Monday, October 30, 2017

Book Review: The Merchant of Venice

I hadn't read The Merchant of Venice before I started it last week. It's the next unit my mentor and I are co-teaching to our juniors and seniors, and wouldn't you know it, it's usually a good idea to have read the stories you're trying to teach. Ha.

Now, you might be thinking that it's odd to have a book review for such a famous play. Who needs my opinion when there are literally hundreds of better-read scholars just waiting to analyze it? I considered reviewing something else, but I'm so excited about this play that I couldn't leave it alone.

Here's the real reason I never read the play before now: I thought it would be dull. A moneylender and a couple of rich guys get in a fight that has to be settled in court? Woooo. No one told me that this play has a badass female lead who hoodwinks all the men while they're declaring their undying devotion to the brotherhood. No one mentioned that most of the love scenes read with a sort of tongue-in-cheek roll of the eyes, or that you didn't have to read the lines aloud to hear the sarcasm.

I don't know why I had such a skewed view of what The Merchant of Venice was really about, but I'm glad I finally read it. It pairs two interwoven storylines: Portia, the heiress forced to marry whichever suitor has the luck to pick the right box, and Antonio, the merchant who offers his  flesh as collateral on a loan so his bestie can court Portia. It paints an awful, anti-Semitic view of Shylock, the moneylender who loans the money to Antonio and his friend*.

As in many of Shakespeare's plays, the women are brilliant, sneaky, and get a lot of great speeches. Portia doesn't sit around waiting for Bassanio to watch his best friend be murdered by the villain–she does something about it. The entire story is a fantastic mix of romance, comedy, and drama. If you haven't read it yet, here's your chance!

This year, Michelle is attempting the most difficult task of all: getting her students to laugh at her terrible jokes.

*Although, one could argue that Shylock had to be portrayed that way due to Elizabethan views of Jews and their worth. It makes me wonder what Shakespeare really believed. Did he hate Jews, too, or was he trying to draw attention to ridiculous anti-Semitism? 

Monday, October 16, 2017

Giving Good Feedback

I recently read an article about learning being based purely on how much quality feedback a student receives from their teacher. It brought me back to my very first critique group meeting with Giles and Emer. We had to teach ourselves to give meaningful feedback, and then we had to learn to listen to that critique without getting ultra defensive.

If you're a writer and you've never been to an in-person critique session, I highly recommend it. Some days feel like getting stuck in a room with a horde of Internet trolls. Other days can surprise you with positive feedback. The great thing is that even terrible comments can help you learn–what matters is  seeking the feedback in the first place.

Knowing how to take feedback isn't just a skill for writers. Whether you have an office job, are a full-time student, or get to spend your days traveling the world, the ability to listen to feedback without having a mental breakdown is indispensable. If my teaching mentor never told me what I did right or wrong, I wouldn't know what to improve. Imagine never knowing if your boss thought you were good at your job or not–how awful would that be?

Whenever I have to give someone feedback, I try to use what we call a "crap sandwich". Instead of pointing out every single thing I hated or that was wrong, I mix positive responses with constructive criticism. I'm not always the best at it, but it's something I'd like to continue to work on.

How about you? Do you give good feedback to the people around you?

Michelle definitely doesn't have too many different shades of red lipstick.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Let's Be Odd Together

I'm a fan of odd things. Odd stories. Odd dishes. Odd people. It could be an art thing--ever heard of the Rule of Thirds? Or, just maybe*, it's because I'm as odd as the things I like. Perhaps that's why I've found myself beating–cough–teaching the finer points of literacy and the English language to a gaggle of high school students in Thornton.

Teachers are an odd breed, for sure. I thought writers were weird (they are), but teachers have their very own brand of kooky. We walk into our schools laden with bags of food, school supplies, and graded homework; it looks like we're moving in. Every time I swipe my key card to enter the building, I get the distinct feeling of walking into the zombie apocalypse. Every day we face the zombie hoard, trying to get them to at least use a complete sentence when they ask us for more brains.

Writers and teachers have a lot in common. Besides often fighting zombies, both groups are trying to save the world. My writer friends do it one story at a time, and my teacher friends do it one person at a time. Not that we're saviors by any means; I simply mean that in the grand scheme of things, imagination and a caring, kind adult can be the difference between a kid's success and his/her failure. Every time I volunteer at Sunday school with my little first and second graders, I see those differences being built. Every time I walk into a high school classroom or through the halls at work, I watch those successes (and failures) being fortified. My mob of zombie students takes in every word from the stories and teachers around them, trying to make sense of who they are now and who they will be later.

I've been thinking lately that we live in odd times. Life is chaotic and everyone seems to be looking for a way to bring things into peaceful perspective. It's been a bittersweet year for myself and many of my close friends–in the end, though, the sweet outweighs the bitter. Sometimes I wondered if we would make it through, yet my odd circle of teachers and writers has triumphed. It may not be the end of the year yet, but I can see the finish line. There's a light at the end of the tunnel, and...oh, wait. Is that...a zombie?


Michelle's students all love reading horror, which is simply further proof that they are all zombies and will soon overrun the earth.

*"Maybe"? Ha. Try "definitely".

Monday, October 2, 2017

Pace Yourself

As many of you know, I'm part of a rather intense teacher's residency. My work life essentially consists of doing all the work of a master's program...without it actually being a master's program. On any given day, I might play the role of a T.A., a student teacher, the primary teacher, or someone who is simply incredibly lost and confused.

I'm the kind of person who tends to go big or go home. Do your best or don't try at all. "A" is the only acceptable grade. Yet when I was a copywriter, I didn't consider myself to be a workaholic. I simply had a lot I wanted to do. Podcasting didn't count as work. Tutoring didn't count as work. My vacation days were rarely spent on vacation–instead, you often found me working my "hobby" jobs on my days off.

So, being a person who worked a lot and didn't mind being busy, I never thought I would get so stressed I needed a mental health day. But last week, my mentor declared that I wasn't allowed to teach because I was running myself ragged. I had, as we say, run out of spoons.

At first I said I would still try to come in for half of a day of work, but my mentor nixed that idea. He was sick, and I needed to learn to actually take a vacation day that didn't have any other responsibilities. And can I just tell you...that single day off was the best day off E-V-E-R. For the first time in years, I restricted how much work I did on a day I wasn't at my day job. I watched Netflix, edited, and took my dog on a long walk. It was glorious.

This experience has taught me that it's important to take breaks before I need them. They say that if you're thirsty, you've already waited too long to hydrate. I haven't been one to allow myself to chill, but over this next year of residency I want to teach myself to be more careful with my time.

Michelle corrupts high school students with the nerdery of grammar, punctuation, and well-written stories.