My Return To The Classroom – Part Two

Most of the following isn’t going to make sense unless you’re caught up on part one!

The big day arrived! I’d chosen the 8 am spot, first thing in the morning. It dawns on me immediately that I have not anticipated the layout of the room I’d assumed rows of desks. Nope. More like an executive boardroom table, with twenty students around it in a circle. Ok, we can work with that. There are plenty of whiteboards if I feel so inclined. And a projector for the computer. We have some trouble getting connected, and my son literally has to hack into the private school wifi so I can project, but we get it working. And I’m on.

My Miniature Shakespeare Army
So glad I brought props!

In hindsight, I think I did pretty poorly. I had it in my head that the most important thing to cover was, how did I get here? Who am I? What’s my story? That translated to, “Hey, you’re actually a software engineer, keep reminding them of that.” So I started telling them my life story. From memorizing the balcony scene in ninth grade to going to college and working on a (failed) videogame that required me to read all the plays, to creating the blog in 2005 because I had no Shakespeare friends. In my head, it all made sense. In my head, it was all a consistent theme -when you find something you love, don’t let other factors steer you from it. Follow it and see where it takes you. In reality, I probably babbled endlessly for thirty to forty minutes (of seventy!) with very little Shakespeare content.

Finally, we got to show some cool stuff, so I brought up Bardle. They were fascinated. Wait, you wrote this? “Yes,” I told them, “I wrote this. And by that I mean, in the tradition of all great software, I stole it.” I tell them the story of how the original Wordle came online and how you could just do a “View source” and save all the code because it was a single-page application. The few computer science kids in the class were fascinated. But again, where’s the Shakespeare?

We played a round, and unfortunately, the word was aspic – there was no way they were going to get that. So that was disappointing. But I did remember to start giving out Shakespeares. After the first student offered up a guess, I tossed him a tiny Shakespeare and heard an audible gasp from the room. “I want a tiny Shakespeare,” I heard a small voice say. “I’ve got enough for everybody” I tell them before immediately contradicting myself when the next student’s guess unveiled no letters, and I said, “No Shakespeare for you.” But then threw him one anyway. I quickly lost track of my Shakespeares and eventually pulled a bunch of them from the bag, tossing them onto the table – and they disappeared in the blink of an eye.

Then I showed them Blank Verse. Wait, you wrote this, too? Did you write all this stuff? This time I can answer more honestly, yes, I did. I wrote this one all by myself. We have fun playing with that for a little bit. Awkward moment when the puzzle called for a noun, and they shouted, “trodden.” What? “Trodden.” “But…trodden is an adjective.” Turns out it was a student’s last name. “But…your name’s an adjective,” I complained. We put in his first name instead.

Time was flying. I took a break to have them ask me questions – something that I do when I’m interviewing candidates at work, too, by the way. It gives me a chance to reset if I’ve gone off the rails by getting back to providing information that the people listening actually want. “What’s on your blog?” they ask. Oh, lots of stuff, I tell them. Product reviews. Travel stories, Geeklet stories. Then I go into a lengthy story about my geeklets – remember, my son’s sitting in this class, hopefully not getting too embarrassed. I tell the story of how they learned to sing Sonnet 18 because it was my ringtone. Or how I told The Tempest to my daughters as a bedtime story, but how my son wanted to hear Hamlet and King Lear.

I am nearly out of time, and I want to dig into my bag of tricks. I pull out the Shakespeare Death Bookmarks I had printed for the occasion and have the students pass them around. I wanted to make sure that everybody had memories of the event. I’ve told them multiple times that I will leave my mini Shakespeares with the teacher because it bothers me that somebody may not have gotten one. But the bookmarks are a stack, so I can just pass that along and let everybody take one.

The prize! Had anybody found the easter egg? I had the prize with me, all wrapped up. I even showed them the post on the blog so they could read it for themselves and see that I wasn’t cheating. Alas, no one had seen it or had the answer. However, it was one girl’s birthday, so she got the prize. What was it? I knew that they were reading Othello in this class, so I found a nice full-sized edition of the Othello board game. These days it’s called Reversi. It’s surprisingly hard to locate an Othello version. They let the trademark lapse years ago.

My game! I spent all that work on I Survived A Shakespeare Play, and we aren’t even going to get to it. Quick, everybody, stand up! Here’s where the CEO desk gets awkward because I’ve got to walk around the outside of the room in a circle, getting kids to pick a card. The first card is from Romeo and Juliet, and they get it immediately, and the student is saved. The second … is also from Romeo and Juliet. Who dealt these? Saved again. The third is Goneril from King Lear, which I know they haven’t read. But there’s a student holding a Goneril bookmark on the other side of the desk, and she’s saved. Uh oh. I did not think that through. At one point, they had pooled the bookmarks on the table and were scouring them for the answers to save each other. After one round, only four of the twenty students had actually died.

Just like that my time was up, The bell had rung, and the students got up to file out, all politely saying thank you. Scrambling to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything, I dig into my bag and start tossing 3D-printed stuff onto that table. “Did everybody get a mini Shakespeare? I have cookie cutters!’ The teacher spies a cookie cutter and says she’ll claim one for herself. “I have something different for you, actually,” I tell her, having forgotten that as well. I find the lithophane and take it to the window to show her how it works. I hope it’s still in her classroom.

Before I knew it, I was out the door. I left a number of my books – the baby books, the graphic novels – with the teacher to show the class at her leisure. We discuss whether I would just do this for all her classes, whether my kids were in those classes or not. It’s a tricky question for me because I know that if I ever did make it a regular thing, something about it would change. But who am I kidding, if invited, I’d come. I think with practice, I wouldn’t make half the mistakes I made today, and that’s a good thing.

My Return To The Classroom – Part One

A funny thing happened a few months ago. A scary, exciting thing. My two oldest are off to college now, and my third is heading into his final years of high school. His English teacher wrote to me, inviting me to come to speak in her class. Since all three of my kids went through the school, my reputation is well known, at least from a distance. The English department knows that my kids have a Shakespeare geek for a father. But I’ve never actually been in their classroom. We tried to do something a few years ago, but a silly old pandemic got in the way.

Needless to say, I was bouncing off the walls with excitement. I haven’t been in the classroom since my kids were in elementary school, and let me tell you, it’s a whole different animal trying to impress a ten-year-old than a sixteen-year-old. What props would I bring? What would we talk about? The teacher and I bounced around some ideas, generally deciding to focus on the theme of Who am I, and why am I doing this? Why would a fifty-something computer programmer volunteer to go into schools and tell people that Shakespeare is awesome? Great, I thought, I can do that standing on my head.

But I can’t just extemporize for seventy minutes. I needed structure. What to bring, what to bring? So many possibilities! I fretted and I frittered. I went through my children’s lifetime of pictures. I stacked books to bring. I have a 3d printer! I would make things. 3d printed things are cool. What would I make?

Shakespeare Busts

Shakespeares, of course, There’s a whole story that goes with these, but I’ll give you the short form. I needed to make at least 25 of *something* because I wasn’t about to bring in giveaways if I didn’t have enough for everybody. There were 20 students, I checked and double checked. So I figured 25 leaves me wiggle room to leave something with the teacher or other friends I see along the way.

Then my printer broke. I had to sent to China for parts, with no way of knowing whether they’d arrive in time, and whether they’d fix the problem when they did arrive. In the meanwhile, after a *lot* of trial and error and messing with settings, I figured that I could print one at a time. Each one took about an hour and a half. So for about five days straight I spent all day printing a single Shakespeare at a time, popping him off the print bed, then immediately starting a new one.

While I was there I also printed some Shakespeare cookie cutters. I couldn’t swing printing 25 of them, though, so I only printed a couple and would figure out later how to give them out.

Lastly I printed something special for the teacher, a “lithophane” of the front page of the First Folio. Lithophanes are this cool technique where you print a translucent image so that it looks like nothing when you hold it normally, but hold it up to the light and it is photographic quality.

My son told me at one point that the teacher had said I was coming, and that the students had checked out my site. I decided to see if anybody was still reading. I left an easter egg in a post that gave them a word and said if you’re the first person to tell me that word and what it means to Shakespeare, I’ll have a prize for you. The word was Corambis, and it’s another name for Polonius.

Games! We should play some games! Yes this is what my thought process was like for a month, enjoying the ride?

We could play Bardle, that was an easy one. I knew they knew about Bardle. But you can only really play that once. They could play Blank Verse, assuming I could get it working. What’s Blank Verse, you say? It’s a Shakespeare Mad Lib game I made a long time ago and has been offline for years. That is, until I brought it back to life in a web-hosted version! It’s small right now, only a couple of puzzles, but you can definitely play it. So, that was two.

Then I did something that was maybe over the top. But hey, who we talking about, here? I invented a new game, on the fly, during a conversation with the teacher. A long time ago I’d made a classroom game called Last Shakespeare Standing that consisted of the whole class taking turns drawing slips of paper from a hat – most of which said “You died from plague” or something equally amusing. The idea was to be the last person standing. At first I thought we could play that, but that’s pretty much random, that’s not really educational. I know that one of the most viral facts about Shakespeare is all the created ways that characters died. A few years back I’d even made bookmarks featuring great Shakespearean deaths. So off the top of my head I turned my game into I Survived A Shakespeare Play. Almost all of the deck features the great deaths of Shakespeare characters – who died, how they died, and in what play. The rules are the same – you draw a card, and try to survive. But wait, I needed some survivors! So I added cards of other characters that survive the play. For a twist at the last minute, and to make it a little less random, I added a rule — you read your death, but not your character name. If your teammates can identify your character based on the description of your death, you survive.

I may have printed cards.

Did I go overboard a little bit? I think I may have. I wrote up something like 80+ cards, researched them to get my Act and Scene right, found a “blank playing cards” layout, formatted them, printed them on card stock, and cut them out. That was way more work than I had really thought through when I started the project. Damn the torpedoes!

I think I was ready. I loaded up my bag with props like a traveling magician. I had:

  • my First Folio
  • my Shakespeare bust
  • my computer, for the slide show and the online games
  • 25 miniature Shakespeare 3d printed busts
  • half a dozen or so Shakespeare cookie cutters
  • a Shakespeare First Folio lithophane
  • Shakespeare Death Bookmarks, first created in 2015 (by me)
  • Shakespeare baby books, to show that Shakespeare can start literally at birth
  • Hamlet in Esperanto, to show that Shakespeare is not bound by language
  • several Shakespeare graphic novels and other “plain text” treatments to show the variety of ways you can approach Shakespeare
  • my card game
  • my copy of Shakespeare Trivial Pursuit, in case we run out of time. I’d decided that we could play students against the teacher and I.
  • some random business cards, not because I expected to do any business but because I think they’re cool, there’s a little snippet from the Folio with the quote “Not of an age, but for all time” on them. And my website, of course.

I was never a Boy Scout, but man was I prepared. Or was I? Stay tuned for Part Two!

Why We Need Shakespeare

Recently I was having a conversation with my father and he dropped a bomb on me. “I just don’t get the whole Shakespeare thing,” he told me.

What am I supposed to say to that? Shakespeare makes life better? His next question would be, “Why? Why would it make my life better?”

But the thing is, I get it. I understand why he feels that way, and why I can’t give him an easy and obvious answer. I’ve thought about it for a long time. Does the name Abraham Maslow mean anything to you?

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a theory in psychology that explains the five basic human needs and their order of priority. According to the theory, humans are motivated to fulfill their basic needs before they can move on to more complex needs. The five needs are physiological needs, safety needs, belongingness and love needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization needs.

Physiological needs are the most fundamental needs that must be met, such as food, water, shelter, and sleep. Safety needs come next, which include the need for safety and security. The third level is the need for belongingness and love, which includes the need for social interaction, friendship, and love. Esteem needs refer to the need for self-esteem, confidence, and respect from others. Lastly, self-actualization needs are the need for personal growth, creativity, and fulfillment.

Forever Climbing That Pyramid

My dad and plenty of people his age have a very different perspective on “need”. His generation would probably tell you that the purpose of life is to get yourself a job that can support a family. And ….. that’s it, end of answer, why do you need more than that? If you’re able to provide for your family, you’re doing it right. So keep doing that.

I’m all for that answer, as far as it goes. I, too, put “provide for my family” above all other things. It’s one of the reasons I have a lucrative full-time job and I’m not on a corner somewhere reciting Shakespeare and hoping for handouts.

But let’s look at that on Maslow’s hierarchy:

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

“Get a job and support a family” takes you, how many levels up the pyramid? Three, four? Esteem is maybe where we begin to separate. Are you happy to do the same job forever if it pays your bills? Or do you want proof that you’re good at your job? You want recognition in the form of promotions and raises, which in turn trickle down and enable you to better provide for your family’s needs.

I think “Shakespeare makes life better” lives higher on the, well, hierarchy. It’s like going in to a high school classroom and trying to explain to the students why they shouldn’t just take those courses that are directly related to the career that they’ve already chosen (or has been chosen for them). The unexamined life is not worth living, as the saying goes. We have to embrace that. You’re right – knowing more or less Shakespeare for the general population will not change your ability to bring home a paycheck and get the bills paid. But there’s so much more to life than that.

Don’t get me wrong – I think that it’s a luxury and privilege to even have the conversation. One of the reasons why a lot of our parents can’t see things that way is because they grew up in a time where you wore the ripped hand-me-down clothes and you ate whatever was put on your plate and the idea of “do I like or want this” never entered the equation. It is precisely because my parents put so much focus on “provide for your kids” that I have this luxury.

I think it’s ironic that Shakespeare, unfortunately, has transcended its original “entertainment for the groundlings” purpose. People today don’t flock to see Two Gentlemen of Verona because the dog is funny. Shakespeare has become symbolic “education for the sake of education.” I just called it a luxury. Here I sit trying to tell people that Shakespeare makes life better and yet that it’s a luxury that not everyone feels they have the opportunity to pursue. It’s a lot to think about. I guess that’s why it’s called a mission.

Hell Is Empty, And ShakespeareGeek Is On TikTok

What else can I say? People have been asking and I’ve been telling myself that I should do something on Tiktok. Today seems as good a day as any! Behold, one small step!

My kids totally made this, I’m not going to lie. I told them the idea and pointed them to the clip, they did the rest. I have to learn all about how to properly tag it and what not. I guess you have to stay away from all things violent and “dead” related. So I’m not even sure that this one, which clearly says “dies” in it, will even stay up. But together we learn! Remember to follow in case I ever post anything else!

Shakespeare and Chess


So the other day, I got to go back into the classroom to talk to a bunch of teenagers about why it’s still important to study Shakespeare. I love that question because I’m neither an educator nor a politician (nay, not even a pundit). Nobody’s setting policy based on what I say. All I’ve got is my opinion, and I’m happy to offer it. Here’s what I told them, more or less.

Chess is experiencing something of a resurgence right now, isn’t it? You’ve got Queen’s Gambit on Netflix a few years ago. You’ve got the cheating scandal. I know that all three of my kids play now. I think there are some of you here in the room that play. <nods>

So, here’s the thing. Chess has been around for how many hundreds of years? (I looked it up later — 1500 years.) Basically unchanged, from what I understand. So you can read book after book about the games of the great masters and stand on the shoulders of the giants that came before you.

Sure, it’s hard. There are people that spend their entire lives trying to master it. But at the same time, if somebody who’d never played before sat down at the board next to you and asked to play, you could teach them, right? Or maybe you’re the student sitting across from the teacher.

Chess is played all over the world. (172 countries, my research tells me.) So if you’re traveling, bring your board. Because chess is not bound by language. Think about it. If somebody from another country sat down at the board next to you, someone who didn’t speak your language … you could still play, couldn’t you?

It’s also not bound by age, is it? Because the rules have been the same for generations, that means you can sit down to a game with someone half your age or twice your age. It’s the reason why my children can all Facetime with their grandfather to play.

Chess is a great unifier (ironic, given the US/Russia history, but still). You can spend your life studying it and still learn something new on any given day. It is a gift that you can share wherever you go in the world, without even the obstacles of age or language getting in the way. That’s why chess has been so popular for so long, and why it will continue to be.

Now consider that everything I just said is true of Shakespeare. Shakespeare isn’t bound by time or space. I’ve met strangers in strange lands and bonded over our love of Shakespeare. I sang Shakespeare to my children and plan to do the same for my grandchildren. I hope that my children, and their children, will do the same.

That’s one of a million reasons why Shakespeare makes life better.