changing experience. After all, as I said earlier, my sudden increase in travel reading corresponds, not coincidentally, with my own plans for travel this year.


But the fact is, like many English teachers faced with teaching works that are not imaginative literature, when I first started teaching this course, I was a bit stymied as to how to balance my love of literature with the nonfiction demands of the Language curriculum. I've previously written about ways to incorporate poetry, but incorporating novels can be tougher, given the more extensive time commitment required to read and discuss them, and the desire to discuss them as novels. Teaching them in a Language class requires looking at them as arguments and teaching them as such.


One possibility is to pair the novel with thematically related nonfiction reading, and consider the novel as another source for synthesis work — another voice in the discussion of the important ideas we tackle in our study of human views and voices. In most cases, this means finding articles that pick up on material in the novel, but this past month I read a book-length nonfiction work that struck a chord with me in many ways, including being hauntingly reminiscent of an excellent novel I'd read earlier in the year.


I picked up Three Cups of Tea because its subtitle intrigued me: "One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time." It was a very good summer read, though in places I found myself agreeing with some critics of its prose and narrative structure, which many found heavy-handed. Even so, I couldn't help but be moved by the efforts of former mountaineer Greg Mortenson to bring education and thus stability and self-improvement to the remotest parts of Northern Pakistan. The focus on girls' education in particular would probably resonate strongly with students at my own all-girls' school.


What I thought was missing from the account was a bit more insight into the culture that surrounded Mortenson, with a bit more analysis of the differences between American and Pakistani worldviews. Mortenson's self-determined mission is founded on the idea that greater understanding and a balanced education provides a greater platform for peaceful relationships between different peoples, but I felt that I came away from the book with less of an understanding of the Balti and other Pakistani peoples than I could have. Although there were several scenes in which Mortenson's biographer, David Oliver Relin, described the delicate negotiations required to earn the respect and cooperation of local community leaders, government authorities, and mullahs, as well as a host of taxi drivers, construction workers, hotel owners, and other average folk who eventually became part of his team, I never really felt I got their perspective on this revolutionary project — aside from the predictable sound bites praising "Dr. Greg" as nothing short of a minor messiah.


Pondering this shortcoming, I suddenly realized that I had read a novel earlier this year that did shed light on the Pakistani perspective, and although it focused on slightly different circumstances, the connections were unmistakable to me.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a short but engrossing 2007 novel by Mohsin Hamid, chronicles in monologue format the experiences of a young Pakistani man who emigrates to the United States with high hopes for a top education and successful career in finance. Try as he might, he cannot quite fit in to modern American society, even though he has what it takes to live the American Dream. Following 9/11, he returns to Pakistan, but finds even then that his exposure to the American way of life has changed him in ultimately complex ways — while he is ashamed of his family's way of life, he cannot truly reconcile his conscience with the American lifestyle. He is caught in the middle, and must decide where his heart and future lie. The book's title sort of gives it away, but sussing his rationale through his monologue makes for a fascinating psychological study of political and philosophical sympathies.


What a pairing! An American brings schooling to remotest areas of Pakistan in the hopes of engendering peace through cultural understanding; a Pakistani goes to America to find education and finds himself embroiled in the modern plague of simmering global culture clash. Even if you simply pulled out the sections in Three Cups of Tea surrounding the events of 9/11 you would have much to discuss, although certainly the earlier parts of the book, which cover events dating back to the early 1990s, provide some significant context. Good reviews of both books would also provide more food for thought, and certainly there is no shortage of related material in periodicals from the past ten to fifteen years.


I've used novels as part of synthesis work in the past, and indeed one synthesis assignment that I have posted online focuses on discussing cultural practices that we in North America might find difficult to wrap our heads around. It was inspired by the female circumcision scene that is a focal point in Camilla Gibb's novel Sweetness in the Belly, which we studied one year when the author came to speak at my school.


What other fiction–nonfiction pairings spring to mind for you?




®AP is a trademark registered and/or owned by the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this product.

Motherhood and Synthesis

Posted by jodi.rice Mar 28, 2016

This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.


There probably isn't any single group of people subject to quite as much advice as new mothers. From the moment people discover that you are expecting a baby, well-meaning advice pours in from all sides. And from the venerable Dr Spock to the Baby Whisperer, there is no shortage of books telling new parents how to parent.


I've heard from several of my contemporaries who feel overwhelmed by reading book after book on how to feed, how to treat ailments, how to sleep – oh, especially, these days, on how to sleep! Ever try to read a book on how to sleep when you're sleep-deprived? How about four or five such books? How about four or five such books that all seem to say something different?


It's at times like these when I realize just how important “real-life” synthesis skills are. Yes, it's easy to become overwhelmed when these books all seem to provide different solutions. In some cases, they even actively refute one another! How on earth do you decide which course of action is best for your little (three-AM-waking) bundle of joy?


The answer, of course, is that the best course of action involves weighing the evidence provided by the various sources, then taking the best of each and finding your own way. And this is exactly what we want our students to understand about the purpose and method of synthesis. We want them to read all the sources provided, even dissenting ones, understand them, weigh their contributions to the overall conversation, and then enter that conversation on their own terms, with their own informed position, referring to the sources for the opinions and evidence they offer in support of (or in opposition to) their own arguments. They should even be able to justify why they are using, discarding, or refuting a certain source – just as new parents  find themselves doing when confronted by the grandparents who tell them they're doing it all wrong.


Nothing drives a lesson home like a real-world application with real consequences. This may be an excellent approach to teaching synthesis to your students. Have your class brainstorm situations that are important to them, about which they are likely to get lots of opinions and advice. For example, which university should they go to? What's the best way to choose a career path? What kinds of rules or guidelines should parents exert on their children when it comes to things like internet use, dating, or managing money? Whatever they choose, it should be something that is subject to lots of “expert” opinions from different points of view – it might be that the more controversial the topic, the better (e.g. teaching birth control methods to teens), but you will have to take your school population into account as well.


From deciding on the “real-life” topic, their next step is finding good, reputable sources and building their own synthesis questions. Then, having found and weighed their sources and decided on their own position in light of the question, let them take the position of  “expert” on the topic and present their course of action either as a proposal or “how-to” in writing or orally. They should always indicate which parts of their proposals are based on the experts upon whose shoulders they have built their own approach.


To save time, you could always give them a predetermined topic like, oh, “The best way to get a baby to sleep through the night.” But, honestly, I don't know if I would be able to listen to yet another opinion on that topic!