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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Teaching Guide: Things Fall Apart

I’ve frequently been disappointed by the quality of online teaching resources, so I made my own.  I envision this guide as a resource for both new and seasoned teachers, with a combination of specific resources and broad idea-based approaches.  Please feel free to comment. Also, if you’d like to include some of your documents on this page (with full authorial credit), please send them to me.

The Things Fall Apart Teaching Guide

The Seemingly Impossible Challenge

Sometimes small tasks feel insurmountable.  Finish this essay, read 20 pages, prepare for this test.  As an adult, I know this feeling.  (Do I have to fold the laundry?)  Although these small tasks are incredibly doable, we can lack the motivation to tackle them.

Enter the Seemingly Impossible Challenge, something that seems so big, so daunting, so seemingly impossible that students think, Wait, what?  How can I ever do that?

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The Great Writing Truths

One of my best teachers in high school was my calculus teacher.  With his other role as director of school musicals, Mr. Sankey brought theatrics to math class.  One minus the sine squared, he would say in a booming stage voice.  We knew our cue.  Cosine squared, we would all boom back.  And although my knowledge of calculus 26 years later is shaky, I know that if someone stopped me in the street, I could easily, confidently–and loudly–proclaim that sine squared plus cosine squared equals one.

What we say, and what we repeat, sticks.   

So I developed the Great Writing Truths. 

The Great Writing Truths are principles of good writing that apply across teachers, genres, disciplines and levels of expertise.  And as I tell students repeatedly, whether they’re writing a lab report, history essay,  novel or email, these Truths work.  While each discipline (and teacher) inevitably has its own small distinctions, good writing is good writing is good writing.  

Here are The Great Writing Truths:

The First Great Writing Truth:  The best writing is specific

The Second Great Writing Truth:  The best writing leans toward clarity, concision and snappiness

The Third Great Writing Truth:  The best writing comes when the writer is genuinely interested in her topic

I refer to them in class, I type them at the top of class assignments, I mention them in feedback.  Tattoo it on your arm, I say.  Write it in your planner, I say.   So much of analytical writing is hard and amorphous, especially for beginning writers.  Be more argumentative!  Explain significance!  Connect to the bigger picture!  In contrast, The Great Writing Truths are easy anchors.

And they are basic writing principles that I want to stick.  May they reverberate for at least 26 years.