The Future of Books

Thank you to my WA colleague Wendy for bringing this wonderful iPad app to my attention:

This app is a digital book based on an Academy Award-winning short film entitled The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. It’s a fabulous film that tells a mesmerizing story about the power of books—how we can give new life to old books by reading them, and they can, in turn, give life to us; how they can change our lives and help us write our own life story. The film comes bundled with the app, which is currently $4.99 (and a true bargain). The reader can interact with every page of the digital book. You can help Morris get lost in a book, spell with alphabet cereal, make books talk, and so many other cool events drawn from the film. As you read, a narrator reads the story to you, the text of which runs along the bottom of each page. My son and I sat down together and read it. He rarely comments on things we read, but he kept saying “Great!” as we were reading. Even though Dylan is verbal, he rarely talks (and when he does, it is often echolalia rather than a direct response), and it is unusual for him to make any remarks at all when he’s engaged in activity like using an iPad app, but he simply loved this one. It didn’t take him long before he was touching everything on the screen to see what it would do.

Two other digital books have recently been released which I haven’t had a chance to purchase yet: T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:

YouTube Preview Image

And the complete collection of William Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which includes Patrick Stewart, Stephen Fry, and David Tennant (among others) interpreting the sonnets:

(“Sonnet 29″ is my favorite poem, by the way.)

In addition to dramatic readings, both apps include the complete text for a new multimedia reading experience, as well as also includes commentary and notes to help readers understand the text and make connections. For the kind of experience you get with these apps, the prices really can’t be beat, especially if you consider that a good paperback copy of either The Waste Land or Shakespeare’s Sonnets, complete with annotations (never mind the media) would probably run at least $13.99.

No one asked me to endorse these apps, but I’m so excited about the rich reading experiences they offer. Would you want to read every book this way? Perhaps not, but for particularly thorny texts like The Waste Land or the Sonnets, it makes a great deal of sense to include all these tools for comprehension and extension that will help readers from a variety of backgrounds—learning difficulties, English language learners, disabled as well as gifted and/or avid readers. I can see the power a book like any one of these three would have. I don’t know how you feel, but the possibility of teaching these books, using these materials, is exciting. I keep thinking of Miranda (and not in the usual ironic kind of way): “O brave new world that has such books in in it.”

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Anonymous

Anonymous PosterIn the interest of full disclosure, I should begin by saying I have not seen Anonymous. I don’t need to; its arguments are familiar to me. This blog post is not a review of the movie or even an attack. It’s more of a treatise on why we should view its historicity and arguments with a skeptical eye and why, in my opinion, English teachers should not be encouraged to introduce it into debate about Shakespeare scholarship in their class discussions, as Young Minds Inspired has created teaching materials for high school and college that the film’s producers hope English teachers will use.

First, many Shakespeare conspiracy theorists, whether they support Oxford (current contemporary favorite) or Bacon or Marlowe or any of the other candidates that have been proposed as the “real” Shakespeare, often paint those who believe Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare as defensive and inflexible regarding opening up the authorship question for debate. If Stratfordians, as proponents of the argument that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare are called, are defensive and inflexible it is because the bulk of rational and historical evidence heavily supports their view, yet conspiracy theorists are unswayed by this rational, historical evidence. Many Stratfordians refuse to engage in the debate because the Oxfordians typically present evidence that is taken out of context, distorted, or just incorrect. People are invested in their pet conspiracy theories, and they often won’t listen to the arguments proposed against them. On the other hand, I have seen some Stratfordians engage seriously in answering the arguments Oxfordians list as evidence for the correctness of their point of view, explaining why and how the arguments fail, only to be met with ad hominem attacks on their open-mindedness and a refusal to debate the matter further (take a look at the comments in the linked post). However, that is not to say that the people who believe that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare are in any way foolish, unintelligent, uninformed, or even not perfectly serious. It must be said that they are not, however, professional Shakespeare scholars, who by and large do not question Shakespeare’s authorship.

Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro was one of the first to examine the authorship question and its history in his wonderful book, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?. I can’t recommend the book highly enough if you have even a passing interest in Shakespeare and especially if you teach Shakespeare. He mentions early in the book that other Shakespeare scholars tried to convince him not to take on the authorship question mainly because they felt giving the argument serious air would have the side effect of giving it legitimacy. They have a point. This movie is sure to bring up the debate in our schools as our students are often avid moviegoers. Shapiro, however, felt that the time was right for a Shakespeare scholar to explain why Shakespeare scholars believe Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.

The chief argument that anti-Stratfordians make is that Shakespeare was born from humble means and did not have the right education in order to have been able to write the plays he wrote. However, Shakepeare’s “inferior” education at the grammar school in Stratford, which many anti-Stratfordians seem to think was akin to an average modern elementary education, included classical studies in Ovid, Cicero, Plautus, Terence, Virgil, and Erasmus—in Latin—all of which Shakespeare would have studied by the age of 13. One cannot argue he did not receive an education that could inspire the works he wrote. By the way, Ben Jonson’s father was a bricklayer, and Jonson also didn’t go to university, but no one questions the authorship of his plays or poems. Interestingly enough, Shakespeare makes some errors in his plays that one would not expect a Cambridge-educated man like Oxford to make: anachronistic references to clocks (Julius Caesar) and a description of Bohemia as a landlocked desert by the sea (A Winter’s Tale).

Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), is the current favorite candidate of Shakespeare conspiracy theorists. He was a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, and his candidacy as an alternative author dates to 1920, when J. Thomas Looney published Shakespeare Identified. Looney sought to explain how he felt certain events in Shakespeare’s plays were analogies for events in Oxford’s life and that Oxford had the right education and courtly connections to have written Shakespeare’s plays. Before Oxford, other candidates such as Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe became popular alternative Shakespeares. As I’ve mentioned, Shapiro wrote an entire book examining other claims for Shakespeare, and the website Shakespeare Authorship has a comprehensive section examining the major arguments that Oxfordians make:

In addition, an essay on the site,  How We Know That Shakespeare Wrote Shakespeare: The Historical Facts,  by Tom Reedy and David Kathman, “summarize[s] the extensive web of evidence that identifies William Shakespeare of Stratford as the man who wrote the works of William Shakespeare.”

Another argument I see many Oxfordians make is that such intelligent luminaries as Mark Twain, Derek Jacobi, John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia, Sigmund Freud, and many others of equal talent all believed that someone other than Shakespeare—probably Oxford, but certainly not Shakespeare—wrote the plays attributed to him. This is a poor argument. Lots of people believe lots of things and the relative fame, talent, or intelligence of those who believe those things should not make them more or less true unless they are backed up also by evidence. Presenting this list as evidence itself is not evidence. It’s just a way of pointing out that one’s company isn’t completely made up of strange people in tinfoil hats.

What concerns me is not that people debate the issue. They can debate it if they like (although I believe it to be rather pointless in light of the evidence). My worry is that there is this notion that teachers who do not engage in this sort of debate in their English classes are perpetuating a lie or at least aren’t encouraging students to think critically and form their own opinions. From the materials produced by Young Minds Inspired:

Objectives:

  • To encourage critical thinking by challenging students to examine the theories about the authorship of Shakespeare’s works and to formulate their own opinions.
  • To strengthen students’ communication skills through classroom discussion and debate.
  • To engage students in creative writing exercises.

A look at the language (emphasis mine) used in some of the activities is alarming:

PART A: WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Are Shakespeare’s plays the work of a highly educated writer with firsthand experience of aristocracy? Or could they be the work of an author with exceptional creative talent and observational skills who borrowed from learned books to enhance his own writing? Divide your class into two teams, the Upstart Crows and the Reasonable Doubters, to weigh the question: Was William Shakespeare really an improbable genius, or just a front man for someone with real ability?

Here is an essay assignment in the materials:

PART B: WORDS, WORDS, WORDS
Use the information on this sheet to research the theory that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was not the author of the “Shakespeare” plays. Then write a persuasive essay supporting your position.

And later:

PART A: WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Based on this short sketch of Edward de Vere and your knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays, what are the arguments pro and con that de Vere was the true author of the plays? Compare ideas, weigh the evidence, and come to a consensus. Then imagine that de Vere really was the true author. Should he have remained anonymous? Should Shakespeare have taken credit for his plays?

These activities are not about encouraging debate about the issue. They’re about encouraging students to believe Oxford wrote Shakespeare. Ron Rosenbaum lists some of the errors the Anonymous filmmakers make about Shakespeare and the times. As James Shapiro says in his New York Times op-ed in response to Anonymous, “promoters of de Vere’s cause have a lot of evidence to explain away, including testimony of contemporary writers, court records and much else that confirms that Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him. Meanwhile, not a shred of documentary evidence has ever been found that connects de Vere to any of the plays or poems.” He concludes that “the most troubling thing” about Anonymous  is that “the film turns great plays into propaganda,” which Shapiro argues is reductive, and I would agree. In the film, the character Oxford says that “all art is political … otherwise it is just decoration.” That is really the only reason we create art? To make a political statement? When Simon Schama weighed in on the movie, he concluded the biggest problem with it was its “fatal lack of imagination on the subject of the imagination.”

Shakespeare was a gifted genius. What these activities are really going to teach kids is that people like Shakespeare are only possible if they are born into privilege and receive an education at a prestigious institution like Oxford or Cambridge (or Harvard or Yale… you get the picture). And what is also lost in these assignments is an appreciation for Shakespeare’s writing—the words, the phrases, the stories—which is traded off for a sexier debate about whether Shakespeare really wrote Shakespeare. What a crime.

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But Thence I Learn, and Find the Lesson True

Double Double Toil and Trouble...

Samuel Taylor Coleridge once said “Shakespeare knew the human mind, and its most minute and intimate workings, and he never introduces a word, or a thought, in vain or out of place; if we do not understand him, it is our own fault.” Harold Bloom credits Shakespeare with inventing humanity. Certainly there is no writer I enjoy teaching more than Shakespeare. Part of what makes Shakespeare special is the way that people from all walks of life can find themselves in his works and can connect their own lives to those of characters created hundreds of years ago. One of the more compelling stories I’ve heard regarding Shakespeare’s ability to impact lives is that of Prison Performing Arts, an organization I’ve discussed before. If you aren’t familiar with their work, please listen to this episode of This American Life and come back. I will wait. You must hear it.

Anyone who has ever listened to that program can never forget James Word, the man who played Laertes and credits Prison Performing Arts with helping him “see options” and to express himself. He says that “The delivery of the message, through Shakespeare and mythology, taught me life’s lessons.” I receive a newsletter from Prison Performing Arts as a supporter of their organization, and in the recent issue, Ann Haubrich has written an update on James Word. He has been released from prison and is attending college full time. He mentioned earning an A on his first English paper, which absolutely thrilled me to learn, and he discussed his desire to start a theater program for young people at his father’s church. As Word says, “If you can catch them while they’re young, before they get sent to prison, they can recognize their potential and be saved.”

It may sound idealistic, but it obviously works. Prison Performing Arts works with people that most of society has given up on, and it’s encouraging to read about their successes. I came home to find this letter in my mailbox after a great day teaching Shakespeare. My students have finished Act 1 of Macbeth, and I gave them a quiz over Act 1 from Shakespeare Set Free Volume 1. I read an article in the September 2010 issue of English Journal by Timothy Quinn and Todd Eckerson about collaborative reading quizzes. I applied this strategy to this quiz over Act 1. The students talked about each of the quotes and came to a consensus about who said the lines, to whom the speaker was speaking, and what the context of the quote was. Both of my classes earned perfect scores on the quiz. Obviously, it means that the methods in the Shakespeare Set Free unit work for helping students remember the language and learn the story. If you could have been a fly on the wall listening to my students talking about the play, I think you’d have enjoyed their discussion. It was especially interesting to hear them figure out when they were initially mistaken about a quote and discuss it. I never said a word. They conducted the discussion and reached the answers on their own.

I felt incredibly lucky to be able to teach Shakespeare to my students. Shakespeare belongs to everybody, from prison inmates to Jewish high school students. As Ben Jonson observed, “He was not of an age, but for all time.” His ability to teach us about ourselves, and the richness of his language and his themes never grow old. To paraphrase Domitius Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra, “Age cannot wither [him], nor custom stale / [His] infinite variety.”

Creative Commons License photo credit: Arbron

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“To End Where I Begun”: Backward Design and Shakespeare

I am presenting at NCTE tomorrow morning at 9:30 at the Yacht and Beach Club in Grand Harbour Ballroom South. You can download and/or view all my session materials here.

Note: I think if you visit the presentation on SlideShare and download it, you can get the notes.

Here is my handout for my Macbeth performance task that I discuss as an alternative to a performance.

Here is a graphic organizer for my comparative video exercise for Act I Scene 1. I use the filmed versions of Macbeth directed by Jack Gold, Roman Polanski, and Geoffrey Wright for this activity.

Here is a Wordle made from the text of Macbeth that I use to introduce students to themes in the play.

Chris Shamburg’s radio play of the “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble” scene.

If you want to explore the UbD Educators wiki (Understanding by Design, ® ASCD) for a variety of resources, feel free to check it out. You don’t have to join to lurk; you have to join to contribute your own work.

Links to my previous work aligning Folger methods with backward design:

Blog posts about Folger/teaching Shakespeare:

Links to other helpful resources:

If you would like to see the Shakespeare Made Easy activity I mentioned, please visit and join A Way to Teach. You’ll find a lot of great resources there.

If I can think of more stuff to add later, I will, so bookmark this post if you’d like to access it more easily.

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Folger Shakespeare Teaching Sessions at NCTE 2010

Love's Labour's LostIf you’re looking for ideas for teaching Shakespeare, you should attend the Folger Shakespeare Library’s sessions at NCTE. Folger will present five sessions, but you need not attend all five:

  • A.44, Friday, 9:30-10:45; Shakespeare Set Free Act 1: How Pre-Reading Strategies and Activities that Focus on Language Will Ease Your Students into Shakespeare. This session will briefly introduce teachers to the philosophy of the Folger Shakespeare Library and then will focus on a variety of dynamic pre-reading activities. Presenters: Mike LoMonico, Susan Biondo-Hench, Kevin Costa.
  • B.45, Friday, 11:00-12:15; Shakespeare Set Free Act 2: How Getting Students on Their Feet and Working with Shakespeare’s Language is Easier than it Sounds. Getting your students up on their feet is an essential way to engage them with Shakespeare. The presenters will demonstrate a variety of activities to ease the transition from seat-based learning to performance-based learning. Presenters: Robert Young, Julia Perlowski.
  • C.43, Friday, 12:30-1:45; Shakespeare Set Free Act 3: How Internet-Based Web 2.0 Tools Can Get Your Students Closer to Shakespeare’s Texts. The presenters will demonstrate several Web 2.0 activities for teaching Shakespeare developed with the Folger Library. Attendees will be given tech tools to assist students in a close reading of Shakespeare’s texts. Presenters: Mike LoMonico, Scott O’Neil, Chris Shamburg.
  • F.48, Saturday, 8:00-9:15; Shakespeare set Free Act 4: How to Use Film and Video in an Active Way to Connect Your Students and Shakespeare’s Plays. We all use film when we teach Shakespeare. This session will demonstrate how using YouTube, viewing multiple versions of the same scene, and creating video trailers can make film an active rather than passive experience. Presenters: Robert Young, Joshua Cabat, Mike LoMonico.
  • G.46, Saturday, 9:30-10:45; Shakespeare Set Free Act 5: How to Create Meaningful and Authentic Assessments for Your Shakespeare Unit. As your unit winds down, you look for activities that go beyond making Globe Theater models out of popsicle sticks. The presenters will demonstrate several strategies that employ higher-level thinking to evaluate students. Presenters: Mike LoMonico, Dana Huff, Robert Young, Carol Kelly.

Yes, I’m presenting that last session, and it would be nice to see friendly faces, so please do come.

If you work with teacher candidates, you might also enjoy session M.39, Sunday, 11:30-12:45; Teaching Teachers to Teach Shakespeare. The panel will present their philosophy and some practical tools for integrating the teaching of Shakespeare into pre-service English Methods courses. The speakers will focus on current best practices developed by Folger Shakespeare Library’s Education Department and teachers who they have worked with. Presenters: Robert Young, Mike LoMonico, Glenda Funk, Peggy O’Brien, Rick Vanderwall.

See you at NCTE.

Creative Commons License photo credit: UMTAD

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Pretty British Literature Handouts

Partly because I am trying to show off the pretty handouts I have created using Apple iWorks’s Pages, and partly because I wanted to try out Issuu, here is a collection of handouts for British literature.

What a pretty way to share handouts!

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Sonnets

My British Literature and Compositions are going to study the sonnet next week, and my department chair and I collaborated on a SMARTBoard Notebook file. I do not think she would mind if I shared our work here, and a couple of people have expressed interested after I sent messages to Twitter and Facebook about it. So, here is the file. If someone could download it and let me know if the embedded videos are all intact, that would be great. I love YouTube, but our connection at school is shaky when so many people are logged on to our network, so I have taken to embedding these videos in the Notebook files. It’s also nice not to have to switch programs to show different media.

Download the Sonnet Notebook file.

Our goal is to ask students to memorize and perform a sonnet. I like Matthew Macfadyen’s interpretation of Sonnet 29 by Shakespeare that’s embedded in the file.

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Shakespearean Insults

Shakespearean InsultsOne of my favorite stand-by fun lessons is to allow students to create Shakespearean insults. The Folger Library’s Shakespeare Set Free series volume with lessons on Romeo and Juliet has a handout I’ve used since 1997, when I first taught the play, to create insults. Though I consider myself fairly technologically savvy, I found out today the handout may almost be obsolete.

Within moments of my introducing the assignment, my students were happily mixing and matching words to create insults and hurling them at each other (without my prompting, even). I have only two copies of C.T. Onion’s glossary left (I used to have five; what happened to them?), so we were trying to share, when I remembered the Shakespeare Pro app on my iPhone has a glossary based on David and Ben Crystal’s Shakespeare’s Words, so we added my iPhone into the mix, and before long, I was telling students about the app and suggesting that if they had iPod Touches or iPhones, they might like to talk their parents into letting them purchase the app. Within moments, one of my students with an iPod Touch found a Shakespearean Insult generator (iTunes link) app and had downloaded it. He showed me some more apps, including this one (iTunes link), which looks similar to what I was asking students to do today. Several students had their iPods and iPhones out, checking out Shakespeare, and one of my quieter students pointed out to her classmates that they could download the text of Romeo and Juliet (iTunes link) as an app. One student asked excitedly if they downloaded the app, could they ditch their heavy books? I said sure, as long as they wouldn’t have trouble finding their place, and I pointed out that in fact, one of my eleventh graders did just that last semester when his class studied Macbeth.

All of this might sound really obvious in schools where technology is wholeheartedly embraced, but it was interesting for me to watch the students using these tools to study a text I studied in high school. I remarked to my department chair the other day that I wished we could forego books if we wanted and allow students to download their books, including those fat, expensive anthologies, onto a Kindle or iPhone/iPod Touch using a Kindle app. Think about how much less it would weigh, not to mention texts can be more interactive, and students can annotate them and keep them.

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Double, Double, Toil and Trouble

Using an idea from Chris Renino in Shakespeare Set Free and Chris Shamburg, my students created a radio play of Macbeth 4.1, in which the witches prepare the “hell broth.” Take a listen:

Download Macbeth 4.1

Nuts and bolts:

  • We used GarageBand on my Mac. One of my students knew how to produce the echo effect. I think Audacity would work, too, but I’m not sure if it has all the effects GarageBand has.
  • We did two run-throughs without recording before we did the recording. We were happy with our first recording, so we used it as our final.
  • The crunching leaves were created by potato chips in a bowl.
  • We used a large vase with water to make the cauldron noises.
  • Students created the howling winds and dogs.

It was totally awesome! The students loved it, I loved it, and we had fun.

Update: 11/12/09 at 7:29 P.M.: I am adding the podcast created by my other British Lit. class. This particular podcast was created by only four students (as opposed to the other, which was created by 17 students). Considering their small numbers, I think it turned out extremely well. We had to use multiple tracks and do more cutting and editing, both of which made this particular recording more of a challenge.

Download Macbeth 4.1

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