Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Archive for the tag “AP Literature”

Bard Bits: Shakespeare Is For Everyone? (That is the question…)

As an AP English teacher, Shakespeare is naturally part of the curriculum and it’s expected my students adore the Avon man as much as I do. Not usually the case. As for my regular sophomores? The groans when we approach Julius Caesar can discouraging. Yet, it is often in how Shakespeare is taught that makes a difference. This is a separate topic. The main topic is the assumption that Shakespeare is for everyone and they are going to like it. That’s like saying exercising is for everyone. It should be, but face it, not everyone embraces a push-up or a run around the block. Some like the idea of exercising and others have tried it, and many let others revel in it. So it goes with Shakespeare.

AUSTIN TICHENOR is the creator of The Shakespereance; co-artistic director of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. He contributed a thought-provoking article about Shakespeare. Here is the gist of his rhetorical stance:

Is Shakespeare for everyone? Of course he is! Absolutely!

I just wish people would stop saying it.

In Shakespeare’s day, his plays — and plays by others, and theater generally — really were for everyone. All levels of society congregated to see and hear plays in performance, to share gossip and news, and to rub literal and metaphorical elbows. Not just a source for entertainment, Shakespeare’s theater was the internet of its day.

But beginning in the 19th century, theater (and opera and symphonies) became co-opted by the upper class who wanted to keep socially — often meaning ethnically and economically — “unacceptable” people out of the theater, turning what was originally popular culture into “high” culture and using the arts as a tool of status and exclusion.

Worse, as a by-product of imperialism, Shakespeare was imposed on non-English speakers in different countries, held up as the best playwright in the world with the understanding that only by learning his plays and accepting his greatness — and, by extension, the greatness of the English language and Anglo-European culture — could one become truly civilized.

So I get it: “Shakespeare is for everyone” is an important correction, a reminder that Shakespeare’s plays were written to be popular entertainments, designed to appeal to everyone from the groundlings to the nobility.

But I worry that “Shakespeare is for everyone” nowadays feels less like a promise and more like a threat; the implication being that if you don’t like him, there’s something wrong with you..

Because the truth is, Shakespeare isn’t for everyone, and it’s disingenuous to suggest that it is. Nothing is for everyone: Personally, I don’t like opera, baseball, or video games, and in London at the turn of the 17th century, there were tens of thousands of people who undoubtedly preferred to skip another one of Shakespeare’s epics and head to the bear-baiting pits instead.

So what’s the alternative? I prefer saying “Shakespeare is for anyone who wants him.” For many reasons (i.e., the comedies aren’t funny, the language is incomprehensible, the kings and their nobles are confusing, the references archaic), Shakespeare is demonstrably not for everyone. And that’s okay. But I’ll argue till my dying day that he can and should be made available to anyone who wants him, with many different entry points for people of all levels and interests, whether they be live productions, fascinating lectures, compelling museum exhibitions, excellent films and videos, or even, dare I suggest, pop-up books. One of the first steps in appreciating Shakespeare, it seems to me, is being honest about his output, for we can only truly appreciate his greatness by being discerning enough to recognize the parts that don’t measure up, and understanding that no matter what we do, he still won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

Igniting a Discussion on Happiness

In my day job as an AP teacher I have the privilege of introducing students to literary works of merit. I look forward to their insights and perspectives.

Image result for f451 images are you happy

We have just begun Ray Bradbury’s classic dystopian tale of government control: Fahrenheit 451. This deceptively easy read contains complicated topics. One discussion topic is happiness. Guy Montag is not a happy fireman, or at least he was one until Clarisse asked him, “Are you happy?”

Image result for f451 images are you happy

So I put it to my students a discussion statement prompted by Clarisse: “Happiness is a choice, not a given.”

A lively discussion developed with a split between total agreement and a few who decided happiness was a complicated issue and they couldn’t come to complete agreement about it.

I then prompted them with this question: “What is the difference between happiness and joy?”

Their conclusions were opposite of my mine.

They said: “Happiness is long lasting, while joy is a temporary emotion.”

Hmm, I’ve always reckoned it to be the opposite. Happiness is a temporary state, dependent on outside circumstances, yet joy lives deep in our being, dwelling in our soul.

Nope. They didn’t buy that. Maybe I did have it wrong. I proceeded in the course of action that all teachers must do when wondering if what they are teaching to their students is baloney. I Googled it.

This is what I found: Joy or Happiness?

What are your thoughts? Is happiness dependent on outside circumstances? Does joy stem from emotional contentment from within?

Interestingly enough Guy Montag, F451’s protagonist, upon realizing he is not happy begins making decisions involving enormous collateral damage. Joy is never mentioned as Guy Montag seeks happiness. Does he find happiness or joy? I will have to reread it and decide if he actually did. And that’s why F451 remains a classic—it keeps asking the reader questions after the last page is turned.

Image result for joy vs happiness
What are your thoughts about joy vs happiness?

“Dead for a Ducat!”

Valentine’s Day and a Shakespeare sonnet–right?  How about Shakespeare and the play I love to teach? 

You’re  probably wondering why I chose such an unlovely line for my Valentine’s Day post. Not the most romantic, I know, or even the most notable line of Hamlet–yet it does have a purpose. When Hamlet exults at his stabbing of the “rat” behind the curtain, the play changes. Hamlet changes. There is no turning back. 

By the time you read this post I will be well immersed in teaching Hamlet to my APsters and they will either be all in happily sailing with understanding and enthusiasm or they will have abandoned ship and rowed to shore. I have found either my students love, love, love the Danish doings of the undecided prince or are ready to move on and far away from Shakespeare. I have to remember my enthusiasm for Shakespeare isn’t always as contagious as I hope it to be.

I think I over prepare in hopes of dazzling my students with background facts, nuances, allusions, critical thinker questions, clips, trivia–oh my, I probably absolutely overwhelm them. I got lost on YouTube finding a clip for my class. It was a fun little side trip. Shakespeare hits the late night talk shows easily. It’s true what Ben J. said–Shakespeare is for all time. Especially late at night time. Take a look:

So happy Valentine’s Day and I hope that lovely sonnet pops up on someone else’s post.

Of Hamlet, Conundrums, Cost Factors–oh my

I have decided that now and then it’s important to dip into the retirement fund to fully appreciate opportunities I may not be up for when I do finally retire. When the opportunity came up to apply for the first ever Folger Shakespeare Library Summer Workshop, I swiftly wrote up my reasons why I should be among the coveted twenty-five teachers who will get to study Hamlet. I don’t know if Midsummer Nights Dream or even King Lear would have caused me to leap without much looking. I don’t even recall what I wrote, I was in such an unmitigated hurry to apply.

Whatever I wrote worked for them.  Come July I’m heading out to Washington DC to learn how to teach Hamlet to my students. Even though it’s costing me about a month’s salary (tuition, airfare, hotel–ooh, I have to eat, forgot about that) my hubs and family and friends convinced me to commit by saying: “Just go already.” They’re right. I would be full of regrets at having turned down the opportunity just because I like to save money instead of spend it. ‘Tis better to be filled with memories than regrets. Shakespeare didn’t write that, but I’m sure he thought along those lines when he trekked off to London for the theater.

I will keep you all informed as I get closer to the event.  I think I’m getting excited–reality emails are arriving about getting prepared for the big trip. 

1. I must supply a recommendation letter in order to secure my Reading Room pass. My local library card will not be sufficient. This puts studying Shakespeare into a totally different realization of *special event*.

One thing I’ve noticed as July gets closer and my departure date, I’m more enthused about seeing Washington DC in movies we watch–“Hey, don’t blow up the White House! It’s on my tourista list.” Or a poke to the hubs “I’m gonna get a photo with Abe. I’ll give my regards.” The MEPA is an excellent fellow allowing me to gloat like this.

I’ve only dipped my toe back East briefly when I attended a Chautauqua workshop back in 2008. Is the east coast still muggy in summer? My part of the planet sports dry  and hot summer fun. Humidifiers and air conditioners are standard issue. 

As for tripworthy goals and accomplishments: I’m hoping Jude Law will stop by. Makes sense doesn’t it? He just did Hamlet on Broadway. I would settle for Patrick Stewart peeking in. David Tennant? I’m also hoping to dig in and get some amazing research done on a Shakespeare project I’ve been toying with the past five years. That Reading Pass will definitely come in handy. Of course, I really hope to bring back such astounding Hamlet lesson plans that they will transform my seniors into iambic spouting Bardinators.

We interrupt this post with an important update:
“participants should pack loose, comfortable clothing for stage work, including a workshop on swordplay.” SWORDS! 

Being a West Coaster, I am so open to suggestions of what I should REALLY see when finding time to be a tourist in Washington DC.

a bit about cricketmuse

I intend to pack a bit more…

Remaining the Orphaned Narrator

It is always exciting to discover a new-to-me author. In this case it’s Kazuo Ishiguro. I know, I know. I’m a bit late in my discovering; however, better late than never in finding an author of mesmerizing style.

I knew the movie Remains of the Day, before finding the novel and didn’t realize the movie was the adaptation.
How could I possibly pass up a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson?
Flash forward five years later and I’m perusing the AP Literature list (“read that one, will never read this one, not reading this one again”), when I recognized the title Remains of the Day and connected it to the movie. Then I read the author’s name and I must admit I expected something like Adrian Smythe or Winston Greene, not Kazuo Ishiguro. After all, the novel is about a very proper English butler and his reflections of what it takes to become the best of English butlers. Wouldn’t one need to be English to understand that sort of nationalistic pride? I’m not getting points here for narrow-minded thinking, am I?

It turns out Ishiguro is quite well-suited to the task of writing about the English since he moved to England when he was around six years old. This gives him the ability to have an insider’s view with a somewhat detached perspective. The result is  basically a stream-of-consciousness narrative concerning the tunnel vision of a man’s quest for the unattainable. Trying to live a life that is beyond reproach, to achieve a status of perfection, requires sacrifice. Can sacrifice be made without regret? This is the hidden truth Stevens, the butler is searching for, except he does not realize it.
A quest novel of notice did not go unnoticed, for Ishiguro’s debut garnered him the Man Booker Prize and set a bar. Would he be a one shot wonder or would this be the first work of a noteworthy word smith?

image: This cover indicates the layers found within the story.

My literary taste buds curious for more, I trotted down to the library. Grabbing any title of his that caught my eye on the  shelf, I opened up his fifth novel When We Were Orphans. I immersed myself in reading it to the point the MEPA queried, “Still a good book?” Yes, thank you. Prognosis? After reading two novels, indications are Ishiguro is wordsmithing wonder.

Here are some bio facts and  stats:

  • Two novels have been adapted to the screen, Remains of the Day, and the more recent Never Let Me Go. Both have been received well, considering Ishiguro’s stories are mainly first person narratives, making them difficult to translate into a cinematic plot.
  • His novels are historical in nature, with attention to detail.
  • The stylistic viewpoint is that of the unreliable first-person narrator, one who is flawed in outlook.
  • Although born in Japan, he did not return until thirty years later.
  • He has received four Man Booker Prize nominations
  • The Times ranked him 32 on the list of the 50 most influential British writers since 1945.

As for an actual review of When We Were Orphans, I leave it to the more qualified:
New York Times

I plan on continuing my course of exploring Ishiguro’s work and look forward to introducing a contemporary author to my APters, who, I’m sure, would like a break from dead white folk now and then.

Any thoughts on Ishiguro’s writing? Any suggestions for the next title I should read of his?

Having a Senior Moment

Today marked the last day and first day for a group of seniors.  As we wrapped up their visual essays that little old epiphany popped up:

“Hey guys, do you realize this is the last class on the last day of your high school career?” I obviously was more impressed with that fact than they were. I offered up the Kleenex box, but no takers. There’s no room for tears when there is cheering going on!

Wanting to capture the moment before they all split in separate directions I said their exit ticket required five memories of AP Senior Literature.  Silly me, I was thinking they might mention any of the following:

  • “I sure appreciate knowing how to properly apply anaphora and polysyndeton when emphasizing my need for repetition and parallelism.”
  • “Having learned the significance of water when reading literature makes me want to run right out and grab a copy of Moby Dick this weekend.”
  • “I wake up in the middle of the night craving yet one more reading of Prufrock’s lovesong.

No. None of that. Instead they popped off these memories:

“Your cow jokes.”

“The story of how you met your husband and made polenta for him.”

“French day. All that bread and cheese and fruit we enjoyed when watching Cyrano de Bergerac.”

Nope. All the labor spent on creating scintillating lesson plans went unnoticed and instead the personal aspects is what became memorable for them.  Lesson learned: The best teaching comes from learning to set aside the plans now and then.

I’ll miss this batch of seniors, we’ve had our share of moments, that’s for sure.  Saturday is graduation and once they leave behind high school I wonder if they’ll take along some new friends with them–Jane, Janie, Lizzie, Darcy…

Eyre of Distinction

Soon we start our AP novel unit, Jane Eyre. Charlotte Bronte’s novel is one of my favorites, which means I will infuse as much of my appreciation for it as I do for my other favorite classics like Hamlet.  While many wax profoundly about Jane Austen, I think Miss Bronte gets overlooked. Jane Eyre has the distinction of being one of those novels that set things of literature memes, tropes, and motifs in motion by becoming a template for other stories. Consider:

  • she is plain in looks, but beautiful in spirit
  • her intelligence is valued by others, at a time when women were not widely educated
  • she values family over fortune
  • she easily speaks her mind
  • she is independent and finds a way to survive
  • outwardly she is calm, yet ripples with passion underneath her facade of restraint
  • she is perservering, sourceful, and a woman of strong morals
  • she stands up for herself–no doormat dame here

My opinion: Jane rocks. Over the years there have been several film adaptations of the novel.  I binged on JE films over the weekend and came up with my ratings:

1971: Starring George C. Scott and Susannah York
Verdict: skip.

George, too familiar with his Patton role, brought it to his interpretation of Rochester.  He railed and ranted in a very American accent and I gave up after he meets with Jane after their encounter on the road. Besides York’s Jane being too old and much too pretty I couldn’t sit through the poor film quality. The video transfer was so muddied I felt as if I were watching the movie through an unwashed glass.

image: eleganceof fashion. blogspot

1983: Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clarke
Verdict: one of the most faithful and watchable versions

Being a BBC production, I had initial trust it would be a quality adaptation, after all these are the folk who brought us Colin Firth as Mister Darcy. The sets, the important scenes, those inscrutable nuances of the original story are all contained in this mini-series. Timothy Dalton definitely understands the Byronic hero that Rochester embodies and has even said in interviews Rochester is one of his best roles. Clarke, while a bit older than the required 18 year old fresh from her Lowood imprisonment, captures the Quakerish passivity and ethereal nature of Jane Eyre.  The scenes between Dalton and Clarke are melt-in-the-mouth truffle satisfying.  Their version is what comes to mind most often when I return for a refresher novel read. I really did believe a heartstring developed between them. The agony of Dalton’s Rochester when he realized his Jane was leaving him forever kept the tissue box occupied.

1996: William Hurt and Charlotte Gainsbourg director: Franco Zefferilli
Verdict: passable, but strayed terribly from the novel

William Hurt seemed on the verge of understanding Rochester, but kept the bitterness too diminished, too washed out. Charlotte G as Jane got her part right. The plain, passionate young actress  imbued the paradoxical spirit of Jane Eyre. Sadly, there existed no believable passion, that needed kindred heart-string spark, between Gainsbourg’s Jane and Hurt’s Rochester. This spark is the very core of the novel. Without that essential core the movie floundered about like a fish hoping to get back into the water to have a proper swim. The director who brought us Romeo and JulietTaming of the Shrew, Hamlet, and other great stories of passion missed the mark with this adaptation by rushing the story and taking way too many liberties with the plot.

2006: Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson
Verdict: enjoyable, even if a bit too contemporary in approach


Admittedly, I had started watching this version years ago when it first came out, but found myself so disenchanted with the cutaway flashbacks, I couldn’t get past the Lowood scenes and it wasn’t until recently I returned to another viewing.  I did like the lead actors portrayals, and yes, there was a definite spark between them. I thought Toby Stephens got off easy with his fire wounds, unlike Hurt and Dalton. His rugged looks only appeared rather marred, instead of being ruined. The rolling around, ankle rubbing bit at the end seemed a bit too lenient for true Bronte style. Then again, there are leniences throughout this adaptation I willingly overlooked since the production quality proved so high.

2011: MiaWaikowska and Michael Fassbender Director: Cary Fukunaga
Verdict: Admirable

The first scene makes a diehard JE fan sit bolt upright and ask, “What? Wait–did the movie skip! because the opening scene is starting right off with Jane making her mad dash from Thornfield, which usually means the film is winding up to the grand finale.  Instead Fukunaga gets a bit artsy and dips in and out of Jane’s childhood days in flashbacks, with a quick glance at times at her more recent history.  Artfully done, but a bit disconcerting for those who prefer the linear progression.  Fassbender and Waikowska do provide a sumptuous Rochester and Jane.  Looks, mannerisms, nuances, smoldering passions–it’s all there.  That’s why it the ending is so absolutely frustrating.  I could not understand the need to transform Rochester into a Tom Hanks Castaway lookalike.  Maybe trading out the maimed hand for a beard was a contract compromise. Also, there should have been another 20 minutes of wrap up, yet we are whisked away much too soon.  It’s like being served the most savory dessert and having it taken away after a couple a bites–“Yo, I wasn’t finished.” Apparently Fukunaga thought the audience needed no more indulging and wanted us to move away from the table.

Overall: If a dedicated JE fan go to one of the series adaptations, such as the 1983 or the 2006.  It appears that only when given the proper amount of time (3-4 hours) can Jane’s story be told sufficiently. However, if thinking “book or movie first?” and movie wins out–get the 2011 version.

Further notation: I thought about finding the Ciarin Hinds version, especially after watching him in Austen’s Persuasion with Amanda Root.  Our library no longer has it and after reading the widely mixed reviews of loving it and hating it, I thought I will stick with my picks of 1983, 2011, and 2006 for classroom clips.

Any readers have their own picks of fave JE adaptations?

An Encounter of the Stein Kind

Celebrity spotting can be fun and definitely livens up conversations as people trade their “I saw —- at —–,” quips and crows.  Spotting is one thing, encounters are another.

Encounters are where you actually get to have a conversation, or spend some time with the person of celebre status. For instance, I’ve spotted Viggo Mortenson signing autographs at an art gallery showing (promoting his North American photo art), the Portland Blazers at the airport (wow–they are tall), Ralph Nader giving a speech, but never conversed with them, hence no encounter checkmark.

Ralph Nader, speaking at BYU's Alternate Comme...

Ralph Nader (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fotografía de Viggo Mortensen en la presentaci...

Viggo Mortensen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This summer while vacationing, The MEPA and I were walking in a park and I tend to get annoyed when the people in front of me are moving too slow.  I would not be a good candidate for Disneyland action in summer. I am about to pass this older gentleman in front of me, when I hear The MEPA speak up, “Would that be the famous Ben Stein?” and I do a double-take when I hear, “Yes, it is.” And it IS Ben Stein! I think, “Cool, Ben Stein,” and begin to give him his space, because it must get tedious to have the public pester you just because you are famous. But then he starts talking to us and not wanting to be rude we match stride with him and before you know it I’m walking next to Ben Stein around the park.  Here’s what I basically remember:

Ben: And what do you do for a living?

Me: I’m a teacher (this is where he got interested)

Ben: Really? What do you teach?

Me: Freshmen English and Senior AP Literature (then he got really interested)

Ben: I would love to come to an AP English class. Could I come to your class? What would I have to do? (he was serious!)

I then explained about security measures, about how he would have to let the high school knowing he is coming and how he would have to sign in, and at this point I’m thinking “Do I really want Ben Stein watch me teach?” It’s a bit intimidating, if you think about it.  Here is one of the most famed teachers (at least of popular culture) asking to drop in on my class:

As we continued to walk Ben expressed his concerns about students and literature:

Ben: I don’t think kids today read enough. Do you teach The Great Gatsby?

Me: Actually, that’s taught at the junior level.

Ben: Do the kids like it?

Me: I think they like it better since Leonardo di Caprio is in the new movie.

Ben: Have you seen the movie?

I replied I hadn’t, explaining it looked a bit too hipped up for my taste, and considering I didn’t like  Baz Luhrman’s version of Romeo and Juliet I didn’t think I would be seeing his version of Gatsby anytime soon.  Ben agreed he didn’t care for Luhrman’s R&J either, but floored me by saying he’s seen The Great Gatsby thirteen times! Thirteen times! I didn’t even watch Star Wars more than five times when it came out in the theaters (yes, my age is showing again, darn it).

Our walk ended because we were continuing on and he wanted to return and walk back to the park entrance. Since that encounter I wonder if I will ever get a phone call from our principal saying Ben Stein is in the office and says he is ready to be my guest for the day.  I’ve decided to create a Ben Stein lesson plan should the event arise.

First of all, I can’t resist attendance. I go by class seating not alphabet.

“Bronson, Taylor, Reynolds–oh, Stein. Yes, you must be new. Welcome to class.”

Of course, there would be introductions: “Class, this is Ben Stein. He is interested in AP Literature. Mr. Stein, I believe you were a teacher once?”

Maybe I would turn the class over to him.  As long as he didn’t talk about economics, I think my students would be interested in what he had to say.  Maybe he would talk about The Great Gatsby. This could actually have possibilities.

So, if you are walking in the park and have an encounter with Ben Stein, could you please tell him I’ve got the lesson plan ready?

English: Ben Stein speaking at Miami Universit...

A Woolf in Read’s Clothing


My first vague acquaintance with Virginia Woolf is associated with Elizabeth Taylor. Both are pivotal influences in their chosen professions.  As a last wave baby boomer cI recall a bit of a fuss when the movie Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? came out.  Not being a Disney-generated flick my parents did not take me to see it.  In my childhood bliss of perceptual naiveté I believed Elizabeth Taylor to be Virginia Woolf and from the TV trailers she appeared to be a daunting person.  I could see why some might be afraid of her.


My second encounter with Virginia Woolf came way later when I began teaching high school English. Woolf’s essay “A Room of Her Own” was part of the senior lit curriculum, a prelude to a brief study in feminist writing.  Still getting my bearings about Shakespeare, I discovered through Woolf’s essay Shakespeare had a sister! I thought him to be like Atlantis, known but unknown, shrouded in mystery, waiting to be actually proven.  A sister?  It sent me scurrying to dedicated research and though Woolf got it all wrong about Willie’s sis, I now know much more about the Bard.


The third encounter came way of Meryl Streep.  She’s a fave, so I couldn’t resist picking up The Hours at the library.  Fascinating film (I admit some parts tweaked my comfort zone and my daughter squeaked, “you watched The Hours!”–my prudery is too well-pegged by family members). What truly fascinated me was Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf.  No wonder she received the Academy Award for her performance. A tortured artist always leaves me wondering  the why/what behind the reason of taking his or her  life instead of living it.


Finding Virginia a bit overwhelming I didn’t do my usual research and read on her. To be honest, although she intrigued me,she also made me nervous, much like James Joyce.  So much, almost too much in their writing for me to comprehend and absorb.  I felt unprepared to read her works.

At present I am a tiny bit more confident having an AP Institute training and one year of AP Senior Lit and Comp seated firmly on the resume.  I thought, “Okay, Ginny, let’s give it a whirl.”  I pulled down Orlando off the shelf and settled in for my summer chaise in the shade read.


I wonder if her writing would have been published if her husband had not set up Hogarth Press expressly for that purpose? Her writing is amazing, this is true. It’s rich, masterful, and paradigm pushing. Deemed ahead of its time, both Virginia and her writing nevertheless appeared to be respected and applauded.  Overall, I will have to pass on Virginia Woolf and her modernist approach to literature.  She and James Joyce are just enough of a different cup of tea to not be on my reread list.

I followed through on my research since I did not do my read on her.  I will definitely include her in my overviews on modernists. Virginia Woolf  may not be among my chosen authors; however, I do acknowledge her place in the literary hall of fame.


What’s Love Got to Do With It?

What’s Love Got to Do With It?.

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