Peeling Back the Layers: Frida Kahlo Exhibit “Looks Can Be Deceiving”

This weekend I attend Frida Kahlo: Looks Can Be Deceiving at the Brooklyn Museum.  The exhibit is packed with rooms of clothing, artifacts, and of course art, based upon both last year’s Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the original exhibit curated by Circe Henestrosa at the Frida Kahlo Museum in 2012.

Even though attendees are not able to take pictures throughout the exhibit (and my daughter requested that I not nerd out with my writer’s notebook) the clothing, art, photographs, and personal items are ingrained in my mind. There were two rooms that were the most powerful.

The first featured a series of Kahlo’s changing medical orthopedic corsets and casts. Kahlo contracted polio at age six, which left her right leg thinner than the left and left her with a limp, which she disguised by wearing long skirts. When Frida was 18 she was in a horrific bus accident returning home from school. “An iron handrail had impaled her through her pelvis, as, she would later say, piercing “the way a sword pierces a bull.” Kahlo’s pelvic bone had been fractured and the rail had punctured her abdomen and uterus. Her spine had been broken in three places, her right leg in 11 places, her shoulder was dislocated and her collarbone was broken. These experiences and events contributed to Frida Kahlo’s long term health struggles and her art.

Kahlo wore supportive corsets and casts throughout the remainder of her adult life — and she painted almost all of these while they supported her body. The room also showcases medical devices, shoes with different heights to adjust for her limp, a prosthetic leg, glass prescription bottles, and a note outlining her conditions in a plea for a doctor to understand and treat her ongoing physical pain.  

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Plaster corset, painted and decorated by Frida Kahlo, Museo Frida Kahlo. © Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México, Fiduciary of the Trust of the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Museums.

Walking through the room room you wonder at both Kahlo’s endurance and ability to continue producing art in spite of and perhaps even because of the physical pain. In one of Kahlo’s many well-known quotes from a 1953 ink on paper, she asks, “Feet, what do I need them for if I have wings to fly?” Even here, just a year prior to her death, Kahlo’s resiliency is palpable and inspiring.

Whereas many would see this as a disability, her voice and social ideas about disability are shown through her writing, painting and dress. She, in fact, dressed in traditional dress from Tehuantepec in Oaxaca, not only for the socio-political symbolism and alliances she wished to forge; no, in fact she also opted for unrestrictive clothing that would conceal her limp, leg, and corsets.

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As curatorial advisor Gannit Ankori notes in her 2013 book Frida Kahlo, “any attempt simply to (re)construct a linear biography of this fascinating and innovative artist inevitably encounters a complex maze of conflicting information, documents, and memories — a weave of overlapping objective and subjective facts and fabrications.”

The last room of the exhibit showcases many of Frida Kahlo’s clothing that allow us to view of Kahlo and her many lives, incarnations, and selves. In the “From Fashioning Gender” section, the wall text addresses Kahlo’s bisexuality and famed works like Self Portrait with Cropped Hair or her family photographic portrait featuring Kahlo in a men’s suit: “In today’s terminology, we would say Kahlo rejected binary categories and embraced gender fluidity. But the language and the choices of identity available to her regarding gender and sexuality during her lifetime were vastly different from today’s.” 

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Self Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940)

As The New York Times reports, Frida Kahlo used her body as a canvas for both art and political statement. The fabrics that she chose for her dress were vibrant and gorgeous. It is evident that Frida Kahlo took great care and pleasure in her dress. Frilled shirts, heavy necklaces of jade and coral, and pinned flowers all directed attention where she wished it to fall: “The adornment is concentrated from the torso up,” Ms. Henestrosa, curator of the exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London said. “The beautiful headdresses and jewelry distracted you from her legs and her body.”

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There are many connections that teachers can help students make throughout the exhibit beyond a biography about the artist’s life. Aspects of creativity, disability and ability, fashion as political statement, and the role of culture shaping our identity are all ideas that can be addresses while experiencing this exhibit and learning more about the life and art of Frida Kahlo.

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April is National Poetry Month

I was recently going through all my teaching notebooks and I came across the poetry unit I taught my first year of teaching in New York City. On the first page of the unit was ee cummings’ A Poet’s Advice to Students. His sage advice can be applied to any genre of writing.

A Poet’s Advice To Students

e. e. cummings

A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feeling through words.

This may sound easy. It isn’t.

A lot of people think or believe or know they feel-but that’s thinking or believing or knowing; not feeling. And poetry is feeling-not knowing or believing or thinking.

Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.

To be nobody-but-yourself-in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else-means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.

As for expressing nobody-but-yourself in words, that means working just a little harder than anybody who isn’t a poet can possibly imagine. Why? Because nothing is quite as easy as using words like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all of the time-and whenever we do it, we’re not poets.

If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed.

And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world-unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.

Does this sound dismal? It isn’t.

It’s the most wonderful life on earth.

Or so I feel.

Looking through my notes and lesson I also came across the poem collection I wrote along with my students. It was called “Poem Advertisement” because that is how I started to write my poems, I searched through the magazines I had in my apartment and ripped out the funky advertisement logos I found a liking to. Yet, when I looked through and read all the poems, there is a distinct theme about escaping and not holding on to what people tell you. I wrote in the introduction that I “wrote these poems behind your back, I sat up one night and just wrote and wrote and continues to play with words trying to create poems. You keep pushing me and asking me to write and so I did, and this is what was born. It is difficult for me to pick a favorite poem because it is hard to play favorites with your feelings.”

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I.

Fire is the passion

of anger I feel for

my friends

II.

Tomorrow I will swim in

tears I cry over

many beautiful memories

III.

Doors open towards the

light gleaming off

the snow

IV.

Green grass stands

together unlike

my own solitude

which hammers

at my lonely self

 

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Trying

to capture

a poem

full of vivid color

and vivaciousness

I am not

going

to let it get away today

I stand

still

silently

absorbed

in this search

for

a time thought

be quiet

so it will

come to me

your noise

only scares it away

 

 

 

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Murder Mystery Short Story Editing Task Cards

For the past few weeks my students have been immersed in a reading and creative writing unit centering around murder mysteries. As my students are busy writing their creative fiction pieces, I have designed the following task cards to help them add creative elements to their stories to enhance suspense and the elements of mystery.

Murder Mystery Short Story Editing Task Cards

The four tasks or stations include:

Word Wizard – Read through your murder mystery creative fiction specifically for vocabulary. Pay attention to your word choice. If you find that your vocabulary needs a boost or you are using the same words to describe the events, setting, and characters, let’s give it a boost. Open up thesaurus.com and look to replace the overused words with stronger and more vibrant vocabulary.

IllustratorCreative writing requires vivid imagery that creates a picture or movie the reader’s mind. Read through your story looking for the strong imagery presented throughout the piece. Select one scene and draw a detailed picture that conveys the events described. This colorful picture will be included with your short story as the title page to draw readers to your story.

Red Herrings – Red herrings play two important roles in a mystery novel. They heighten suspense and add greater challenge to a mystery puzzle by misleading the reader and/or the sleuth. A red herring is a false clue that a mystery writer uses to send readers and sleuths off in the wrong direction. Try one of these ideas:

Put an innocent character at the scene of the crime. Maybe he had come to drop something off for a friend who lives across the street from the victim’s house and had parked for a moment in the victim’s driveway. A suspicious neighbor saw him pull out of the driveway. She wrote down his car license number. Bang! He is a suspect.

Or

Have the sleuth discover some items (red herrings) at the crime scene that can be interpreted in more than one way or that implicate an innocent person or are completely unrelated to the crime. The sleuth and the reader have to sort them all out.

Literary LuminaryRead through your murder mystery creative fiction. Highlight in pink the places in the story where you are using figurative language (metaphors, similes, personification, hyperbole) and literary devices (flashback, zoom in, zoom out, flashforward).  Think about what these devices add to your story for the reader. If you don’t use any of these craft moves, where are places that you can add a few of these devices to give your readers a more vivid picture of the setting, characters, and events in your short story.

Adding figurative language and literary devices into creative writing is challenging for some students so I created how-to directions to provide students with direct instruction regarding targeted skill development. Students follow the directions at their own pace, re-read as necessary, and refer to examples that have been included. Using this how-to direction sheet requires students to be active participants and help students become proficient at learning a skill (Innovative Designs for Education, 2019).

Check out this How to be more Literary Luminary designed with my students in mind:

How to be More . .  . Literary Luminary

Descriptive Writing: Building a Setting for Fiction Writing

My students have embarked on a creative writing unit, specifically murder mystery creative fiction. Last week’s blog post I wrote about the quest and the three laps students partake in to flex their creative writing muscles. This blog post dives deep in the first lap, descriptive writing and narrative of a place.

The setting is extremely important to a story. It can have immense effects on the plot and the characters. It can also establish the atmosphere, or mood, of a story or a specific scene. The setting establishing this mood allows the reader to relate to the characters within a story.

Let’s look at an example in literature. 

Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him. With his inky fingers and his bitten nails, his manner cynical and nervous, anybody could tell he didn’t belong – belong to the early summer sun, the cool Whitsun wind off the sea, the holiday crowd. They came in by train from Victoria every five minutes, rocked down Queen’s Road standing on the tops of the little local trams, stepped off in bewildered multitudes into fresh and glittering air: the new silver paint sparkled on the piers, the cream houses ran away into the west like a pale Victorian water-colour; a race in miniature motors, a band playing, flower gardens in bloom below the front, an aeroplane advertising something for the health in pale vanishing clouds across the sky.

Brighton Rock (Graham Greene)

Note the vivid imagery used to describe the setting. How does the author encompass all of our senses to bring us into the place this novel is set? 

In my classroom I would give my students this excerpt and ask them to mark up the text noticing how place, time, landscape, weather, and atmosphere are described to establish the setting. Then, students would sketch out a visual of the setting described in the passage.

We look at examples for models in descriptive writing about setting for our own writing to stretch our writing, take risks, and try something new. In mystery writing setting helps to propel the mystery and can be the best place to leave clues for readers.

Setting is important in any fictional story. Setting doesn’t just concern nice descriptive passages about houses, woodlands, mountains, roads and so on. Setting doesn’t mean merely ‘scenery’. Careful choice of setting:

  • Directs the reader’s attention to significant details of character or action. Setting can be used almost symbolically. It can stand for a mood, a state of mind, an emotion.
  • Plays off character against the environments in which they live and act. Characters (and their motivations, desires, hopes) may be juxtaposed against the settings in which they appear. They may occupy the setting comfortably, or be uncomfortable in the settings in which they’re placed.
  • Enhances the suspense and mystery (establishing mood and tone) in a piece of writing.

To help students build the setting in their own murder mystery, we looked at examples in film. Think about the opening scenes of your favorite movies and the opening shots that establish the setting. On one creative writing website, it states “Careful control of setting can be somewhat equivalent to directing a film camera. Many films begin with a long shot (distance), then a middle shot, then a close up. This threefold use of the camera is called the ‘establishing shot’ and is a commonplace of screenwriting. Beginning with a distance/wide angle ‘shot’ and then moving in to ever-closer details is also widely used as an orientation technique in fiction writing.”

To help my students write with depth and lots of description about their setting, they storyboarded the setting. This involved drawing out the setting and writing additional details to help stretch the setting details and give readers a clear sense of place.  

Setting Storyboard

 

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Murder Mystery Quest

This month I have dusted off classroom copies of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and added Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious to this reading and creative writing unit sending my students into this dark and chilly subsection where everyone is a suspect, red herrings are all around us, and reading is a game of “who done it.”

The Murder Mystery

I thought why not bring some creative fiction writing into the mix in lieu of an essay based on our reading. Hence, students are writing their own murder mystery short stories. I set up three “laps” around this genre to support my student learners.

#1 – Description of a Place

Show the setting of your creative murder mystery fiction through the effective use of sensory details (see, taste, smell, hear, feel) to help readers imagine and live inside this setting.

Write a minimum ONE page (double spaced, 12 point Alegreya Font) description of the place and setting of your murder mystery. Use word choice to create a believable, consistent narrator’s voice. Choose a tone for your story that matches your intent; use literary devices such as metaphor and simile to expertly craft words and sentences. Emphasize words or phrases that are most important; how do you want us to feel about this place?

Check out this example from one of my students:

Ronnie had heard stories about the mansion before, not good ones, but it was honestly much more chilling in person. The gate at the entrance was made of black matte barbed wire, shaped and crafted with jagged swirls and it went up about 12 feet. The mansion itself was something out of a horror story. The window were cracked, the bricks a faded mauve, and the front entrance had two large knockers, gargoyles, with huge black empty eyes.

#2 – Story Map

Utilizing a graphic organizer created by the teacher or designing your own story map, plot out the key elements of your murder mystery short story. Be sure to include: detective, the crime, the victim(s), the suspects, rising action, clues, climax, capture, solution, and resolution.

#3 – Murder Mystery Short Story

Create your own short story based around a crime or a mystery. Your story must be AT LEAST one page, but NO MORE THAN four pages. You MUST be sure to include all the parts of the story we have discussed (characters, setting, clues, red herrings, clues).
Possible Story Starters
1. It was a strange night, there seemed to be a chill in the air…
2. As soon as I arrived, I could sense that something was out of place…
3. One night, as I looked out the window, I saw the neighbor…
4. I was watching TV when I looked up. There in the window I saw…
5. I decided to go for an evening stroll.  I walked about three blocks when I felt it…
6. They would have been fine if they hadn’t stopped for the stranger…
7. Everyone avoided the big old mansion. It was believed to have…
8. They said she was able to utter a few words before she died…
9. Something is drastically wrong! Every time I pick up the telephone…
10. Sometimes I think my friend has strange powers. Every time he’s around…
11. All of a sudden I was trapped!
12. “DID YOU HEAR THAT?” I screamed…
13. As I walked through the door, all I could focus on was the blood that covered the floor…
Since we have started the unit students are immersed in murder mystery and crime fiction. I introduced my students to some addition books and podcasts to help them learn as much as they can about this genre as models, mentors, and writing seed ideas. Here are a few of my favorites:
A six-part scripted podcast series. Teen detective Tig Torres investigates the twisted mystery of the infamous Lit Killer murders. But as she gets closer to the truth, the killings, each based on murder scenes from classic literature, begin all over again…with her as the final target.
It’s Baltimore, 1999. Hae Min Lee, a popular high-school senior, disappears after school one day. Six weeks later detectives arrest her classmate and ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, for her murder.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

Yes, this is the Cormoran Strike series that J.K. Rowling writes under a pen name.

One of Us is LyingOne of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus by Karen M. McManus

This book is basically The Breakfast Club meets Gossip Girl. Five students walk into detention, but only four walk out alive. The murder victim is Simon, the creator of Bayview High’s very own gossip app, and all four suspects have a motive.
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20 Revision Strategies: Make Writing Better

“For me, writing is never linear, though I do believe quite ardently in revision. I think of revision as a kind of archeology, a deep exploration of the text to discover what’s still hidden and bring it to the surface.”

~Kim Edwards

Revision is about going back to your writing to make it better. I was recently going through some old papers from my graduate school days and came across my notes from The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project specifically on revision. Below is a bulleted list of revision strategies compiled to help students dress up their writing to make it stronger and more clear.

  • Add more – look at your writing piece and name two things you can do to make it better.
  • Reread to see if it makes sense – is it clear? How can you make it sound better?
  • What’s the most important thing you want to tell your read about your topic?
  • Write the external and internal story (what you think, wonder, and feel).
  • Observe and reflect.
  • Use your senses.
  • Talk to a friend or writing partner about your piece and then write. Think aloud.
  • Storytell it and then write.
  • Focus in on something small connected to your topic.
  • Zoom in on a moment.
  • Underline an important line and say more about it.
  • Sketch then write.
  • Try starting your piece by writing the lead differently.
  • Play with the form or genre – turn into a letter, a poem, a song.
  • Find a book you really like and see if you can write like that. Model an author you admire.
  • Ask, “What have I left out?”
  • Take a sentence and turn it into a page (lift a line or word).
  • Try starting the piece in a different place, chronologically.
  • Write endings several different ways. Ask, “What do I want my ending to do?”
  • Reread asking, “Is this really what I have to say? What’s the most important thing I want my readers to know?”

 

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Literature Circles for Today

Harvey Daniels’ book titled Literature Circles (2002) describes a procedure to organize student book clubs in the classroom. A stimulating and productive discussion on a text requires participants to focus on many different things: overall content and form/style, particularly important passages, vocabulary, imagery, and the connections between the material and personal experience. The more we put into our discussions on all these specific fronts, the greater our comprehensive understanding and appreciation of the text as a whole.

The idea behind literature circles is that students take on different roles and responsibilities as they are reading a text. Students are assigned different roles on different days (at random) and that no student will play the same role twice in a row.

Each student is assigned one of the following seven roles:

DISCUSSION DIRECTOR (a.k.a Curious George) – As the Discussion Director, your job is to develop a list of questions that your group might want to discuss about this reading. Additionally, it is your responsibility to make sure that all the other group members share their materials.

LITERARY LUMINARY (the Buddha of the book) – To be LUMINOUS means to shed light. When you are acting in the role of Literary Luminary, it is your job to “shed light” on the significant and/or difficult, possibly confusing sections of the reading by bringing them to the attention of the group and reading them aloud. The idea is to help people remember some interesting, powerful, funny, puzzling, or important sections of the text.

ILLUSTRATOR (our very own Bob Ross!) – As the Illustrator, your job is to draw some kind of picture related to the reading. It can be a sketch, cartoon, diagram, or flow chart.Any picture that conveys an idea or feeling you got from the reading.

SUMMARIZER (You make it short, you make it sweet) – It is your job as a Summarizer to put it all together. You should prepare a brief WRITTEN summary of the reading, noting all the main events, interaction between characters and more. The other members of your group will be counting on you to give a quick (1-2 minute) statement that conveys the essence of that day’s reading assignment.

VOCABULARY ENRICHER (like an apple picker) – It is your job as the Vocabulary Enricher to be on the lookout for a few especially important words in today’s reading. If you find words that are puzzling or unfamiliar, mark them while you are reading, and then later jot down their dictionary definitions). Not all words that you select need to be unfamiliar. Also seek out words that are repeated a lot, used in an unusual way, or key to the meaning of the text.

CONNECTOR (You help connect the dots) – You are the Connector. Your job is to find connections between the reading and the world outside. This means connecting the reading to: your own life; happenings at school or in the neighborhood or news; similar events at other times and places; other people or problems; other books or stories; other writings with he same topic/theme; other writings by the same author.

OBSERVER (you are the “eyes and ears” of the group, an informant) – You have no particular written assignment overnight other than to read through the assigned section of text. But you will be busy tomorrow! You are the secretary, informant, and synthesizer all rolled into one. You must record the participation and information covered and contributed by all the other group members. To synthesize means to bring together. You should try to gather together everyone’s contributions and ideas into a single understandable summary during and after the group discussion.

These are the traditional roles and many have been updated to include Character Commandant, Mood Maven, Insightful Identifier, Symbol Sleuth, Mind Muser, and Reactionary Revealer. 

When I first started teaching my students would receive a color paper detailing the responsibilities of his or her role. Then, I threw out the reading and literature circle role log/worksheets.

Technology has enhanced the literature circles strategy to another level with Google Docs and platforms like Padlet, Seesaw, and Flipgrid. Students can use these digital tools to share their reflections, connections, understandings, and discussions. Assigning each book group a classroom in Google Classroom, students can submit digital evidence in the form of Google Docs, BookSnaps and/or any other application chosen.

Here are the benefits of Literature Circles: Student Choice

  1. Book selection – Students choose the books they will read.
  2. Job assignments – Students decide which roles they will assume
  3. Chapters read – Students decide how much they will read for the next session.
  4. Digital platform used – Students decide which digital platform the group will utilize.

 

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Teaching Writerly Craft Moves with Movies

Great writing is artistry. Helping students to read like writers and notice the nuances that writers do is a close reading skill. This layer of reading for craft and structure includes word choice, sentence structure, literary devices and figurative language, point of view and author’s purpose. Craft is the deliberate writing technique and skills to communicate a message in few words and subtleties.

It is one thing to say that while students are reading text, they can record evidence of word choice (including unknown words, determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings — to analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone); text features (and the impact it makes on the text); author’s purpose or point of view. But for many students, these writing moves are subtle and a difficult concept for students to recognize.

Movies and movie clips are one way that I help my students notice craft in writing.  If students can observe the symbolism, point of views, and tone in a movie, I can help them to see these deliberate moves in writing as well. Visual storytelling has a language all its own. Filmmakers create meaning and emotion all through images, by choosing and composing them with care.

We start by viewing a video clip like Alfred Hitchcock’s Stairs to Suspense Montage

Hitchcock uses stairs in his movies to set the mood, build suspense, and for symbolic purposes. After viewing this clip students respond to the question: How does Alfred Hitchcock use stairs to draw suspense for his viewers?

We look at other trademarks of movie directors like M. Night Shyalaman. He is known for directing and writing The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. His newest film is Glass. Shyalaman’s unique visual style threaded through his disparate supernatural, thriller, and genre films that goes much deeper than his surprise endings.

 

Here’s a third example of a director’s craft. James Cameron’s films examine Person versus Nature/Humanity conflict in his films. In Titanic, Cameron explores the confidence in which mankind has regarding their technology. The ship was billed as “Unsinkable,” yet nature proved its power over mankind’s technology.  Avatar is Cameron’s most obvious effort to explore the conflict that can arise between technology and nature, taking an environmentalist tone. In this film, mankind is using their technology to mine a precious mineral on Pandora. While this activity is of benefit to humanity, it threatens the existence of the Na’vi and causes harm to the Pandora’s plants and animals. This conflict ultimately leads to a deadly conflict between the two species.

Directors, like writers are deliberate in the choices they make to convey the story. If students can see and recognize these trademarks in movies, they might be able to see these same trademarks in writing.

JT Bushnell writes in the essay, “Realism in Action: The Art of Invisibility in Amy Tan’s Rules of the Game, “…the writer’s job is, first, to write about questions complex enough that they avoid simplistic answers or easy moralizing and, second, to demonstrate such questions with precision and accuracy.

Let’s help our students find these complex questions embedded within the text with precision and accuracy before we ask them to answer them for themselves.

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A Mockingbird Playlist

Last week I wrote blog post reviewing the Broadway production of To Kill a Mockingbird rewritten by Aaron Sorkin for the stage. This will I wanted to share the playlist that I put together for my students to guide their reading throughout the book.

A playlist is similar to a Hyperdoc – a digital document such as a Google Doc where the elements of the learning cycle are together and linked onto one central place. Within this document students are provided the hyperlinks to all the resources (videos, activities, websites, and more) they need to understand this concept or text. I like hyperdocs (playlists or quests) because they allow students to move at their own pace, there are multimodal including print text, digital text, videos and more for students to interact with information to deepen their understanding, analyze, and synthesize versus a teacher centered lecture or lesson.

Additionally, hyperdocs allow the teacher to spend more time working with individual and small groups of students to check in, support, and push student thinking and learning.  For my advanced student readers, I can include options and opportunities to experience deeper meaning while at the same time guide my ELLs through a chunk of text to help their English reading and make their thinking visible.

To Kill a Mockingbird Playlist

Click this link to Read the entire To Kill a Mockingbird Playlist (Hyperdoc)

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To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway

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This week I went and saw Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. My students and I are currently reading the book in class and a grade wide trip was schedule for us to attend a matinee. My students were buzzing with talk after seeing the show and our conversations about the way in which the writer, director, and producers chose to represent the novel.

The play does stay true to the novel but the story as been remixed in a creative way, some parts edited and omitted to my students’ dissatisfaction.

In a recent New York Times article,As Mr. Sorkin has explained pre-emptively, he faced a dilemma in approaching the material. He could not alter the plot significantly lest he alienate audiences who grew up treasuring the 1960 novel.”

Here are eight distinctions between the book and the play that are effective and some not so effective in bringing this novel on stage and to life.

  1. The play has been remixed and is not told in the linear fashion that Scout retells in the book. “Mr. Sorkin does away with that structure, introducing the trial almost immediately and returning to it at regular intervals. In between, he backfills the information and characters the novel frontloaded, but just on a need-to-know basis. The narration — now split among Scout (Celia Keenan-Bolger); her brother, Jem (Will Pullen); and their friend Dill (Gideon Glick) — no longer suggests long hazy childhood summers spent squashing redbugs and pondering why the world is evil so much as a Junior League police procedural.”
  2. Calpurnia has a clear voice and is the only positive female role model for Scout. In the novel Calpurnia’s words are limited and her attitude towards the trial is unheard of. In the play she has a clear and distinct voice and perspective. At one point in the play she is described as a “sister to Atticus” whereas I do not believe this to be accurate, her dedication and love towards the Finch family is clear. Throughout the play Calpurnia has conversations with Atticus about the trial and how his “seeing goodness in all people, include Bob Ewell” is not necessary when a person is as evil as he is. Calpurnia calls Atticus out on his white privilege which is central to the story.  As Jesse Green writes in the NYT, “she serves in the play as Atticus’s foil and needling conscience. Mocking his argument that Maycomb needs more time to overcome racism, she says, “How much time would Maycomb like?”
  3. In the play Calpurnia tells Scout, “I like you the way you are,” when they are sitting on the porch one night. This scene illustrates an endearing moment in their relationship. What is key about Calpurnia telling Scout “I like you the way you are” is that any other positive female role models she has in the book are omitted. Ms. Maudie and Aunt Alexandra have been cut out of the play completely.  Aunt Alexandra and Scout’s relationship evolves in the book and they seem to have some understanding post trial. The only women we see in the play outside of Scout and Calpurnia are gossip (Miss Stephanie), lying (Mayella), and racist (Miss Dubose) which leaves limited (and clearly negative) views of women central to the Broadway adaptation.
  4. In addition to the women who are cut out of the story, the characters of Link Deas and Dolphus Raymond are fused together. In the play there is more anger in this character as he tells Scout, Jim, and Dill how his son and wife died because no doctor would see him being of “mixed blood.” His wife, so distraught from the death of their son, killed herself. This character verbalizes his disgust of prejudice and racism showing the children how deadly racism is.
  5. Atticus’ closing statement is not the same as the stiff and precisely selected rhetoric we read in the book and see so clearly in the 1960s movie version with Gregory Peck. On stage we see Jeff Daniels get so worked up and passionate as he yells, “It is a sin to kill a mockingbird” repeatedly in his closing argument. This is where some of my fellow English teachers and I disagree because I felt the closing statement was somewhat impromptu and not effective.
  6. Anti-Semitism is included among the racism that is threatening Maycomb. Bob Ewell (Frederick Weller) is so effective in having the audience hate him as the evil and racist character he portrays. He embodies the rabid dog that has been omitted from the play. Ewell remarks twice that Atticus must “have Jew blood in him” to take on this case. Now in Chapter 26 of the book there is that hypocritical scene when Scout’s teacher talks about the anti-Semitism in Europe and yet racism and prejudice is abundant in Maycomb. Ewell’s remarks in the play seemed out of place or Sorkin trying to make a statement compounding racism with anti-semitism.
  7. The N Word is abundant throughout the play and my students were upset how much the N word was used. In fact, when Bob Ewell is on the stand during the trial he goes on a racist rant saying the word repeatedly (using words directly from Lee’s text) but in court would that be acceptable and accurate? The freely use of the racist slurs was distracting and uncomfortable for my middle school students. At times, I agree it was in excess.
  8. Empty Jury Seats are symbolic throughout the play. The choice to leave the 12 jury seats empty throughout the play was blatantly clear. It didn’t matter whether there were people sitting in the jury seats or not, the decision was going to be the same no matter what was said or not said: Tom Robinson was guilty because he was an African American man.

“[Director] David Fincher, used to say that art isn’t supposed to answer questions, it’s supposed to ask them. If you walk into a theater already knowing what’s going to happen when the lights go down, you’ve walked into the wrong theater. To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t a revival. It’s not an homage or an exercise in nostalgia. It’s a new play,” states a feature article on Aaron Sorkin Adapting To Kill a Mockingbird.

Do you go see the play? Absolutely! And I will probably see it again because it raises many questions and is a catalyst for discussions about racism, justice, and lore of this book.

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