Saturday, June 30, 2007

A Day In The Life of a Shakespeare Workshop

There was a point where I was looking forward to this workshop on Shakespeare. How could it be anything but good? It was produced jointly by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. and UCLA. That pedigree alone assured me that this workshop would be different. It would not be like all the other workshops I have attended in the past, where teaching theories and time-wasting methodologies were advocated by people who never seemed to have spent much time in an actual high school classroom. But alas, I was wrong.

The Folger Shakespeare Library was founded in 1932 and contains the most artifacts, notes, books and papers regarding the writer and his time outside of Stratford in England. The library is named for Henry Clay Folger, whom everyone thinks is part of the coffee family, but instead is a cousin who made his fortune in the burgeoning oil industry of the turn of the century. The facility is funded by the Folger estate, and managed by Amherst College.

Every year, the staff and affiliated scholars of the library produce workshops for teachers and students across the country. This year, the sites included Tulsa, Oklahoma, New York, and here in Los Angeles at UCLA. Tulsa and New York were included in a grant that paid all teacher-participants a stipend; UCLA was not included in the grant, so participants here had to pay for the workshop: $300. According to the Folger website, this fee would include three books, materials, and lunch. Later, the exact number of books and the free lunch were removed from the site.

Upon arrival Monday morning at UCLA, I discovered some uncomfortable facts. One, it costs eight dollars per day to park on campus. Add forty dollars to the cost of the week. Luckily, my school picked up the $300 tab; gas, parking and meals would come from my pocket. Two, UCLA summer session began the same day, so crowds and traffic were horrendous.

The representative from the library told us in his opening remarks that the workshop would focus on three things: scholarship, performance, and pedagogy. My problem with the workshop began with the emphasis on performance over comprehension of Shakespeare’s words.

From the start, the five presenters each took responsibility for sections of the workshop. The two professors from UCLA, Rob Watson and Stephen Dickey, would focus on scholarship and pedagogy. Caleen Sinnette Jennings from American University and Joe Olivieri an Associate Professor of Acting, would stress the performance. I was not sure what Michael LoMonico from the Folger Library would handle. He seemed to adopt a shotgun, disorganized approach, throwing in a bit of everything without rhyme, reason, or at times, even coherence.

Watson opened the workshop by discussing Shakespeare’s life and times. The problem was that he presented material that could be gleaned from any of the numerous books about Shakespeare that have been published in recent years. To an English teacher on summer break, staying home and reading books is a no-brainer, and vastly preferred to traveling to UCLA to sit in a gum-encrusted, hot, stuffy, filthy classroom to hear the same information one could find in his own library at home.

Dickey’s workshop was simply annoying. We read and reread the same passage in Romeo and Juliet, focusing on where to put the pauses in the lines. It was all about the syllables and iambic pentameter, not about meaning, background, and insight. I realize that Shakespeare’s use of poetic forms in a play is unique and interesting, but it is not our first stop in the high school classroom. We first focus on understanding his words. Dickey’s presentation seemed to be going in circles around a minor point.

LoMonico, during his presentation, actually handed us a packet of notes that listed his random thoughts about the teaching of Shakespeare. Number one on the list: “It is more important to get kids to like Shakespeare than it is to get them to understand every word.”

LoMonico kept emphasizing the need for students to perform Shakespeare. Understanding was not important; looking up words in a dictionary was discouraged; even pronouncing the characters’ names was relegated to the students’ best guesses. We were told not to correct them as this might make kids reluctant to contribute to the class for fear of being wrong. He also recommended in some cases not having students read the entire play. He characterized Julius Caesar as “a bunch of guys standing around talking about what they are going to do before Caesar is murdered, and after his death, the play becomes a bunch of guys standing around talking about what they did.” Arguably, much would be missed in this play if one only read until Caesar’s murder, as LoMonico suggested. It is a talky play, but it also contains some of the most quoted lines in all of Shakespeare’s work. Mark Antony’s speech on the capitol steps is a remarkable piece of oration on its own. Coming from an official of the Folger Library this suggestion to stop short of reading all of the play was appalling.

Often, the thread of connection between the disparate lectures was nonexistent. The sessions were filled with infantile games and participation exercises, like hurling Shakespearean insults at one another. If we tell students not to look up the words, how would they understand the insults?

The emphasis on performance over understanding made me feel like Shakespeare was being “dummied down” for us. If the words have no meaning, or at least no meaning we are interested in finding, then why could we not just substitute guttural sounds? Why worry about plot, or meaning, or anything? We could turn Midsummer Night’s Dream into a collage of high school students grunting. Many times, at the end of a session, I was left with the feeling that the whole thing could have been done more economically. Too much time was wasted.

Performance does not necessarily lead to understanding if the actor does not examine each line, word by word, and try to ascertain the point the writer is making. There is a reason why most actors consider Shakespeare the pinnacle of acting. One cannot do a close reading of a scene for meaning and act out the lines at the same time. Most productions begin with a table reading so that the actors fully understand their parts before the director begins blocking out the performance. Successful acting and learning begin with understanding the text. There is no other way to work with Shakespeare.

Many of these exercises simply played to the narcissism of the workshop participants, allowing some to brag that they had read all of Shakespeare’s work, or to demonstrate some ham-fisted, awkward, self-conscious acting. Some detailed their hobbies, which had little to do with Shakespeare or teaching. It did not help that LoMonico ended every session with a cutesy finish-the-sentence exercise, like “In this workshop, I learned blank.” We went around the room filling in the blank. The few who could not finish the sentence were returned to repeatedly for their responses, leading to some embarrassed grimaces and uncomfortable silences.

A consistent problem in this workshop was the lack of interaction and dialogue between presenters and participants The presenters spent their time extolling the value of involved learning, that the lecture, teacher-driven method was old school and not nearly dynamic enough for the new paradigm of student performance and involvement, yet their presentations left little room for questioning on the part of the participants. No questions, no dialogue, no discussion. We were forced to our feet and put through some elementary acting exercises in the name of Shakespeare. Meanwhile, the larger mysteries of the text went unexplored. I wanted to slow down a bit, sink into the discussion, and find the nuances.

What passed for nuances was LoMonico reading the same passages over and over again with the participants, placing the stresses on different words, discussing how this might change the meaning of the line, instead of honing in on what the line actually did mean. His annoying habit of becoming peeved at questions and inadvertently insulting people from New Jersey also grated on my nerves.

It is getting harder and harder to motivate students to read something as difficult as a Shakespearean drama. It takes work to learn. What happened to that most American of work ethics: hard work leads to hard won success. Learning is sometimes, many times, a difficult process fraught with false paths and failures. One must persevere. A sense of accomplishment comes from completing a task that is difficult. Therein lies the reward.

Instead, in this workshop, we were asked to cater to the lowest common denominator in our classrooms: the reluctant, barely literate reader. If we expect students to achieve, or even to pass the state’s own exit exam, where is the demanding curriculum, where are the challenging standards we set for ourselves and our students, and the insistence on understanding and mastering difficult works of literature? Certainly, none of this was on display in this workshop.

Michael Silverblatt, a local radio host of the program Bookworm, wrote in an essay entitled, “Why You Never Learned To Read,” that schools at the turn of the nineteenth century once used a reader that had students reading Byron, Coleridge, Cervantes, Dickens and Emerson in fifth grade. Such challenging material is barely covered in a high school honors or AP course today. “If the teacher read you a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in third grade,” Silverblatt writes, “and then you struggled to read it out loud with the rest of the class in fourth grade, and you read the complete play in seventh grade—you would have the incredible experience of discovering that the mind comes to terms with its own incomprehension. The clearing of the fog of incomprehension is the yardstick of growth, every kind of growth: emotional, intellectual, moral, aesthetic, human growth.”

That is the key. Students must be challenged. They must be encouraged, persuaded, and even required to follow their developing intellects down the road to learning. The path leads through dictionaries, discussions, questions, answers, and eventually, to understanding. This is the path that contains no shortcuts, no easy outs, and all the rewards. In this workshop I learned that this is the path we are not following, but should.

Tuesday, and for the rest of the workshop, my seat would be empty.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Follow Up

So now I can write that Douglas Frantz has left the building as well.

According to a piece in today’s Business section of The Los Angeles Times, and as reported yesterday on the website, Douglas Frantz, the controversial managing editor of the paper has resigned. He will take a position as Middle East bureau chief at the Wall Street Journal. Interestingly enough, his new home base will be…wait for it…Istanbul, Turkey.

It is unfortunate that Mark Arax, an award-winning journalist with twenty years at the paper, had to resign first. I will miss Arax’s work on the pages of the paper.

In fact, there was news this week on a variety of former West writers who have found new positions. It seems Los Angeles Magazine will be the beneficiary of the Times’ recent forced exodus of quality. Good for them. At least those of us who want to read excellent writing know where we can find it.

It is also worth noting that the Armenian National Committee of America has taken at least some of the responsibility for forcing Frantz out. According to a press release they issued today, “This past April, the ANCA led a grassroots campaign to raise awareness regarding Frantz’s actions. Over 5000 activists responded to an ANCA action alert and sent emails and letters calling for Frantz’s resignation.”

Zanku Armenian, ANCA western region Board member said that “Doug Frantz’s resignation from the Los Angeles Times is an appropriate answer to his unprofessional behavior and anti-Armenian posture in the newsroom.”

Friday, June 22, 2007

Mark Arax Has Left The Building

In all fairness, Mark Arax was not really in the building to begin with, but located in the San Joaquin Valley city of Fresno when he quit The Los Angeles Times last week. Now the paper is without an excellent writer, and we, the subscribers, are the biggest losers.

This is not a post about Mark’s leaving the paper, per se, but about the declining quality of The Los Angeles Times itself. The reporters and editors who left on June first of this year in the Tribune Company buyout began the rapid decline; Mark’s leaving sounds the endnote on a bloody month for journalism in Los Angeles.

On Sunday, May 20, 2007, Mark Arax was a guest in my classroom along with Markar Melkonian, author of My Brother’s Road, and Aris Janigian, another Times reporter and writer of the novel Bloodvine. The occasion was an annual school festival. In the panel discussion, all the writers addressed Mark’s situation. For the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, April 24, Mark had written a piece for the front page of the paper on the continuing controversy over the historical event. He did this at the request of an editor, based in Washington D.C. for the Times. When editor Douglas Frantz found out about the piece, he held it back and later killed it, stating the Mark had expressed views that might make him biased about the genocide. It seems that several years ago, Mark and several other writers, signed a memo to the editorial staff reminding them of the Times policy that the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in 1917 was to be called a genocidal event.

Based on this history, Frantz was claiming bias on Mark’s part. This led to a standoff of sorts between the paper and its veteran reporter. Mark told us that day that he had worked for the Times for twenty years. According to published reports at, either the Times had to fire Frantz and issue a public apology, or Mark would sue for discrimination. The paper did issue the apology, but did not fire Frantz. Mark was encouraged to take the buyout, however, he would have to sign a waiver promising not to sue in the future. This he refused to do, which led to this settlement in the last week. Mark did sign a confidentiality clause as part of this settlement, so he cannot really comment on the situation now.

As the situation continued to develop, we learned that Douglas Frantz had conflicts of interest of his own that may have made him the wrong editor to be casting blame in the reporter’s direction. Frantz was once stationed in Istanbul as the Turkish Bureau chief for both The Los Angeles Times, and before that, The New York Times. Turkish artifacts and memorabilia litter his office at the paper, and it was later revealed that he was going to a conference in Turkey in June on the Times’ dime. This certainly should have raised some conflict of interest flags in the newsroom.

I am not worried about the future of Mark Arax. I am certain this is the Times’ loss. We will be reading his work again, in magazines and book form. Rising above all of this for a moment, my concern is in the rapid decline of the paper. Indeed, print journalism is going through major changes with the Internet and online sources offering more of what the casual reader wants, but newspapers are the heart and soul of this country’s journalism. It is a shame that so many of them are experiencing such a steep decline in readership, and this says something about the intellectual level of our citizenry.

In reality, there are two reasons why newspapers are in trouble: lack of readership leading to a decline in subscriptions, and an insistence on the part of corporate owners for larger and larger profit margins. Newspapers are not like other businesses. Evaluating their successes and failures the way one would analyze the performance of Walmart is a joke. Newspapers do not have the kind revenue that a normal business might have.

Across the country, corporate owners are demanding cuts at every major newspaper. Reporters, editors, art directors, are being given pink slips. Cost cutting measures should lead to higher profits, but instead, they are crippling the gathering, writing and reporting of information. We are becoming a nation of less informed, ignorant people because of corporate greed.

The Los Angeles Times seems to focus relentlessly on the movie and entertainment industries. The front page is littered with soft news. Editors have cut the Book Review and Opinion sections into one section, while adding a new pullout section called The Envelope, detailing awards and nominees in the industry. Granted, Los Angeles is an industry town, but I hardly think who is fired on Grey’s Anatomy outranks the war in Iraq in importance.

I demand that my students read at least one major American newspaper every day. I subscribe to The Los Angeles Times. But this week, I opened a subscription to The New York Times too. A few years ago, the New York paper was rocked by a plagiarism scandal. Many thought this great American paper was headed for decline. What I am finding is that it is today a better written and reported paper. For now, I will keep both subscriptions, but it is interesting to note that the New York paper is still under the control of a family corporation. The Chandlers sold out long ago with The Los Angeles Times. The Tribune Company is now in the process of transferring ownership to another owner. Newspapers are a unique business, and therefore take some specialized understanding of how they work. The failure to understand is only too evident in the recent history of The Los Angeles Times.

So where do we go from here? I am trying to line up Mark Arax to come to Los Angeles in the fall to teach some writing sessions to my high school students. I will continue to insist that they read newspapers every day. And I hope, fervently, that I will not see the end of decent newspaper journalism in America all for the worship of the almighty dollar and the blessed profit margin.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

AP Writing Is A Fraud

Yeah, you heard it here first. AP writing, the kind done in response to a prompt in forty minutes in a classroom every May is not real writing. It is a specific skill that can be taught and honed in practice sessions. But if one wants to read real writing, material written by someone with something to say, a person willing to craft his message in carefully revised and rewritten prose, then the advice I give is to avoid reading anything written under the strictures of an AP exam.

The AP exams in literature and composition and language and composition consist of fifty-five multiple choice questions analyzing selected passages. Part two of the exam is to compose three essays in response to a specific prompt. Students are given sixty minutes for the multiple choice portion, which is worth about forty-five percent of the total score. The essays must be written in 120 minutes, or two hours, and count for fifty-five percent of the final score.

A sample question might read as follows, taken from Barron’s How To Prepare For The AP Exam in English Literature and Composition by George Ehrenhaft: “In many works of literature a character conquers great obstacles to achieve a worthy goal. Sometimes the obstacle is a personal impediment, at other times it consists of the attitudes and beliefs of others.

“Pick a play or novel in which an important character must overcome a personal or social obstacle in order to achieve a worthwhile goal. Then write a well-organized essay that explains the goal and how the character reaches it. Also explain the ways in which the character’s struggle contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole. Do not merely summarize the plot.

“Choose a title from the following list or another play or novel of comparable literary merit.”

What follows is a list of works such as Crime and Punishment, The Crucible, and The Great Gatsby.

A sample question from the language and composition exam, again taken from the Barron’s book, might sound like this: “Carefully read the following excerpt from Discourses In America, a collection of essays written in 1885 by Matthew Arnold. Drawing on your knowledge and experience, write a well-organized essay in which you support, refute, or qualify Arnold’s implication that we must be wary of those who pass themselves off as patriots, for they are all too often scoundrels as well.” The passage follows immediately.

To answer these questions in “well-written” essays will take time, and to address them adequately and artfully, a writing process must be used. Time and drafts are non-existent on the AP exam. It is the paper, the pen and forty minutes for each essay. This is not the way real writers write.

The only time I have ever seen writers operate under these conditions was when I sat behind the journalists’ table at a sporting event. By the time the game concluded, the writers were already typing their stories into their notebook computers which were linked to the newsroom at the paper. The thing most people do not realize is that these journalists are not creating their stories out of the air. They have spent hours, sometimes days, covering their subjects before this actual writing occurs. Therefore, the prewriting stage has been going on for a long period of time. The actual composition may occur in forty minutes to an hour, but they are working from days of notes and background.

An AP student does not know the subject of the prompt until the test lands on the desk in front of her. This is hardly a fair test, even for an experienced writer. To ask students to write this way as a measure of their ability is ridiculous. The only option a student has is to study previous years’ questions and practice writing timed essays in a format approach. There are several standardized essay formats out there; the one I encounter most often is the five paragraph essay.

As a result, writing, which is a form of deep thinking, becomes an exercise in formatted, assembly line work using selected buzzwords and jargon approved by the College Board. My philosophy is that writing an essay involves addressing a subject. It may take five paragraphs, or three, or twenty. Look at the writing David Foster Wallace does, or William T. Vollman, or David Sedaris. How can you fit the essay to a format? It is a living breathing entity that must be given its space to grow and develop as the writer creates.

Most real writers could probably handle this test, but that is only because they have spent a career writing and rewriting. To ask a high school kid to do this, a student just formulating the beginnings of a style as a writer, who is only just now learning how to think and write, is a travesty. If a college professor were to examine one of my student’s portfolios of writing from ten months of English class, she would get a much better feel for that student’s writing and thinking skills. Being able to create a formulated essay on command is not an indication of intelligence, or even proof of having taken a college-level course.

If one wants to learn to write well, there are only a few rules and options. One must have something to say. One must have studied writing, grammar, and the structure of the English language. One must write and revise and practice, preferably under the supervision of a good writing instructor, one who can do the craft as well as teach it.

I guess this is why the College Board has launched the AP Audit this year. Teachers must submit a syllabus and documentation from their AP courses. These materials are evaluated by a college level teacher who then approves the course as “AP” or asks for more information and materials in order to satisfy the AP requirements. Too many teachers simply teach the test, so I think the College Board is trying to regulate what is taught in the classroom.

This is a good idea in theory, but it may not eliminate a teacher teaching to a test. Test training is a lot easier than teaching someone to think. Just look at all the SAT preparation courses and tutors out there. They are not teaching thinking skills; they are teaching students how to handle, and may be even defeat, the test itself.

Even though I teach AP, I would prefer that my students write authentically, meaning that they compose their essays for publication, as if large groups of people will be reading their work. Writing is not an exercise. Making it one leads to dull, boring, uninspired drivel. When a student has slaved over an essay, writing and rewriting, and I can see the growth evident in each draft, until the final product emerges, a piece of writing that has grace and subtlety, insight and wisdom, that is the piece I want to read.

Save the AP writing for robots.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Endings and Beginnings In Another Summer of Love

It seems strange to be starting this blog at the end of another school year instead of at the beginning. The school building is empty. Final exams are graded; bulletin boards are shrouded in white butcher paper in darkened classrooms. The desks are grouped in the center of the room. Lockers stand open. Papers flutter in the summer breeze. Where are the stories? Where is the life of the mind?

The days are hot now, and the sky goes fiery at dusk. Baseball stadiums across the country are alive with the sights and smells of night games. Public swimming pools stay open late. There is nothing on television, not that there is every anything on television. These are the days of ice cream and endless sunshine and beach barbecues.

Somewhere, some unlucky soul is prepping for summer school. I am one of the lucky ones. I am unemployed for the next nine weeks. But don’t fret: I get paid on the twelve month plan. Take a little less each month in order not to worry about money in July and August. For people like me who do not save well, it is a blessing.

Over the years, whenever interviewing new teaching candidates, I inevitably hear several tell me they are attracted to teaching because of the time off.

Yeah. The time off.

After all, we work only until three o’clock most days, get two weeks’ vacation at Christmas, and then there is summer.

For me, teaching is an all-consuming practice. I even dream of the classroom in my sleep. Sure, it is not the same as policing an American city or serving in Iraq, but it is a stressful, intense job. It is something one should be called to do, a vocation. It is not for people who want more time off.

When I finish my day on campus, I have two to three hours of grading papers and lesson planning each night. Even though I have taught most of my course materials before, I am constantly rereading the novels, plays and stories with my students. In addition, I read research material and teaching journals, newspapers and magazines for interesting articles to give my students, and of course, I am always reading new books and plays to teach in the future.

Even in summer, teachers are reading and studying. Some take classes; others make do with a workshop or in-service.

This year, my colleagues and I in the English Department are attending a week long workshop at UCLA, produced by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. Not one of us is being compensated for the eight plus hours we will spend in the classroom each day for a week, nor will be receive any pay bump for attending this workshop. We go because we want to learn, and we want to bring whatever techniques or methods we learn back to the classroom in September.

Teaching is a difficult job, but don’t get me wrong: I love it. Sure, some parts are monotonous, like grading seemingly endless stacks of student papers written by people who have little to say sometimes, and even less life experience to draw upon. But there is always a surprise buried in those stacks, or may be a few surprises: some student-writers may have something unique to offer, some turn of phrase that is poetic, or some interesting take on a novel we have taught a hundred times. That is the magic: students often see things in a brand new light, a fresh perspective that teachers may not see, or have forgotten in the years of teaching the same book over and over.

What really keeps me coming back each September is the chance to engage people in a conversation about literature and writing. May be this year, I can push them just a bit further, make them think a bit more, make my own discoveries about the mysteries of writing and storytelling.

My desire to be a teacher comes out of my life long need to be a student. I had a difficult time in school. I attended Catholic schools through high school, and my parents were not well off. I either worked on campus to pay my tuition, or I worked at odd jobs through the years. Still, whereas my students have nice cars and the freedom to concentrate completely on their studies, I did not have such luxuries. In fact, my teachers would most likely be surprised to see me in the classroom today. I was the one falling asleep in the back of the room because I had to work a late shift the night before at the warehouse. I was the one who consistently failed the quizzes because I was forever behind in my reading. Even today, I feel like the slowest reader on the planet. But I persevere. I do not give up. Today, I know that I love to learn; it is the fire in my gut that drives me to read and study and write, and this drive makes me a passionate advocate for working in a classroom.

There is nothing like a year making a turn toward the fall, the smell of new books and pencils, the scratch of a pen across a page, the tap, tap, tap on the computer keyboard, and the frosty fire of a Friday night high school football game.

So beginning this blog at the end is an open invitation. A teacher’s year never really ends. And every year is another chapter, another chance to read and study the story of us, of hopes and dreams and love and sometimes, laughter and deep, deep sadness. It is all right there, in that now empty room with the ghostly desks on the quiet campus. If you listen, you will hear the students talking and laughing, the papers, the pencils, the demands, the difficulties, the challenges. It is the greatest of stories in the greatest of arenas: the classroom.