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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Remembering Maya Angelou


Today we lost one of the great voices in American language and literature.  Personally, I remember reading her novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings when I was in ninth or tenth grade, and then coming back to it when I was starting to teach high school.  I was drawn to her writing by its immediacy and its truthfulness.

The biggest lesson that I remember from Ms. Angelou, however, is a very wise aphorism that I try to remember as a teacher:

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” 

I really believe that this one is completely true.  I can stand up and try to explain literature until I’m blue in the face, and no matter how hard I work, I probably won’t reach many students in a meaningful way.  But when I find a way for a student to feel the joy of reading something beautiful, or to experience the thrill of finding something interesting in a piece of writing — and sharing it with others — I know that the student will leave my class with a gift that she’ll always remember.    Below she is pictured giving a graduated address to George Washington University.  I don’t have any idea of what she said, but I did find more wisdom on a poetry website.  I like to think that she shared this one with the graduates:

“I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back.”

Today I’ve been gratified to see so many people publishing their goodbyes and their memories of Ms. Angelou on their facebook pages, and it’s been a particular thrill to see former English students of mine sharing their memories of her work.  I’m not much of a scholar, so I’ll leave the real work of eulogizing Ms. Angelou to better, more capable minds.  Here are some links:

The NY Times Obituary, written by Margalit Fox

NPR’s Obituary by Lynn Neary

The Guardian’s Mary McCorquodale makes a case for including I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings in British schools.

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My Senior Speech

So here we are…

You’ve completed the requirements for graduation, and you’re walking out of this school with a diploma.  Or maybe you’re not… but regardless of whatever hoops you have or haven’t jumped through, you’ve reached an important milestone:  the end of school.  You can say goodbye to childhood.  For those of you who came from a different part of our planet, I’d like to say thank you for taking a year or more to learn about my home culture and language.  You took a big risk in coming here to live and learn.  I’m sure that you experienced many challenges during your time here. 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.  And to those of you who have been in my classes for the past three or four years, thank you.  You have taught me lessons in humility, in patience, and in life.  I’m a better teacher now than I was when we began this trip together, and you are the reason why.

Before you leave, I’d like to share a few things that I think are very important.  Thanks for indulging me.

  • Literature Matters.  It presents humanity at its worst and at its best, and it instructs us in how people feel.  Literature puts us inside of someone’s soul and allows us to live, for a time, that other person’s joy and suffering.  Looking back over four years, I remember discovering how cruel and evil people can be to each other in Lord of the Flies.  We watched Romeo, Juliet, and Friar Lawrence all reach too high, hoping their romantic dreams could win out over the petty quarrels of intractable enemies, and we saw how easy it was for a hero like Othello to become a victim of his own self-doubt.  We saw Gatsby soar to unimaginable heights of wealth and crash down to nothing when confronted with the cruel reality that he wasn’t born right.  Macbeth crashed in a similar way, and for me, his loneliness — while perhaps more deserved, was no less profound or sad.  We’ve seen how war can bring out unbelievable heroism and unspeakable sadness, and numbing regret, from the World War I tragedy of All Quiet on the Western Front to the lives of a 20th century platoon in Vietnam.  We watched people try to do the right thing — both Antigone and Creon — and how sometimes, as hard as we try to do good things, the opposite happens.  We have walked with some of the greatest heroes of all time, seeing Odysseus on his quest to return home, and Gilgamesh on his quest to discover the secret to eternal life (spoiler alert:  there’s no such thing).  We’ve also seen the much smaller quests of  Holden Caulfield and Willy and Biff Loman and, of course, the metamorphosis of young Gregor Samsa, who are all confronted with the reality that their lives are not “epic,” and that they’ve allowed themselves to be defined by what other people think they’re worth.  The theme got repeated this year in Merchant of Venice, and I hope that you noticed how difficult it can be for the wealthy outsiders (Antonio and Shylock) the wealthy insider (Portia) and for the people who try to play them all (Bassanio).  We also saw, on the other hand, that even a low-life, unfeeling, selfish nihilist like Meursault can wake up and defiantly stand up for life. After all of these difficult, and often sad stories, I’m glad that we ended the year with Master Harold and the Boys.  Sam suffers, but he gets to keep his dignity, and I think that Hally is bound to learn his lesson… eventually.  Besides which, we already know that at least to some extent, there’s a happy ending to that story.  And I believe that there will be happy endings in your futures, too.  Well, there you go.  Four years of English in one paragraph.  Hope you enjoyed the summary!  If you didn’t, well, I hope that some day you’ll give literature another chance.  I also hope that this class offered something to those of you who didn’t feel the direct benefits of the books.
  • Real life began a long time ago.  I’m struck by how often I hear phrases (especially around graduation time) like “we’re going off to the real world now.”  One thing that middle age has taught me is that my life now isn’t any more “real” than yours is now or than mine was 25 years ago.  The choices I make now aren’t any less “real” than the ones I made when I was 19.  Nobody will ever reach out with a magic wand and say, “your life is now real. Welcome to reality.”  Remember this:  Life’s short.  For some, shorter than for others.  The quicker you decide to start living it like it’s real, the more you’ll enjoy it.
  • You already know what to do.  At graduation time, you often hear people musing about how they don’t know what to do next.  But you do.  Trust thyself.  Every heart vibrates to that iron string.  When he said that, Emerson didn’t mean that you’ll be able to look back on every choice that you made and say, with the benefit of hindsight, “Gee I nailed that one!”  Rather, it means that life is a series of choices, and each choice you make will have some kind of effect on your life and on the lives of people around you.  Seek out advice, do your research, use your head, and listen to your heart.  Then commit to your decision.  And be ready for the next one.
  • Do Something Beautiful.  Draw, play basketball, paint, dance, make music,  cook, pitch, write.  Build something. Engage your creativity and produce.  By creating beauty, you make the world better.  You share the best of yourself with the rest of the world, and the world needs your best.  Beauty lifts us up, just as surely as ugliness brings us down.
  • Seek Out Beauty.  Great art won’t come to, because great art doesn’t want you to spend money that you don’t have on things you don’t need.  In order to find beauty, you have to go look for it.  Once you find it, though, you’ll be welcome.  I hope that at some point during our time together, you’ve felt the welcome that great art gives us when we reach out to it.  If you still haven’t been able to bring yourself to art, it’s never too late.  But the sooner you do, the better.
  • Because you’ll need it.  Very seldom is the adult life painless.  Wynton Marsalis explains this concept by quoting his grandmother, who told him, “Life’s got a board for every behind.”  And when life’s board finds your booty, when you are knocked down and suffering, it helps to have Shakespeare, Louis Armstrong, and those other geniuses to tell you that it’s all gonna be OK.
  • Now, about those choices… People sometimes ask me what it’s like to be a teacher.  These days, I usually say, “I’m livin’ the dream.”  Twenty five years ago, teaching was my choice, and while I sometimes grumble about making less money than any of my high school or college friends — and most of my students who have joined the working world — I also look back and see how this choice has brought my life in touch with some of the greatest ideas and thinkers in the history of the world.  I see that this choice has given me the chance to share an segment of life’s journey with thousands of students.  And I am hopeful that sharing those ideas and those books has helped students to lead rich lives.

As I look back on the past four years and think about what I’ve learned and tried to accomplish, I’m hopeful that you have found an opportunity, one way or another, to share in the celebration of the human condition – in all of its  beauty, horror, sadness and joy, and perhaps above all, in wonder.  Thank you all for giving English class a chance, for taking your own risks, and for sharing yourselves with me and with each other.

Have a great life!


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Going Low-Tech — And keeping things social

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Preview of my NCTE presentation: Mashup The Shakespeare!


Shakespeare's words are where the power lies.  Your students' active connection with these words is the greatest gift you can give them.

–Peggy O’Brien, Director of Education at the Folger Shakespeare Library


We teach Shakespeare so that students can experience Shakespeare’s Language.  Everything the students do, therefore, should bring them INTO the text.  Mashups are a technique to do just that.

Why Mashups?

Shakespeare wrote at the turn of the century.  Not 1999, not even 1899.  It was 1599.  So his language sounds different.  Our Students Can Deal with That, if we let them!  Often, however, in a misguided and counterproductive effort to make the texts “accessible” to students, we ask students to “translate” the scenes into modern language — or we provide them with these translation.  Doing so actually DISTANCES students from Shakespeare’s language.  Notice how far out “in the suburbs” paraphrasing falls in the illustration above.  Paraphrasing, if done as an end in itself, takes students away from the text and makes them worry.  They’ll worry about getting the translation “right,” or they study someone else’s modern version so that they remember the “correct” interpretation.  Rather than trying to “paraphrase” or “translate,” students have to bring themselves INTO the language.

So here’s an idea:

Rather than trying to drag Shakespeare forward, let’s bring ourselves to Shakespeare.  By bringing our own thoughts to the text — or by bringing lyrics or literature from our own time into contact with the Bard’s words — we connect to the text.  We see nuances of language that make Shakespeare Shakespeare, and we recognize multiple possibilities for performing the play.

Example 1 — Mashing Text with Subtext

No matter what people say, they’re often thinking something different.  Lady Macbeth tells her husband to “look like th’ Innocent flower, but Be the serpent under’t.  One way to bring students INTO the text, then, is to invite them to consider what the character is thinking but not saying.

Here’s an example.  Click here to see it on its own page:

In order to insert the character’s thoughts into the dialog, students have to know the context of the conversation, and they have to have a strong sense of its literal meaning.  By sharing their ideas of what the characters are thinking (without the obstacle of trying to get a “right answer”) they have to come back INTO the text — in order to justify their ideas and ultimately act out the conversation.  The comment feature of Google Docs works great for this exercise, because students can work simultaneously on the same excerpt, and their work can be public to the rest of the class and beyond.

Example 2 — The Modern Lyrics Mashup  

Back when I was closer to my students’ ages, I viewed the English teacher’s job as “explainer in chief.”  In this role, I tried to allude to pop culture to help students see relevance.  Now I let the students find their own connections.

Here’s a link that includes some examples of why my students did with the assignment.

In the left column, the student has a conversation between Othello and Desdemona.  It comes from the point in the play where Othello, convinced that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him, accuses her and strikes her.  On the right side, he has the lyrics from “Harder to Breathe” by Maroon 5.  Just by putting the two texts together, the student is already explaining the passage through analogy.

It gets even better when he combines the two:

Shakespeare’s lines (in blue) stay intact.  The lines from Maroon Five (in black) provide commentary.  When students explain their choices (both of the selections from Shakespeare and their modern lyrics) they connect their own experiences with Shakespeare’s language.

In the process, they Forget that Shakespeare is hard to understand.

Both of these exercises invite students to bring themselves into Shakespeare’s world and experience the characters and language in a way that is natural and relevant to them.  The natural connections that students discover are powerful ways to draw them closer to the texts.

And the ability to share these connections with others can transform the students into guides.

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