Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Using Google Docs and Online Discussions to Increase Student Engagement with Shakespeare

I’m a big fan of reading Shakespeare aloud in class, assigning various roles to students, even if the reading process takes a little more time. Using online discussions has allowed me to do this more often than not since we can outsource the discussion to the digital sphere beyond the walls and time constraints of the daily class meeting. In fact, I’ve seen three additional benefits to “flipping” the class in this way: (1) the shy student rises to the occasion, voicing her insights with just as much volume and force as the more vocal learners; (2) the teacher is not the center of the discussion (even in Socratic seminars, decentering the role of the teacher becomes difficult) for I simply monitor and direct attention to certain highlights of the a-synchronized conversation, but I resist chiming in directly; (3) students later can cite each other in their papers, making the discussions an experience where they are reading and thinking for each other and not simply for the teacher.  Citing each other’s comments from the digital discussions also provides an authentic audience for the writing process and provides opportunity to practice digital literacy.
Here's a screen capture of an Online Discussion from one of my classes
I didn’t start this post to reflect on the benefits of online discussions; I wanted to share a strategy I’ve been using to keep ALL students engaged when trying to read a difficult scene aloud in class. My classes typically have about 20 students in them, and reading aloud only engages the handful of students who have a part in the given scene being read. How do you make sure the other students don’t “space out” and disengage from the experience? More importantly, how do you create an environment where they remain engaged and do so collaboratively? Short answer: create a back channel and distribute tasks which get them to read the text closely with intention.

A week or so ago, we were reading Act 4 of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth and we had made it to the last scene (Scene 3 which takes place at the English court). It’s a very difficult scene for high school students: it’s long, wordy, with plenty of digressions that are difficult to follow or unpack. I knew that the 16 or so students who would not be reading would have a really hard time staying focused, so I set up a Google Doc, changed the sharing settings such that anyone with the link could edit, and typed in four categories of interest: characteristics of England; characteristics of Scotland; the definition of a king; and lastly, the definition of a tyrant. I divided the non-readers into four groups accordingly, and their job was to get on the google doc to type bullet-pointed notes related to their assigned category as it related to the scene in question; meanwhile, the other handful of students read the scene aloud for all of us. Everyone was focused because we all had a task, and the entire class participated in a collaborative, close reading of a very difficult scene from the Scottish play. At the end, we put the document on the digital projector and reflected on the notes as a class – better yet, as a reading community. It was a huge success born out of a simple, no-brainer solution. More importantly, they made the notes together and constructed the meaning collaboratively, and I simply sat back and enjoyed the experience. Here's some screen caps of one classes notes at the end of the reading:

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Joys of Collaboration: Shakespeare across the Campuses

I’ve written and presented quite often on the joys of collaboration (go here) and on its benefits for improving my potential to be a truly student-centered teacher, and I had to return to the blog today to reflect more on this (more reflection here as well) because it really has been such an amazing month of multi-directional collaboration both in and outside the classroom, both at my school and beyond. There is something in the air right now, a kind of buzz of energy, which could only be made possible because it’s not just coming from me. And much to my pleasure, all of it in some way gets back to igniting student interest in Shakespeare and doing so authentically.

Seth Burgess presenting with me at OESIS
This weekend, I returned from Boston where I presented with Seth Burgess of Lausanne Collegiate School at the OESIS gathering. It was a fantastic conference! So many connections were made with other innovative, creative-thinking educators who stretched me to reflect more deeply and more critically about topics such as blended learning, student-centered pedagogy, and meaningful tech integration in the 21st century classroom. (Shout out to @danamhuff, @mattscully, @tomgavin, @jeannettemelee, @mrtedp, and @ianhabs to name a few!) Seth and I hosted three workshops at OESIS on how we gamified a unit of study on William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (check out our resources here), and one thing was made clear: our success was very much the result of our willingness to collaborate together and to do so adventurously, despite the risks involved. Another thing that stuck out for me was the fact that in both our testimonies it was made abundantly clear that students got excited about Shakespeare as a result of our curricular approach – an approach that valued student choice, autonomy, and independence. Seth even shared how his students, after finishing the unit, demanded that Lausanne Collegiate School put on a Macbeth performance in the theatre department. How cool is that!

When the conference concluded, I rushed to Boston’s Logan Airport on Sat. to fly back to DFW (along with a cabin full of Patriots fans… poor Cowboys…) so I could catch The Oakridge School production of “An Evening with Shakespeare.” Our campus’s English Department collaborated with Fine Arts this fall to stage two 50 min. productions of Richard III and The Merry Wives of Windsor. My directorial debut was the R3 production, and Brad Deborde, Oakridge Drama Dir., was in charge of staging Merry Wives. The students did an outstanding job! Simply amazing! They were excited, focused, and motivated, and part of the excitement, I think, was the collaborative approach Brad and I modeled for the students who got involved. It was meaningful for them to see the valued connection between English and Fine Arts; it made it something bigger and more profound. Oh! And we even cast the upper school Chemistry instructor (@DrJRoberts) as an extra! So many connections for the students to see in action! And it was fun for everyone!
Zoe M. as Richard III speaking to Caleb B. as Buckingham
The excitement hasn’t stopped, however. Following a tradition that was born here on Oakridge campus, Greenhill School is hosting an inter-institutional paper colloquium on William Shakespeare’s Midsummers Night’s Dream on February 29, 2016. Students from schools in the area are invited to craft papers on the Shakespearean Comedy, and those who submit their compositions will be considered for acceptance to present on Greenhill campus in Feb. of 2016. (For more info, feel free to reach out to Joel Garza, Upper School English Instructor at Greenhill).

Although Oakridge first hosted something similar in 2013 on James Joyce’s Dubliners and again in 2014 on Shakespeare’s Richard III, the reason it was as successful as it proved to be was due to the collaborative buy-in that schools like Greenhill generously provided. We not only hosted Greenhill and other schools on campus; we collaborated together online, using blogs and various media well before both colloquia ever took place. And now, the same is happening again, and it’s such a thrilling thing to watch unfold! Just the other day, Greenhill sent us an mp3 with their responses and insights about Scene 2 of Act 1 of MND; check it out:

Post-skype session selfie!
We of course were planning a response of our own when Mr. Garza reached out (right when we were about to record!), inspiring us to skype in to his class to share our thoughts in real time. Everyone was giddy; Shakespeare felt relevant and worthwhile to the students. Simply put, there was a lot of joy in the room.Of course, I can’t forget to mention that Greenhill will also be performing the Comedy outdoors on their campus October 22, 24, and 25, and they have graciously invited us to join the celebration in anticipation of the “midwinter” colloquium. The collaboration and connectedness just continues to grow!

Speaking of collaboration, Joel and I look forward to sharing some of these experiences tomorrow actually at the ITEC Iowa conference which is taking place as we speak. We’ll be presenting Oct. 13 at 11am here, and it’s free for anyone to join (much thanks to @zeitz for inviting us to share the joy with what looks like an awesome gathering of passionate educators!). Can’t wait to make more exciting connections with like-minded pedagogical adventurers in Iowa! Oh, and here's our wiki page for the conference presentation tomorrow (there's lots of resources to check out so make a point to visit the page). 

All this to say, it’s been a rewarding and joyful month in terms of making connections and collaborating with others; such encounters continue to inspire me to grow and improve as a passionate, student-centered educator. Hope to see you tomorrow!