Blame it on Glenda

Blame Glenda Jackson. I reserved tickets for Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women (he always has the name before and above the title) for Easter weekend.

New York is always extremes. The highs of theatre-going to the frequent degradation of the subway and elsewhere.

Subways aren’t for sleeping: meet “Brimstone” a subway gospel rapper. (Check Youtube). “Jesus loves you” in white letters on his black shirt, front and back, a large cross slung around his neck, made of palm leaves (it was Easter Sunday). Then a sermon for his subway ministry.

A young pianist plays electronic keyboard on the platform. Classical, then Pop: The Heart Does Go On, Theme from Love Story, The Sting (Scott Joplin)… he’s dressed to kill in a soft blue pastel suit. His father (?) sits on a bucket off to the the side. The most memorable aspect? He appears to be playing a video game on his phone at the same time as playing, without missing a note, (or a point.)

Subway peddlars are endless. Candy, clothes, and just plain panhandling, from all ages (a Vietnam vet, teenagers, and younger). A raging boom-box announces a dancer whose parting words are “I’m not homeless but I do better if I look it.”

Another low-point: mistaking a scalper in Times Square as staff for the TKTS half-price ticket booth. When it became clear to him I only wanted to know if I could get Sunday matinee tickets on Saturday, he told me I was wasting his time.

The last straw: a strategically placed snow storm right when my flight was to leave. Then it cleared up. But not before I had to take a much later flight home.

I prefer to dwell on the positive: the revival of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties (I understand a lot more than when I saw it in high school but still am mystified by parts); the transforming set of Afterglow (more than the titillating plot of an open relationship); and, best for last- Glenda Jackson, 81 (!) in Albee’s third Pulitzer Prize winner. I go on and on in my drama class about voice on stage. It was all she needed to be a Tall Woman. Actually got to meet her afterwards as she greeted fans, having her after-show cigarette (!). “Let the lady have her moment”, Security warned us. We did. She seemed not to be bothered by the question about returning to the stage after 23 years in politics. “It’s what I did,” she said between drags. Of course she can still do it.

I blame Glenda Jackson for another hectic, harried and totally worth-it Easter weekend jaunt in the Big Apple. Thanks Glenda.


Mean-Spirited or Just Spirited?

Just finished our school production of Once in a Lifetime by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart (teaser pic above). The students loved doing it, and the audience enjoyed. So as I recover from exhaustion, I can post a bit of theatre philosophy.
I was always attracted to the particular skill of this Broadway duo. Previous productions of The Man Who Came to Dinner and You Can’t Take It With You were highlights of our school’s stage history. The appeal? The plots and the characters. Scenes are expertly structured with most entrances and exits on the heels of a character-driven one-liner.
But. The plays are from the 1930’s, and the regularity of sexist and racist remarks in all the plays jumps off the page and stage in the 2010’s. Itemizing them here is not my interest. We dealt with those lines (they are hard to miss) and still did the shows.
A more subtle sensitivity struck me later in our rehearsal preparation of Once In A Lifetime, and I felt it in the performances. Lifetime spins on the dumb luck of George Lewis who unwittingly becomes the top guy in Hollywood (the play is about the advent of the “talkies”.) More than one character makes George’s slowness the butt of the joke. More than once he is called stupid, told to shut up. My question- is this as awful as it sounds? Are we oversensitive, or is it the right amount of sensitivity for the sensitive times in which we live? Is the play mean-spirited or just funny?
Sometimes the audience laughed at George; they always seemed to root for him.

Difficult Conversations

After two weeks of Difficult Conversations (let’s abbreviate them to “DC’s”), I thought I was done for a while. As a teacher, I’d had my share, recently, of DC’s with students, parents, and colleagues. The content varied: managing competing ambitions (between parents and children), disrespectful students (I know- comes with the territory), and colleagues with personal agendas (including maybe me). Some were connected; all were difficult for their own reasons.

(I haven’t even mentioned DC’s in my personal life, which competed for my patience and energy at the same time.)

Some DC’s resolve but others never end. More often than not, the same ones continue. All you did by confronting them was to lay some groundwork for the conversation to continue (and still be difficult).

Approaching Perfection

A couple of thoughts on perfection. The first is about perfection in education; the second is about perfection in writing.

If you’ve read the blog, of late, as a teacher, I am trying to lessen the emphasis on marks. (Reducing the Emphasis.) More than once, I’ve had students start discussion about assessment with words to the effect, “Where did I lose marks?” “How can I get 10 out of 10?” “How can I get perfect?”

I try to shape the discussion around being “close to perfection”, due to the subjective quality of English.

Which brings me to the second aspect: perfect writing. In a previous blog,Whole Separate Language, my favourite quote appears:
“There ought to be a whole separate language for words that are truer than other words- for perfect absolute truth.”

Apart from the quote itself being about words and truth being perfect, there is the perfection of the syntax. How many drafts did it take Anne Tyler to perfect the construction of that sentence? Was it instantaneous? Did it come to her all at once?

Maybe sentences like this can be held up to students as an example of writing that is close to perfection. The fact that it is about perfection and words themselves only makes it more perfect.

Reducing the Emphasis on Marks (pt. 2)

This is a follow-up to the previous post of the same name.
Giving back students verbal feedback without marks worked well. Students had nothing to concentrate on but the comments, and their work. They read both quietly and attentively.
My colleague went one better with her class. She then gave them a blank rubric and told them, based on the feedback, to mark their essay.
I did the same with my class. They graded their work, relatively quickly.
I then revealed what I gave them.
To paraphrase a student of my colleague, “I’m not sure I agree with the mark, but I understand it.”

Reading- just finished, current and waiting

Just finished the plays:

The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe

Outside by Paul Dunn


Other People: Takes & Mistakes By David Shields

Current fiction:
Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman

The Man Who Loved Children By Christina Stead (an Anne Tyler favourite, apparently)

Testing the Current by William McPherson

Current Non-fiction:

World Class Learners by Yong Zhao

Waiting their turn…

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John LeCarre

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Daydreams of Angels by Heather O’Neill





Reducing the Emphasis on Marks

This might be the first blog I’ve written solely devoted to educational matters.

If I have a new year’s teacher’s resolution of any kind, it’s to try to reduce the emphasis on marks for students and parents. A losing battle these days, but I think it is vital. It alarms me how many students, even in grade 9, are marks-obsessed. I even had a fourteen year old once inform me, easily five years ago, that 88% on her first assignment in Drama was not going to get her into an Ivy League school. I tried to encourage her to relax at least until she got to grade 10.

This year, I am giving feedback about what students have done, more than how well it is done, in my somewhat subjective disciplines of English and Drama. I did it today in a class, and no one asked how much a given response garnered on the rubric. I am sure the questions will come when they receive the rubric, and actual grades.

Tomorrow, I intend to give back essays, filled with specific feedback and commentary about what they wrote, but I will not release the marks quite yet. I’ll let you know what the response is like.

The Wolves

Was in NYC, and for love nor money, I could not get tickets to Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves, about a girls’ soccer team.

Bought the script at the Drama Bookshop. I love how a reviewer describes it:

“.. an ensemble of distinct female characters without leaning on romantic partners or traditional feminine tropes...” [TheatreMania]

I can see the appeal. What an ear for female teenage dialogue (when the adults aren’t present). I’d love to see it used at our school, but it’s just so raw. And witty.

One of the tamer exchanges between players:

– what’s the Khmer Rouge

-they’re like Nazis in Cambodia

-but in the 70’s

A Pulitzer Prize nomination did not surprise me.