Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Archive for the tag “Julius Caesar”

Bard Bits: May


I managed to go to school without any experience with Shakespeare (yeah, how did that happen?) I can easily relate to my student’s bewilderment when we begin our drama unit. Freshmen study Romeo and Juliet, sophomores experience Julius Caesar, juniors skip Shakespeare to study American Literature (The Crucible), and depending on the teacher, students have a range of selection from an overview of the comedies to a dive into tragedy with Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, or Macbeth.

I am usually prepared for groans from my sophomores when I announce we are studying Shakespeare. “Not again!” “We did him last year.” “Shakespeare is so boring.” Instead of coming up with excuses and defending our Wily Bard of Stratford, I agree with them. This gets me some interesting looks–most def.

I do agree with my students. Shakespeare can be boring, or at least his plays were until I got the hang of them. Watching, let alone reading the plays, was painful to endure, and I felt I could never get anywhere, no matter how hard I tried. Then again, learning how to ski was painful, and I wondered if I would ever get down the mountain without a initiating a yard sale. Hmm, I should use this analogy with my students since they have grown up with a mountain in their backyard.

Here are two thoughts on Shakespeare:

“I am more easily bored with Shakespeare, and have suffered more ghastly evenings with him, than with any dramatist I know.” Peter Brook, English theatre director

“We find Shakespeare boring because we’re lazy. We’re not willing to get through the language. That’s the only barrier. If a play is performed right by those who are properly trained, after about twenty minutes you won’t be aware of the language because the human story is so strong.” –David Suchet, actor

What are your experiences with Shakespeare? Bored, frustrated, from having to endure year after year of his plays in school? Perhaps initially bored, but then the story unfolds and the words are no longer a barrier and serve as a contribution to the experience? Or maybe you grew to appreciate him with time and experience?

One of my standout memories of teaching my favorite play, Hamlet–sorry, I do mention that often, don’t I?–is after we wrapped up the unit, one student, from my regular, not AP class, stayed behind. “You know I’m going to miss discussing Hamlet, I really got to like this play.” He grew thoughtful. “I can’t discuss Shakespeare with my father.”

I never discussed Shakespeare with my father either. But I sure discuss him with my own children when I get the chance. Shakespeare boring? Not for long. Hang in there, dig in your poles, don’t cross your ski tips, and you will enjoy the thrill of going from snowplow to slalom. That applies to skiing as well.

Julius Caesar: Shaken Up


The Ides of March:

a) preview of March Madness

b) a week of spring sales

c) the middle of March

d) a George Clooney movie

e) when a certain Roman emperor got the point he wasn’t as loved as he thought he was

Answers: c)true; d)true; e)true; a) and b) contenders, because one never knows

And bonus points for knowing e) is Julius Caesar and that the 15th are the Ides of March, the middle of March.

This is useful information for Trivia Night at the local pub. Truly.

Recently our school hosted this year’s Shakesperience play: Julius Caesar. Shakesperienceis a troupe of enthusiastic actors who travel to various schools and present 50 minute versions of a selected Shakespeare play. They are always innovative in approach. This is done out of necessity . For one, they have only six actors, which means playing multiple parts. They also have minimal staging, their main piece being a tiered rolling scaffold.

This year’s production was especially innovative in that Caesar was a woman and Calpurnia became husband Calpurnius. It worked well.

It was tricky presenting a assassination in a school culture where performing violence is challenging at best. Again, innovation took the lead. When the big moment arrived, each conspirator took a sheet of paper and created a weapon: fashioned brass knuckles, tightly rolled paper points equating knives. No blood, torn paper, a shower of confetti symbolized death.

During question and answer it was revealed the torn paper bits represented the tearing of a person’s life, how a person’s life is symbolized through paper: obituaries, text, etc. Ripping up the paper is shredding their life. Brilliant and school appropriate.

I always look forward to these yearly performances. Yet, every year it’s tough to gather an interest due to working around students who either can’t or don’t want to miss their class. District testing scheduled on that day doesn’t help either. Unfortunately providing opportunities for culture suffers the injuries incurred by the tyranny of the urgent set by educational must-do, like yet another test.

Hoping Shakespeare performed live is coming to a theatre near you, or better yet, to a school in your neighborhood.

And do be aware of the Ides of March.

Playing Around with Words


The Script Frenzy logo

The Script Frenzy logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Writing is what I do.  I teach it. I read it. I aspire to it.  I’ve tried all forms of writing: picture books, poetry, novels (middle readers, YA, adult), non-fiction (essays, informational, reviews), oh yeah–blogs.  My latest foray into wordsmithing is plays.  I gave up on screenplays since the format and competition didn’t work for me.  Then I switched to stage plays.  Oooh, I do very much like them.  NaNoWriMo used to run Script Frenzy, a spring version of novel writing in a month that involved writing a play in 30 days.  I tried it and definitely find a new niche.

Even though Script Frenzy retired, I got inspired. So far I have created a contemporary version of Julius Caesar and the school’s drama teacher showed interest in it, as did one of my students who called the role of Anthony.  I’ll keep you posted of the world premiere. I also morphed Hamlet and Alice in Wonderland, mixing in a bit Wizard of Oz. It’s definitely a work in progress, as they say.

Since screenplays didn’t pan out for me, I am converting them into stageplays.  I hope to dive into my languishing pile of manuscripts and toss them around in my Celtx program and see if they Presto! into plays.

Gosh! I  love writing!  There is such a variety and formats to try out and play with.  It’s like dress up with words.

Any of you try out a new writing form with success?

#4: Required Reading for High School English


Having recently plunked out my series list caused me to wonder about creating other lists.  Yes, I am a confessed list maker.  I have Post-It squares tacked all over the place of To-Dos, Epiphanies, Story Starts, Poem Parts, and Lesson Plan Pundits.  The Cricket List will be an on-going project.  Today’s offering is #4: Required reading in high school English.  I encourage your suggestions:

The Cricket List:

1. Children’s authors and selected titles

2.  YA authors and selected titles

3.  Picture books

4.  Required reading in high school English:

  • The Outsiders(teens haven’t changed too much in the thirty years this has been out)
  • The Miracle Worker (Helen Keller is a hero favorite and goes a long way in learning about overcoming adversity)
  • Pride and Prejudice (all man/woman hate-at-first sight movies stem from this gem)
  • Sherlock Holmes (the original, to understand why Robert Downey and Jude Law’s version is pure entertainment)
  • Frankenstein (a riveting read and shows the fallacy of Hollywood’s meddling)
  • Jules Verne (original science fiction master storyteller)
  • Julius Caesar (politics gone wrong)
  • Hamlet (love-revenge-hate-murder-intrigue-dueling-witty wordplay–who could ask for more in a plot)
  • Taming of the Shrew (Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus four hundred years ago)
  • Othello (Shakespeare was ahead of his time with this tale)
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream (a light-hearted romp which shows not all is tragedy on Shakespeare’s plate)
  • To Kill a Mockingbird (timeless classic which showcases the South both in a positive and negative way)
  • The Once and Future King (or some version of King Arthur–I like John Steinbeck‘s version)
  • Stargirl (beautiful story of not conforming to peer pressure or the consequences when one does)
  • John Donne‘s Holy Sonnet X (Death Be Not Proud)
  • She Walks in Beauty (timeless appreciation of beauty)
  • Rime of the Ancient Mariner (To understand Pirates of the Caribbean better)
  • Beowulf (so you can boo/hiss at the animated version and hope it will be done correctly someday)
  • Canterbury Tales (when you rewatch A Knight’s Tale you will laugh at the inside jokes)
  • Steinbeck (Grapes of Wrath, of course)
  • Mark Twain (American Lit wouldn’t be the same without him)
  • The Odyssey (understanding the epicness of heroes and their journey)
  • Romeo and Juliet (umm, how could one not read R&J?)

5.  Beach Reads

6.  Must reads

7. Saw the movie, then read the book

8.  Read the book, wish it were a movie

9. Poems to know and grow on

10. GoodRead gotta-get-to-someday reads

Lost in Translation: Part Three or “The Glad Idings of March”


The Ides of March have come and gone and so as the unit on Julius Caesar.  Between Odysseus, Hamlet, and the Roman senate I feel I have been wading in testosterone for a month. Lots of wanderlust, stabbings, and confused emotions of doing the right thing.  Next month it’s satire, heroes,  and star-crossed lovers, which should provide a decent change up of scenery.

Image Detail

I learned my lesson about front loading Caesar a few years ago when I first started teaching the play to sophomores.  I thought my students knew all about Julius Caesar. Wrong, so wrong.  Roman history is not a featured item in most history books up to ninth grade, and it’s not much of a feature in high school at all–that is, unless students opt for World History as one of their electives, and even then not a lot of time is part on the Roman Empire.  This is why there wasn’t much impact when the protagonist is bumped off by the second act.  Why should my students care about the hero dying when they hardly know him?

Speed it up a few years, interject some marketing savvy, and Julius Caesar becomes a dynamic unit.  My recipe for getting kids to care about Gaius Julius Caesar.

1.  Show a Hollywood version of Caesar that is colorful, even though historical correct: baiting the hook

Jeremy Sisto plays a likable Caesar. I play the movie up to the point of where Caesar returns to Rome after Gaul, receiving the cheers of the Romans and the news that Pompey has fled, fearing for his life.  This builds up intrigue and my students better understand what is going on when we began reading the play.

2.  Fishing for interest: Assign parts, upping the reluctance with bonus reading points.

After writing the parts on the whiteboard I stand back and let my students sign up for who they want to read.  Equal voice prevails in that it’s okay for guys to read female parts and vice versa.  I’ve had some lovely deep-voiced Portias, and some commanding lighter-toned Cassius readers.  Shakespeare would understand the need to pinch-hit.

3.  We read up to the assassination.  I used to include it as part of the agenda, yet my wanna be thespians somehow couldn’t do the death scene with proper dignity.  I decided to give that over to the more experienced.  There are a number of productions to choose from, although I keep with the tried and true John Gielgud version.

4. After each act we have class discussions about themes, issues, and notables.  This is my favorite part, getting students to realize how history has shaped the world they live in.  Events of a thousand years ago still echo down the corridors of their everyday life.  We discuss ideas such as: Is murder ever valid? Do political leaders always act in the best interests of their country?  Are beliefs worth dying for?  These fifteen year old minds begin grasping the need to be informed and how being informed influences the vote they will cast in three years.

5.  Once the play is packed up, the packet turned in, I reel in my students as we move on to the really fun stuff: Who was Caesar?  I want my students to understand his far-reaching influence (beyond calendars, salads, and quippy quotes) and get to know the man and form their own opinion about him.  I know Shakespeare had his reasons for not including Cleopatra in the play; however, Cleo cannot be ignored.  So she gets showcased because she was a larger-than-life influence on Caesar:

I annoy my students with all kinds of move trivia: costs (1 million to Liz–a shocking amount; 44 million to make–equaling about 300 million today); tracheotomy scars (Liz almost died, you know); thousands of extras (pinch police to protect the ladies); real sets (CGI in ’63?).  Grand stuff, indeed.

I also slip in a documentary with the idea that Hollywood and history don’t always see eye to eye on the truth.

The Sparknotes folk have done a really new cool thing by creating learning videos.  This one was also helpful:

Then the assignment: Write an opinion essay on who you believe Caesar to be?  Was he a megalomaniac who murdered for his own means?  A philandering player  who used women as stepping-stones to increased power?  A frustrated tyrant? A genius strategist? A leader cut short in his prime?  I guess the term is officially called synthesizing–gathering all the evidence and sifting it to form a valid opinion.  Kind of like suffering through election year.

The play itself is not one of my favorites: “Hey, I’ll stab you, you stab me, will all die so nobly.” A little too gritty for my tastes.  I do find a fascination in Caesar and I look forward to reading those essays.

In our district it’s mandated we have our objectives up on the board so that all may see what it is we are trying to get our students to learn.  Mine for the Julius Caesar unit?
May my students learn from the experiences of the past in order to better apply the knowledge that is gained

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