The Differences Between Classes
For those who are otherwise unfamiliar with my teaching schedule, we’re on block (A day and B day) with four classes a day (for kids; teachers have three classes and one prep). My A-1 and B-4 are very strong, very academic classes. My A-2 and B-2 are very earnest, for the most part, but struggle academically due largely to LEP and attendance. And my A-4 is a schizophrenic nightmare, filled half with National Honor Society kids and half with actual gang-member juvenile delinquents.
Today I started my Midsummer Night’s Dream unit, which is my very favorite part of the sophomore curriculum and one that I cling to despite other teachers’ insistence of Julius Caesar’s superiority. I love the goofiness of it, the dirty jokes, the shocking situations, and the happy, lighthearted way it allows us to end the school year.
And I love the way I teach it. I close my door and lower my voice, and ask my kids if they can keep a secret from the other English teachers. “I love this story so much that, even though it’s against the English teacher code of ethics, I really just want to just read it for the joy of reading it and not bother with a big paper or anything. Is that okay with you guys?” Then we prep for each reading assignment by dressing up and acting out the scenes in contemporary English, read, and watch clips from Michael Hoffman’s beautiful film adaptation. There are comprehension quizzes here and there to keep the kids honest, but mostly it’s a celebration married to some great discussion – and in the end, the kids are maybe just a little bit in love with Shakespeare.
Before I start, I want to point out that we did NOT review anything about the Shakespearean theater or the fact that men played women’s parts.
Today, we were talking about the Amazons and their matriarchal society, so that I can layer on additional understanding about the tension between Hippolyta and Theseus (and hopefully clue them in to why knowing “stuff” makes reading more interesting). I’ve given them a goofy history lesson about chopping off boobs and slaughtering Spartans, and explained the whole “where do they get babies/what do they do with men” situation.
First, let’s look at A-1. Sharing a moment of sympathetic pain, my girls are all hugging their chests and my boys are trying manfully not to cup themselves after my cheerful point that “If the Amazons couldn’t chop off the man’s head, they’d probably have to chop something else off in order to keep them as a slave.” I’m giving the children doe eyes and they’re loving it.
A boy in the back of the room raises his hand. “Mrs. Bees, is that what happened with the men who had to play female parts in the theater in that time? I mean, didn’t they, er, cut that stuff off so that they always had high-pitched voices?”
Okay – wrong. But he’s remembed something from last year’s Romeo and Juliet unit, and he knows something about opera history and the castratti, and he made an intelligent if wrongheaded connection. This is my A-1.
Now let’s look at A-4. After the same conversation, one boy blurts out, “So, if they chopped off their weiners, aren’t they a girl now?” The boy next to him says, “No, man, they don’t chop your nuts.” The girl in the next row wants to know how they pee, and now another boy wants to know what the Amazons did with the unwanted breasts, and whether or not they made them into ashtrays. Weiner Boy is by now holding forth on the idea that Shakespeare made guys play girl parts because he was gay and wanted to mess with little boys offstage.
I wrestle the conversation away from this subject and introduce the character of Nick Bottom and slip in the fact that he is the butt of many jokes in this play. “Okay, guys, so if it’s true that in Shakespearean comedy a sword is never just a sword, what do you think about this character’s name?”
“He likes to take it in the butt!”
This is my A-4.
Ah, what a difference a few hours can make.
Then again – he did remember that men played female parts!