Summer Reading Challenge #2: Read from a Prize List

Summer Reading Challenge #2: Read from a Prize List

A few years ago, I discovered the joys of reading from a Prize list, when I read a bunch of Pulitzer-prize winning plays (later this summer, I’ll be talking about that at the AP conference in Washington, DC). This summer, I’ve decided to dip my feet into a few lists: The Newbery Medal, The Printz Awards, and more Pulitzers.

The Newbery Medal is given annually by the American Library Association “to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” Each year one book wins the medal and a few others are named as Honor Books, ones that had been considered for the medal. Some books you might recognize on this list include The Giver (1994),  Holes (1999), The Graveyard Book (2009), and this year’s, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill.

The Michael L. Printz Award ” exemplifies literary excellence in young adult literature.” Similar to the Newbery, one book wins the medal and others are named as Honor books. This year’s winner is John Lewis’s graphic novel March, Book 3. (I’ve read the first one, and really want to read two and three). Some of the books named as honor books this year include Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also A Star and Neal Shusterman’s Scythe.  

The Pulitzer Prize is awarded in 21 categories, but I’m most interested in Fiction, Drama, and Poetry.  This year, Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, and Tyehimba Jess’s Olio were the winners for those categories (I’ve read the first two, working on the third now).

We all have to-be-read lists that are miles long, but looking at a prize list and reading a few off that list can give you a good place to start if you’re interested in book recommendations for a level of reading you may be unfamiliar with.–the runners up are also phenomenal.  If you’re looking to read more diverse books or expand your reading selections, these lists can be a great place to begin.

Posted by Kate, Blog Editor and Book Reviewer for PCTELA

Summer Reading Challenge #2: Read from a Prize List

The Value of Asking Students to Re-Write Hamlet’s To Be or Not To Be Soliloquy

The Value of Asking Students to Re-Write Hamlet’s Soliloquy

This year, when teaching Hamlet, I offered a choice for students: they could write a traditional homework exploration, or they could rewrite the To Be or Not to soliloquy in III.i and also write a reflection about the process of writing it.

This came about because last year, a student included her own version in her final synthesis paper:

For the reader’s pleasure: Un Soliloque en Pointe

To dance or not to dance—that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The pain and aching of outrageous footwear,
Or to take arms against ballet tradition
And, by opposing, end it. To spring, to bend—
No more—and by a satin shoe to end
The bunions and the thousand shocks
A dancer’s foot is heir to—’tis an effectuation
Devoutly to be wished. To jump, to point—
To point, perchance with ease. Ay, there’s the rub,
For in shoes soft and dead what blisters come,
When we have shuffled off this marked sprung floor,
Must give us pause. There’s the misalignment
That makes arthritis of so long life.

The results this year were impressive, and based on reflections, I will be requiring it for students next year.Here’s why:

1. Students had to choose a decision they were thinking about and write about it, thereby putting themselves in Hamlet’s mindset. Now, there were a number of silly versions, but even in those, students had to consider both sides of the argument. Some wrote about the decision to go away to college, some wrote about taking a nap.

2. Rewriting it helped students really understand what Hamlet was saying–better than just reading and taking notes on it. Here’s one student’s thoughts: “Writing this version of Hamlet’s soliloquy gave me a better insight into what he was really saying. It’s easy to glance over something once and not understand it, but going through line by line to see what fit while making my own version really helped comprehension. I noticed while reading over it when I was finished that Shakespeare really did write in a way allowing natural breathing techniques for those delivering his lines, which made it easy to replace the words and still have it make sense.”

3. They were fun to read and also gave me insight into how much students understood about how the passage was composed as well as what they were currently struggling with in their own lives.

I also think this activity––having students rewrite a soliloquy from Shakespeare–could be transferable to other plays like Macbeth or Julius Caesar, or really any instance where a character has a solo where they’re trying to make a decision. Although only about half of my students chose to do this option this year, I’ll be having all of them doing it (with more guidance and deliberate teaching from me) next year.

Posted by Kate, Blog Editor and Book Reviewer for PCTELA

The Value of Asking Students to Re-Write Hamlet’s To Be or Not To Be Soliloquy

To Pair with Hamlet: Maxine Kumin’s “The Excrement Poem”

This week I’ve been finishing up teaching Hamlet to my seniors, and when he spoke to Claudius in IV.iii, he says Polonius is at supper: “Not where he eats, but where he is eaten. A certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet. We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service—two dishes, but to one table. That’s the end.”

This prompted a conversation about the circle of life (cue The Lion King singing/humming by students) and also about how in the end, we’re all the same, just fodder for worms. Over the summer, I stumbled across a poem by Maxine Kumin called “The Excrement Poem” and I used it in class after we finished reading IV.iii.  It ponders how death (or manure) can prompt life, and has strong, vivid images of the speaker mucking out the stalls on her farm.

Here it is for your reading/teaching pleasure. Consider using it with Hamlet the next time you teach it.

The Excrement Poem

Maxine Kumin

It is done by us all, as God disposes, from

the least cast of worm to what must have been

in the case of the brontosaur, say, spoor

of considerable heft, something awesome.

We eat, we evacuate, survivors that we are.

I think these things each morning with shovel

and rake, drawing the risen brown buns

toward me, fresh from the horse oven, as it were,

or culling the alfalfa-green ones, expelled

in a state of ooze, through the sawdust bed

to take a serviceable form, as putty does,

so as to lift out entire from the stall.

And wheeling to it, storming up the slope,

I think of the angle of repose the manure

pile assumes, how sparrows come to pick

the redelivered grain, how inky-cap

coprinus mushrooms spring up in a downpour.

I think of what drops from us and must then

be moved to make way for the next and next.

However much we stain the world, spatter

it with our leavings, make stenches, defile

the great formal oceans with what leaks down,

trundling off today’s last barrow-full,

I honor shit for saying: We go on.


Posted by Kate, Blog Editor and Book Reviewer for PCTELA

To Pair with Hamlet: Maxine Kumin’s “The Excrement Poem”

Adapting Shakespeare for Everyone

Adapting Shakespeare for Everyone
Erin McDonnell-Jones

Students across the state are, in their own words, “forced” to study Shakespeare in their high school English classroom. While they may not appreciate these canonical pieces of literature, through experience and adaptations, students can find relevant connections to their everyday lives. In a moderately sized high school in southeastern Pennsylvania, where forty percent of the student body is Hispanic and thirty-nine percent of the students partake in the Free and Reduced Meal plan, every senior student studies Othello. In order to encourage a love for the Bard, especially for students who are not college-bound, teachers here encourage the use of adaptations in the classroom in order to help students establish meaningful connections.

The unit begins with a brief introduction to Shakespeare and the play. Students are encouraged to recall what they know of their own experiences reading Shakespeare before being introduced to the essential background information of the text. Then, students begin to read utilizing the Othello Parallel Text Edition published by Perfection Learning. They are assigned nightly reading homework; however, the reading itself is structured slightly differently. They are assigned to read the more Modern English side of the text on their own and answer guided reading questions. Then, the next day, they are given a small reading quiz, utilizing the same questions. After completing the quiz, students stand and act out the scene that they read the night before, reading Shakespeare’s original words. By doing this, not only have they set a foundation for understanding on their own, but also they are hearing the words the Bard wrote and using their analytical deduction skills to decipher meaning.

Each day involves discussion and connections, but the most important point comes at the end of each Act. As Shakespeare intended his words to be seen, and not read, students view two adaptations of the play: “Othello” (1995) directed by Oliver Parker and “O” (2001) directed by Tim Blake Nelson. The students only watch one act of each adaptation at a time, but in addition to setting their own contextual understanding of the work they are enhancing their understanding by viewing the adaptations.

Upon completion of reading the text and viewing the adaptations, students are then assigned a research paper to answer the prompt “Which adaptation is faithful (or not), why or why not?” by responding in a five-paragraph essay offering outside academic research to support their thesis.075691485x

While many schools are moving away from the canonical texts in favor of more non-canonical works to help encourage a love for reading, the importance of classics cannot be understated. Regardless of whether or not these students will attend a prestigious four-year university after graduation, they should all have the opportunity to read with and connect to literature that helps them through their own tumultuous transitions of relationships and life altering events. Adapting these works to establish a sense of relevancy and meaning is important for every student at every level.

Erin McDonnell-Jones is a teacher, reader, and avid travel enthusiast living in Chester County, PA. Follow her adventures @emcdonnelljones

Adapting Shakespeare for Everyone

Watching Proof with My Students

imgresSo we’re finishing up a modern play unit (see my previous thoughts about The Flick), and I wanted students to see how popular plays can turn into films. I decided to show the 2005 film adaptation of David Auburn’s Proof. What I love about this film is that we can watch 20-30 minutes of it and then have an in-depth 20-30 minute conversation about it. Also, it doesn’t hurt that the play is PG-13, so I don’t have to worry about inappropriate scenes (there’s one intimate one, and I just fast-forwarded through it.) The issues in the play include many my students want to talk about: mental illness, taking care of ailing parents, making decisions about college, relationships (between siblings and significant others).

Gwyneth Paltrow, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Anthony Hopkins do an incredible job bringing the play to life.  I asked my students how they can see this film as different from others since it was originally a play and they responded: the scenes seem to be only in a few settings, the dialogue seems more intense, and the setting seems less important. I was fascinated in the differences they noticed. imgres-1

So if you’re looking for a great mini-unit for your students, reading, watching, and discussing Proof might be just the thing to engage seniors in class discussions.

Posted by Kate, Blog Editor for PCTELA

Watching Proof with My Students

Book Review: Up Late with Hamilton: The Revolution

Hamilton: The Revolution is an amalgam of revolutions: the play, the story of how the play635966800999231754-MirandaandMcCarter-HamiltontheRevolution-HC came about, and the book itself. Apparently, a hip-hop musical is a revolutionary thought (made perfect sense to me, but I’m about the same age as Lin-Manuel Miranda). This play, which won the Pulitzer, tells the story of an orphan from the Caribbean who became one of the founding fathers of the United States. Miranda read Ron Chernow’s biography about Alexander Hamilton and decided he needed to turn the story into…something.

As the introduction notes: “Just as Hamilton is the prototype of the immigrant striver (hard-working, ambitious, desperate to prove himself), he is also the model New Yorker: opinionated, hyper-verbal, always on the make. It’s no wonder that John Adams, who despised Hamilton, also despised the town and its citizens: “They talk very loud, very fast, and all together,” he complained before retreating to Massachusetts. Nor is it a surprise that hip-hop, which took root in Hamilton’s city like an orchid in a swamp, suits his life so well.”

The physical book presents a beautiful pastiche. There is the play itself, with all the lyrics footnoted, so we can see Miranda’s thoughts, allusions, and inside jokes. Then there are stories every other page or so of all the people who came together to help make this real. We read about Paul Tazewell, who did the costumes, Christopher Jackson, who played George Washington, and even stories about how Miranda played the first song of the play for the current president. It is a story of an artist, a man who believed in a project and the people who believed in him.  This play with all the accompanying stories was a testament to what our country is and what it can be: a beautiful collaboration by diverse people creating something beautiful and moving.

Of course, there are many reasons this play is amazing. One of them is the deep literary value it holds as well as the ambiguity it embraces: “Hamlet dwarfs Hamilton–it dwarfs pretty much everything–but there’s a revealing similarity between them. Shakespeare’s longest play leaves its audience in the dark about some basic and seemingly crucial facts. It’s not as if the Bard forgot, in the course of all those words, to tell us whether Hamlet was crazy or only pretending: He wanted us to wonder. He forces us to work on a puzzle that has no definite answer. And this mysteriousness is one reason why we find the play irresistible.”

Although it is unlikely I’ll get to see this on Broadway any time in the next century, as it is sold out for the unforeseeable future, I could see bringing this in to the classroom in a multitude of ways–to pair with other texts, as a text all on its own, or just excerpts or songs. Whether you’re an English teacher or a Social Studies teacher, or just someone who likes good stories, check out this book.  Also, we’ll have one copy of Hamilton: The Revolution to give away at our conference in October in State College, so sign up to attend now!a9240768-ec46-49da-881f-6756832fce4034999b42-c682-4410-ad17-db51ed838943



Posted by Kate, VP Secondary PCTELA

Book Review: Up Late with Hamilton: The Revolution

Book Review: Up Late with True and False with David Mamet

As you may have seen in previous posts I’ve been focusing on teaching modern plays this year. So I was curious when I saw a copy of David Mamet’s True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor. I began reading it out of curiosity, but found myself nodding along and reading passages aloud to my husband, really appreciating Mamet’s perspective. His basic argument is for simplicity, and forgetting the funny voices, reminding us acting requires two things: “immediacy and courage.”

This is a quick read with short chapters filled with valuable advice for acting students as well as teachers of plays and teachers of actors. I can think of a half dozen former students I would love to send a copy to, and I also have earmarked some quotes to use in class when I teach modern plays as well as Hamlet. In fact, there’s one passage I’m considering adding to my syllabus: “Choose something legitimately interesting to do and concentration is not a problem. Choose something less than interesting and concentration is impossible.”

Below are more nuggets of wisdom for your perusal:

  • “The greatest performances are seldom noticed.”
  • “Do not internalize the industrial model.”
  • “it will not help you onstage to know the history of Denmark.”
  • “What is true, what is false, what is, finally, important?
    It is not a sign of ignorance not to know the answers. But there is great merit in facing the questions.”
  • “The punchline is in the action. Think of it as a suitcase. How do you know what to put in the suitcase? The answer is, you pack for where you want to go.”
  • “What should happen in the rehearsal process? Two things:
    1.The play should be blocked.
    2. The actors should become acquainted with the actions they are going to perform.”
  • “The plane is designed to fly; the pilot is trained to direct it. Likewise, the play is designed, if correctly designed, as a series of incidents in which and through which the protagonist struggles toward his or her goal. It is the job of the actor to show up, and use the lines and his or her will and common sense, to attempt to achieve a goal similar to that of the progranoist, and that is the end of the actor’s job.”
  • “One can read all one wants, and spend eternities in front of a blackboard with a tutor, but one is not going to learn to swim until one gets in the water––at which point the only “theory” which is going to be useful is that which keeps one’s head up. Just so with acting.”


 Posted by Kate, VP Secondary, PCTELA

Book Review: Up Late with True and False with David Mamet

The Play’s the Thing: Pulitzer-Prize Winner Disgraced

I keep saying people should read more plays–well here’s a specific suggestion for you: Ayad Akhtar’s play Disgraced, which won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama. The play is a powerful examination of politics and religion in post-9/11 New York City.  You have a non-practicing Muslim who practices law, his white artist wife, a Jewish gallery owner, his African-American lawyer wife–in other words, a room full of people with a history of oppression and stereotypes forced upon them by society at large.  The tension in the room becomes palpable as emotions rise. Needless to say, the play captures much of the tension between and among various groups of people who have to negotiate stereotypes regularly. This summary of course, is reductive, and cannot possible capture the complexity that this play presents, so you’ll just have to go read the play yourself.

What is also phenomenal about Disgraced, though, is the essay Akhtar includes about reading plays as the introduction.  He begins by saying “Plays on the page are neither fish nor fowl. A play is seldom meant to be read. It is meant to be pored over, interrogated, dissected, obeyed.” You should find this play for this essay “On Reading Plays” alone–I immediately read this essay to my seniors as we were studying modern plays.

Additionally, the publishers included an interview with the author at the end, and that’s another great reason to find this book.  He talks about the function of plays, that they can be a “portal”.  He says “Look, at the end of the day, art’s capacity to change the world is profoundly limited.  But what it can do is change the way we see things individually.  I aspired to accomplish with this structure a kind of shattering of the audience, after which they have to find some way to put themselves back together.”  I really like how he phrased this, and how later on the same page he says again to his interviewer: “the events of the play have provided access to the present–to things as they are. That’s the only way we can change anything, the only way we can change ourselves.  The only way we can change the world is by recognizing what it is, now.” I think this framework for approaching plays is perfect–they provide a portal to how the present was at the time they were written.

And now, of course, I’m determined to find a venue performing this piece. If you know anywhere this is being performed, let me know in the comments!


Posted by Kate, VP Secondary of PCTELA

The Play’s the Thing: Pulitzer-Prize Winner Disgraced

The Flick: Drama in a Movie Theatre

When I first read Annie Baker’s Pulitzer Prize winner The Flick, I knew my students would relate to it.  The story takes place in an old movie theatre in Massachusetts where they show movies on one screen using an old celluloid projector.

It tells the story of three co-workers: Sam, a 35-year-old former metal fan, Rose, a 25-year-old college dropout, and Avery, a 20-year-old movie aficionado.  While these characters use strong language and talk about (school) inappropriate topics, it captures the zeitgeist of living in the modern world, where anxiety, relationship issues, depression, and family struggles dominate our psyches. In this play, films offer an escape from the daily existential crisis characters face. Additionally, this play questions the value of new technology in our modern, digital age, where people seem increasingly disconnected from each other.

I discovered the best way to use this play in class was to have them read some scenes aloud as a class, and then read others (the more awkward ones) to themselves.  Never have I had so many students read ahead, ask to borrow books to take home, or re-read a text. This has been the most successful text I’ve used this year. I think some of that may have to do with the topics addressed in the play and the complexity of the characters.  Also, the essential questions I used when teaching it address some of the big questions my seniors currently face.

Essential Questions:

  • How do films and other visual media function as a means of escape in our modern world?
  • To what extent do we “perform” our lives? (And what function does our “audience” play?
  • How does living in a world of film and media impact our authentic selves?

Next weekend, my husband and I will go see The Flick performed live at the Signature Theatre in Alexandria, VA, and I expect it will be as phenomenal as the reviews say it is.  So if you’re looking for a new, engaging text for seniors at the end of the year, try this one and see how excited your students will be.

Posted by Kate, VP Secondary PCTELA

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(image from the Signature Theatre’s Instagram Account)

The Flick: Drama in a Movie Theatre

The Play’s the Thing

I’ve recently decided to read more plays for pleasure reading. And why not? After the successful adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and the recent performance of the Hamilton musical number at the Grammys, it seems plays (and musicals) may be back en vogue. The benefits of reading plays in my downtime are plentiful.

I can read most plays in one short sitting, usually an hour or less.  It feels like a more intense, more raw experience.  Driven by dialogue, plays contain characters who must define themselves with what they say (or don’t say).  There can be no reliance on long narrative explanations––they must speak for themselves.  I am increasingly awestruck at playwrights who can create depth of character in such short space.

Plays, like novels, capture the zeitgeist of a time, but the method of doing so illuminates the mannerisms of the people portrayed in quick brushstrokes. Annie Baker’s The Flick, a 2014 Pulitzer Prize winning play started me off on this kick (thanks to my department head for the copy of the play). Recently I’ve devoured Eve Ensler’s Necessary Targets, 2003 Pulitzer winner Nilo Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics, and Margaret Edson’s 1999 Pulitzer Prize winner, Wit.

If you’re looking to challenge your reading and expose yourself to a quick, satisfying story, consider reading modern plays.  So step aside from the Shakespeare for a while, and read the bards of our time.

Posted by Kate, VP Secondary, PCTELA

See this link (image below) for more plays:

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The Play’s the Thing