Mr. P’s Senior Speech 2018

Dear Seniors,

Welcome to your last high school class.  Ever. Welcome to a new kind of school life, where you will have much more choice about where to go and what to do. In minutes, your classes will all be done; you’ll have time on your hands to study, take tests, and most importantly, to attend to the things and people you care about the most. You’re about to mark a significant milestone in life: high school graduation. Somewhere or another, you’ve been getting up and going to school for the past twelve or thirteen or fourteen or more years. In three weeks, this part of your life will be done.

But as Douglas Adams said, “Don’t panic.” Graduation will be a little bit like turning 10 (first birthday in double digits) or 18 (adulthood, whatever that means). For me, all these milestones were just markers passed on the road of life. The road rarely changes at the mile markers; you just pass ‘em. That’s not to say your life won’t change — it surely will — but the changes happen at their own unpredictable pace. In fact, it happens so strangely that some of us get caught by surprise, like Billy Pilgrim’s mother, who, in her hospital room, encounters a brief moment of lucidity, stares Billy in the eye and asks him, “How did I get so old?” When I was about to go to college, my dad said to me, “Bill, you’ll be amazed how fast the time goes between freshman week… and your 25th reunion.” I went to that reunion a couple of years ago. The old man was right.

Over the next three weeks, you may find yourself thinking about how eager you are for something to be over — your last test, your last day of school, graduation. I’d invite you to resist those thoughts, however. The phrase “Don’t wish your life away” comes to mind. And herein we have an opportunity to look at what some of the authors we’ve read over the past 20 months have said about the subject.  Vonnegut gave us Billy Pilgrim, who, by


Anna Stenning: Slaughterhouse-Five Images

giving up on himself, discovered the “good news” that time doesn’t matter and life is meaningless. Knowing he’ll repeat moments and relive his life in a continuous, spastic series of disjointed moments, he says, “Hello, goodbye, hello, goodbye, hello…” which he found comforting, but we readers can see as problematic. An infinite, meaningless existence is not for most of us.


Becket, of course, gives us two antiheroes who share a lot in common with Billy, in their own absurd way. Sadly, Didi and Gogo don’t have the thrill of being kidnapped by space aliens. They just unconsciously have slipped into a life — immeasurably long — of waiting for something. When you find yourself killing time as you wait for that next thing to happen, or to be over, remember what happens (sorry — what doesn’t happen) to our friends who wait for Godot. Didi understands that all this… existence… won’t last forever. In fact, he sees life as infinitely short. He says he’s “born astride a grave,” delivered into existence by “the grave digger,” who waits six feet below with forceps.  20180529_150451 (1)Didi’s aware that “in an instant all will vanish and we’ll be alone once more, in the midst of nothingness!” And yet, he can’t find a way to break out of his life of waiting. By the way, for many of the sorrier characters whose lives we’ve explored, this idea of being alone goes hand in hand with have a meaningless life. I’ve got a theory on that…

At a less abstract level, Willy Loman shows us what happens when you wrap all your life’s ambition into an unachievable, distant goal. Willy dreams of recognition, of being “well-liked” by masses of people, or at least of being the father Biff Loman, a well-liked man. Tragically, he can’t accept the love of his wife or that of his sons, or his friend Charlie — and so even after achieving (by the skin of his teeth) the American dream of owning a house and having a family, he gives it all up for the illusory promise of wealth — and maybe some celebrity — for his son. The other option, of course, is to pass through life being completely disinterested in creating any sort of meaning — in being earnest in anything but name. Oscar Wilde’s lessons, I think, provide a challenge equal to Beckett’s and Miller’s, and I’m grateful for the laughs he provides along the way.

If you’re starting to feel like this last lecture is a review of the course, well, OK, you caught me. Indulge me for another paragraph: All the authors we have read over the past years had two things in common:

  • They all write beautiful and entertaining literature
  • They all challenge us to be better human beings

Thanks Ana Stenning for these images from The Wind Up Bird Chronicles!

Murakami shows us that life can be filled with confusion and uncertainty, and he also shows us that when things appear to be at rock bottom, we can always go down a well and get stuck… And we can open our eyes to possibilities and reach out to discover more. We can fight the monsters we need to fight and construct the connections we long to make. William Blake’s poems demand that we look at the world through the eyes of both innocent, suffering children and “woke,” angry adults. He throws up the beauty and the ugliness of life and demands that we see it — even in places we do not want to. The tragic stories of Gatsby, the man who (like Willy Loman) wished only to be “well-liked” by a certain class of people who never would let him in, and to be loved by a woman incapable of loving anyone — and who (a little like Billy Pilgrim) insisted that you can repeat the past — and Grenouille, the boy who grows up impervious to disease and immune to the all of the foulest things people are capable of (ignorance, hatred, greed, self-absorption, mob violence) and is ultimately incapable of showing the only thing that really matters in life: love — both challenge us to live beyond the bad things we inevitably encounter.


20180529_150549In both of the Shakespearean comedies, family interests and human pettiness get in the way of true, natural love, and nearly result in the useless deaths of romantic heroines. Hero feigns her death, and unlike Juliet, she gets marry the man she loves — even though he’s treated her horribly. Hermia defies her father’s death threat, runs into a dangerous wilderness, and survives the vagaries of that forest — and the horrible treatment of the man she loves — but gets to marry her guy in the end, too. The thing about all three comedies, though, is the temporary nature of this happiness. Do things work out in the long run for Jack and Gwendolyn, Algy and Cecily? For Hero and Claudio? Beatrice and Benedick? For Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius? For Theseus and Hippolyta? Oberon and Titania?  We’ll never know.

And you

will never



For them,

or for you.

I’m hopeful that your lives will be comedies: we keep going, we do crazy things, we survive, we act, and at times, things seem to work out OK. And we keep on keepin’ on while passing these happy (and sad) milestones.

On a personal note, I’ve passed a few of these recently; somewhere in February I completed my 25th year marker in professional education. Two years ago, in June, I went to my 25th college reunion. Next December I turn 50. Like graduation, these three arbitrary markers offer a chance to look back at what we’ve learned along the way. They may be relevant in this context because (believe it or not) you’ll be starting your second 25 years and beginning your work lives pretty soon. So what have I learned? Most of all, I’ve found that there’s much more learning to do. To illustrate:

  • When I graduated from high school, I thought I was a musician. Thirty years later, I can hear more and play more than I possibly could have imagined back then. And there’s vast room for growth.


  • When I graduated from high school, I thought I was athletic. But I had no idea of the commitment and discipline athletes have, until this very year, when I attempted to race with cyclists up and down Mt. Kenya. Now I’m much fitter, faster, and  stronger than I was back then. And I have a new goal: To complete that race next year — when I’m fifty.


  • When I graduated from high school, I thought I knew a lot — about everything. Now I see enormous possibilities to know more. Thirty years later I’ve been lucky enough to live in four new countries and learn three new languages. I’ve taught a hundred different novels and plays, and read hundreds of poems from authors I’d never heard of in high school or college.  With Shakespeare, I hadn’t read and understood a single play until I taught Macbeth for the first time. Since then I’ve prepared units for and taught 9 of his plays and studied a few more. I’ve studied at the Folger Shakespeare Library and at the Globe Theatre. The good luck of living these experiences has shown me the wealth of knowledge and learning that lies ahead. You can learn a lot in 25 years; I hope to learn much more in the next 25.

For most of you, we’ve been gathering to learn about and from literature for the better part of two years. And now, for better or for worse, we’ve reached the last minute or so of our official time together.

As you walk out that door over there, know that this class has been memorable and wonderful. You’ve been a dream of a class: a curious, interested group of voracious readers. You’ve challenged me to think and rethink my ideas on these works of literature. You’ve stretched your ideas and worked and re-worked your writing. It’s been a joy to watch you perform, to revise over…and over…and over… your essays, and to share your two-year life journey with me in some small way. It might seem small, but I’ll always remember being invited me to take a class picture with you at the prom. You’ve inspired me by doing things you love: by reading and sharing your ideas with each other, by making beautiful art, by writing plays, by playing music, by playing sports, by performing theater, and by sharing kindness. Know that all these things have lifted up the world a little bit. You’re bringing us a little closer to the “world without collisions” that Sam envisions for the future. Remember Sam’s lesson: He endures humiliation after humiliation, and even in the worst moment, he finds it inside himself to seek a better world — and to invite Hally (and the rest of us) to be a better human being. You’ve bolstered this middle aged teacher’s faith in the future. As long as you and people like you keep on doing what you’re doing, we’ll be alright.

Have a great life.


April 2018


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Getting to Students interest with Playlists

This year I picked up a new elective course called “Personal Branding.” Modeled off the ideas of my good friend Jason Shaffer, the course is designed to help students get their own ideas out into the digital world — and to use the tools of social networking to discover content about things that interest them.

Here are a few examples: Check out what my students are listening to!

This is from Benita, who’s establishing herself as a commentator on current music here in Kenya and abroad.


Here’s Alina: When asked to describe her playlist, she said, “I dunno,” but I think the list speaks for itself. “It’s just me.”



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Parsons’ Senior Speech

Dear Seniors,

Welcome to your last high school English class.  Ever.

What’s coming up s a period of exams, studying at home, and saying goodbye to the people and spaces that have been an enormous part of your life.  I’ll be here, reviewing what we did, planning for next year, revisiting.  I anticipate solitude.  I’ll miss you.  I was going to say that I’ll be lonely, but I’m reminded of Thoreau, who talked about solitude and said, “I have a great deal of company in my house; especially in the morning, when no-one comes to call.”  In these hours of solitude, I anticipate the company of Shakespeare and Beckett, Seamus Heaney and William Blake, of my friends Didi and Gogo, Willy and Linda, Sam and Hallie.  The work I’ll do — planning new lessons, throwing out ones that didn’t work, adding elements to make some more meaningful — brings me company.  Reading your writing and writing back to you did the same.  In my own aspirational mind, I’d like to think this solitude is similar to a monk’s — silently, solitarily seeking a better self.  Emerson in Self-Reliance talks about work as prayer, and he quotes one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Fletcher, whose wise character Caratach said God’s  “hidden meaning lies in our endeavours; Our valors are our best gods.”

What I take from this advice is that that when we truly put our hearts and souls into what we do, our work becomes, if you’re religious, God’s work.   This year I’ve been repeatedly inspired by you because I’ve seen you doing things you love to do.  You’ve created beauty and shown grace.  Seeing you do what you love — playing basketball or hockey, creating art, photographs, and films, dancing, playing music, acting, making things in Moss’s class, designing a great yearbook, publishing a great issue of Brainwash,  planning events for the student government, helping other students to understand things you are passionate about — I’m inspired to try and do what I love to do:  share great literature with you.

Then again, during that review of this year, there are likely to be moments of regret — missed opportunities to ask the right question or give the right kind of praise, to pause and reflect.  You may find yourself feeling some regrets during these waning moments of high school.  If you do, here’s a suggestion:  Cut it out.

At least that’s what I take from Emerson, who said that just as when we work from our souls we are offering a form of true prayer, when we dwell on regrets we utter “false prayers.”   His solution:  “Regret calamities, if you can thereby help the sufferer; if not, attend your own work, and already the evil begins to be repaired.”  If I have somehow caused you to suffer this year, or to feel that your time is ill-spent, I regret that calamity.  If my regrets assuage your suffering, I’m happy.  But the focus will be on making this course better.  It’s my dream that some year this room will become one of those spaces that where students have created their sense of belonging, where they  feel right about school.  I see them around:  the art room, the maker lab, the drama room, the student government office, the gym.  When I get this right, some day, I hope this room will be one of those spaces.  And I hope that you will discover your own spaces where you can do what you love to do and make whatever corner of the world you land in better.

FullSizeRender(1)Now, however, we are here, in this space, for your last class, entering the season of lasts.  I like that word, “last” with all its ambiguity.  I hope I’ve lasted this far without boring you, and I hope some of the works we’ve read leave a lasting impression.  Looking at our classroom the walls, I hope making these collages of words have left words and ideas that last in your literary memory.

I hope you’ll continue to do the things that bring you joy and that convey what’s right with the world to the rest of us.  I hope you’ll discover new passions and interests, learn new languages, step out of routines, live new experiences.  Most of all, I hope you find love.  Looking over the works from this year, it strikes me that many of the characters we’ve gotten to know live in loveless worlds.  Macbeth?  He left it behind for ambition.  Jack and Algy? They may have changed their names to Ernest, but until they get real, Gwendolyn and Cecily will find equally real love in their fictional personal diaries.  Willy Loman?  Plenty of people try to love him, but he’s so wrapped up by the  impossible dream that he can’t feel it.  So he chases girls on the road and  bullies his family  so much that all he gets is what he thinks he wants to hear.  Strangely enough, I find the last two plays we studied strangely hopeful.  In Godot, Didi and Gogo suffer in a world where their purpose is lost.  Didi complains they’re “bored to death”  and Gogo always wants to go.  But in the end, they stick to each other.  Who could do that without hope?  Much more optimistic, of course is Sam from Master Harold.  Sam, who endures the humiliation and the violence of Apartheid, but who sees the possibility for better things in Hally.  And like his “man of magnitude,” Jesus Christ, Sam turns the other cheek when Hally strikes him with a violently racist joke.  And even when Hally spits in his face, he offers him friendship and kindness, redemption and love.  Sam lets Hally leave, but with an invitation to “fly another kite” some day.  There’s no guarantee that Hally will return to Sam and change his thinking, but if Sam doesn’t make the offer, he surely won’t.  Willy laments at the end of Death of a Salesman, “I don’t have a thing in the ground.”  Sam, on the other hand, has planted a seed of kindness, hope, and understanding.

One last “I hope”:  That at some time you’ll think, “At Last!” as you grasp and own something inside yourself that’s grown out of one of the many seeds of wisdom or knowledge or awareness or truth that are planted in the works we’ve studied. In all these books and poems and stories and plays there are lessons that teach us to be better human beings.  If you do, in some future moment, find yourself digging through roots and memories awakened in your head and excavating thoughts about things we’ve read, then I hope by some telepathy your discovery and curiosity and wonder will dive into a time-travel tube, back to today.  And in that moment, I’ll hear the future whisper to the past.  If I hear that whisper, I’d like to whisper back:  “This is not a test.  And everybody passes*.”

Have a great life.


April 2016

*I completely ripped that line off from Tony Hoagland.  The poem is “Memory as a Hearing Aid.”

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Blogs of the Week — From the Seniors

The Seniors produced some truly interesting and creative work this trimester.  There have been wonderful examples of original thought connecting the four works we have studied this year:  Death of a Salesman, The Importance of Being Earnest, Waiting For Godot, and Master Harold and the Boys.

The snow globe on the left comes courtesy of Jordynn Lurie, who represented the empty, barren world of Waiting for Godot with an empty snow globe decorated with a spiral of words from Lucky’s speech.  Another piece to check out:  Her original rap with themes and language straight outa’ the plays.  Thanks, DJOrdynn!

Alejandro Cegarra presents some brilliant connections in his blog, which he punctuates with Memes related to the different plays. His commentary on social criticism and historical readings of Master Harold, Death of a Salesman, and The Importance of Being Earnest.  Have a look at his blog from this link.

Liora Gafen did a brilliant job of combining lines from Willy Loman and Vladimir from Waiting for Godot.  Here’s a link to her post, entitled “Hopelessness Mashup.”

Kevin Shen gives us two very interesting posts about dreams in Death of a Salesman Waiting for Godot and the concept of nothing that appears in both The Importance of Being Earnest and Waiting for Godot.  Have a look at this link!

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Highlights from the Seniors’ Blogs

Here are some exemplary blogs from Trimester 1 of the IB Higher Level year two class.  Happy reading!

Jordynn Lurie created a truly wonderful music video that combined many of the contradictions and equivocations that the witches use Macbeth. It’s hilarious and accurate.  It’s a must-see!  Here’s a link to the video.

Michael Burton’s blog has many interesting images that go back all the way through Macbeth.  He’s also got Period 5’s audio recording of Act 3, where Banquo is murdered. Add to that a statistical evaluation of the appearance of the word “hand” throughout the play (which is interesting, albeit unusual application of mathematics to English class) and you’ve got a very creative, interesting piece.

Michelle Nudel’s blog is also visually interesting, and it has a great piece the speculates about what it would have been like for Duncan’s guards to see the king’s murder — if Lady Macbeth’s potions had left them conscious, but paralyzed.  Her word tracker post for the word blood has a good explanation — even if she left Lady Macbeth’s “Out Damned Spot” soliloquy off of it.

“Strange things I have in head that will to hand,                                                      Which must be acted ere they maybe be scanned.” 

Logan Foster found many images to illustrate his word tracker posts, and he has a very funny hypothetical interview between Macbeth and Hannibal Lechter, the mass murderer from the movies.  Check out his blog at this link.

Danielle Molloy’s blog is full of beautiful images, both original and imported.  In this example, from a blog post on the references to blood and time in the play, she shows how night and violence combine.  You can see good insights going all the way back to the beginning of the year.

Alejandro Cegarra has a wide variety of different ideas.  A very thoughtful set of posts, you always can count on having your knowledge of the works we’re studied challenged and investigated in new ways.  Here’s a link to his blog.


Neil Goodman’s blog explores many ideas that go beyond what we talk about in class.  Check it out and see Macbeth’s character re-imagined with Lady Macbeth’s cruelty, and read a thoughtful essay on Lady Macbeth and attitudes towards women.  Every post shows depth of thought and lots of style.

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Thanks for the Memories, Mr. Bajger!

“Bajger is retiring.” Cue a chorus of high school girl awwwwww noises.  That’s what I got every time I mentioned John’s imminent close to this chapter of his biography.  Since we’ve worked together for quite a while, I thought it appropriate to say some things about John, who has completed his career with us.  During these last nine years, John and I have shared students and ideas.  We’ve talked about literature and about life and have toiled side by side in the vineyards of pedagogy.  After working together for nine years, something has to rub off, so here are some thoughts that I take away from our time together, before Bajger goes gentle into that good night of retirement.
The first lesson I learned from John came before I even had met him.  I was hired over the phone ten years ago today, in fact.  Just after I accepted the school’s offer, I got an email:  “I’ve put you in touch with the English Department Chair, John Bajger.  He’ll provide you with curriculum maps and other essential information.” Shortly afterwards, after reviewing statistics about cost of living and official poverty rates in Florida, I sent another email asking if there was any way I could make some more money. “Well,” said the principal, “How would you feel about being the department chair?” “Uh, isn’t a guy named Bajger the department chair?” I asked silently.  It would’ve been smarter, in retrospect, to ask the question out loud.
“OK.”  I said.

Six years later I discovered how much happier I could be as a teacher than as a department head.  John, sometimes the lessons we teachers impart take a few years to sink in. The first few years that I worked here, John was teaching American Literature, so we often chatted about the works on the syllabus, as well as some that weren’t.  It turned out that we were both fans of Emerson and Thoreau.  John has reminded me of Thoreau, especially his essays from Walden.  In “Where I Lived and What I Lived For, Thoreau questions the need for the thing we call “progress.”  As I remember John as someone who refuses to use anything but paper, quill and ink in his classroom, this passage seemed appropriate.  Thoreau said that our nation

…lives too fast. Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not; but whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain… But if we stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads? We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.

If there’s one guy who is not going to live too fast — who is going to remember the value of a slow walk around the lake and the joy of reading a paper book — and who definitely will not be overridden by the train of technology, it is Bajger. As department head, I observed a few of John’s classes every year.  The headmaster for academics during those early years said to me, “Could you please just get him to change his overheads?  He’s been using the same overheads for ever.” Naturally, I failed. I’ve seen John extol the virtues of a simple declarative sentence and explain the merits of a well-placed gerund, and I’ve watched him encourage students to write an elegant and precise THREE paragraph essay (those other two are just extra).

None of this explains, however, the curious knack John has for making things stick.  Perhaps it comes from a lesson he taught Terry Condon:  The rule of six.  You have to tell students the same thing six times before they’ll remember it. So year after year I became accustomed to students asking me, when reviewing a poem or a story, “Hey, what’s the DIM FACTOR”
“Excuse me?”
“You know,“The DIM Factor.  Everyone knows the DIM Factor.”
“Help me out with that.”
“Deeper Inner Meaning!  Come on!”

Yes, the Dim factor radiates within John’s students long past the end of the school year.  Perhaps this luminous concept led to their greatest collective memory of all:  Gatsby’s Green Light.  “Gatsby Believed in the Green Light,” they all told me.  In fact, they seemed to think that everyone had a green light.  At the end of senior year, I had students thinking that Beowulf, because he believed in the DIM FACTOR of the Green Light, Crossed the straits of Denmark into East Egg to Save Daisy Buchanan from Grendel the monster. Over the nine years that John and I have worked together I have recognized that John’s teachings stay with his students.  As a headmaster once told me, students recognize that Bajger’s class isn’t just about English; it’s really about life.  And the most important lessons that we teach our students, we teach by example.  Bajger’s students, have seen the example of a human being who could live like Thoreau and think like Emerson, who said,

There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.

The plot of ground given to John to till has been a classroom, with thousands of students.  They’ve grown up, and they bring with them a memory of a human being who listened to them, and who shared the simple joys of his life:  Of paying attention to family.  Of having lunch with your wife every day.  Of Listening to the words and music of Bob Marley and Bob Dylan.  And John Keats, an English Romantic poet. In one of his letters Keats coined a phrase that stuck with John and with many scholars.  The phrase is “negative capability,” a quality that he ascribed to creative geniuses who are “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.  Keats believed that a genius is able to shed the need to know or understand everything and instead appreciate beautiful things for being beautiful.  Keats concluded that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration. 

John also liked Bob Marley, who famously said, “Don’t Worry about a thing; Cause Every Little Thing’s Gonna Be Alright.  It is a great hope of mine, John, that you will come back and sub for me, so that you can remind my students — as they stress about grades and exams, and grades, and deadlines, and of course, their grades — that there’s a beautiful world out there to enjoy, and to remind them of one clear fact:  “You’re golden.”   I’ll leave a cassette player for you.

I think it’s fitting to end this tribute to John with a few lines borrowed from Hemingway’s description of his ultimate hero (and mine and perhaps John’s, too) Santiago the fisherman: He was an old man who taught alone in a classroom, and he had gone eighty-four weeks now without seeing a curriculum map. Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.

Thanks for a good ten years, John!

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My Senior Speech

Welcome, Seniors, to your last English lecture, which will be the first in a long series of lasts. Welcome to exam limbo, a three week purgatorial drift. You will drift into school for exams, drift out for lunch. You’ll study — or not — and then, finally, it’ll be time to go to graduation rehearsal. Or time to take that one last exam, if you happen to take music or Environmental Systems.  There’s good news:  You won’t be in class as often.  There’s a challenge, too:  you won’t be in class as often.  Whatever will you to?  There may be times when you feel like you’re in a Beckett play — that you can’t go anywhere because you’re waiting for something…

Some of you are waiting for your long trip home.  To those who journeyed here from a different part of the world, I’d like to say thank you for taking two or more years to learn about American culture and language. You took a big risk in coming here and you assumed an enormous challenge to study literature in your second or third language.  Living in this culture and learning how people move through our society was an admirable choice.  Studying our literature, and getting acquainted with the way our greatest writers have expressed our greatest hopes and desires and fears brings you inside the English speaking soul.  You’ve entered a new world of astounding depth.  I hope that you’ll keep swimming. To all of you who have reached out to someone from a culture different from your own, congratulations! You’ve chosen to make your lives a little richer by sharing yourself with someone else. In order to make the world better, we all need to follow your example. So as you get ready to begin your exams — the process of sharing and declaring what you’ve learned over the past year or two — it’s worthwhile to take a look at what you did during these years. That process may have begun for you in late February, when you revisited last year’s written assignments, and perhaps rethought what you wanted to say about Dotoevsky or Mishima or Borjes.  Culturally speaking, this exercise was your chance to see the world through the eyes of people from different times, places, and linguistic backgrounds.  By looking back at what you wrote, you also may have noticed that your thinking and expression matured a bit over the course of ten months.  Your Oral presentations last year were almost all about 20th century poets, and I hope that reading and presenting about the likes of Mary Oliver and Sylvia Plath, e.e. cummings, Marianne Moore, and Wallace Stevens, and Emily Dickinson helped you to live and share the adventure of being human with these poets, who dedicated themselves to setting life into words.  Perhaps you also found mirrors of your own lives — or windows to others — as you read the short stories of John Barth, Sherwood Anderson, Joyce Carol Oates, Ernest Hemingway, and Flannery O’Connor. Last fall began with a bang — or perhaps, better said, a firestorm.  Reading Slaughterhouse-Five put you in touch with one of the great — and angry — voices of the 20th century.  When someone handed me a copy of that book (when I was a senior in high school) I didn’t know what to make of it.  Today, however, it makes more sense to me.

Vonnegut’s description of Dresden during and after the bombing, and his depiction of Billy Pilgrim, who felt totally powerless in the face of these enormous forces, showed me not only the despair that being human can involve, but also the outrage that must accompany these tragedies. Incidentally, more than 4000 people in Nepal died the day before yesterday in a horrible earthquake.  So it goes. A week before that, more than a thousand migrants from Northern Africa, who were leaving everything behind because the wars were too horrible, or there wasn’t any food, or they couldn’t make any money to take care of their families, all died when the ship they were on capsized near Sicily.    So it goes. That “so it goes” helps me pay attention and reminds me that as a human being, I need to act beyond my very small world.  So do you.  You’re graduating from high school.  You’re adults.  The world needs you.  Perhaps, as you search for something to do in these coming weeks, you can find a way to help some of the many people who suffer in this world.  As Didi said,

“Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not.”

Incidentally, Didi missed an important point.  It is every day that you’re needed. That doesn’t mean, however, that you have to solve all of the world’s problems all of the time.  There’s more to the world and life than the outrages.  I’m particularly glad that we read Seamus Heaney’s poetry this year because he’s such a great example of a person who grew up in very difficult circumstances and shared with the world a voice of optimism.

He lived through a war, but like many other inspirational writers  — like Fugard, who saw a just future for South Africa — Heaney believed that people are capable of creating a better, more beautiful world.  He knew, even living in an unjust world, that

Once in a  lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up.

And hope and history rhyme.

As the accident willed, your group is the first that I’ve taught many of this year’s works with.  I hope that our look at different approaches to reading poetry — especially modern poetry — gave you some views to life.   I’m very glad that we read A Mercy.  Morrison’s style is as intricate as Vonnegut’s and her prose flows beautifully.  The different narrators combine to tell a story of the early American experience that I couldn’t have conceived of before I read it.  I hope you’ll have another look at some point.  Speaking of second looks, a dear friend of mine told me that an English teacher’s success isn’t determined by whether his students understand Shakespeare or not — It’s based on whether or not the students go to see a play ten or twenty years later.  I hope that you’ll re-read A Mercy at some point.   Or pick up a collection of Heaney’s poems.  Trust me, they’re worth another look.  I also hope that you’ll see a production of The Tempest — or any other Shakespeare, or Death of a Salesman, The Importance of Being Earnest, or Master Harold and the Boys, if the accident will. By the way, I just said “if the accident will” because I knew you’d catch the reference to Vonnegut.  But here’s an important truth:  Art will not come to you by accident.  Nobody can read books for you, see art for you.  It’s out there, available to you, and as soon as you reach out to it, you’ll feel the greatest welcome that the human spirit can offer.  A personal, and true story:  I never read a Shakespeare play until college, and I never understood one until I taught Macbeth — for the second time.  Twenty years later I’ve taught 8 plays, directed one, seen many productions, and won month-long fellowships to study at the Folger Shakespeare Library and at the Globe Theater in London.  My point:  The opportunities to read and discover will be there for you until you’re an old man like me.  But for the moment,  If you’re looking for something to do in these next weeks, find some art.  Go to the student art show this week.  Go to a gallery.  See a great film.  Check out a play.  Go to a concert.  The world needs beauty, and beauty needs an audience.  By participating, you actually make the world better.

So here we are, near the end of the school road.  As I mentioned earlier, you might feel a bit like Didi and Gogo, waiting in the road for something to happen.   Don’t wait too long.  Instead, remember the end of Vladimir’s statement regarding life:  Let us make the most of it, before it is too late!”

Live a great life.


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Walls as Learning Space


Another unit, another wall.

This wall was assembled by 12th grade students to capture characters, symbols, and mock-artifacts related to Toni Morrison’s A Mercy.  The more I use this approach, the more value I see in it.  Students put their ideas up on the wall, and they become a record of what we’ve done, what we’ve discovered.  The wall gives students a permanent reference to significant elements of the novel and also serves as a discussion point.  Students notice things that are missing or that are redundant, and then the class contributes to the process of bringing it together and making it more complete.

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Three Weeks in English Teacher Heaven — Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

What happens when you bring together 25 passionate, talented, and eager teachers of English and Drama?  What happens when that diverse group of people works nonstop in and around The Globe Theatre — one of the most significant performance spaces on the planet?  You get magic.


The magic comes from the building itself.  Conceived, built, rebuilt, and rebuilt again, the Globe Theatre was the vessel that brought Shakespeare’s genius to the people. Learning its history — and living it and becoming a small part of it — has a way of changing us.
The magic began near Christmas in 1597. On a cold winter’s night William Shakespeare, William Burbage, and others were stealing lumber.  Clandestinely they had dismembered their Theatre building in Shoreditch (where their Puritan lease-holder prohibited the performance of plays), and now, under the cover of night, they were dragging the wood across the frozen Thames river, to a new location in Bankside — the gritty, disreputable borderland for all kinds of lawlessness and entertainment.  There were bear-baiting rings, pubs, and brothels, and withhin a few months, the Globe Theatre would open. Hard-living workmen would pay a penny to stand on the ground below the stage and hear Shakespeare’s plays while well-heeled merchants and members of the court attended the same shows from the galleries above.


Fast forward 350 years.  Inspired after performing in a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in Cleveland, Ohio, the American actor and director Sam Wanamaker performed (as we teachers did) a pilgrimage to Bankside.  But all he found there in 1949 was the parking lot of a brewery, where against a wall was affixed a modest plaque commemorating the location where Shakespeare and his company, Lord Chamberlain’s men, rebuilt their theater and performed many of his plays.
As we 25 pilgrims learned, Mr. Wanamaker dedicated the rest of his life to the reconstruction of the Globe, and in 1979 his project to “re-member” the previously “dis-membered” theater began in earnest.  Through meticulous research, excavations of the original site, and consultation with scholars and architects, the Globe was reconstructed, according to the principles of design and craftsmanship used in Shakespeare’s time.  The theater opened in 1997, three years after Mr. Wanamaker’s death, and it serves as a legacy to this remarkable human being.


The 25 of us came to London to discover and connect with Shakespeare, and through the Globe, we did that.  More importantly, we  found ourselves connecting with Mr. Wanamaker’s ideal:  To create a center for the authentic performance of Shakespeare and for the universal study of his works.  In addition to attending professional performances in the theater (which were spectacular) we came to understand the degree to which the Globe has become an educational center.  We worked daily with members of the education team, which sees as many as 700 British students from ages 10-18 EVERY DAY of the school year.  That’s well over 50,000 children per year.  We observed lessons delivered to these students, and in the process, we saw how powerful the teaching of Shakespeare — especially in this very special theater — can be.  


Constructed to remember Shakespeare and educate the world, The Globe is a building with a beautiful and infinitely generous soul.  As our group’s director Joanne Howarth explained to us before we performed on this stage, the Globe “makes sure that you’ll be OK.”  There’s something about this space, where the actors and the audience share the same light and the same air, breathing together — truly “conspiring” with each other to achieve artistic beauty — that makes actors relax and audiences enjoy.  The Globe instructs us, it informs us, and it assures us.  It brings together people from all walks of life, inviting actors and audience to share in the banquet of being human.  We joined in this conspiracy when we saw plays there, and afterwards, when we met with the actors in the adjacent bar.  One of my colleagues, who played Cassius in our production, approached Tom McKay, the actor who played Brutus in the Globe’s production.  Here’s how the conversation went:


“Tom McKay!”

“Hi.  I saw you in Julius Caesar.  I loved the way you played Brutus.”
“Why, thank you.”
“I’m with a group of teachers, and we’re going to perform Julius Caesar, too.  I’m playing Cassius.”
“Could you do my scene with me?”
“Sure.  You start.”


And so they did.  He’ll never forget that moment.  I probably won’t, either.  


At the culmination of the course, our 25 teacher/pilgrims performed on the Globe stage.  It was midnight.  The theater was empty, save our four directors, members of the Globe Education staff, and a handful of friends and guests.  Absent were the usual sounds of modern life; the helicopters were gone, and stars dotted the sky, visible through the Globe’s infinite roof.  We began our performance, stepping out onto that magical stage, and for a moment, I could see the sunlight greeting the actors.  I felt 1500 people in the audience, 500 on the ground and a thousand in the seats, and shared, for a moment, what it must have felt for Richard Burbage, William Kempe, Henry Condell, and of course, for Shakespeare himself, to play in this theater and share the space with their audience. And they — along with Sam Wanamaker — were there with us. Their spirit breathes on in the soul of this remarkable building, and now we twenty five teachers have joined them.


By bringing us 25 teachers and pilgrims to the Globe, the English Speaking Union has inspired us, directed us, and shown — by brilliant example — the beauty and power that is inherent in Shakespeare’s works and language.  We have shared in the Globe’s theatrical and educational feast, and we bring it back home, to share with our students and with our colleagues.


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Publicly Centered at the Student

After a couple of years, I got rid of the desk.  Now the groups have more room to move.

After a couple of years, I got rid of the desk. Now the groups have more room to move.

We can talk about having a “student-centered” classrooms all day, but how do we prove it to our students?

Over the past five years or so I’ve been looking for ways to make my classroom show that it’s a room where students are construct and share knowledge.  I did two things to make that happen:

1.  I left my posters at home. 

2.  I got rid of my teacher desk. 

What are the benefits?

  1. A Better Message.  When the room was decorated with my stuff, I sent a clear message to students:  The classroom is my space.  That message wasn’t bad, but I like the new message better:  This classroom is a space that we construct together, and everything that we do with the space demonstrates learning.
  2. More Flexibility.  By ditching my desk, I freed up 30 square feet of floor space.  So there’s more breathing room for group work.  There’s more space for performances.  And I’m forced to be mobile.
  3. Getting Closer.   If I’m sitting in the classroom, it’s at a student desk.  By opting out of the special furniture for me, I’m putting myself in the process with the students.
  4. Saving Time.  I don’t spend time decorating anymore.  Well, at the end of the day, I sometimes have to arrange the students’ work so that it’s more useful and accessible as a teaching tool.  But that “decorating time” is also planning time, because while I’m arranging, I’m also looking at what the students have accomplished and considering adjustments to tomorrow’s lessons.

Using the Walls

Students do better, more thorough work when they know that it will be read by an authentic audience.  When they know that they are producing notes, pictures, and records that will be on display for the duration of a unit, students tend to produce better, more thoughtful work.  Here are some examples:

  1. Collaborative, Public Annotations.   Years ago I required students to annotate their own textbooks, but I found that there were wide varieties of skill at the task of looking for things to comment on.  Some students had great annotations, others didn’t, and that was the end.  But when I went public with annotation, I found that the results were much more interesting.  And when I left them stuck to the wall, students could revisit them — especially during assessments.
Group Annotations on a passage from All Quiet on the Western Front.

Group Annotations on a passage from All Quiet on the Western Front.

  1. Sentence Collecting.  Every year I go to an office supply store and buy ten or twelve rolls of cash register tape.  When I want students to find phrases and sentences that reveal details about character, setting, or anything else, I send them searching, and then they copy these phrases onto the strips and stick them to the wall.


  1. Post Individual Artifacts.  Early in the year I like to have students respond to a poem or story that invites students to look at their own lives.  One piece that I like is “The Tally Stick” by Jarold Ramsey.  After spending a class period working with the poem, I invite students to create their own “Tally Sticks” for their lives, and then I left them stuck to the wall at the front of the room.  Each student then had part of himself on the wall, giving ownership to the students.
I covered the top of my front wall with students' life stories told in pictures.

I covered the top of my front wall with students’ life stories told in pictures.


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