Sunday, April 26, 2015


To read Shakespeare, or not to read Shakespeare, that is the question.   This week, we have taken on the challenge and begun our exploration of one of my favorite of his comedies, The Taming of the Shrew.   Overwhelmed yet?  Fear not, my dear scholars.  It’s time to screw your courage to the sticking place, take out your pencil and highlighters, and get ready to read, mark, and perform!

Truth will out, Shakespeare’s titles may be found all over the required reading lists in just about every American high school.   If you major in English, you will also be required to join we few, we happy few, we band of brothers who have taken an entire year long course just focused on studying the great bard and his works.  For those who love his writing and the English language in general, there can never be too much of a good thing when it comes to Shakespeare.

Does untangling his semantical spider web have you up and arms?  When handed one of his plays, do you mourn and lament: “Woe is me?”  Well, my dear scholars, here is the long and short of it:  his entire body of work together is like a precious stone set in the silver sea.  It is the stuff dreams are made of, for the primrose path that winds through and connects all great literature begins with the Bible, and all the works of Shakespeare.  Knowing these works puts you in the happy place of being able to sift through the rich literary allusions that sparkle like little gems of wisdom in classic and modern works, alike.  They are the keys to realizing that though this world of rich rhetoric may be madness, there is a method in it.

Thereby hangs a tale.  Reading Shakespeare, however, is not enough. You must experience it, as the playwright, himself, intended.  Sigh with the star-crossed lovers, feel the love and angst of Romeo and weep with his Lady Juliet; plot with Lady Macbeth to build a kingdom for her husband, stand amidst the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and hair-splicing sharp wit that can be found in Hamlet and The Taming of the Shrew.  When a Shakespearean play is opened, the game is afoot, and the stage must be set properly where it belongs:  ON THE STAGE!

There are, as in everything, the naysayers who believe the world’s obsession with the great bard of Stratford Upon Avon is much ado about nothing, but I say to all of them, the more fool you!  When it comes to Shakespeare, I wear my heart upon my sleeve; his words, his characters, his themes are like good deeds that shine in a naughty world; and, as good luck would have it, I get to read and act out these words along with you over the next five weeks, and with my Will Power Troupe after school, as well. 

If it is true what the bard says that brevity is the soul of wit, well then, I guess that this blog may be a sorry sight.   But when writing anything to honor William Shakespeare, it is important to take great care, and choose the words very carefully, so that age will not wither it, nor custom stale its infinite variety.   Putting it simply, the be all and end all is this: 

All the World’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players:  They have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts. 

The play’s the thing…and the thing is life!

Enjoy these two articles about Shakespeare in today’s world.  I have also included two videos that show how Shakespeare continues to inspire children of today.   I look forward to your reflections!
(PS:  Hidden within this blog are twenty eight Shakespearean sayings.  Can you find them all?)


Sunday, April 12, 2015

SO....NOW WHAT? Taking my Learning from the Classroom to the Community

One  of the big goals of the DP program is to assist scholars as they navigate through what they have learned and discussed in class about language and literature and figure out a way to apply their knowledge to benefits their community.  That is quite a mouthful, right?  But really, when you get right down to it, knowledge is meant not only to enrich the learner, but also to be applied in some meaningful way...

With The Scarlet Letter, we discovered that while it was a story set in Puritan times hundreds of years ago, the themes of secrets, shame, revenge and hypocrisy still ring very true today.  We think we have come so far and changed so much since then as a society, but really we are all still very flawed human beings.  Technology aside, we will often find we have a lot in common with our ancestors.  In stories like Monica Lewinsky's from our last blog post and many others like hers, we learn that public shaming has a new forum:  the internet and social media.  While it may not be against the law to "sin" as Hester Prynne did, the consequential shaming and humiliation along with the hypocrisy of the finger pointers are still all too familiar.  As Duncan Robinson put it, we now place each other on "pixillated scaffolds" and leer at the scene through our screens.

What do we do then with this knowledge?  How do we make a change?  It is words typed in comments and clicked across the world that condemn, and ultimately, it can be words speaking out in encouragement that can save.  We can form groups dedicated to stop cyberbullying.  We can speak up and teach the younger generations.  It can start small--in your own school yards--but with passion and determination to make a positive difference, it can be cast out like a large fishing net to cover greater ground and change lives forever.

We are concluding our mini-unit on Gender and Sexuality in language as sort of a precursor to Taming
of the Shrew,  but we have also raised and discussed some very significant issues in our lives and world today.  While it can always be improved, America is unique in its treatment of women as a whole.  Most people from Generation X forward believe in equal pay and treatment for women.  We will raise the outcry when we see abuse and harassment all the way to the courthouses.  We teach our daughters that they can become anything they want to become, as long as they set their minds to it, and we teach our sons to treat women with honor and respect.  It is easy in our little corner of the world to believe that this is the norm everywhere else...until something in the news or television gives us the gut-wrenching realization that this is as far from the truth as East is from West...

Let's take a trip to India.  Unlike the United States, most marriages there are arranged between two families, and it is not unusual for the groom's family to expect a dowry to be paid.  A dowry is money or property paid upfront for the privilege of marrying their son.  If the dowry cannot be paid up front or over time, or if the groom's family demands more later and the bride's family cannot pay, horrific action is often taken against the bride by the groom's family.  The most popular form of actions are called "kitchen accidents," or, more accurately, bride burning.  Even though the dowry practice was outlawed in 1961, tradition runs deep in the society and it is estimated that seventeen brides are killed or severely injured in this manner each day for failure to pay their dowry.   Any children from this unwanted bride are thrown out and become homeless.

If the woman manages to survive the "accident," it is culturally
considered a disgrace for her own family to take her back in, so she is left to die, or to seek help elsewhere.  Organizations like Hope International have created safe houses for these women and their children where they can receive medical treatment, food and shelter.  If the woman does not survive her injuries, and this is more often than not the case, the organization, which operates under the donations and support of others, will care for her children. These organizations are speaking out against the atrocities against women in India and seeking change within India's government.

Afghanistan is considered the most dangerous place in the world to "be a woman."  Let's stop and consider that statement for a moment.  Can you imagine being in danger merely because of your gender, something over which you have no control, something that should be as natural as sunshine or rain; can you imagine having your very existence threatened because you are a woman?  Consider these statistics from UN Data, CIA World Fact Book and Afghanistan Relief Organization:  Many women in Afghanistan die in pregnancy and childbirth, with 460 deaths for every 100,000 live births; 85% of women have no formal education and are illiterate; and the life expectancy for a woman is 51.  More than 50% of Afghan girls are married or engaged by the age of 12 and married by 16.  Most will marry far older men--some in their late 60's--whom they meet for the first time at their wedding.  This early marriage is prompted by the high risk of
kidnapping and rape by rival tribes.  Some girls are bartered into marriage to repay a  debt or resolve a dispute.  Since women are considered property, and legally their testimony in court counts as only 1/2 that of a man, this is not considered abusive or wrong.

In Kabul, it is not at all uncommon for young girls and women to be admitted to the hospital shortly after marriage with injuries like internal bleeding, burns, or broken limbs.  Young wives have low status in the family, and are treated like slaves by their in-laws.  If a woman is widowed, she must depend on her husband's family for survival.  If this is not possible, she is forced to beg or engage in prostitution to keep herself and her children fed.  If a young woman runs away, or refuses to marry as her father dictates, she is often beaten, burned, disfigured, disowned and abandoned or killed by her own family.

Many people shrug and say, "It's a matter of cultural differences.  We shouldn't intervene and cannot possibly understand."  While I concur  that cultural differences certainly do sometimes cloud our perceptions looking in from the outside, I cannot help but shudder.  Does this, then, become a sort of "pass" from treating other human beings with dignity and respect?  Is this claim of "cultural differences" a significant enough justification to maim, disfigure, rape, abuse and/or kill?

The study of language and literature is a lot more than reading great novels, dissecting and connecting to the themes, and constructing excellent pieces of writing with exceptional grammar.  This year, we have looked at our literature and our language within the overall theme of "The Power of Words."  Whether we speak them, write them, text them, blog or think them, words assign meaning.  They give us identity, expression, and cultivate understanding.  As Hawthorne said, (and I paraphrase), in the dictionary, they are harmless; but oh, the power they have when in the hands or mouth or one who knows how to use them! Just words so often bring imprisonment, abuse and death, words are also the things that can kindle freedom, healing, and abundance of life.  We now know a little bit more about shaming, humiliating, cyberbulling, and gender-based abuse.  We know how language can be used to hurt and heal, kill and save.  You have the knowledge.  What will YOU do with it?

 Below, there is an article about the practice of bride burning in India along with two videos from India and Afghanistan.  Read and watch.  Then, comment on what really convicted you: what issues are you most passionate about?  How can/will you use your knowledge of the power of language and communication to bring positive change in our world?

Video #1 (India):
Video #2 (Afghanistan):

Sunday, April 5, 2015


Reading the Scarlet Letter is something high school English teachers have insisted upon for years.  It's a classic.  Its author is said to have forged a glittering path for great American literature.  It is a culturally significant work to which many sayings, subsequent works of literature, and films have alluded.  This is all true.  As we read a work like this, it is easy to get caught up and tangled in the older more eloquent language and the extremely religious lifestyle and culture of American Puritans.  As we read Hester's story, we shake our heads in disbelief.  Who could imagine a society in which personal private decisions are against the law, and punishable in a very public way?

Adultery, while a breach of the marriage contract, is not a legal matter anymore.  It is not against the law to be punishable by prison time and social ostracization.  But we are very naive if we believe that private decisions and actions/behaviors go unpunished in today's society.  We are even more naive if we believe that sins like promiscuity or adultery do not face heavy social penalties despite the fact that they are not within arm's reach of the law.

If Hester Prynne were alive and real today, she may not have spent three months in a physical jail cell, but in many ways, I am sure it would have felt like that.  There are no more town center platforms complete with hanging scaffolds and stocks, but social media has raised public humiliation to an all time new high and extended the critical stares and pointing fingers out and beyond the town walls.

So, while we may not be able to imagine living in a society that can legally have a person shunned and socially banned for scandalous decisions, the effect is ultimately the same:  the one charged with the sin and convicted on Facebook, Twitter or Snapchat is still left with a very clear message that he or she is social pariah.  

I find it quite appropriate that we concluded our reading of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter in the light of spring's dawning.  Spring is, for many, a time of rebirth and renewal.  Many of us celebrated Passover and Easter this weekend, also times when we reflect on our significance, the preciousness of life, and the grace of redemption.  This is what Hester Prynne sought in the sunlit forest.  It is what many people today seek in the warmth of a smile, a kind word, a forgiving heart or a compassionate ear.

In the following TED Talk, Monica Lewinsky, a woman all too familiar with living in the spotlight of technologically advanced shaming, shares a little bit of her personal story of what it is like to be branded with the scarlet A, and explains why she has chosen this time in her  life  to stand up and do something about it.  The biggest message?  The price of shame since Hester's time has escalated, and sometimes it is ultimately too high for the victim to pay.   Watch the video and then comment on two things:  what spoke to you the loudest and what YOU will personally do to change our shame culture today.

We live in interesting times.  We feel more sophisticated, yet our own petty and cruel natures still surface in even more deadly ways.  We feel more accepting of different beliefs and lifestyles, yet have the ability to smear a man's or woman's reputation irreparably with the click of the mouse.  We shake our heads at racism, sexism, and discrimination and then turn to our friends and share  malicious gossip about someone else, all the time telling ourselves, "I may make mistakes, but I would NEVER do what she did!"  So, that begs the question then:  what do we do?

When gossip is shared in the hallways, walk away.  Don't take part in it or even give it your listening ear.  If someone is being bullied or whispered about, stand up for him or her rather than remaining silent. And, if someone is being ostracized or shamed online, reach out to the victim and counter it with a word of encouragement and then report it.  Brene Brown, psychologist and expert on shame, tells us that "shame cannot survive empathy."  The price of public shaming can ultimately be death: emotional and, if it gets too hard to bear, physical.  The weapon we need to fight this deadly poison is compassion.

Make sure your arsenals are full.