Shakespeare Camp and the New School Year

classroom view

It’s hard to believe a new school year is beginning once again. But what’s even harder to believe that this will be my 10th, yes you heard right, TENTH year teaching high school English. Over the past ten years I’ve had some amazing and humbling experiences. I’ve directed and produced three musicals, began a reading course for struggling students, moved to a new school district, participated in conferences that took me all over the country, won national English teaching awards, and became president of the PA Council for Teachers of English and Language Arts. I’ve gotten to know and collaborate with respected authors and educators from across the world. Most importantly, I’ve watched thousands of students move from 9th grade to college, growing academically and socially. I’ve seen non-readers become excited, avid, can’t-take-a-book-out-of-their-hand readers. I’ve had the awesome pleasure of witnessing students become excited about reading Shakespeare, scream with joy after receiving a book signed by an author (special thanks to Jay Asher, Steve Chbosky, and the late Walter Dean Myers) to students who were dealing with issues high schoolers should never have to deal with. I’ve been invited to former student college graduations, weddings, and sadly I’ve attended too many student funerals.

And through all of those memorable moments, there is another one that I have the pleasure of adding to my list. This life-changing experience occurred over the course of one of the most memorable weeks of my life, and it will make a lasting impact on my teaching (and writing, too). If you know me, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. The Teaching Shakespeare Institute at the Folger Shakespeare Library, which I now like to refer it as Shakespeare Camp.

It’s been a month since Shakespeare Camp (which is so much easier to explain this week of Shakespeare awesomeness to my non-teaching friends and family) and I cannot stop thinking about it. As I sat through three days of valuable in-service sessions this past week (I got a lot out of a number of presentations) at my school district, I found myself thinking back to that week of awesomeness just a little over a month ago. Oh, how I wished I was sword fighting on the Folger’s lawn, listening to engaging lectures by the scholars and Folger text editors, performing on the United States’s only Elizabethan stage, and collaborating with 26 other like-minded, Shakespeare obsessed colleagues (many of whom I now call friends). As I think back on that experience, there are three things I want to take with me as I teach this year in order to keep the Folger memory alive and especially to create a memorable 9th grade year for my 100 plus students.

Shakes Center1. Relinquish control. If you’re a leader, teacher, boss, parent, you understand the difficulty in relinquishing control. But that’s one of the things that I want to work on this year. By relinquishing control (not total control, though), I am placing the learning into the hands of my students, in turn creating a memorable, authentic, and challenge-based learning environment. When I get to the acting of Romeo and Juliet, I know relinquishing control will be a struggle – but with my tools and tips from Shakespeare Camp, I know it can be done.

2. It’s all about the words. Sometimes we get so focused on teaching specific reading skills and strategies (thank you, standardized tests) we forget about the words. When students simply read words (often times through repetition), meaning begins to form organically.

3. Begin with performance. Thanks to an amazing blogpost by Debbie Gascon, I now have the confidence to begin my school year with performance. Although I will be discussing the general rules and procedures the very first day (remember, I do have 9th grade students! haha), on day 2 they’ll be up and out of their seats participating in the first performance-based activity of the year. Check back for an update on that! 🙂

Okay … okay … I know there is so much more more I will be using in my classroom, but I wanted to start with those three ideas. Thank you Folger Shakespeare Library for reinvigorating me for the start of my TENTH year!

Happy New Year! 🙂 Jennie @jenniekaywrites

About Jennie : Jennie K. Brown is an award-winning high school English teacher, freelance magazine writer, and author of children’s books. Her middle grade novel POPPY MAYBERRY, THE MONDAY will be published in April 2016 by month9books (Tantrum Books imprint), with a sequel to follow in December of that year. She currently serves as president of the Pennsylvania Council of Teachers of English and Language Arts (PCTELA) and is an active member of SCBWI, NCTE, and ALAN. She is a regular contributor to the SCBWI Eastern PA and PCTELA blogs. Jennie can be found on twitter, facebook, and her website


Top 5 Reasons to Give Students CHOICE of the Books They Read

After discussing the topic of student choice with my English class, and then piecing together what I’ve observed over the years, I’ve come up with the TOP FIVE positive outcomes that come from students having choice when it comes to reading.

 You’ll look at reading as more of a fun activity to enjoy, instead of thinking of it as an assignment. – Morgan Z.

 1. Enjoyment. This one is a no-brainer. When students have a choice in their reading, they more than likely are going to choose books that they will enjoy. This enjoyment continues on beyond that one book, as they will find a certain author or genre that they like more than others, and continue to pick up books because they KNOW they will enjoy them. It’s apparent that my own students find joy in reading because when I ask them to get out their independent novels (novels that they select), there is an audible and collective “YES” from the group. They think reading is fun. Period.

 When a teacher gives us a choice, I feel like s/he has more trust in us, as students, and that makes me enjoy the class and respect the teacher even more. – Olivia M.

 2. Respect. By allowing choice, not only will students gain a greater respect for reading, they will also gain a greater respect of you – their teacher. When we allow our students to choose their own novels, learning is placed into their hands. No longer do the students have a teacher who “forces” them to read one novel in particular. They are in control. They have choice. They can read whatever they want. And most importantly, they garner respect for you for allowing them to do so. And when students respect their teacher, they will work harder. Win-win.

 My passion for reading ever since I was little has grown with my teachers giving me choice of independent novels. While I get to learn more and expand my knowledge with reading, I’m also enjoying it and motivated to read more. – Alyssa B.

3. Motivation. What I am learning is that when students have a choice in regards to reading, they are more motivated to read even more books. That makes sense, right? This motivation factor also ties into the enjoyment factor. By giving students choice, they have the opportunity to select books that appeal most to their own interests, hobbies and tastes. Because they are reading books that appeal to these interests, the outcome is increased drive and motivation to read even more books similar to that last one. And get this… according to Guthrie and Wingfield, authors of Handbook of Reading Research, providing genuine student choices increases effort and commitment to reading. Two things that all English teachers want to see. Now, that’s awesome.

 Lets us find new books through each other. – Abby D.

 4. Collaboration.  I love when students argue. Over books, that is. Not only have my students argued over who gets to sign out my one and only copy of Divergent next, but they bicker over whether or not they found an ending of a novel/series good or bad. (Allegiant, anyone?) Because a variety of books are getting into the hands of students, there are more student recommendations floating around. This leads to novel discussion. When I have book talks in my classroom, all students are excited to hear about the latest trending books. And these book talks continue outside of the classroom, in the hallways, on the bus, over the weekend, and beyond…

 5. Life-long Love of Reading. A student of mine wrapped this one up perfectly when she wrote, “By being able to choose your own novels, you are more likely to come across a genre or author you like, which only makes you want to find similar books to continue reading in your free time.” (Alyssa B.) She certainly hit the nail on the head. Giving students choice in their reading instills a life-long love of it, and what’s better than that?

 When I asked my students what they feel the positive outcomes from having complete CHOICE regarding the books they read, I received the following responses.

(Note: many of these fit into the TOP 5 above!)

You can choose something you’re interested in, instead of being told what to read.

You connect to the story and get more into what you’re reading.  –Morgan Z.

It’s nice to have a teacher who gives you some freedom. We can look forward to class. – Carrington M.

Makes reading more fun when it feels like you’re choosing to read rather than being forced. -Abby D.

Does not seem as much like a project, but just a fun hobby. – Cole W.

Choice can guarantee that the reader will like the story. You can pick any genre, any style. Plus, there are thousands of options. –Carrington M.

I enjoy the book more. –Brad B.

Makes reading more enjoyable. – Gabby C.

Gives freedom to find our own books and develop our own favorite types. –Abby D.

I have more respect for my teacher. She doesn’t just throw a list of books at you and say, “here. Pick one.” – Maia G.