Friday, April 30, 2010

The Glory Days: Henry

March, 2010

"Psst, Ms. Ryane?"

He's scurried up to me from his seat in Room 42. We're in the middle of a scene but Henry has a question. I raise my eyebrows as if to ask, "Yes, what is it, Henry?"

"Hey, Ms. Ryane, is that the ring we used last year?"

I shake my head and mouth, "No, different ring." He tiptoes back to his seat.

"Psst, Ms. Ryane, you should tell them about when you brought those beads last year!"

"Psst, Ms. Ryane, are we going to play the Insult Game this year like last year? I LOVE that game!"

I guess we all have our glory days. The perfect touchdown on the college team. The first kiss from that first boy. The career promotion that spelled, Easy-peasy days ahead!

Henry's glory days came when, at eight years old, he played Malvolio in "Twelfth Night." When he made people laugh. When he took a solo curtain call. Henry's glory days were last year and the little guy wants them back.

He's with us for "Macbeth" after returning to our school halfway through the year. He really should have a bigger role than the doomed King Duncan but it's all we had left after his surprise re-arrival. Henry has taken on the duty of king in a typical Henry way. He shows no impatience with the size of the part.

"Ms. Ryane, the servant better kneel, or you know what!" He runs his finger across his throat.

For Henry the play is about King Duncan, and that's exactly how every actor should approach his or her part.

"Psst, Ms Ryane...I could wear this!" He tugs on his red T-shirt, " 'Cause it's red and looks kinda like blood for when I'm murdered!"

"Henry," I whisper, because we are, again, in the middle of a scene, "we’ll have Shakespeare Club T-shirts."

"Like last year!" he whisper-yelps.

"Different color, but yes," I whisper back.

He dances back to his seat.

I want to give Henry many, many glory days. His spirit is such that despite there being scary things or sad things in the world, he doesn't appear to absorb them. Henry skips and high-fives the universe into his vision of rightness. He is a lesson in weathering the storm. For Henry, Shakespeare's tragedies and comedies are equal in their value to his life. Give him an hour center-stage and he'll keep you entertained. Give him five minutes and you'll clamor for more.

Psst, Henry. You are my glory days.

There are alot of responbiletys for haveing a best frend. You try to stop them when theyr are doing something bad. You also have to be nice to them. If you want friends gusts folow this.
—Henry, 4th grade

beads photo by Flickr user divemasterking2000

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Hard News: What's Best?

My hat's off to Florida governor Charlie Crist for bucking the trend and not passing this education bill.

Here's what I know after five years of attempting classroom rule: You can't learn to manage the room in one, two or three years. It takes time and accrued experience.

Here's what else I know: Incessant mandated testing does not equate with real learning and is both sapping creativity in teachers and killing the desire for knowledge by students.

Testing seems to me to be someone's idea of a quick fix. If we take a quick glance at scores we can deduce levels of academic absorption. If we jam facts into growing brains it means they know something.

Children are being left behind. There is no quick fix. Lower classroom size and let teachers teach. Get parents robustly involved in helping on campuses and at home.

Crist Bucks Florida GOP and Vetoes Education Bill (The Wall Street Journal)

Monday, April 26, 2010

All Girls: Mary and Page

March, 2010

"Well, Ms. Ryane, maybe what happened was that the people who went to William Shakespeare's know, like those people...maybe they didn't want to see so many boys dressed up like girls and so maybe that's why he didn't make so many girls' parts," Page offers.

"Hmmm, you may be right," I answer.

"And that's why Page and me have to be Lords, like Ross and Lennox, because Shakespeare Club has so many girls, right?" Mary adds.

"That's correct, and that's irony."

These two third-graders are sitting with me on a bench in the schoolyard. Quite often as I cross the campus on my way to prepare Room 42, I hear, "Ms. Ryane, Ms. Ryane!" and quite often it's an opportunity for a gab session about Shakespeare and the play and "what will we eat on the day of the play?"

"Ms. Ryane?"

"Yes, Page?"

"Will we have to wear wigs?" Page pats her long golden locks as she asks this.

"Mmmm, no wigs. Actually, back then men had long hair just like yours. You could pull it into a ponytail if you like, but you won't need a wig."

In her early journal entries, Page wrote of wanting to get over her shyness. A lot of girls write about the plague of shyness but Page has blossomed like an English rose under the watchful eye of the Bard. She plays a witch in the Witches' Chorus, and Lord Lennox. She was one of the first to be off-book and she uses a great big voice.

Mary does not suffer from shyness. Mary has confidence and bravado by the bucketful. She reminds me of Luis in our "Twelfth Night" last year. After a particularly tricky rehearsal where the cast has to repeatedly hide and reveal Banquo’s ghost, I had a Luis-type chit-chat with Mary.

"Mary, are you aware of your special gift?"

"No. What does that mean, anyway?"

"You have a unique talent. You have a natural ability to bring people joy by...what, do you think?"

She kept her eyes glued to mine and shrugged.

"You know exactly what I'm talkin' about, sister. You have a funny bone. You can make people laugh."

Mary shot me a wide grin.

"Here’s the problem: 'Macbeth' is a...what?"


"Right. It's low on jokes. So, we have to make a deal. If you can hold it together this year in the drama and audition well next year for the’ll get a payoff. Think you can do it?"

"Sure!" she said and then did a little backwards moonwalk like she does every time in rehearsal when I say, "Okay, let’s go back to the top and try again."

"Well, I gotta go. See ya later, alligators!" I sang.

Mary and Page raced off to climb the outdoor apparatus. Upside down, hanging by their knees, they swung like the stars they are.

My best friend is Page. She helps me and I help her. When we get mad or hurt each other. My responsibility to be a best friend is when my best friend gets sad or hurt I help them.
—Mary, 3rd grade

Friday, April 23, 2010

Going Private: Garth

March, 2010

In the early years of The Shakespeare Club, when I wanted to work privately with a young actor, I'd arrange an afterschool meeting in the library and sit and wait and wait and pace. Most times no one would show up.

Over the years, I've gained some credibility with the teachers and am now able to call a student out of class to work with me during the school day. I cherish these private sessions. They are opportunities to learn about the child, to plant seeds of courage. Together we study a character's motives, learn lines or sort out relationship conflicts in the club.

And because I will always wrestle with classroom chaos, it is a relief to work only one-on-one. Also, there are a few things a kid likes more than focused "just me" attention.

When I show up randomly at a classroom door, faces light up and they point to themselves, whispering, "Me? Me?"

On the day Garth and I jaunted over to the library, the boy fairly hopped and skipped beside me.

"I've been waiting and waiting for this!" he gushed.

"Really? You do seem pretty excited."

"I've been wondering and wondering what this would be know...just you and me! I've been so wondering."

Garth's breaths came in short bursts and I was wondering myself how to fulfill his hopes. Our time in the library would hardly be a trip to Disneyland.

"Well, now you'll find out, Garth. Here we go," and I ushered him into the room.

Garth is playing Banquo. The character ends up dead at the hands of his best friend, Macbeth. I've heard that Garth gathers Mark (Malcolm) and Oliver (Macbeth) together on lunch breaks to pore over their scripts. In part because of Garth's urging, these boys are all off-book.

We sat across from each other, scripts open, and I asked if he had any thoughts or questions about the play.

"Well that Lady Macbeth, she's so evil. It's all her fault," Garth declared, shaking his head.

"Mmmm. Well, yes, she has a lot to do with it, but let's face it, Garth, Macbeth goes along with the plan. He does make that choice, right?"

"No, but she convinces him, she makes him kill King Duncan."

"Hmmm. So, Garth, I noticed down on Venice Boulevard there's a really cool game store. Like they have Wii games and all kinds of other stuff. They have so much in there. I was thinking, how about you and I go there and I'll talk to the guy and you just take a couple of those games? You could just stick them in your jacket and they wouldn't even miss them 'cause they have so many. Wanna?"

He pulled far away from me in his chair.

"Nooo, Ms. Ryane, no way...nooooo!"

"See, Macbeth could have said that but he didn't."

Garth pondered this.

"Yeah, but still she's nasty bad. I think she made him."

Mother issues?

"Well, Garth, I don't think anyone could make you do something you didn't think was right, and that's a good thing. Let's go over your scenes."

"Sure, Ms. Ryane. I like this."

Me too.

Elizabethan Man I will live in a small house. And I will ware breaches. And a shirt. I will eat lots of sweat bread and fish. I will fill happy goying to school but it wouldn't be cool getting a wip at the bottom at school.
—Garth, 4th grade

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Recess: At the Movies

I have a firefighter brother and one thing he hates are firefighter movies. The dramas of barreling fireballs and station house antics are too phony for him to bear.

Many doctors cringe at the fakery in celluloid hospital scenes. We still see scrub nurses patting down the sweaty brows of surgeons when in fact operating rooms are kept at chilly temperatures.

I wonder if teachers shake their heads, bewildered, at Hollywood's version of real classrooms.

I recently caught an old chestnut on television, UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE, with a thirty-year-old Sandy Dennis as a first-year high-school teacher at a troubled New York City institution. I mention her age because, in her dewy freshness, Ms. Dennis is utterly appealing and devoid of the neurotic tics she picked up over the course of her career. I found her entirely believable in her intelligent and well thought-out performance.

I loved that during the time frame of the story, one school year, she wears three different outfits over and over. I so appreciated the diversity of the school's population. I cheered the filmmakers' restraint when a "bad boy" isn't saved and redeemed by our heroine. This is a good movie.

On the other hand, DANGEROUS MINDS which aired a few nights later, is devastating in its posturing and cliché-laden imagery. That tough nut, Michelle Pfeiffer, licking her lips for what seems like half an hour as she challenges the tough ghetto kid to do better. It's so stupid it's agonizing to watch. Seriously? Does anyone think that's a wise choice in disciplining a teenager, especially when he looks twenty-six and you look like Michelle Pfeiffer?

I will always have a soft-spot for TO SIR WITH LOVE, also released in 1967, and starring Sidney Poitier. For one thing, until "Stand and Deliver" showed up, it was the only film I'm aware of where the star teacher isn't white. Also, I saw this movie when I was a kid and wept buckets at the ending.

1967 was a good year for education on film. Actually, 1967 was a good year for almost anything on film:

GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER (come on, guess!)

I missed this one but I bet it's great: FOLLOW THAT CAMEL. with Phil Silvers.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Waiting Game

March, 2010

Be still my heart, my tapping fingers and my gnashing teeth. I'm not fond of lineups at the supermarket, at the doctor's office or on the freeway. If I can't grab a "People" magazine, I get apoplectic with impatient energy as the glacial row sits and sits and sits.

So, how can I expect a child anxious to hit center stage to stay calm, not chatter and not writhe as he waits for his turn to bat? And yet I do expect that very thing. I ask it of these kids every year, in every rehearsal and I walk away startled when so many comply by sometimes literally sitting on their hands until their cue comes up.

For Dominick, who wrestles with assorted ADD and ADHD issues, the waiting thing is a gigantic challenge but, my God, the boy tries. I catch him out of the corner of my eye whispering his lines and throwing his imaginary sword heavenward as he goes through Macduff's speeches. His dad came up with a possible solution. He recorded parts of "Macbeth" on an iPod for Dominick to listen to while he waits. It's a worthy fix and seems to be helping.

"Page ten, Ms. Ryane!" Dominick points to his script. "I don't even show up until page ten!"

"I know, Dominick, nightmare. But look at poor Henry. His King Duncan exits on page five and that's it. He's dead until page twenty-one, when he takes a curtain call."

Dominick gives an empathetic head shake toward Henry. "Man, I don't know how you do it."

Actors wait. It is the decree of their career. They wait for auditions, for agents to call, for directors to notice, for parents to accept, for checks in the mail...and while they do those things, they stand before us in restaurants and wait on us some more.

Actor/waiter. A synonymous calling.

Man, I don't know how they do it.

If I was a girl in the Elizabethan period I would wear a big gown with lace and silk gloves up to my elbows, for fun I would go to plays. I would be a queen when I got older because I was a princess. My mother was queen Elizabeth and my father was in Shakespeares plays. I had a chesnut colored horse named Lili. I was born in 1579 and died in 1632.
—Mary, 3rd grade

Friday, April 16, 2010

Where Are the Marbles?

March, 2010

I was rehearsing alone with Oliver and Phoebe, a.k.a. Lord and Lady Macbeth. All the kids, as they learn their lines, have a tendency to rattle them off super quickly, as if the words will evaporate if they don't get them off the tongue as fast as possible. They also have pride and want to show me that they did the work and glued those suckers into place.

"This is excellent, Oliver, that you know your speeches by heart. I can certainly see that you've done the work, but here's the next big have to mean them. You have to really talk to Phoebe like a real person. That's the trick of acting, what actors call 'owning' the words, as if you just thought them up right now. Not everyone can do this, but I'm sure you can."

"Oh, I know, Ms. Ryane," Oliver answered. "It's like when I'm at home I work on these and I can't remember them but then when I'm here in Room 42, it's like it all makes sense and then I know what the lines are."

"Well, I'm just the opposite," Phoebe argued, hands on hips. "I know them all at home but I get here and I can't remember a thing!"

This is true of Phoebe. In our last company rehearsal she hung on tightly to her script and I said, "Phoebe, you're having the same problem that all actors face at this point in rehearsal. It's when you know what you're doing and saying, but it's a scary thing to put the baby down. It's time to put the baby down, Phoebe. I'll be here to help and Darby will give you a line when you call out 'Line!' Okay?"

I pried the script from her clutching hands.

"Okay, you two, let's take it from, 'And when goes hence?' "

Phoebe was halfway through "Oh never shall sun that morrow see!" when she stopped, sighed and announced: "I've lost my marbles!"

This is what I call a "turnaround moment." Every teacher and every parent has these. It's when a child, in all seriousness, says something like "I've lost my marbles" as if she were a flummoxed fifty-year-old matron at a church social.

I turned away to bite my tongue and lips. I didn't want Phoebe to think I was laughing at her, but the girl cracks me up.

"Okay," I whispered.

"We have to go back to the beginning, Ms. Ryane."

"Yes, Phoebe, of course, whatever you'd like. But let me say that you have not lost your marbles. Lady Macbeth has lost her marbles, but you're going to be just fine."


She shot me a skeptical look and then launched into the scene, word-perfect, looking straight into Oliver's eyes and those words rolled out, well, like glassy...

I am Lady Macbeth. I live in a white manshon that has 132 rooms. I have four rooms. One is my bedroom. I have wallpapper that have flowers and hearts. My bathroom has a bathtub that is purple and it is seven feet long. Dressing room and meeting room.

My friends are the witches and Lady Macduff. I believe that to be Queen is the best thing I want. I want to be Queen so badly I tell my husband to kill the King. I am afraid of Malcom. I am loyal to Celia, Natalie, and Mariah. I eat sushi, fish, chicken and rice, and mashed potatoes.
—Phoebe, 4th grade

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Recess: Lessons Learned

Ouch! When the teacher gets taught it's often an "ouch moment." At least I found it so.

I had occasion recently to witness a class in session and watched a teacher do something that struck me as crazy, odd and just plain dumb. A week or so later I was speaking to another teacher I greatly admire, and asked outright, "Is __________ an idiot?"

She gave me a sweet look and responded simply, "No, __________ is not an idiot. There have been some difficulties in this person's personal life, but even so, a terrific teacher with my class."

She then cited an example of a problem child who identified __________ as a hero, and how that child's behavior transformed under __________'s watchful instruction.

"But," I protested, "why on earth would __________ do blah blah and not blah blah? I don't get it."

"I know," she nodded. "I've learned not to judge because what we see doesn't always make sense but can work anyway. I used to wonder myself about __________, but I've watched over the years and I understand the method. We've now become friends."

This was when I extracted one foot out of my mouth, since it was chewed to a pulp, and replaced it with a bar of soap.

I've been in the classroom for a mere five years and let me tell you, that's nothin' in "experienced teacher" years. I was in no position to be criticizing, no position at all, and here I was mouthing off about her "friend," of all people. She'd learned not to judge and now I had to learn.

It has been said there are bad people in the school system and I believe that, but the best teachers want to be monitored, they want assessments of their work, they want tools and they want to do well in their chosen careers.

The best teachers seek judgment, just not by me. And they have a point.


Monday, April 12, 2010

Tick Tock

She should have died hereafter.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time—
Out, out brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
Macbeth Act V, Scene V

March, 2010

Whisper this speech aloud and slowly. Again. And again. And once more.

"Do you hear it, Oliver? Do you hear the ticking of the clock? Tick tock, tick tock?"

"Yeah, I kinda hear it, Ms. Ryane."

"Macbeth has just been told that his wife is dead. He doesn't have his best friend Banquo anymore because..."

"Yeah, because I had him killed."

"Mmmm. It seems that what Macbeth hears is a ticking clock with lots of time to be all alone."

"Yeah." Oliver whispers and looks at the words on the page.

Oliver, at the end of this speech you say the tale is told by an idiot and that it signifies nothing. Who are you talking about? Who's the idiot?"


"Yeah. It strikes me that you got everything you wanted and now have nothing. I wonder how Macbeth feels?"

"Bad. Pretty sad, I guess."

"Yeah, I would guess very depressed."

Oliver launches in for another go at it. I can hear the clock, a heavy clock endlessly beating...tick tock, tick tock.

Oliver will turn ten years old April 21. That's the day we will celebrate Shakespeare's birthday with a party. And we will celebrate Oliver, who marks a big beside his speeches with the word: LEARNED.

At the beginning of the year, when we explored the Elizabethan period and I showed the kids pictures of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and described where the rich folks sat and where the groundlings, or poor folks, stood, Oliver studied the photos. I showed them drawings of groundlings with fruit stuffed into their pockets, ready to toss at the actors if the story was boring or the acting was crummy.

"Oh, Ms. Ryane!" Oliver waved at me from his seat.

"Yes, Oliver?"

"Maybe those groundlings brought a banana and then an actor slipped on it and maybe that's when they invented comedy!"

Maybe that's exactly what happened.

Meanwhile I have a boy who can act one of Shakespeare's more famous speeches with the heaviness of a bewildered and sad man. How and where does a nine-year-old find this?

This is the mystery. It's signifying something, but its origins in Oliver are a mystery. This is the magic of theatre.

If I got to find out about my future I would like to know if I did one thing bad.

If I made All-stars
If I do go in school
What kind of job would I have
When will I die
Would I have kids

Nails of a rat, toe of a goose, leather of a softball, and leaves of an oak tree.

Potion: to make the best softball ever made
—Faith, 5th grade

Friday, April 9, 2010

Proper Props

March, 2010

I knew a theatre actress who, while acting in a thriller, reached for a vital prop that wasn't there. The scene took place in a kitchen with an evil killer. As the murderer approached her, she was to grab a gun and shoot him. The gun was missing. The killer stepped closer because he didn't know the gun was missing and the actress grabbed a jar, screwed off the lid, made to throw the contents at her enemy and screamed, "Poisoned jam!"

Lesson One: It is an actor's responsibility to make sure their props are set.

Lesson Two (this is the hard one): Actors must never touch or play with another actor's props.

These kids want their props so much. I have a tantalizing prop box waiting for the day we do a decent run-through and they're off book. Guess what props, specifically, they really long for. Go on, guess.

Both the girls and the boys pine for those long pointy things. Shiny in their plastic glow. Oh boy, they want those swords...and I'm holding back.

I've had them line up in rows facing each other to learn the fights: ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR and the DEATH BLOW. They start with hands on imaginary hilts and with imaginary swords the duels begin. They love it. The winners jump for joy and the losers writhe on the ground, sucking their final breaths.

"Off-book and a decent run-through!"


The tricky problem for me, prop-wise, was what to do when Macbeth greets his wife with his hands dripping in blood after he kills King Duncan. She shakes her head — what a moron — and tells him to go wash up and stop spilling blood all over the place.

T'was in the middle of the night, when all good ideas come, that I had my answer.

I sewed streamers of red ribbon on the fingertips of red gloves. Kind of gory without a messy clean-up. See, I paid attention to Lady Macbeth's admonishment.

Best Friend

I had a friend and she never stold something from me. One day she had a doll and when she was playing I took her doll and put it in my back pack. When my dad went to go pick me up and we went to the car I got the doll out and I said dad look what I got and he said wear did you get that from I said I stold it then I got in troble by my dad and mom and when my friend went home and she looked inside her back pack her doll was gone the next morning I went to school I got in troble by the teacher and I regrat that.
—Faith, 3rd grade

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Hard News: The Bully Pulpit

As of late, there has been a great deal of media discussion on the plague of bullying. The reportage intensified in recent weeks when a young Massachusetts student died after receiving persistent attacks. This is not the garden-variety intimidation many of us grew up with. Cyberspace has provided even more overwhelming and sinister venues for cruelty.

There is a zero tolerance policy in the Shakespeare Club when it comes to bullying. In our third year a member was invited to leave the club as a result of his meanness.

In our first year the kids absolutely would not perform in front of fellow students. By year two they allowed a few after-school children to watch and now the actors perform in front of the entire school, but not without reasonable trepidation. It is a fearful thing to act publicly before one's peers. I deliver a speech beforehand outlining the job of the audience. I point out that even though they are seated in darkness the actors can see and hear them. Therefore walking around, chatting or calling out would be rude behavior.

At the final performance of "Twelfth Night" last year, three young fellows shouted out "Kiss her! Kiss her!" to an actor and his partner on stage. The actors did their best to signal them to stop, to no avail. These boys were drunk on their own power and their intoxication kept them going. They could not seem to stop themselves.

A few days later, I visited second- and third-grade classrooms to speak about the performance. I asked the kids what they remembered and liked about the play. I avoided all eye-contact with the culprits. I asked the students if they remembered my talk about the audience's job and they replayed what I'd said.

"I'm here to teach you a new word," I said, and wrote HECKLE on the board.

Under that word I wrote NO NAMES and then shared what I'd witnessed by the boys in the audience. I told them that "heckle" was a cousin to "bully."

"I was so proud of the actors because they kept doing their job and I felt so much shame for those boys because they forgot their job and behaved badly."

"Who was it, Ms. Ryane? Are they in this room, those boys?"

I pointed out: NO NAMES.

"I have three stamped envelopes," and held them high. "Those boys can write letters of apology to the actors and to me, if they choose. And when someone takes responsibility for their actions, what do we do?"

"We say 'okay'?"

"We believe them?"

"We forgive them?"

"Yes, we forgive and we forget and we move on."

I received one letter of apology from one boy. The actors did not receive any letters.

My classroom conversation did not sit well with everyone. In not-so-subtle reactions by certain parents, that has been made clear. And I do not care.

The media is abuzz these days, arguing over who's to blame and who's responsible as bullied children sink into depression and tragically sometimes die. Parents, teachers and school authorities who ignored signs of trouble are listed the root causes. I'm going to suggest it's up to all of us to be vigilant.

I think if you're old enough to behave cruelly, you are old enough to learn not to. I never wish to hear "Kids being kids" or "Boys will be boys" or "Just having a little fun."

I do not want to hear it.

Zero tolerance.

Zero defense.

"Speakers Corner, Hyde Park" by Anthony Grima