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Self-Reflection: For Them, For Me, to Learn Shakespeare

Self-reflection is one of the most powerful aspects of teaching, both for myself and for students as learners. There’s something profound about having to determine what you learned, how (and if) you learned it, and one’s personal responsibility in that process.

One of my favorite parts of teaching Shakespeare–a part that I’m only reminded of once it’s over, usually, because it’s so hectic in the flow of it–is this project I do called the Shakespeare Festival. I have adapted it from a unit I found from a fantastic teacher in Utah. Essentially, kids select a scene (this time from Macbeth) and perform it. But that’s probably too much of a simplification of what they do. They also must select their groups, write a justification of their scene, memorize(ish) their lines, create a storyboard, create a mock-up or model of their setting and costumes, make a film of their scene and then write a self-evaluation in which they tell me what they’ve learned and also evaluate their group mates.

It’s a LOT. And it takes a lot of time; however, it is the most tangible way that kids learn to own Shakespeare. 

I’m in the process of grading their projects now (and re-watching their excellent videos, if I must say so myself) and am reading their self-reflections. Repeatedly, they say how they had to understand subtext from reading their scenes over and over again, how they actually understood themes and motifs because they had to become the characters, how they worked with others to accomplish a task…

And what I also love is that kids that I would have thought would not have been major contributors STEPPED UP to do amazing work: from costume designs, to settings, to justifications…I never would have known had their peers not have explained what went into the final projects. I want to find a way to make sure they know how much their peers thought of them. Shouldn’t they know these great things?! 

Again, I’m humbled by my kids, by their work, by how fortunate I am to teach and learn with them each day. 

Here’s what one of my students concluded (his group made a scene as a film noir):

I cannot think of anything else that you should know, except I would like to recognize [one of his peers in the group]. He was the only one in the group who actually knew a considerable amount about film production. He was really the brains behind each shot and contributed his knowledge of film to help us create a powerful film noir version of Act V Scene viii. After all, he did do essentially all of the editing alone, which we greatly thank him for. Also, I will stress the fact that we all wanted very much to succeed in making a great movie. We all really worked our hearts out in creating the film, and above all, we really enjoyed it. I will leave you with that [all emphases are student’s own].

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Everybody Deserves a Party: Holiday Break

One of the pleasures of teaching in my current city is that I have students of parents who are visiting academics at the local university. I had one such student this semester. Since his dad’s fellowship ended this week, today was our last day with this student, who was headed back to Georgia.

The students organized a party, down to a homemade chocolate multi-layer cake and other homemade joys, and we said farewell to a young man who quickly established himself as one who was honest, quirky, insightful and a part of our classroom community.

When the cake was unveiled, he was overcome by emotion. We all waited for him to take a moment and then he said “No one has ever had a party for me.”

Such a simple explanation for his joy.

Doesn’t every child deserve a party? It’s those little jolts that occur during classroom interactions that I’m reminded of the things that matter: kids need their teachers to have parties for them.

I try to have parties frequently: when a student that caused me to pull out my nearly non-existent hair because I was running out of ways to explain to her how to connect analysis to quotes rather than summarize them turned in a paper in which she was ANALYZING the quote, was DOING the thing I worried we’d run out of time before she mastered, I had a party for her. I called her over, read her the paragraph, explained WHY I was pleased and told her that we’d turned the corner. She had a smile as wide as [insert apt simile here]. And it came at a moment when we were both down on each other: I was sucking as a teacher and she was worried she was doomed as a writer. Then…there it was.

Yeah, have a party.

I’ve had other smaller parties throughout the year: when silent kids speak up and have said something profound that sets us all back on our heels; when others make some comment or connection that drags us from the literary time period we inhabit into the present; when typically self-absorbed young people open up a classroom to create real community, one in which everyone matters, one in which when a young man cries, we don’t bat an eyelash but hug him even harder because we want him to take our love with him…yeah, I have a party for them.

I hope to have many more parties for my students–small and large–but we will party down in as many ways as I can find and they can create to celebrate learning when it happens.

The pleasures and necessities of joyful learning…happy holidays.

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