Monday, May 17, 2010

How many days of school do we have left?

This is one of my students (taken today). Yes, he has two little jingle bells taped to his eyebrows. And no, I have no idea why.

Merchants of Venice

We recently finished reading Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, in my 8th grade literature class, and it was such a pleasure to get back to Shakespeare. Whenever I have the privilege of reading the work of such a remarkable wordsmith, I find myself enjoying the sheer pleasure of having their words in my mouth even without paying attention to the meaning of the words.

Merchant of Venice is one of my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays because in many ways it is very typical of Shakespeare and deceivingly rich and complex. The basic story goes like this: Bassanio has fallen in love with Portia, a wealthy nobleman’s daughter in Belmont. In order to pursue Portia, Bassanio must borrow money from his old friend Antonio, but all of Antonio’s wealth is tied up in three ships that are still at sea. So Bassanio is forced to borrow money on Antonio’s credit from Shylock, a cruel Jewish usurer. Shylock agrees to lend Antonio/Bassanio the money on the terms that if Antonio is not able to repay the bond in 3 months, Shylock may take a pound of Antonio’s flesh from whatever portion of his body Shylock chooses.The climax of the play is this fabulous court scene in which Shylock demands justice and the fulfillment of his bond (because, of course, Antonio's ships never come in), and Portia dresses as a man, plays the lawyer, outwits everyone winning the case for Antonio and Bassanio.

I absolutely love this play. I love it because Portia is one of my favorite heroines: she is smart, witty, and saves Antonio’s life. (She cunningly points out that Shylock may take a pound of Antonio’s flesh but that the bond does not allow him to draw a single drop of blood.) I also love it because Shylock is such a dynamic and complex character. While he is undoubtedly one of Shakespeare’s most evil villains, he is also very sympathetic.

This weekend I watched two adaptations of this play and was sorely disappointed by both.

Al Pacino’s Merchant of Venice (2004) is well done: the portrayal of Antonio and Portia were very good, but Pacino’s Shylock was a little on the crazy side, thus difficult to empathize with. Also, they cut down Gratiano’s role and he is one of my favorite characters—a jokester. But my real problem with the movie was the nudity. Everywhere you looked there were topless Elizabethans. It was gratuitous to the point of being ridiculous. I think the director was trying to make a point that prostitution was another way in which flesh was “sold,” but this could have been achieved with clothes on. Sadly, now I will not be able to show this movie to my class.

The next is a much lesser known version. This adaptation is set in the 1930s and it plays with self-consciousness of being a film (which Shakespeare loved to do with the stage). This all worked really well, but the production quality is awful! There are about 2 sets for the whole movie which consist of beige walls and minimal furniture. The costumes are all in shades of beige and black—no color. And the camera work is boring. Shylock’s performance was excellent, but the rest of the cast fell victim to a very common Shakespearean fault—overacting! Just because it is Shakespeare does not mean that the performance has to be serious or operatic. Portia was ridiculously overplayed.

Sigh, how I wish that Kenneth Branagh had adapted Merchant of Venice! Could somebody please do an excellent adaptation of this excellent play?—one that captures its sadness and it humor, its dynamism and complexity, and that is appropriate for middle school. Please!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The new crackhead

The other day I heard one of my students called another kid a "Fissure Head."

"What? What is a 'Fissure Head'?" I asked.

"Mrs. Freeman, what does fissure mean?" was the dubious reply.

"A break?" I replied.

"Or a CRACK!" he said. "And that kid is a total Fissure head."

At least they are using new vocabulary words.

New Slang brought to you by middle school kids who clearly have way too much time and creativity and intelligence than anyone gives them credit for.

Today. . .

I woke up 10 minutes before I was supposed to be at work because I forgot to set my alarm last night.

I taught 2 classes before having coffee. Decaffeinated teaching is not to be advised (especially in May).

I had a boy ask to borrow my scarf and my yellow patent leather skinny belt. Question mark--I have no response to that. But I did have several kids compliment my shoes.

I had 75% of my class decide to come in without their homework--Not Ok.

I got rather disappointed when my kids did not love the very awesome court scene in The Merchant of Venice as much as I do. It is amazing! And they missed out hardcore.

I derived the Quadratic Formula for the second time this week.

I did a little dance in the teacher workroom when I found out their were ice cream bars in the freezer for us.

I dispel some major middle school drama by convincing a girl that violence was not the answer when her friend may or may not have looked at her funny across the room and may or may not be "talking about her behind her back". We read Romans 12: "As far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. . . When your enemy is hungry, feed him. When he is thirsty, give him something to drink." Her response: "But that is hard. I just want to wring her neck."

I had a student offer to pay me for some homemade chocolate chip cookies.

I took off my shoes so that I could jump rope with the 7th and 8th graders at lunch.

(Sigh) What a day.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Top Eleven American History Movies

Class 8 eating hardtack while watching Glory.

As a history teacher and movie buff, I am always looking for great films to show the kids about whatever period of American history we are currently in. Because a top TEN list wouldn't cut it, here is my top ELEVEN list of working titles so far in chronological order. I am sure as the years pass, I will add some more, and I always appreciate suggestions.

1. The New World (Colonial): Directed by Terrence Malik, this movie is slow but beautiful. He captures the beauty and roughness of the wilderness that was the new world. The movie tells the story of Pocahontas and John Smith. While the acting is very good, those scenes are less compelling and appropriate for middle schoolers who are already chalk full of hormones. The scenes of early Jamestown, however, and the Indian village are amazing. And they also capture the contrast between new America and established England when Pocahontas travels to see the King. The cinematography in those scenes is breathtaking.

2. John Adams (Revolutionary War): This recent mini series release by HBO is amazing. The script, production quality, and acting are stunning. I love the scenes when Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams are fine tuning the wording of the Declaration of Independence and the silence that hovers over Independence Hall when the delegates finally sign it. There is a palpable sense that what just happened was very important. It also captures the characters, culture, and obstacles of the founding of our nation really well.

3. The Civil War: This documentary is Ken Burns' best work. I have contemplated not even teaching the Civil War and just showing this 10 hour documentary in its place. I learn something new every time I watch it.

4. Glory (Civil War): Glory tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, one of the first African American regiments. I love the way this movie uses actual letters written by Robert Shaw as the voice over narration. And the acting is superb. I mean Denzel--need I say more.

5. The Cameraman (Silent Film): This is truly my favorite movie to show my students. They always complain before seeing it: Is it really silent? I don't even like black and white movies; This is going to be boring? Then I just sit back and listen to them genuinely crack up--I am talking side splitting laughter--through the whole movie. Physical comedy like Buster Keaton does in this movie is timeless and ageless. If you haven't watched a good silent film lately, I highly recommend it.

6. Band of Brothers (World War II): Another awesome HBO miniseries. Unfortunately, most of this one in not appropriate for a middle school audience, but there is a great scene where the American soldiers discover a concentration camp in Germany. It is extremely moving without being over-the-top. It is always hard for me to pick World War II movies; there are just so many and so few that I feel comfortable showing to 13 year-olds. Some that did not make the final cute were: Life is Beautiful (a personal favorite), The Diary of Anne Frank (new PBS version), Letters from Iwo Jima (better than Flags of Our Fathers), and Schindler's List (amazing).

7. Rebel Without a Cause (1950's): This is a great movie that I haven't watched in a while. It deals with the outward prosperity of the 1950s and one teenager's struggle to fit in and deal with what is going on underneath the surface of things. This movie still really resonates with me.

8. Good Night and Good Luck (McCarthyism): Filmed in black and white, this movie captures the widespread fear of the McCarthy era and the courage of a few journalists to face the senator head on. George Clooney directed this movie, and the cinematography is really good.

9. Apollo 13 (1960's): A Spielberg classic and great one for kids.

10. All the President's Men (Watergate): An oldie but a goody. This movie tells the story of the Washington Post journalists who helped uncover the Watergate Scandal. With Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, this is a classic.

11. Frost/Nixon (Watergate): Frost/Nixon is about Richard Nixon and Watergate, but is also very much about the making of the Frost/Nixon interviews. I was surprised by how much I liked this movie. It is fascinating.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Case of the Mondays

No matter how long the weekend, it always seems that my students are extra sluggish on Mondays. The simplest questions and tasks require so much effort; oftentimes, it is painful to watch. As I looked out into the small crowd of sleepy, glazed over faces this morning, I was reminded a of very funny moment on the Texas History trip that I wanted to share.

One boy on the trip celebrated his birthday the day before we left. He was already so excited about the trip, that I wondered if the trip and birthday might be a little too much excitement for a seventh grader to handle. (This student informed me that he "had been looking forward to the Texas history trip since [he] was in fourth grade" when he started attending West Dallas.) Sure enough, I was right. Apparently he did not sleep at all the night before we left. He had tried to sleep, but his excitement and the anticipation of having to wake up early prevented it. All day I waited for him to fall asleep on the van or show some signs of crankiness, but they never came. I asked him at dinner if there was ever a time when he got so tired that he just crashed. He thought for a second, and without the slightest bit of sarcasm replied, "Only in your class, but mainly on Mondays." Unfortunately, that was a little too true to be funny for me, but everyone else cracked up.

Channeling my inner Marianne

One of my favorite movies of all time (definitely in my top three) is Ang Lee's adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet. The movie is simply beautiful, and my sisters and I mirror the Dashwood girls very closely, to boot. While I am usually an Elinor--typically the oldest, responsible, and full of sense--yesterday I drove by a beautiful patch of wildflowers and channeled my inner Marianne--the passionate middle child full of romantic sensibilities. At one point in the movie, Marianne receives wildflowers "from an obliging field" from her love interest, Willoughby. To which she replies, "I have always preferred wildflowers." Having driven past such an obliging patch of blooms (even though mine were found in rather shady shopping center parking lot), I could not help but agree. So I stopped to pick some. I have so enjoyed these bright lovelies that I think I need to channel my inner Marianne more often.

Sunday, May 2, 2010


Having just returned from the seventh grade Texas History Trip and being so tired that my entire body aches, I wanted to just share one of the best lines/moments from the trip--

"I make Davy Crockett look fly."