Saturday, March 31, 2012

Rebekah Rocks the Speech Contest

The morning after her little sister domed her on the face with a hula-hoop and I had to pull out her loose tooth with a tissue... middle daughter Rebekah totally rocked the Taichung Speech Contest... her topic: "I'm an American kid in Taiwan."

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Valiant Never Taste of Death but Once

Julius Caesar Theme #2: Politics is Personal

There's a war brewing between two homeroom teachers in the building that is none of my freaking business but I'm going to totally make it so.
In the one corner you've got "Turtle Lips," called thusly by her students because her Chinese name sounds...well,  Mandarin for turtle lips.  She's a econ teacher, smiles at me every day, is totally helpful and sweet, wears funny scarves tied around her neck, and always turns a blind eye when I run her kids out into the sunshine to play basketball.  She's got to be my favorite homeroom teacher in the school.
On the other hand we've got Princess.  Oh yes... that Princess... the homeroom teacher that I've written about on this blog many times...who has tried to get me fired, who lies to the parents about me, who interrupts my class without apologizing, spreads nasty rumours about me, and is a general pain in the neck to deal with.  Yes...these two are at war.
You see, both teach 9th grade homerooms and as the year ends, the pressure toward the National High School Entrance Exams becomes palpable.  You can cut the tension in the air with your teeth.  Students are stressed out to the max.  Kids crying in bathrooms, parents breathing down the school's neck, four to five practice mini-tests a's a madhouse.  Why anybody would put their 15 year old kid through this is a total mystery.  Yet, every year Taiwanese parents do.  And this year is no exception. 
The school's hands are tied.  New rules.  Unclear guidelines.  Pressure cooker steam coming out the collars of kids...and to make matters worse, the Taiwanese government gives our school one spot in the most prestigious high school in all of Taiwan.  One spot, to be given to the top performer in our school.  This kid gets to attend.  This kid gets his future set.  And oh yes, this year, that kid came from Turtle Lips' class.
Immediately, Princess called Turtle Lips a cheater.  Publicly.  She stood up at a staff meeting, while all the other Chinese teachers bowed their heads because they were too afraid to get involved, and announced to everyone that Turtle Lips must be a cheater because her husband works for the government and obviously supplied answers to her student, that this is how he succeeded.  Not because the boy is smart.  Not because the boy is a complete wizard in math and science.  Not because he's moral and has this mind capable of vast understanding...and certainly not because his Literature teacher over the last three years has been me!  No... this kid and his homeroom teacher, Turtle Lips... must be a cheating.
The principal of the school did nothing.  The other Taiwanese teachers did nothing.  The administrators who were present did nothing.  But Turtle Lips did.  She turned in her resignation.
You see, all Taiwanese teachers post grades, dozens of them in every possible subject.  Every kid has access to every other kids records.  Their tests, quizzes, homework, notes, national exam scores, and teacher's notes.  There are no secrets.  Zero confidentiality.  And Princess loves having the top student... WHY?  So that she can tell everyone that it is because of HER... oh, and she gets a small stipend for this as well.  So when another kid out-muscled her kid...(by .0017 %) and she went ballistic and turned on her friend of 13 years publicly calling her a cheat...and in so doing, attempting to invalidate my student's hard work, his test scores, and placement in the top high school in the country.  Can you believe that?  I mean, can you even believe the pettiness of that?
So what could I do?  What?  When Turtle Lips told me this I felt like the back of my head just exploded with a gunshot of spaghetti against the wall.
I know this kid.  I've taught him for three years.  He's no cheater.  In fact, he's pretty amazing.  Quiet. Strong.  Honorable... three months ago when Princess was trying to get me fired and I was ready to quit the school he wrote me a note...he said, "Teacher Brian.  Don't you quit.  If you quit, Princess will win."  How cool is that?  So I went to the director. I went to the administrators. I pleaded their case.  I told everybody I could.  I back-channeled.  I worked the system.  And today when I saw the kid with his trophy I felt a sense of relief... but it wasn't enough, because Princess has yet to apologize or be held accountable for her words.  The answer I got is between the homeroom teachers.  Everyone is just hoping it goes away.  But somethings never go away.  They don't.  They just burn brighter.  Even though no one talks about them anymore, they forever live inside us, and we carry them to our graves, and this is one.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Cowards Die Many Times Before Their Death

Julius Caesar Theme #1: Conspiracy must end in murder

I've got this student who is a complete horse's ass. He is rude. Belligerent. Won't bring a book to class, has no pencil, won't keep a journal, vandalizes his desk, scratches his name on the chair, stares off into space during lectures, belittles me, curses me under his breath, flips me off when I turn my back, carries on full conversations when I ask him to be quiet, gets up and walks around the back of the room during discussion, and refuses to do any kind of work.
Forget about asking for help. There is no help. The vice principals just laugh and tell me to control him, the directors just say it is my job to teach him, the administrators shake their head and say he must grow up and enter society someday, and his homeroom teacher says it is my fault but she will stamp his honor card nonetheless... since I obviously can't control him.
So we're in class and I'm trying to finish a lecture on Martin Luther King's Stride toward Freedom speech and this kid is full on having a laughing attack in the back of the class with another kid. So I ask him to be quiet. Nothing. I ask him to be quiet again. Nothing. I ask a third time and he just laughs louder. So I go over to him and toss him. He's done. Out of class.
The following class I decide to take the kids out to play basketball, but I tell this kid to "park it." He ain't going anywhere. He's wasted my time. He's shown no respect. He hasn't earned the privilege of going outside to play. So he sulks. He pouts. He goes home that night and tells his parents that I'm a bad teacher. That he can't learn from me. That parent complains to the school and suddenly I have an administrator sitting in the back of my room with a clipboard. All because I wanted the kid to pay attention and be quiet.
To make matters worse, this kid begins to turn the whole class against me. He tells the other students not to look at me when I enter the room, to keep their heads down, to pretend that I don't exist, to not open their books when I ask them, to stop doing homework, to protest my class by doing stop cooperating all together.
So now I am in class, standing in front of all these bowed heads... no one looking at me, not one book on the desk, not one eye open. Complete silence. And I can hear the kid grinning, chuckling to himself that he's won... you wanted us to be quiet... now what ya gonna say?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Shakespeare as a Second Language

Julius Scissorhands is my 11th Shakespeare adaption for high school students, and every year I feel like I’m getting a little better at it.
The plan is pretty simple, I take a bunch of nobody kids with no theater experience whatsoever...and transform them into an acting troupe in four weeks whose goal is simple:  to read, study, and perform a Shakespeare play in front of a live audience. 
The hope is that going through this process, the students actually experience the play as a director or costume and artistic designer, music and lighting producer, and of course… as actors. I have really no stage experience either and have to learn on the fly with the students. We divide the play into sections and translate it into modern language, submit to me, then I re-write it with silly jokes, making fun of a particular pop culture angle, have the kids edit it down to size… and then we agree on HOW to produce it.  It's a full acting troupe where everyone's voice is heard. 
It’s actually pretty awesome!
My list of plays include:
Hamlet and Eggs
Bada Bing Bada Boom The Taming of a Mafia Princess
Much Ado About Yo Mama
Midsummer’s Night High School Comedy
Arden MTV’s As You Like It the Real World
Shrek Lear
Three Act Romeo and Juliet
The Jedi of Venice (performed in my absence)
Mac-Backstreet A Tragic Tale of Murder, Corporate Witches, and Asian Boy Bands
Rock + Roll Romeo and Juliet: A Beatles Musical
Each year I focus on something different too... incorporating video clips or sound effects... this year we used student cartoons to tell the story in frames between scenes in Chinese subtitles so the audience would better understand the plot.  It worked.  What I have always loved the most about these performances is giving kids that would otherwise be left out...a major role on stage.  In many cases it's the first time anybody ever noticed them or told them they were worth something.  I love that.  Also, I really enjoy watching the kids rely on each other and know that they have to give their best or they will be letting their friends down.  To see that in action is really cool.

Teaching Shakespeare in Chinese

Today while walking through the crosswalk in front of my new apartment, a little two door red mini came within inches of running over Rebekah. The guy just barely slowed down and rolled on through the pedestrian lane. Gripping my daughter's hand, we froze like wide-eyed deer before I let out a barrage of expletives that made the man slam on his breaks, at which time, he also cursed me out at the top of his lungs. All because he wouldn't stop, because he assumed we'd just be fine and get out of his way... he risked years in prison for vehicular manslaughter all for a moment of... ahhh... they'll just get out of my way.
At the restaurant it is lunch time and we are sitting. Nice place, swanky lamps and big curved wooden tables that look like they are cut out of bone. Behind me there is a table of 16 people. I count them. Screaming and hollering and carrying on...cursing, laughing...but they are saying nothing...they say, "You didn't know that? I knew that.." and "I can't believe you didn't know that..." Just ranting and frothing... the waiter is late bringing food and forgets part of our order...the group is just so loud, smacking their lips together and taking photographs and banging into our chairs. Finally, I have to say something. Very politely I just lean over and say, "Wow, you guys sure look like you're having fun?" To which one of them answers... "Of course we are, it's lunch time!"
Back at the apartment I am carrying a box of groceries and get to the elevator just as a large group passes me. There are five older men and some women and some younger guests showing them around. They get to the elevator and just stand there. I am totally blocked. I can't get to the button to signal I am there. I can't get around these people who are just standing in front of the elevator talking. They are doing nothing. Nothing. Just a big congregation blocking the elevator from being used... finally, I put the box down, squeeze through the crowd, hit the button, wait for the elevator to come down, pick up my box and then smash into a man standing bewildered in front of my open door. Completely and totally clueless.
The first thing I tell myself about teaching Shakespeare in Chinese is that they are not going to understand. Take compassion, empathy, and self-awareness and throw it out the window.
The next thing I tell myself is take metaphor and simile, paradigm and imagery, and leave it for the birds... because no one will care. No one studying, reading, watching, or participating will have any knowledge or desire to connect to these things.
Finally, the last thing I tell myself is that I must make the student go through the process anyway. That I have to make them try. That I have to force them. I have to assign a grade, create a punishment, threaten a penalty, cajole them into memorizing lines, adopting a character, push them on stage...and then... hope the rest takes care of itself.  All the while, I have no idea if it means anything to anyone but me.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Speak Hands For Me!

"I do fear the people choose caesar for their king."  -Julius Caesar

Teacher Tabitha is at it again. This little 4 foot 11 powerball who best resembles Eva from Wall-E with her lazer death ray eyes hovering around students like heaps of trash she can blow away. She's reading the riot act to Stanley,the autistic kid, just shaking her finger and cursing him in the main lobby of the school
"Do you fear it?  I think you would not have it so."  -Julius Caesar

You see, Asia doesn't really know what autism is, and there's certainly no word for it in Chinese...or if there is, this professional Taiwanese teacher doesn't know it... or she wouldn't curse, scream, belittle, strike, or humiliate Stanley every day in front of the entire school. We've had our run-ins before. I've confronted her in the staff room, but she has a list of defenses... Stanley's mother asks me to do it... if I don't publically scold him he will think his actions are okay... he needs me to strike and slap him so the other students are satisfied... I do it to help him.
"Let me have men about me that are fat.  Cassius has a lean, hungry look.  Such men are dangerous."  -Julius Caesar

In Taiwan, special needs kis are usually placed in the corner of classrooms, beaten, ridiculed, or imprisoned in schools. In fact, during test week, Stanley doesn't even participate in any way. Rather, he is placed in the center of the main office where he rolls a pencil up and down his desk for 8 to 10 hours and then goes home. The reason Teacher Tabitha was scolding and striking him today was that his pencil rolled off the desk, continued to roll across the floor and stopped at the bookcase. Stanley got up to get his pencil but saw an electrical outlet... this fascinated him and he stuck the pencil inside it. So Teacher Tabitha took him into the lobby of the school, in front of the main doors, and proceeded for ten minutes to scream at him.
"So vile a thing as Caesar!"  -Julius Caesar

This is an every day occurance. And I have brought this issue up to every administrator and English speaking teacher in the office. So... again, today when I passed and saw it, I walked into the main office. There is only one English speaking staff member there... and said in very simple Chinese..."Excuse me...but... he...the boy...the student...he is special...and she...the woman...the teacher... is bad... she can't do that...okay? She can't..."
"Let's kill him boldly, but not wrathfully."  -Julius Caesar

Blank faces on office staff members is a pretty usual experience for me... The one who speaks English said..."We know. We know." Then they continued filing their paperwork and chatting among themselves.
"Give me your hands all over, one by one."  -Julius Caesar

Stanley... I'm so sorry. What I really want is to punch that teacher in the face.  I wish you were in my class.  Our Shakespeare adaptation of Julius Scissorhands is for you.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Who is Julius Scissorhands?

(Caesar and Calpurnia practice in Hartenstein's classroom)

I’ve got this kid named Tonya who has this twin called Saul. The brother’s one of the cool kids in class. He carries his ping-pong paddles in a special leather case with his name engraved above a golden zipper and has this orange utility belt that holds the thin plastic balls like bullets in a gunslinger hip holster. Not kidding! It’s sweet. I mean, if you’re a thirteen –year-old Taiwanese boy and the only foreign movie, restaurant, or person you can name is Transformers, McDonalds, and Jeremy Linn, then a ping-pong ball utility belt makes you the Steve McQueen of your generation.
(Xian helps out with painting the Scissorhand molds before school)

You see, Tonya is toxic. She’s overweight with brown teeth and this half-retarded mouth breather stare like she licked too many paint chips as a kid. Saul is constantly laying into her. How she’s fat, and farts, and how she’s ugly and stupid and when she reads the boys make cow sounds and when she walks by they throw garbage at her, and basically she is the class punching bag.
(The fickle mom prepares to enter...they simultaneously love and revile Scissorhands)

I keep pulling Saul aside and telling him to lay off. That Tonya is his sister, that he needs to stick up for her, to defend her honor, to help make her shine, that’s what big brothers do, but Saul says she was born first and that she's on her own. Besides, look at her. He points in the corner where she is standing at the chalkboard drawing a rainbow with one hand and rubbing her bulging gluttonous belly with the other. Her hair is gnarled and pulled back into a smiley face scrunchy, and her mouth is agape. Saul says, “If she was your sister, you’d be ashamed.”
He’s right, of course. Tonya is not my sister. She’s not my daughter either. She’s my student. My responsibility to her lies in a different direction.
(Of course, I read the play to my daughters... and show them this awesome BBC cartoon serious... they get it.. but don't like it when Scissorhands gets stabbed... that's why I made the senators all have ping-pong paddles for hands)

I see this a lot in schools, not just Taiwan. School is supposed to be this safe place but instead it becomes a battleground. The weak, the weird, the wacky, all get washed away in this collective pummeling. There's no voice for them, nobody to even wave a white flag.
Of course... that got me thinking.
(The choice for all the other characters to have ping-pong paddles for hands, originally came out of my distaste for the total reverence that hobby has in Asia. How Taiwanese boys often think of nothing else)

It was Christmas time about two years ago and we had returned to America, back to Colton to the family farm for carols around the fire, my mom's amazing pies, and all the gifts wrapped up perfectly around a fresh smelling Douglas Fir my dad had cut out of the back yard. It was magic, really.
Sacked out on the sofa curled up with my three daughters twisted and contorted and pinning me down in one of those moments where you dare not move or somebody will awake and so mercifully a family member wraps an afghan around you and leaves you alone. When, wouldn't you know it, the 1990 Tim Burton movie, Edward Scissorhands came the TV.
Damn you, Johnny Depp.
(Hartenstein gets into the act, painting props in the early morning before any student has arrived)

I... Love...Edward Scissorhands!
I love everything about it. I love that he squeaks and rusts and creaks and barely moves else he cuts the room to shreds. I love that people are so afraid of him but yet his own face is covered with slices and scars. He's perfect. Laying there, unable to move, my arms and legs going numb under the weight of my daughters...I hatched out a plan to use Edward as a Shakespeare character, and Julius Scissorhands was born.
(Practicing after school and at lunch... the students assemble.  None of them have ever been in a play before)

But the thing is...I really thought I was kind of alone. I had no idea of the mass appeal of this movie. I mean, you start to think of all the cool Johnny Depp characters... Cross dressing Ed Wood, murderous barber Sweeny Todd, cocaine smuggling George Jung, wise cracking Donnie Brasco, bank robbing John Dillinger, and Peter Pan writer James Barrie... not to mention Willy Wonka, Ichabod Crane, Don Juan, Gilbert Grape, the Mad Hatter and...oh yeah...that pirate guy... Johnny Depp is basically the Steve McQueen of my generation.
(I know, it may not look like much... but it's a start)

Which makes him, of course, perfect to poke fun at... or at the very least someone who I can use to show how others get poked and prodded and made to look like fools.
(I want the students and my daughters to know how much goes into a performance like much thought and much thought goes into a classroom.  Hopefully they see that)

So that's kind of the message of Julius Scissorhands. Yes, it's a Shakespeare adaption, but really it's about engaging the kids in a larger conversation about this beloved character that gets murdered in jealousy and rage for nothing other than... he's different.  A Tonya of the world.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Julius Scissorhands scene 1

Curtain Opens. There is a barren stage with two Roman Columns, a large movie screen hanging down, and an empty ping-pong table in the back.

Narrator: In the ancient days of Ping-Pongtopia, young boys and girls dreamed of only one thing: To be the greatest Ping-Pong player alive! It was a time of Gods!
Zeus: (Enter a bearded boy wearing a toga with a lightning bolt) I’m Zeus. God of Everything... Yeah, I'm immortal!
Narrator: It was a time of heroes!
Leonidas: (Enter an asthmatic and weakling looking King Leonidas from movie 300 carrying sword) This is Sparta!
Narrator: It was a time of monsters!
Medusa: (Enter green faced Medusa wearing snakes in her hair) My name is Medusa not “La-duza”!
Narrator: And it was time of man!
Pompey: (Enter Pompey wearing tank top, short shorts, high tube socks and a massive bush of black hair under his arms) I am Pompey! Yes, I have ping-pong paddles for hands (He lifts up his arm to reveal serious black arm pit hair) Fear my arm pit hair!
Medusa: Ew! I think I just got turned to stone!
Narrator: But the greatest of these was both man and monster, hero and god. Forged in the fires of Hades and crafted with the hammer of Hepheastus. His name… was Julius Scissorhands!
Scissorhands: (Scissorhands enters in white shirt and black pants, his face is painted white with black circles around his eyes. He lifts up his hands to reveal large scissor blads for fingers) You know, it’s really more of a hobby than sport.
Exit: (Exit. Lights off. Movie Soundtrack plays. Scissorhands stands alone under spotlight)

Why Julius Caesar for Middle School?

Ok, so why is William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar perfect for middle school students? Well, first of all I think we (literature teachers) do it all wrong, and I’m speaking of the order of Shakespeare plays delivered to students which is basically determined, not so surprisingly, by text books.
Remember those big hulking lit text books that get checked out to you on the first day of school… the one you lugged to class and the teacher called excrement!...the ones that the teacher said, “I don’t like any of the stories in here, so we’re not going to use it,”… the one that sat in your locker the entire year collecting dust… you know, the class collection that cost the school maybe 15 to 20 thousand dollars to buy and collect dust (just imagine what that textbook money could have been used for) … remember that text book…yeah, that’s the problem!
You see, let’s face it, most Literature teachers don’t like Shakespeare, and so they put about as much thought into teaching it as they do keeping it on the syllabus…they realize there’s an obligation to paying some kind of tribute to The Bard… but they care little for actually diving into it.
So they are more than happy to just let the textbook determine which play is appropriate for their class…and here’s where textbooks get it wrong. (I’m looking at Pearsons and Longman, and these huge grindhouses here) They give Romeo and Juliet (one of Shakespeare’s most complex and brilliant plays, with some of his most rich characters) to 9th graders. They do Othello for 10th grade (amazing play, but psychologically could be reached earlier by students) Macbeth for juniors (ok, fine… but that’s like slapping an NC-17 rating on it because of the bloodshed alone) and then…you guessed it…Hamlet for seniors (why? Because ‘To Be or Not To Be’ must be considered by academics as some kind of Holy Grail for advanced learners… I don’t know)
Here’s a better route, I believe…based on years of loving this subject: Hamlet is a great play to introduce 9th graders to the wiles and ways of Willy the Shake! Hamlet is locked inside his own head, he is stubborn and thoughtful and thrust into the adult world of ruthless manipulation and emotion…he is perfect for incoming freshman stepping into a building where older kids have jobs and driver’s licenses and talk of getting apartments and going away to school. Hamlet for 9th graders, teachers! Not as they exit the school, but as they begin.
For 10th and 11th grade, I love the comedies: The bickering of Much Ado or the filthy jokes of Shrew, but don’t sell short a play like Merchant, which has these secret subplots, moral questions, absorbing social issues, and fun riddles and suspense.
Then of course, Shakespeare’s most complete play, Romeo and Juliet, for seniors…you see, they are finally able to understand it. The beauty of R + J is that in your life, you will play all those parts. Everyone is the lover, the friend, the parent, the judge, the jealous one, the confidante…all of these characters exist and are so relatable. The imagery is incredibly deep and rich…and then there’s the sex…the dangers of those emotions…Romeo and Juliet is a cautionary tale, and it takes kids until they’re about 17 to have their heart broken, their friends betray them, their parents to kick them out, and have some basic life experiences to understand fully it’s grasp.
Which leads me to Julius Caesar. Seriously, what are your recollections of Middle School? Don’t answer because I know it already: Backstabbing pettiness, ruthless jealousy, fickle popularity contests based on nothing, depression, isolation, bitchy power struggles, horrible rumors, constant paranoia… and that’s all before homeroom… wasn’t it? Believe me, Julius Caesar has these in spades! The conspiracy surrounding perhaps the second most famous murder in history (behind that of Christ) dominates this play… which is perfect for 7th and 8th graders, because that’s their perfect mindset at this age.
I read Julius Caesar as a 10th grader and I hated it. Sitting in a circle in my wooden desk/chair inside a musty moldy classroom…page after page after page of sitting and reading speeches. We didn’t draw. We didn’t stand up. We didn’t act it out. We didn’t have props. We didn’t act silly. We tried to discuss it, but most people were asleep. I hated the play.
But the deeper I get into learning and teaching Shakespeare as a physical act…. I mean, I want to teach Shakespeare in the same way Billy Banks wants you to lose weight… I realize the beauty of the drama's appeal to a younger more sensitive audience… and I’ve tried to convey that to my students this year. Let’s see if it works?