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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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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Teaching analytical writing: Getting students to care

In my teaching career, I’ve learned so much about teaching writing—but little of that knowledge came from an educational book. Most of what I’ve learned has been through hard-won experience, through assignments and techniques that bombed and then through tweaking and tweaking until I finally created something successful.

And so much of what I’ve learned about writing has boiled down to this:  students must care deeply about what they’re writing.

Caring deeply is relatively easy with a creative piece or poetry or memoir.  But with analytical writing, it’s harder.  When I started teaching analytical writing, I chose assignments that allowed students to use a highly-structured five-paragraph essay format with prompts like, “Write about three significant symbols in Lord of the Flies” or “Analyze the three most important film elements that the director uses in Of Mice and Men.”  Yes, these essays were well-organized, but students rarely cared deeply about them.
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