Archive for February, 2014

Why Teach Shakespeare?

Posted: February 25, 2014 in Education, Literature

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Most English literature teachers will tell you they like Shakespeare…the honest ones will tell you they love Shakespeare…and the ones trying to be unconventional and hip will tell you he’s overrated. Pfft. I love him…well…his work.

As far as I’m concerned, Shakespeare is to English literature as keys are to a car – one is used to drive the other (pun intended). The first and, perhaps, most obvious reason as to why Shakespeare is taught in schools (still) is because of his themes. His themes consist of: love, lust, hatred, greed, power, trickery/disguise, happiness, death, loyalty, friendship, marriage, justice, murder, suffering, and companionship – all of which are still prevalent in our world today and will continue to be themes present in our world tomorrow and for centuries more. There is the argument, however, that newer and more contemporary playwrights are not only easier to understand, but tackle those same themes in a more contemporary way. True. However, if you’re an avid reader of my posts, you’ll know my feeling on this…contemporary doesn’t equate to better. With that being said, the students at my school do read Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman…so…that’s good.

Reason #2: Like I said, one cannot study English literature (or the English language for that matter) without studying Shakespeare. He was one of the biggest influences on the English language. He experimented with blank verse, created new words and phrases still used today, and is even responsible for helping to standardize the English language.

By the 1590’s, blank verse had caught on with some of the best new writers in London…The words and sounds coming from the stage were new and thrilling to Shakespeare’s audience. England was falling in love with its own language…The grammar books and dictionaries that finally fixed the “rules” of English did not appear until after Shakespeare’s death…Politically, the country also grew in power and pride. (Hamlet. Barron’s Educational Series, 2002. 11-12).

Reason #3: Northrop Frye states in his work, The Educated Imagination, that the best works in English literature have already been created – Frye states this in reference to Shakespeare. In other words, someone may come along and write a play as good as King Lear, but never better. If that’s the case, there’s no sense in wasting time…if we have the best, then study the best.

Ever used these phrases? 1. A sorry sight, 2. Come what may, 3. Good riddance, 4. Send him packing (ladies?), 5. In a pickle, 6. Love is blind, 7. Wear your heart on your sleeve, 8. Seen better days, 9. In stitches, 10. Didn’t sleep a wink. Well, you can thank Shakespeare for those. Hey, ever told a knock knock joke? You can thank him for that too.

Fantasy and the Literary Canon

Posted: February 18, 2014 in Literature

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*an artist rendering of Hermione, Harry, and Ron from Harry Potter*

I have spent much of my life reading fiction novels. I’ve come to realize the importance of the classics or, more specifically, the novels that fall under the category of the “literary canon.” These novels harbour innumerable reasons as to why they are so important to one’s life. Northrop Frye tackles this in his lecture (The Educated Imagination), as he tries to explain what role (if any) literature plays in our religious, social, and political life.

Through my encounters with the classics, I have ignored the fantasy genre (along with many others). Admittedly, I know very little about fantasy except that many recent movies are based off novels of this genre – I don’t think I have to list them. I do know that these fantasy novels don’t make it under the umbrella of the “literary canon.” So, I asked one of my best friends (author of the blog, The Truth About Life and Running) to teach me. My driving question was simple: What is so appealing about the fantasy genre? Not only did I buy his response, I have a new-found appreciation for the genre.

I am going to try and expel his response in as brilliant a manner as he expelled it to me:

Fantasy very much follows a simplistic yet structured plot. He argues that fantasy actually has very little to do with the mystical (dragons, magic, wizards, etc) and more to do with reality than is often credited for. There are common plot lines that seem to make their way into the majority of fantasy epics: 1. The young/naive protagonist – he finds himself taken out of his ordinary world and thrust into a world of adventure against the forces of evil. He references Frodo Baggins (Lord of the Rings), and Harry Potter. He also references Luke Skywalker (Star Wars), but that was a film…trying to keep this central to literature. 2. The mentor – he comes out of nowhere to help our protagonist and is completely devoted to him. He references Gandalf (Lord of the Rings) and Dumbledore (Harry Potter). The mentors usually die in sacrifice for the betterment of the protagonist. 3. Friends – the protagonist finds friends that help in his venture and stick with the protagonist even after the mentor is gone. In other words, very seldom is the adventure a lone one. 4. The betrayer – this character sets the group back, usually out of jealousy. He references Boromir (Lord of the Rings) and the younger brother seduced by the White Witch (Narnia). 5. The villain – this character rarely manifests themselves in human form. He references Sauron (Lord of the Rings) and Voldemort (Harry Potter).

He goes on to discuss the endings of such novels (usually a battle of some sort), as well as the hero’s return home. Though the references are mostly from Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, the idea is that this genre follows a very simplistic yet structured plot. Arguably, one could pick up a fantasy epic and expect the aforementioned characteristics. Frye states, “If you pick up a detective story, you may not know until the last page who done it, but you always know, before you start reading, exactly the kind of thing that’s going to happen.” (Frye, Northrop. The Educated Imagination).

Homework: The Killer of Fun

Posted: February 7, 2014 in Education

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I will start off by saying that I am a strong believer in the old adage: “School is for your schooling and home is for your home.” That’s not entirely an old adage, but I like saying it. However, I should also mention that there is a great deal of responsibility placed on parents/guardians in the home to continue teaching the values placed on students throughout the day – support from home is vitally important.

I was watching a video blog from who I was ready to consider my arch-nemesis (the only other English lit blogger I’ve come across), except for the fact that he (“The Nerdy Teacher”) and I happen to agree about the concept of homework. I’ll admit, before clicking his video blog (vlog?) I was ready to jump down his throat proclaiming my hatred for homework. This didn’t have to happen – he was quite accurate. My feeling is that students have way too much homework these days – perhaps even more than I had when I was their age. Students (of most ages) are going home with hours upon hours of homework! SOMETIMES it is because they simply didn’t use class time wisely and therefore, must finish it at home. But SOMETIMES it is the teacher assigning work to be done at home. The latter is where I have a problem.

I am lucky enough to teach a course that has a way of “giving” homework without giving homework. For instance, my grade 10’s ALWAYS have reading on-the-go. Even though we may be in unit one (short stories), they have their independent study unit (novel) to work on…So, their homework is their reading. Any written tasks are done in front of me and in the classroom – this ensures I am with them every step of the way and can assist them immediately. By doing so, it also limits lecture time; I can lecture for 20 minutes and give students time to apply their knowledge of the material recently taught.

By the end of the day, students are mentally-exhausted and need time at home to engage in other activities, spend time with family, or engage in brainless activity like watching television. In my opinion (whose else would it be?), time at home is not a good opportunity for more work. Students need time to be kids, too. On the other hand, if the homework is given because time was wasted by the student in class then that’s a whole other issue – I can support that! 🙂

Especially for elementary school teachers – let the children be children!

Two final thoughts: (1) Never give homework that is NEW material. Quite simply, you’re not physically there to help them. (2) Never give homework “for practice.” If it’s important enough for practice, then it’s important enough to give in-class.

Course Requirements

Posted: February 2, 2014 in Education

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*The answer to the above question is simple: We are specialists in our areas. If you were a hockey goalie, would you want a forward helping you with your technique? No. You’d opt for a specific goalie coach. Teachers were once students too…we all had to go through it. Deal.*

Upon my ventures through countless teacher blogs, I came across some student-run blogs. I had spent much of my time recently going over teaching strategies and stories that I neglected to hear what students these days had to say.

This student blogger (Jilly Dos Santos) of a particular post commented on how high school course requirements limit students. She claimed that high school students should be given the opportunity to choose what courses they’d like to take and shouldn’t be told. She claims: “It doesn’t make sense to sit a future scientist in four history courses, limiting them from taking courses that would expand their scientific knowledge…” Point well-taken. However, here is my rebuttal: First and foremost, very few high school students know what they want to be when they grow up. Taking a variety of courses can help gear students down a path of interest OR (perhaps more importantly) it may help students realize what they definitely don’t want to pursue. Secondly, not taking certain courses is what can truly limit students. For instance, in Ontario, high school students must take English literature for all four years of high school. Specifically, the grade 12-U course is essential in gaining access to University. If dropping English literature was an option, this would close off the door to University. Thirdly, grade 9 and 10 students are still too young to be able to make the mature decision as to which courses to take – guiding them in this way is crucial to developing a well-rounded student. Moreover, if you’re thinking age/maturity shouldn’t be a factor, think of it this way: Notice how there ARE more course options the older students are? There is a reason for that. Fourth, no one is stopping these “future scientists” from taking the time to learn about the sciences on their own. If a high school student is sure they want to be a scientist, but are not yet allowed to take physics, they can start reading up on it on their own time. Knowledge does not just have to take place in the classroom. Lastly, it’s good to simply have a basic understanding of most subjects. Personally, I knew I was going to be an English literature teacher since I was 9, so of course taking math courses in high school was painful. Now, I rarely use math. However, the basic understanding that I do have is important. This same reasoning applies to my very basic understanding of history, geography, and science.