Slice of Life #11: The Year of Lear

Slice of LifeI haven’t taught King Lear in a few years, but my AP students are reading it alongside Jane Smiley’s modern adaptation, A Thousand Acres. I so enjoyed returning to this play, which is one of my favorites. As students read, they are creating character maps with the twinned characters in each work, detailing which characters are allied with Lear (or at least have his best interests at heart), and which ones are his enemies. At the end of the play, students will create a literary reduction.

A quick Google search of the term “literary reduction” doesn’t yield fruitful results. I learned about reductions from my Dean of Faculty, Cindy Sabik, who has used them in her own English classes. Essentially, students create graphic representations of what they have learned. Using a standard 8½ x 11-inch sheet of paper, students  distill the essence of the work by organizing quotes, ideas, images, and connections from a work of literature. My students are working in groups focusing on four different themes in the play. They will create reductions based on these themes, so as they read, they are looking for quotes that connect to their themes.

Look what I received in the mail today:

The Year of Lear

I’m so excited for this book. I absolutely loved James Shapiro’s other books A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 and Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, and given that I am currently teaching Lear and have often taught Macbeth, I expect I will learn a great deal from this book. Actually, I’ve just read the first chapter, and the first thing I wanted to do was go back in time and do Monday’s class over again. Ah well, I can still share what I’ve learned with my students tomorrow. Shakespeare is a deep well, and even when I think I know just about everything, I plumb a little deeper and uncover something new. The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 looks like a great addition to my learning library.

Later this week, I will be presenting on writing workshop in my classes at OESIS (Online Education Symposia for Independent Schools) in Boston. Here is my presentation (for the curious). I want to share one interesting finding. My students use Google Docs to write, and I selected an assignment from the end of last year at random from which to draw some data. I selected an assignment from the end of the year because at that stage, students were acclimated to the workshop process. Students wrote an analysis of Macbeth. I examined how many edits they made to their essays. Keeping in mind that not every single edit is a substantial change, each edit does represent a different time that students opened the document and made some changes. Google Docs saves work every few seconds, but that does not mean a new version is created every few seconds. If you do want to see these more detailed revisions, you can click the button that says “Show more detailed revisions.” Students must stop working and return to the document after some time has passed for it to count as a new version. With that caveat in mind, here are some figures:

  • Students made an average of 8.79 edits on this one assignment.
  • One student made only two edits, but I suspect he wrote his essay in Word and pasted it later.
  • One student made 19 edits.
  • All of the students who made 12 or more edits are currently taking AP-level classes. They were not in an Honors class last year.

Even if each edit was not substantial, I admit I was blown away by these numbers.  It’s entirely possible students were making the same number of edits before I introduced writing workshop / in-depth critique to my classes (but I doubt it). It’s also possible that when students use Word, they make just as many changes, but I can’t see them because there is no revision history available for me to see. This kind of data is just one more reason, in my mind, to use Google Docs.

Just as an experiment, I decided to take a closer look at the student who made 19 edits. His last edit was insertion of a citation and a few word choice tweaks. The previous edit included removing a block quote and adding the evidence to a different part of the essay (and integrating it more tightly), deleting a sentence, lots of word choice tweaks, and reworking his conclusion. The edit previous to this one included the addition of three sentences and the deletion of two others. The previous edit included quite a lot of revision of the first page of the essay—lots of additions and deletions. The previous edit was minor, including only a sentence and a few punctuation marks. Over time, it’s interesting to see the way the essay took final shape.

In our last department meeting, we were discussing writing and the ways in which our school has embraced writing workshop, and one department member shared that he feels that students seem to understand how to revise and edit better than they had in the past. In addition, bringing writing in to the peer editing club has carried a bit of a stigma in the past, but now, he added, it’s just something that you do to improve your work. I couldn’t be happier that the work we are doing is bearing such fruit. When you treat students like writers, including emphasizing the process and teaching them to edit, they become better writers.

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10 thoughts on “Slice of Life #11: The Year of Lear”

  1. Dana I have been perusing your blog for almost two years now and have enjoyed your take on our shared profession. It’s great to see an educator so willing to share and to show keen insight and reflection. Thank you. I had to comment today because you reference reductions, which I learned about during my tenure at Gilmour Academy where I also had the pleasure of being colleagues with Cindy. I still use reductions and love them – as do the kids. You’re so lucky to work with Cindy – such a wealth of wisdom. Please pass along my well wishes and my nostalgia for the after school discussions that inspired such creativity and growth in all of us who made the time to participate. 😊 Jen Bean

    1. What a small world it is! Yes, she has indicated that reductions were used quite a lot at Gilmour. Sounds like a great school, and I will indeed say hello to Cindy. You are right—incredibly fortunate to work with her.

  2. I saved your Google Docs presentation to come back to. I had never considered how meaningful the edits list could be to teachers. It could also help struggling writers develop a clearer understanding of the process. So many think they’re just not good enough because they don’t get it in the first draft.

    Also, I’ve used the “reduction” activity you describe for years, but always called it a “one-pager.”

  3. I love teaching King Lear–there are so many projects you can do with your students. This summer I had an opportunity to study at the Folger Shakespeare Library where we studied Hamlet using the Folger technique using language and acting out the major scenes in the play while using primary texts. It was amazing reading a 6 million dollar First Folio.
    Arthur Henry King, my professor at Brigham Young University had us focus on language in Lear and much of his work influenced the new Folger editions edited by Dr. Mowat and her team at the Folger. These new editions are available on the Folger site free to students and teachers with lesson plans that are available for teachers. I highly recommend the Folger sources as these new editions have been researched using the Folios and Quartos. I would take a look at the new Lear…

    1. I always use Folger. I was at a mini-institute several years ago, and have had their books for years as well. The Folger is an excellent resource.

  4. I’m reading the Shapiro book, too. Haven’t heard of him before, but I saw the book in Barnes & Noble and bought it. It’s really interesting.

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