Before you teach… Julius Caesar

I’m at my teaching best when I have a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the texts I explore with my students. I love this stage: I’m reading not to think about lesson planning, but to think about how I react to and interact with the text.

In this first installment of “Before you teach,” I suggest materials you might explore while you’re in the process of gaining this higher-level understanding.

5 things to read, listen to and watch before teaching Julius Caesar:

A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, James Shapiro.

Shapiro explores the political, social and literary atmosphere of 1599, the year Shakespeare likely wrote Henry V, As You Like It, Julius Caesar and Hamlet. A Columbia University Shakespeare scholar, Shapiro gives excellent context for why Londoners in 1599 would be so interested in a play about Ancient Rome.

University of Oxford Approaching Shakespeare podcast.

Lectures by Emma Smith. Smith devotes an entire episode to the play, focusing especially on the scene with Cinna the Poet. Thanks to colleague David Berkson for introducing me to the first two sources.

Film version of the 2012 Royal Shakespeare Company’s production.

Director Gregory Doran imagines Julius Caesar as an African dictator and says he’s interested in “people who have come to power on a wave of popularity, created one-party states, and been overrun, often in military coups, plunging the country into civil war.” This production considers what happens once the strong man departs.

New York Times article on the controversy surrounding the Shakespeare in the Park production where a Trump-like Caesar gets assassinated.

Definitely Google videos of the assassination scene.

Royal Shakespeare Company education guides.

A great trove of video clips, interviews, production photos and teaching ideas.

What sources should I add to the list? Add your comment below!

Writing manifesto: Teach writing like it’s swim practice

When I was in high school, swimming was everything.  Practice eight times a week, meets on weekends, pictures of Summer Sanders and Pablo Morales taped to the back of my door.  My best friends–and every single date I had in high school–were all people I met swimming. I wasn’t Olympic material, but I gave swimming everything I had day after day after day.  

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Making the abstract visible

Literary analysis often lives entirely in intellectual space. When I talk about analysis, however, I often rely on physical metaphors: put the pieces together, hold a magnifying glass over the text, identify the threads that run through the text.

For my recent unit on The House on Mango Street with 8th graders, I made the abstract visual, particularly the concept of thematic threads. Here’s what I did.

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The value of in-class editing

Here’s my favorite report card comment:  Devote more time to editing; learn to be a brutal editor!  

I’ve learned, though, that that comment is not enough; I must actively teach students how to edit.  For students “editing” can be an amorphous word (Am I proofreading? Am I checking my commas?) and they often don’t know what to do.

When students edit in class, I can both teach specific techniques and answer any questions that arise. Students often can hear the sentences that don’t work, but they don’t yet know how to fix them.  

I’ve had success with all of these strategies:

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