Archive | November, 2013

Creating Elsinore

30 Nov

The National Theatre does more than produce spectacular plays.  The National Theatre Discover videos, for example, provide theatre goers and students with the inside scoop on context and staging decisions.

This background information has value in and of itself.  However, in the context of Advanced English Module B: Hamlet, it also provides students with concrete examples of how one text can be interpreted and re-interpreted over time.  A great example is this National Theatre’s video entitled ‘Creating Elsinore in Hamlet‘:

In the video above, the focus is on ‘reading’ and representing Elsinore (the setting of Hamlet).  What I like about this video is that the textual inspiration for artistic choices is often flagged.  For example, when explaining his conception of the play Richard Eyre quotes Hamlet, noting that “Denmark’s a prison.”  Equally, when Vicki Mortimer describes Elsinore as very “passageway, corridor-y,” she subtly references Hamlet’s observation that “there are many confines, wards and dungeons.”

Using this video as a model, students could be tasked with dissecting and evaluating other adaptations of Hamlet, perhaps using theatre reviews and YouTube clips as a starting point.

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Frankly, an amazing production

29 Nov

The National Theatre is currently screening a series of filmed productions as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations.  These productions are screening at cinemas worldwide.

Last weekend I saw the National Theatre’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and, frankly, it was fantastic!

The play was staged from the perspective of the Creation, a notion flagged in the pre-show video and affirmed in the play’s opening moments which showcased the creation’s birth (roughly the equivalent of chapter 5, volume 1 in the novel).  These opening moments, in which the Creation slowly comes to life, are evident in the first 20 seconds of the clip below.

As you can see, the Creation emerges a membrane bubble suggestive of both a chrysalis and an amniotic sac.  This strange melding of imagery of insect and human birth flags the  complexity of the Creation’s characterisation and metaphorises his status as one who both confounds and straddles categories.  Although arguably not intentional, I like to think that the chrysalis-type structure also alludes to Frankenstein’s later characterisation of the Creation as a “vile insect.”

Also noted in the pre-show video was an intention to blur the line between Frankenstein and his Creation.  This intention was evident in the choice of casting, with the actors playing Frankenstein and his Creation alternating roles.  This alternation is showcased in the trailer below.

The blurring of boundaries between creator and created was also apparent  in the way in which Frankenstein and his Creation seemingly fed off each other, adopting the idiosyncrasies of the other in a visual enactment of the Creation’s punning comment that “I will not be tempted to set myself in opposition to thee.”

How can I use this production in the classroom?

The short answer is that you should not be showing your students this production as there are sufficient deviations from Shelley’s novel to cause confusion.  However, the trailer videos, and in particular the second one, are a great way to help your students to appreciate the Gothic atmosphere, the way tension builds, and the inevitable similarities between Frankenstein and the Creation.

Persuade me

28 Nov

I am a HUGE fan of using analogies as part of my teaching.  Not only is that how I tend to think, and therefore what comes most naturally, but it also allows students to make connections between what they know and the new information that they are required to understand.

Some of my favourites include:

  • A synthesis essay is like a waterfall… information from earlier paragraphs flows down into later paragraphs.  The result is a constant stream of connections.
  • Imagine that your essay introduction is like an invitation to a party.  In an invitation you include key pieces of information that guide choices made by your guest (such as when to turn up, and where the party is), but you don’t give them a run sheet detailing each aspect of the party.  By analogy, your essay introduction will provide key details (names of texts, authors, general thesis etc) but not detailed textual analysis.
  • A thesis statement is like Central Station.  You can connect to all major train lines at Central.  All your paragraphs must connect to your thesis statement.

As of today, I have a new one to add to the list: a persuasive essay is like a hamburger.

Why is a persuasive essay like a hamburger?  Quite simply, because of this picture.  The introduction and conclusion function as the two halves of the bread roll, the meat is your paragraph arguments, and your supporting evidence is the vegetables (the good stuff).

Maya’s Notebook

25 Nov

HSC 2015 heralds a change; the focus of paper 1 will shift from Belonging to Discovery.  In the spirit of early preparation, this post will mark the first of (hopefully) many related text suggestions for my 2015 students.

I have long been an Isabel Allende fan.  I think what appeals to me is that I very rarely feel like I am reading her novels.  Rather, it is as if I am part of an intimate conversation in which mood is conveyed through subtle shifts in cadence and timbre.  It is for this reason that I was super excited when I stumbled upon Allende’s new novel, Maya’s Notebook, at my local Dymocks.

I am pleased to report that Maya’s Notebook did not disappoint!  The death of Maya’s adored grandfather triggers a spiral of destructive and dangerous behaviour which sees her fall in with the ‘wrong’ crowd, spend time at a school designed for troubled teenagers, battle addiction, engage in criminal behaviour and ultimately to seek sanctuary in Chiloe.  It is there that she begins to heal.  For a more detailed  summary, see Allende’s website.

In true Allende fashion, the narrative moves between past and present, allowing for a magical simultaneous entangling and untangling of narrative threads.  It is through this mode of storytelling that we learn that discoveries about the self do not occur in isolation.  Instead, they occur as part of a broader process of engagement and investigation.

React to pop culture

24 Nov

As part of their course Society & Culture students complete a series of case studies.  One option that can be selected at HSC level is ‘pop culture’.  As part of their study of pop culture, students are required to track continuity and change over time and understand how people interact with their pop idols.

One interesting way of helping students to understand that different generations may view pop culture differently is to show them some episodes of the React series by the Fine Bros.

For example:

The ‘Question Time’ segment of React videos is also a really great way of illustrating how to conduct an interview.   Whole class deconstruction of a React video could be followed by small group deconstruction to ensure that students understand the features of an interview.  To demonstrate understanding, students could stage and film their own episode, co-opting students and teachers at their high school.  The results from the student-conducted interviews could then be used as part of a lesson focusing on analyzing qualitative data.

The king is dead

22 Nov

Heather Owens has invented a wonderful activity to help students to clarify the fate of key characters in a Shakespearean tragedy.  The activity, entitled ‘the king is dead‘, requires students to write an obituary for deceased characters.  The obituary essentially acts as a character summary, noting achievements/contributions, significant relations and cause of death.

This activity could be modified to have students draft a number of obituaries for each deceased character.  Each obituary should be drafted from a different perspective.  By approaching it in this way, students will deepen their character analysis, realizing that characterization is contingent on perspective.  Depending on the unit focus, the chosen perspectives can either be those of characters within the play or critics/theorists/readings.

Hamlet the musical

21 Nov

A post on Making Curriculum Pop about adaptions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet got me thinking about ways to help students better understand what is happening in the play.  After all, we cannot except students to write inspired responses to the play if they do not understand the events and characters.

One approach is, as suggested on MCPop, is to encourage students to engage with the story in more familiar settings.  One of the easiest ways to do this is to screen segments of the Hamlet episode of The Simpsons (here).  Another option would be to note parallels between the Hamlet plot and elements of beloved Disney movies (here).

There are also opportunities to shift the focus so that students are creating the adaptations.  For example, students could represent key elements of the Hamlet plot to the tune of a well known song.  Youtube provides two great parodies: ‘Hamlet Style‘ to the tune of Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ and a Hamlet-ified version of Macklemore’s ‘Thrift Shop‘.

A simpler, but still student-driven, activity would be to task students with selecting a song that best captures the mood/character dynamic at key moments in the play.  Students would have to justify their choices in writing, thus demonstrating that they have thought about the emotions, moods and dynamics captured in their allocated/chosen moment.

Students could then be tasked with dramatizing the melding of music and Shakespeare as shown in this clip.  If the activity is organised so that all of the play’s key moments are covered, the moments could then be stitched together as ‘Hamlet: the musical’, with a screening for the grade and/or parents.

Generating ideas

19 Nov

Writing Exercises offers a number of activities to kick-start creative writing.  The ‘Random First Line‘ function, for example, generates an opening line for a story, allowing students to use the provided opening line as stimulus for a longer piece of writing.  As the names suggest, ‘Random Title‘, ‘Random Character‘ and ‘Random Scenario‘ generate a title, brief character profile and a short stimulus scenario respectively.  Also available are a ‘Plot Generator‘ and a ‘Random Dialogue‘ creator which offer students the opportunity to build the basic elements of plot and a thought provoking line of dialogue.

I like this site as it provides a number of different access points to the process of creative writing.  In this sense, it is great for those kids who struggle to get started.

That said, the usefulness of the site is limited in circumstances where students are tasked to write about a specific theme or a particular genre.  So how do you overcome this?  Either you need to create your own online ‘randomiser’ (if anyone knows how to do that, let me know), or you need to move offline.  Perhaps you could get students to select an opening line or character description from a hat, or to write an opening line/character description and then swap with the person sitting next to them.

Caption contest

18 Nov

The New Yorker runs a regular contest in which readers are challenged to come up with the best/most amusing caption for the provided cartoon.  Readers are able to vote for their favourite caption from a list of finalists.

Reading through the shortlisted responses today, it struck me that what The New Yorker readers do when they submit is caption is a micro version of what students do when they craft a narrative that responds to a provided stimulus.  In light of this connection, it struck me that perhaps captioning was a relatively accessible hook into creative writing.  Depending on the stimulus image, students could write a caption that focused on setting, character or dialogue.  Alternatively, they could use the stimulus image to inspire a micro story which, in turn, could be expanded to a paragraph, a series of paragraphs and ultimately a complete short story.

Because statements…

17 Nov

One ingredient in a well written essay is a strong thesis statement.  This statement should represent your approach to the question.

I introduce my HSC students to thesis statements using the image below, explaining that, at the most basic level, a thesis statement is a ‘because statement’.  The purpose of a thesis statement is to convey WHY you hold a particular view .  By explaining WHY you have a particular view about the question, you are saying that the question holds true/does not hold true/is only partially true because… [insert reason here].

HANDOUT - writing thesis statements

When I walk students through the process, we colour-code each section of our thesis statement so that students can see how all the elements fit together.

Below are two examples borrowed from my students:

Question: Perceptions of belonging vary.  To what extent do you agree with this proposition?

Thesis: Perceptions of belonging always vary as understandings of belonging turn on individual experiences.

Thesis: Perceptions of belonging tend to vary between texts because one’s understanding of belonging cannot be divorced from one’s circumstances.