Blogging 101


Dave Coverly. Speed Bump. 2005.

Two years ago, as part of PAGES at the Wexner Center, my students and I experienced Forbidden Voices: How to Start a Revolution with a Laptop.  We were amazed at these female cyber rebels who used their blogs to speak out against their countries’ dictatorial regimes in China, Cuba and Iran; we were even more amazed that their blogs and their world-wide audience saved their lives many times. When we returned to school, the students and I needed to blog.  How could we not?  We have the privilege of living in a country where we are free to share our ideas; it would be disrespectful to the women in the film not to use our voices.

Since then, I have used student blogs as an important classroom tool- for discourse, collaboration, and thinking.  It took trial and error and I would like to share what has worked for us.

Edublogs is our preferred forum (it’s free, easy to navigate and allowed by our district). When I introduce students to blogging, we start by looking at a few blogs from the previous year.  I had last year’s students write letters to future students.  Not only are the new students able to receive some valuable advice, but they are able to check out the personal styles of the bloggers.  You can view the 2015/2016 class blogs here: FHHS Blog Squad.  As you can see, instead of shelling out extra money for a “premium” class blog, I simply hyperlinked the blogsites of my students onto one page.

Next, I have my students sign up for a blog site.  The username is important- it cannot be changed and it is how we can identify who is commenting on our posts.  With that in mind, I instruct the students to use their first name, last initial, and maybe some favorite numbers if that username is taken (no “malloryonfleek” or anything like that).

The students then have to write a blog title.  They don’t need to spend a lot of time on this since it can be changed later.  After registering, they will be taken to their “dashboard.”  Have them choose a theme; this is a place where they can play and be creative.  There are many free themes on Edublogs; they just need to hover over the style to see which are free or not.  We spend a period playing with the layout and getting used to the dashboard.  Some of them customize their backgrounds in ways I could never imagine!  They know more than we do, and if you give them time to play and help each other, they can really make the appearance of their blog sites unique.

The next steps include creating an About Me page, commenting on each other’s, writing their first blog post and choosing a class blog site title (right now “Freshmen for Harambe” is in the lead).  Students can add a page or post by clicking a tab on the left side of their dashboard or on the top.  I have found Edublogs has an informative “help” search and I have also found that a student can usually figure something out and then teach us!

I would encourage you to participate in the Edublogs Student Blogging Challenge.  It was a great way to hone our blogging skills and meet student and teacher bloggers from around the world.  I have found that the students take their writing more seriously when they know people other than their classmates or their teacher will be reading it.  The fall signup has passed, but they will start up again in the spring.  In the meantime, you could always reach out to some of the teachers and students who have blog sites listed there.  I tried that and formed a partnership with a class in Texas.

I would also like to form a partnership with any of you, so if you have a class blog site, please share in my comments!  Here is this year’s blog site:Accelerated English I

Hope this helps.  Happy blogging!

The Sounds of Contemporary Lit

I am excited to work more explicitly with sound in preparation for Shawnee, Ohio.  In my teaching, I largely ignore sound as a strategy in creative writing. I was actually worried that students would think our introductory assignment too bizarre. I was wrong.

You all know I am a fan of using Google Slides to collaborate. I thought this would be a great way for students to write, add sounds to their writing, and share their comments on one another’s writing. I named it “Sounds of Contemporary Lit.”

I didn’t anticipate the snowball effect of sharing our favorite sounds. I started with an example of my own writing about trains. Students immediately chimed in with their own memories and associations with sounds.


One student lamented, “Ms. Swensen, you stole my favorite sound.”

“No worries,” I replied. “You can write about the same sound. I don’t own it.”

“No,” she replied, “you stole my associations and words, too.”

In our writing workshop that first day, students were buzzing with excitement about ideas sounds to write about: from the thump-thump-thump of mysterious copper pipes in the basement to campfires and the sounds of the kitchen that cannot be fully extracted from their olfactory resonances. Our classroom itself became one of my new favorite sounds: a collaborative, creative cacophony.

After polishing our work, I modeled feedback on others’ work in an effort to deepen my students’ “good jobs” and “I like its.” They found ways to compliment each others writing and share their own sound experiences in the process. What I thought might take 3o minutes morphed into 60 minutes of writing, sharing, collaboration (many students helped each other with adding live links, formatting images, etc), and community building.  In the end, that’s the best “sound of contemporary lit”: community building.



The Kuleshov Effect and Soviet Montage

Posted by Eric Meiring


Soviet Filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein


During our meeting this week, the conversation shifted to the way art can affect the perception of the viewer, and, in turn, how these perceptions can be manipulated by the artist.

An extremely important example of this manipulation is the Kuleshov Effect. The Kuleshov Effect was developed by Soviet film theorist and director Lev Kuleshov during the 1910s and 1920s. An editing technique, and a theoretical precursor to modern montage, the Kuleshov effect is a mental phenomena in which the viewer derives more meaning from multiple shots back to back, than from a single shot alone. Kuleshov’s films demonstrated that when a static shot of a man’s face is shown in combination with another shot, the viewer’s interpretation of the man’s expression is dramatically altered. When the man is preceded by a bowl of soup, viewers see the man’s expression as hungry; When the man is preceded by a girl in a casket, viewers see the man’s expression as sad. Critics hailed Kuleshov’s editing techniques as innovative and emotionally powerful; of course, the man’s face was still a completely static shot. Here, Kuleshov’s theory and technique was proven valid and effective even under the highest level of scrutiny.

This theory was later expanded upon by Kuleshov’s student and master director Sergei Eisenstein. Kuleshov’s theory appears in the opening sequences of Eisenstein’s masterpiece, “The Battleship Potemkin,” and is made use of throughout the film. The modern montage owes much of its existence to these two filmmakers, and montage’s ability to affect and influence the viewer is an important structure to remember when interpreting a work of art.


The Kuleshov Effect: 


Journal Contest

fullsizerender-1Last year some of my students made beautiful covers on their moleskin journals. This year I wanted to set the bar high for inspiration. Here is my journal:



Here are some of the students’ journals that we shared today. As students walked around the room, I gave them 5 post-its to give peers feedback on their work. I realize I need to model concrete feedback to them, but even a “beautiful” or “pretty” is a warm message on a cool rainy day.  Several students left inspired to redecorate their journals.img_0759 img_0760 img_0761

Tomorrow we will vote for one of our top 4 picks for best in class.

Making metaphor from scratch

Mary Reufle begins at the beginnings. She offers “Metaphor as time, the time it takes for an exchange of energy to occur … if metaphor is not idle comparison, but an exchange of energy, an event, then it unites the world by its very premise.”


When we make metaphors in literature, we do so to convert the abstract into the concrete, the sensory, and the tangible—how loneliness is sometimes a human-shaped crater (Haruki Murakami), and the classroom is sometimes a jail of other people’s interests (Ta-Nehisi Coates). And with matter as with language we only have so many elements at our disposal from which to incite an event, to make something happen. So many letters in the alphabet. So many noble gases on the periodic table.

But what about when, as it happened back in January, whatever committee decides these things votes to add four new elements to the table? How does language adapt, balloon to meet a world—or even a universe that becomes more knowable, and simultaneously, less familiar, or even viable, the longer people live in and of it—the more we name what these elements are and what they can be used to make, what they can be used to fuel, and who they can be used to burn?

Brian Harnetty is asking some of those same questions in Shawnee, Ohio.

What does fracking sound like?

When I was sixteen, fracking was not yet accounted for in my reservoir of words. By the time my grandfather was twenty, “atomic” and “bomb” became indelibly fused in his. Bomb for every generation thereafter as something it had never been before: building block, integral, elemental, necessary.


Material changes in the environment, technologies dividing that which was previously sutured, necessarily transform our metaphors. What students in an Ohio classroom have sensory or emotional context to add tangible meaning to fracking? To deforestation? Nuclear power plant? These concepts for many of us despite increased access to almost instant definitions remain cloaked in abstractions. We know, but do we know?

This week, I asked my roommates (who are assuredly NOT poets) to be guinea piimg_0012gs for an exercise in knowing/not knowing. I asked them to listen to four sounds I found online, a minute a piece. Each participant knew the origin for half of the sounds, but not the same half as the other participant. While they listened, they freely associated on notebook paper. I asked them to try to avoid writing “about” the sound, and instead, to write inside of it, using whatever they heard and what it evoked to fill in the gaps of sensory information. The four sounds I played were:




After the four minutes were up, we talked.

Everybody agreed that they felt their writing had “better direction” when they knew ahead of time to what they were listening. For instance, Lane, who was told that the latter sound was a recording of the atom splitting, wrote about a lesson he once sat through on Chernobyl.

Lizzie, who didn’t, wrote,

“Running rampant, earth can’t speak.”

Taking those words, voicing them aloud over the track of the detonation, sets hair on the back of my neck on edge.

A living metaphor.image1

Now, imagine having the chance to extend this lesson further, to take the knowing and the not knowing and fuse them together in the classroom.

What events could we co-conduct, I wonder?

Looking forward to your thoughts.


Community through Video Production

As I’ve started thinking about the new school year, I’m focused on developing community in my classroom – in my AP Lit, Humanities English 10 (my PAGES class), and D-Town Video Production. The longer I teach, the more I see the positive effects community building has on my students’ learning as well as their ways of living with each other in the world. One of the more significant successes of community building at the end of this last year involved a group of students in my video production class. They were eagerly gathered around a computer to watch the final version of a video by my student Clay. He wrote, directed, filmed and scored a movie called “The Book Robber”. Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 1.58.41 PMThis couldn’t have happened a year ago because Clay and three of his classmates from the Transitions classroom wouldn’t have been in my class. Our school’s Transitions students have a variety of developmental disorders, but several are identified as being on the autism spectrum and have characteristics thereof that preclude them from being mainstreamed, but their teachers are always in search of regular ed classes in which they can not only be included, but where they can become a part of the community.


A year and a half ago, my course had developed a reputation of community building through a small group project-oriented approach to making short films. Early last August, two weeks before school started, Miss Emily, a teaching assistant in our Transitions room, stopped by to let me know that we would be working together this year in D-Town Video Production, as four of her students had been added to my class. This was a joyful surprise to me; the students in the Transitions classroom had previously been successfully mainstreamed into gym class (for both the physical and social benefits). Administration and the Transitions lead teacher had decided that D-Town would be an ideal addition for some of their students. My four new students had varying degrees of autism, and the primary goal for them would be socialization.

Delaware City’s stance on inclusion is in tune with my own – we want our “regular ed” students and our “inclusion” students to have as much interaction as possible for the benefit of both of them. We grow compassionate, patient, thoughtful students who understand that the world is a blend of people of various abilities who all have something to offer.

Twenty years ago, I worked for Goodwill Industries in Columbus by teaching daily living skills to adults and young adults in their homes and in the community, most of that time being spent with a boy named Joey who had moderate autism. When we would be out in the community, I would be saddened by the way Joey was perceived and treated by others – as being so different as to be unaware of how negatively strangers would sometimes treat him. During our two years together, I often thought that my job was only half of what it should have been – I was helping him learn to be in the world, but often it was a world that didn’t know how to be with him. This new opportunity in D-Town would be a realization of what I had always hoped my time with Joey could have been – a chance to develop real community.

Going into last year, the goal I was given for these four young men was to provide them with opportunities to be in community, to build socialization skills. The “regular ed” (I dislike the term, but it is the one my context uses, so I’ll stick with it) students’ video production teams each invited a Transition student (the kids don’t use these words – for them they are just other students) into their groups. The Transition students might hold a reflector to help with lighting, or would even act at times, but I wanted something more for them.

Mid-September, I said to Miss Emily, “What would happen if we put a camera into one of your students’ hands and just let him go with it? What would the world look like to him?” So I asked Austin if we could work together to make a film. He had made attempts at storyboarding when we practiced the skill as a class, but the cognitive process of creating a plot would have required so much prompting from me that I feared the film might take on too much of my own vision. I wanted the film to be his as much as possible, so I asked him if he wanted to film one of the classes at the school, and we talked through which ones would be most interesting to capture on video. He decided to film the ceramics class.

Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 2.06.14 PMBefore our first visit to the ceramics room, we talked through how he would tell the teacher about his idea for the film and how he would ask the students for their permission to film them. He did both wonderfully, and the students and teacher were enthusiastic about the possibility. Austin and I reviewed how to use the DSLR before class the next morning, then we went to the ceramics room and filmed for the period. I would remind him to watch the camera’s screen to make sure he was keeping the subject in frame, but otherwise he was in control. When we got back to our room the next day, we began editing. I showed him how to use Final Cut Express and guided him through the process, but left him in control. He chose music from a free music website we searched together. He made this film - “Ceramics”. Austin and I had discovered together how rich his and his friends’ experience could be in D-Town, far beyond just socialization.

A month later, I invited Ty’ron, another Transitions student, to make a movie with me. While less verbally communicative than Austin, Ty’ron loved to write on the board and windows of our room. His writing often included drawings, though both still required some interpretation – we were seeing into his way of thinking. So I was excited about the prospects of how he might be able to create more of a narrative than Austin had. Ty’ron showed up the next day with a complete script. The two of us spent the next few weeks working on his film. Again, I showed him how to use the camera and then rehearsedScreen Shot 2016-07-25 at 2.11.38 PMthe social interactions with him before he approached the teachers and students he wanted in the film, but otherwise he was in control. He even acted in his film, “New Things! My TKCCSV Things?”: a loosely narrative film in which he polls students and teachers about his favorite things to see which ones they liked best. When we showed his film to the student body in one of our monthly viewings in the auditorium, they cheered with support, both before and after. It was beautiful.

Clay’s project was my last collaboration for the year. He had made a film about lunchtime earlier in the year, but it never really felt like him – it was more of an imitation of the style of film Austin had made. Clay wanted to make a second film and came to me with a multiple scene script about a student stealing a book from the library and then being tracked down by school detectives. Clay was open to discussing and revising the script to make it meet the audience’s needs because he truly cares about movies. In fact, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of film. It is one of his gifts. And his film shows it – you can see gags, plot twists, and exchanges adapted into his film from the many he knows and loves.

We were making this film in the midst of my other students filming their final projects, so time was scarce, but five of the boys in D-Town happily agreed to give up a day and a half of class to act in Clay’s film. Clay described their costume needs and they actually all remembered to bring their materials on the right day (a victory and a rarity – really a sign of their caring for Clay).

I walked with the group to get them into the spaces they would need, but Clay was in control. Occasionally I asked Clay if he wanted to get a second shot of something just in case, but he declined, and he was right to do so. The film turned out wonderfully. For Clay’s film, I was a little more active in the editing process, as he finds the tedium of importing footage difficult, but then he made final edit suggestions and chose the music. He made a film that his new D-Town friends were proud to be in. They had fun making it, and as I watched them I understood it to be an act of caring that I’m not even sure they were aware of. It is just their way of being. Here’s Clay’s film -  ”The Book Robber”.

Our D-Town students, through filmmaking, have a chance to grow together in their compassion and understanding of each other. My love of this course has grown exponentially because of this, partially because of the community we have formed, but also because we no longer see boundaries. Everything is possible; anything could lead to an amazing experience. We just need to be open to the moment.

For this next year I am gamifying D-Town so that students work toward badges for the different filmmaking skills (lighting, editing, directing). One of the badges I’m most excited about is the Buddy Badge – I’m going to let go of the control I had this year and invite the regular ed students to partner with the Transition students to mentor them through their own filmmaking process as I have done. The potential for growth for all of them will be wondrous.

We are creating a space together in which we aren’t Transition students and regular ed students. We are filmmaking together, and honoring each other’s unique ways of being through art and community. We are learning to be human together.

Tom Hering, English Teacher

What to Do When History Repeats Itself


Guest judge, Mrs. Jena Cooper, and I stand amoung hundreds of student artwork pieces.

After a year of learning about ourselves through literature, nonfiction, art, drama, and music, Reynoldsburg Encore Academy freshmen tackled their first true high school research project. Instead of sticking computers in front of kids and commanding them to “Do some research and write a paper”, we started with some simple questions to generate interest and ideas:

  • What about our world/community most concerns, frustrates, or angers you?
  • What are you going to do about it?

The lists generated from these questions were, almost literally, endless. Neither the students, nor I knew for sure where this would take us.

For several days, students let their thoughts run free, sharing their opinions on topics such as politics, world hunger, the national debt crisis, genocide, ISIS, self-esteem, rape culture, and the LGBT community. Many students in each class had never even heard of some of the issues others were discussing in passionate detail. So, to broaden students’ perspectives, we viewed a variety of documentary clips on the fast food industry, poverty in the United States, the fashion industry, etc.

Allowing students the freedom to discuss and explore topics before delving into formal research and writing processes gave them the opportunity to establish a true connection and investment in their topics. More importantly, it gave us time as a group to discuss why there are so many social issues and why so many people do not know about them.

At one point, I asked students, “Why should we learn about history and the world around us?” Immediately, a girl responded, “So that it doesn’t repeat itself” almost as if she were a recording, having been programed to say this. I challenged her asking, “But it has, and it continues to, so the real question is: What are we going to do to fix this?”

As a group, the students decided the problem is not that people don’t care or that they don’t want the world to be better; the problem is that people are poorly or misinformed because they do not investigate or ask questions when information is presented to them.

With that said, students officially chose their research topics, wrote papers, and produced individualized public service announcements about their topics. The goal was to establish their voices, make a compelling statement about their topic using an artistic medium, and convince the viewer to care and make a change.

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Today, all of the students’ hard work came to fruition as we taped art pieces to the school walls, creating a makeshift gallery.

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To boost the project’s authenticity and give students a true audience, a guest judge with nearly a decade of expertise in effective marketing, Mrs. Jena Cooper, came to view and judge students’ work.2016-05-20 11.05.41 2016-05-20 11.00.54IMG_20160520_132522956_HDR

As we wrapped up our exhibition, students walked away feeling a sense of pride and ownership. We concluded the day by reflecting on lessons learned from our unit:

“I was surprised to see that people chose topics like rape culture and world poverty; I didn’t know they really cared about those things.”

“We really have to ask questions about what the media says before believing it.”

“Walking through the gallery of all of our hard work and art, it seemed like you could almost feel each person’s passion for their topic.”

“This project has really opened my eyes to the world around us; we need to take action.”

My takeaway? Research papers don’t have to suck out the souls of our students; they can be meaningful, and even fun, with some discussion and creativity.


Learning with a side of grades

A week ago, a student said something so sad in my Humanities English 10 class. We were about to choose parts for that day’s reading of Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun when a student mentioned how little time she had to finish an assignment, but that she needed to get it done for the grade.

(Distant siren goes off in my head.)

“But your real goal is to learn, right?” I asked.

“Mr. Hering, we do this for the grades.” This stopped me in my tracks. I could feel a crack forming in what I saw as the shared understanding of learning we had been co-constructing all year. As my confusion melted into sadness, a couple of other similar comments were uttered:

“Mr. Hering, parents don’t ask us what we learned, they ask how our grades are.”

“My parents say I have to get good grades to get into a good college so I can get a good job.”

….and then the saddest of all – “Mr. Hering, teachers give us enough time for grades, not enough time to learn.” I had to say it over in my head a few times to even make sense of it. My eyes welled up.

I looked out at their faces and saw pain, sorrow, frustration….and nodding of agreement, many heads nodding, eyes staring back at me. I couldn’t quite understand what was happening. They looked broken. To be fair, they were also three days away from their AP US History test, and had all been madly studying for many days, running on energy reserves they would otherwise save for a desert island.

But we had such wonderful experiences this year growing with the guest artists from the Wex PAGES program. We had explored art and literature, and then co-created projects that expanded our understanding of the world for each other.

Glancing from them to their Historical Conflict Assemblage projects on the top of the cabinetPhoto on 5-16-16 at 3.04 PM #2 (inspired by our work around the Noah Purifoy exhibit), I couldn’t make sense of it all.

Then one of them tried to pull the moment back together:

“Well, we’re just talking about how it is in our other classes, not in this class. We know this class isn’t about grades.”

It helped a little, but in a choked whisper, I said, “I don’t want that to be true for you in any class. That isn’t what we’ve been about becoming this year. I don’t even know what to say right now.” So we moved on to reading the play. Right before the bell rang at the end of class, I attempted to reframe their understanding of learning, but I, and they, needed a little more time. “We’ll come back to this tomorrow.”

My teacher friends started to trickle into my room for lunch: time to eat while playing board games – time to reenergize both our minds and bodies. I told them about the conversation, repeating twice “Then she said we give them enough time for grades, not for learning,” still barely understanding it, but knowing how it could be true. “Don’t we cut down to the ‘power standards’, focusing on just 50% of the state standards so that we can take learning deeper? Are we failing?” I had this conversation a few more times that day with other colleagues and my wife. I fell asleep that night wondering what kind of habits we are really building in our classrooms.

When class started the next day, I drew this on the board:

Learning vs. Grades Triangles

“I want to revisit our conversation from yesterday. I’m not sure I’ve stopped thinking about it since, and I know that if my own children ever come home from school and say what you said yesterday, I’ll wonder where I went wrong.”

Pointing at the diagram, “Look at the triangle in the center. If you learn for the sake of grades, you exist in there. Imagine that in kindergarten you start at the left hand side of the diagram. As you move to the right, you are learning and getting good grades, but the triangle ends – perhaps at the end of high school or college or grad school, but it is guaranteed that at some point you’ll stop being rewarded with grades. Now, by that point, what will be your motivation to learn? You’ve been learning for the sake of grades for 12 to 18 years – that’s a pretty serious habit. Imagine developing any habit for that long, and then trying to quit. It would be tough.

“Clearly you’ll still grow, but will you do it for the right reasons? When offered the opportunity to move up the pay scale at work by getting more education, will you ask around to see where others got the cheapest credits, or will you want to know what classes could help you best to grow as a person/thinker/collaborator/worker? If you’re in the habit of grades, and the incentive is just to finish the class, not to hold onto the knowledge, likely you’ll look for the cheap class. That will be your habit.

“Instead, I hope that when I see you in twenty years, you’re living outside of that triangle, in the space of the larger angle. And notice, the angle has no end on the right side. If we make a habit of  learning for the sake of learning, for the joy of knowledge and to help us understand ourselves and the world, then there is never a reason to stop – the habit feeds itself.”

We had a good talk after that, but I was still saddened about what we need to do as a school system to help our students build better habits in the future. PAGES is a step in that process for me: I want my students to be strong enough to face life with frameworks about how literature, art, music, performance, history, politics…and our own lives intersect, to find what really matters for us.

Perhaps we challenge the power of the G.P.A. as David Brooks did last week, or we teach our kids the 5 Whys. Maybe next year we start the year with Alexandra Robbins’ Overachievers.

What I know for sure is that art integration will be an essential part of that process, and the kids I’m sending on to their junior year of high school will hopefully approach their learning with a little more forethought, with a different frame. That they might see it as learning with a side of grades instead of an obligatory step on the way to “a good job”. Oh yeah, we’ve got to spend some time unpacking that one someday, too.

Tom Hering, Learner

Breaking News: Paparazzi Invade Elsinore Castle!


In my high school English classroom, we imagine ourselves AS IF we are the paparazzi[1] and news teams of Elsinore, Denmark who are determined to investigate the royals!  What is going on in the castle? Can you believe Gertrude married Claudius so soon after the death of King Hamlet? What’s up with Prince Hamlet?  Is Ophelia okay?

kadesh 2

Fig. 1 – King Claudius and Queen Gertrude show concern for Ophelia in Hamlet, 4.5.

Students create their own news teams, complete with logos, catch lines and news anchors. Other students rehearse Ophelia’s mad scene.  When the scene is ready, the paparazzi invade Elsinore, hiding behind (imaginary) curtains and walls to spy on and snap photographs of the drama at the castle.  They then tweet their pictures and brief messages to their news teams who go to work putting together their broadcasts, hoping to beat out the competition with the first and best breaking news story to the loyal citizens of Denmark.

Kadesh 1

Fig. 2 – Live tweets and images from the paparazzi to the news team at the desk.

Using rehearsal room techniques as a doorway into the complex text of William Shakespeare, students meet the characters of Hamlet and enter into the intrigue of King Claudius’ court.

What are rehearsal room techniques? Acting approaches that engage students through choral reading; reading punctuation-to-punctuation; echoing; re-phrasing; experimenting with distances, volume, emotions; creating tableaux and bringing them to life.

The Dramatic Inquiry[2] approach energizes students as they work together to understand the words, characters, and action of the story.  We meet the characters by trying out their own words to determine what they are saying, to ascertain their mood, to evaluate what their attitude towards others (or others towards them) might be given the situation.

Kadesh 3

Fig. 3 – KADESH paparazzi gives a shout out to the news teams’ terrific collaboration.


[1] “Paparazzi Shakespeare: Ophelia’s Madness Revealed!” Folger Shakespeare Library. 2014. Web. 06 May 2016.

[2] In a program titled “Stand Up for Shakespeare, America!,” Ohio State University collaborated with the Royal Shakespeare Company of Stratford, England to bring teachers from Central Ohio together with theatre practitioners, actors, directors, voice coaches and more to apply rehearsal room techniques to unravel the mystery of Shakespeare’s words.

“Living the Lines”

The first time I attempted to teach Romeo and Juliet, it took four months to complete. When I say four months, I truly mean four entirely long, miserable, and tedious months. Did the students learn about Shakespeare? Sure. Did they learn about the story and reading in general? Yes. Did they walk away from the experience enlightened and impassioned? Definitely not. In fact, my previous students still whine about Shakespeare to this day. It felt very much like failure to say the least.

This time was different.

Two weeks into our unit, I walked into class and dumped three bags full of art supplies across a row of desks determined to make a change. Glitter glue, sequins, tissue paper, paint brushes, buttons, and ribbons littered the tables as my students stared at me as if I were crazy.

When I told them we were going to be guests at the Capulet ball, performing a traditional Renaissance dance and having a feast, their level of excitement mirrored my masked terror. While I knew that producing the Capulet ball, “living the lines” so to speak, would be valuable and integral to students feeling connected to the story, I also knew I was taking a massive risk. I have no formal training or experience what-so-ever in drama (minus three short workshops I attended last year); yet, here I was jumping into a unit full of dramatic inquiry strategies, and teaching my students a Renaissance dance, too!

For the next five days, we moved at warp speed:

Students poured all of their energy into reading lines at home because they knew if they were not prepared by Friday, we would have no ball to produce. For the first time, I watched as students completed their homework without excessive fuss and came to class on time. Each student designed a mask which would be worn to the ball, and while some struggled to cut eye holes, others crafted their masks into beautiful works of art. By day three, we were stumbling around our make-shift dance hall, holding hands, and laughing at our sad attempts to choreograph a dance worthy of recording and showing friends and family. Nevertheless, when Friday came, students strutted into the classroom laden with crockpots, chip bags, taco dip, sparkling cider, and plastic wine flutes. We were ready.

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While the lines were occasionally emphasized incorrectly, cider was spilt, and our dance steps did not always line up with the music, the end result was certainly not a failure.

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This time around, students walked away from Act 2 truly understanding the emotions and motivations of each of the characters and not hating the story. In fact, this crazy undertaking ended up being the one activity that truly unified our classes and encouraged students to feel safe in taking risks for the remainder of the unit and year.

Sometimes, I guess, what seems crazy is not so crazy after all.

Finding Meaning through Drama

As teachers leading the charge, we prepare by laying out a clear path with a known destination for a selected reading. I set out in this comfortable way as I stepped into sonnets with my students. It is so easy to fall into the declarations of love from Shakespeare, Browning, Spenser, Petrarch. I love reading about love in all its forms, but I wanted to mix it up showing another side of it all—a side that wasn’t just a pretty face. I found just that in “Fruit Don’t Fall Far” by Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. I knew immediately what this sonnet wasn’t; the real challenge was figuring out what it was.

So, I read and reread but struggled to settle on a meaning. I tried reading the piece with frustration, anxiety, sadness, determination. No matter how many times I reviewed it, I still wasn’t sure how to read it; maybe tBetter Madelynat was more important than having a set interpretation? I have a theatrical group this year that enjoys taking parts in plays and reenacting scenes. So, with the combination of not being able to adopt an interpretation and a dramatic group of students, we took advantage of the opportunity and plunged into a different type of analysis.

I began class by admitting that I didn’t know where we were going with this poem but hoped we could figure it out together. I gave a cold, emotionless read of the poem to the class. We didn’t discuss, question, or respond in any way; we just broke into groups with our individual thoughts.

Before class, I wrote as many feasible emotions that could be read into the poem on large note cards. In groups, students drew one emotion from the stack of cards, keeping their selection unknown to the other groups. They first read the poem again and broke out the words and punctuation marks that could be emphasized to most effectively express that emotion. They knew they would present their version to the whole class, so body language, volume, emphasis, and pacing became considerations, too. What would they stress? Why? How? No part of the original poem could be changed. They could only use what the poet provided. Next, they chose a performer and coached this person to deliver what they envisioned, keeping notes regarding their decisions on the note card provided.

Without announcing their intentions prior to their dramatic reading, the students performed bravely and imaginatively. As the audience, we commented on their choices and guessed the emotion motivating what we saw. The results were amazing, illustrating just how much power they had as readers and performers to bring an interpretation and deeper understanding to a poet’s work.

Madelyn and AvaThe destination was unclear when I selected this poem. I struggled to define Freytag-Loringhoven’s sonnet when I first read it; I found it impossible to do so after seeing each of their interpretations. Not knowing and digging through the possibilities was so much more powerful (and fun) than any predetermined meaning. 

Creating in the Classroom

After our visit to Noah Purifoy’s Junk Dada, artist-in-residence Bryan Moss paid our class a visit to debrief. We discussed some of our favorite pieces, talked about objects that seemed to feature prominently in Purifoy’s work, and recapped the visit, overall.

But much like our visit to the gallery, students were eager to move beyond the discussion and begin to truly explore. In this visit, to explore meant, in fact, to create. Students were given construction paper, and were asked to begin simply ripping it up, to begin playing with the provided materials. They passed around magazines, glue, yarn, and other items, choosing whatever they felt went together. Students were excited to find the next perfect item to add to their own assemblage/work.

And while the students’ artwork may not have the political undertones that Purifoy’s work holds, they were able to experience (on a very small scale) some of the underlying processes in his work. Some students told a story through their work, as this student did in a work entitled “Alone in a Crowd”:

"Alone in a Crowd"

Another student was inspired to incorporate an umbrella, after seeing this object recur throughout Purifoy’s work:Umbrella

Overall, students truly enjoyed the exhibit and were genuinely inspired to create their own work. Whether the works were simplistic, intricate, or truly meaningful, students were able to connect with Purifoy’s work on a deeper level by making their own creative assemblage. This was a phenomenal final visit from the Pages team, and we’re all looking forward to continuing to build upon everything we’ve learned throughout the rest of this year!

A collage of selected students’ work:
Purifoy-Inspired Dada