I enjoyed the feedback I received last time, so I figured I'd post this again. It's due Monday, and any feedback would be appreciated. I think I really screwed up with the Letters of Rec, though, so I'm not sure if I'll be doing a complete application anymore. The NEH requirements for the Letters of Rec are different from the actual Institute's requirements, and I just noticed. One was supposed to be from a former student, and that one's done (Thanks, "Bobby"), but the other one I thought could be from a colleague (I chose him after much deliberation, and he's written one that I'm sure is honest and strong), but instead it has to be from a Department Head. My Department Head is a nice lady, but often asks me to send emails or type things for her, and I just don't think she can be as specific as my colleague, and am worried she can get something like this done in a weekend (no working computer at home, that one). Oh well, I'll figure it out. Anyhow, the essay is below. I'm not terribly happy with it but the requirements are so disparate that I'm not sure how else to do it. I'll put the requirements below again. By the way, it is exactly at the 4-page limit, and I had to shrink to size-11 font and .9" margins to do it. I will be proofreading it more, but am too tired to tonight. (Also, look for no meaning in the psuedonyms I chose... I just watched Michael Clayton.) Here it is:
Remembering the Challenge of Shakespeare
I was a sophomore in high school the first time I uttered a single syllable of Shakespeare’s language. Mr. Hughes, my new English teacher, called on me to read a section of MacBeth, and I hesitantly obliged. I was a good student in English and loved reading, but the language here was debilitating; I read every word as carefully as I could, without any attention to tone or meaning. Suddenly, a few classmates started laughing. Embarrassed, but intent not to show it, I chuckled along with them, trying to show that I was in on the joke as well. But I was not. I had no idea what was going on, and when Mr. Hughes – also laughing - asked me to explain the joke, I was at a loss (and I was rarely at a loss in English class); I turned red and tried to bury myself in my chair.
This incomprehension and confusion while reading was a new experience for me, and I hated it. Now, as an adult, I believe that education requires struggle, but then, I was more worried about getting my first B and continuing through the torturous experience of having to read a book I didn’t “get.” Something happened as I read the play, though. Mr. Hughes gave his lectures and had us act out certain scenes, and we discussed what the characters were feeling and why they were doing the things they were doing. And, slowly, the clouds parted. Eventually, I was able to read the words and understand them, and ended up being enveloped in the grippingly and inevitably flawed characters of MacBeth. Afterwards, I was damn proud of myself to have both finished it and understood it.
This feeling of pride in comprehension is something I always try to remember when I teach Shakespeare, or any other challenging literature. When my students – reluctant readers or otherwise – grumble about not “getting it,” I try to remember that feeling of satisfaction I had after finishing MacBeth, and how much I hated it at first. By the end, I was enthralled by the story, but more excited that I had read something – something tough - that people for hundreds of years have read around the world.
However, that first humiliating moment in Mr. Hughes’ class, and the subsequent struggles, still color my experience with the bard, just a bit, which is one reason I want to be a part of the Folger Teacher Shakespeare Institute in 2008. Every year, when I crack open Romeo and Juliet with 9th graders, or Othello or MacBeth with 11th graders, I think about my first experience with Shakespeare. While I want the students to feel the accomplishment of reading and comprehending a Shakespearean play, I also want them to have some fun with it, to see that Shakespeare is not something to be feared. I have made it my goal in my classroom to make Shakespeare accessible and relevant to the lives of my students.
I teach in a large urban public school in Baltimore City, and the majority of my students are bright but hesitant readers. Because of this, my experiences while teaching Shakespeare have often been grounded in activities adapted from Folger’s Shakespeare Set Free; my goal is for them to learn to be comfortable with the language, and to use that as a springboard for appreciation of the cultural setting of the play, and later into grappling with its characters and themes. I assess the latter by having the students text-mark, or annotate, their scenes for directorial and actor choices, and then to perform and defend their choices based on the character traits and themes they wanted to convey. Generally, students then write a formal essay supporting their claims about the text and their scene.
And a writing project similar to this is related to one of my biggest mistakes as a teacher in the last year. I teach some very bright students, and spend a great deal of time constructing challenging assignments for them. And, sometimes, I spend too much time with the work of the students who are struggling the most instead of the work of the stronger writers. I discovered this recently when a colleague needed a model of an essay from my course for a presentation she was giving, I chose an essay from Sheba the Angel of Death, one of my top students last year. This essay asked students to establish and analyze an original link between two international texts. Students struggled mightily with finding their original and specific links, with finding evidence, and with organizing and finally writing their essay. Sheba the Angel of Death, however, did not. He chose his topic early and worked without worry throughout the planning stages, and he received an “A” for the course and the essay. However, upon reading his essay the next year, I could not believe how mundane it was. His idea was dull, his treatment of it was mediocre, and his conclusion was weak.
Upon reflection, I discovered that my halo effect bias for Sheba the Angel of Death probably really hurt his development as a writer. I was so pleased with his clarity and writing skills that the fact that his ideas were lackluster was of little concern to me; my concern was with students who could barely write sentences with correct subject/verb agreement. While part of my reaction probably has to do with seeing the essay a year later after another year of experience teaching the course, more of it certainly had to do with my concentration on other students. Basically, I let Sheba the Angel of Death slide by.
This moment led to an epiphany with me: spend as much time with the top students as I do with all the rest of the students. It was a good lesson for me, because, so often, whether it is to raise HSA scores or to help everyone receive an IB Diploma, teachers end up concentrating on the lowest-achieving students. It is important to focus on all students, though, because they all need it. I told Sheba the Angel of Death, now a senior, about my new revelations about his essay; he thanked me, but was honest: he said he had a gut feeling it was not as good as he was capable, and told me he wished he had gotten the feedback when he could have used it more. And he was right. This gut-check was the biggest revelation to my teaching practice this past year.
This lesson of engaging all students regardless of ability is something I strive to maintain in all my classes, and my favorite example of that occurring in the past few months is my 9th grade students completing a pastiche of Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street. Understanding that a writer makes choices is one of the most important aspects in encouraging a student – particularly a literal-minded 9th grade student – to make inferences and conduct analysis of literature. One of my favorite activities in promoting this idea is having the students create a pastiche, or an original piece of writing in the style of the author. Cisneros, with her deceptively simple style, is an ideal choice. For this particular activity, I had students create five pastiches based on Cisneros’ text. In addition, they wrote a Statement of Intent in which they explained in what ways they emulated Cisneros’ style, and what effect this achieved.
What this activity did was encourage students to think like a writer, having them use several stylistic elements that Cisneros employs: her frequent use of metaphor and other figurative language, her child point of view, her constant use of different kinds of imagery, her examination of social issues. The Statement of Intent encouraged students to focus on devices and their effects. Lastly, the actual pieces of writing they produced were often stunningly beautiful; we bounded them together and performed them for each other in a “coffee shop” event in the classroom. Upon reflection, the activity accomplished much of the same goals as a traditional analytic essay would have, plus allowed the students to engage in a high-interest and creative writing activity.
As I enter the spring of my seventh year of teaching – the year that I will also receive my Master’s Degree in Secondary Education – I am more certain than ever that the frequently frustrating and challenging job of teaching English is also the most fulfilling and worthwhile thing I could be doing on this planet. Teaching literature, and channeling students' unique, unabashed personalities and opinions into thoughtful, clearly expressed ideas and well-defended arguments about it, makes English class a gateway to a fuller and richer understanding of the world around us. Shakespeare accomplishes this perhaps more than any other writer. If taught in a way that promotes understanding without murdering pleasure, learning Shakespeare can charge our senses and prompt conversations about ethics, race, justice, gender, history, and culture. While I have worked hard at my teaching of Shakespeare and all challenging literature, I notice weaknesses – sometimes assigning instead of teaching, sometimes forgetting that I want my students to enjoy reading for the rest of their lives and not over-analyze it – that push me to want to be better.
This brings me to the reason of my application. My friend and colleague, Broson Pinchot, participated in the 2007 Folger Summer Institute for Teachers, and the experience has helped bring dynamic lessons about Julius Caesar, MacBeth, and The Tempest to her classroom and students. My experience with the Folger Shakespeare Set Free series, as well as attending a session conducted by the group’s members at the 2006 NCTE Convention (at which Mr. Pinchot and I presented as well), has made it clear that my own teaching of Shakespeare would be greatly enhanced by participating in the Institute. In addition to learning more methods of teaching several of the Shakespeare plays that I plan to continue teaching – Romeo and Juliet, MacBeth, and Othello – I hope to broaden my knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays so I would feel confident choosing different selections to teach. Lastly, I hope I can apply ideas about teaching Shakespeare to the study of other dramas, such as the works of August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, and Athol Fugard, all of whom frequently appear in my classroom. I am certain that the Folger Teachers Institute will help enhance my classroom practice, and continue to bring more lively and rigorous study of Shakespeare to Baltimore City public school students.
As stipulated by the instructions, the essay should contain any relevant personal and academic information.
It should address your reasons for applying, and your interest, both academic and personal, in the subject of Shakespeare, as well as the qualifications and experiences that equip you to do the work of the Institute and to make a contribution to our learning community.
It should contain a statement of what you hope to accomplish by participating, and how the work of the Institute relates to your professional responsibilities.
In addition, we are interested in reading about your specific experiences in the classroom, and we ask that you describe a teaching strategy that you attempted but discovered to be a terrible failure, and then describe one that you found to be a complete success.
We are also interested in your ability to respond to a fast-paced academic schedule, and to interact with many new colleagues.
The essay is probably the most important part of your application.
Essay should be no longer than four (4) double-spaced pages.
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