2015 Caesar Raps

So that title is actually a misnomer. Are the raps from Julius Caesar? Sure they are – but the students are actually charged with updating Antony’s funereal speech in which he eulogizes his friend Caesar while charging the commoners with seeking revenge for Caesar’s death.

While some students dread the assignment (cough, cough, Melissa!), others look forward to it and shine. Beyond creating a rap or a song, what’s most important is demonstrating their ability to update Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English while “translating” Antony’s speech at the same time.

It’s great to see this final product — and it’s also great to see students get out of their comfort zones and push themselves!



I was nominated by my friend Matt Boe to take part in the ALS #icebucketchallenge and gladly accepted. I think this is a wonderful idea and hope that millions are raised for ALS research (incidentally, I read an article last night that stated that over a 10 day time period, more than $1.35 million had been raised through this challenge, whereas during this same 10 day period last year, $22,000 was raised). ALS is a disease that I, admittedly, didn’t know that much about until reading Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie – and if you haven’t read it already, I can’t recommend it enough. It is in remembrance of Morrie Schwartz that I completed this challenge. In return, I have nominated David Zilli, Joe Maluchnik, and Brian Higginbotham to complete the challenge or make their $100 donation to ALS Research. For more information, please check out http://www.alsa.org.

A special thank you to members of the Greensburg Salem Cross Country Team who helped make this happen (I think that some of them truly enjoyed doing this!)

I apologize for the poor video quality!!!

Student-Centered Book Club…

UPDATE: We are meeting on July 16th at 11am at The White Rabbit. I’ve also started a Remind 101 group for this, if this is something you’re interested in, please join by going here: https://www.remind.com/join/gsbookclub

I’ve kicked this idea around for awhile now and thought that the beginning of summer would be as good a time as any to give it a shot. I’m looking to create a student-centered book club — a way to provide some loose structure to interested students while gaining a greater understanding of where they’re coming from on certain topics/pieces.

Over the last year, I’ve been delving deeper into some current Young Adult pieces (The Fault in our Stars, Looking for Alaska, 13 Reasons Why, Deadline, Period 8, Divergent, Eleanor and Park,  etc.) and I’ve been fascinated by what these authors are bringing to the table. They all bring fascinating tales and characters to life and hit home (sometimes very hard) at the same time.

I believe, in many ways, that these pieces still are not being accepted enough by the stodgy, uptight people who make the big decisions (I blogged about this earlier in the year, after a piece about this came out in The Washington Post. That post can be found here). These pieces will one day get the respect they deserve and should one day be on our schools’ reading lists — I’m certain of that.

Having said this, I’m also not one who wants to see Mockingbird and Gatsby and some others that have been taught, seemingly, forever, pushed completely by the wayside. There are just as many lessons to be learned by a teen in these pieces as there are in a John Green or Chris Crutcher or Rainbow Rowell piece — I truly believe that.

But this got me to thinking about a particular piece that I really want to get some feedback on. I have my personal beliefs about JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, but I’ll save them for our first meeting. For some, this is THE book on the life of a teenager. And I’ve always wanted to know if it’s stood the test of time.


So let’s see if this works.

If you’re interested in taking part in this, then let’s figure out a time to meet. Let’s go with about a month — that gives you plenty of time to get it done. Read it with an open mind and figure out what it is that you want to tell others about it. Then let’s meet at The White Rabbit and share it out.

Rules? Well, I’d really rather not have any other than you spreading the word to anybody you think might be interested in reading this piece and getting together to talk about it — and then figuring out what we’ll read next. If you have further ideas, let me know, I’m open to them.

Here’s a link to Amazon’s listing for Catcherhttp://www.amazon.com/The-Catcher-Rye-J-D-Salinger/dp/0316769487/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1402156577&sr=8-1&keywords=catcher+in+the+rye

You can also pick it up at Barnes and Noble or the Greensburg/Hempfield library. Or, if you’re interested in helping a local, small business, check out Red Barn Books on Old Route 30 back behind the mall.

Spread the word — through text, email, twitter, whatever. Just let me know if you’re interested and we can see where it goes!

Analyzing Characters Through Song…

We have been working on Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and just completed a section that really hit home with a lot of students – and me as well. Rudy has been down on his luck and needs nothing more than a win. No matter how many times I read this book, this part really gets me every time. I mean, we’ve all been there, right?

So Rudy has been in my train of thought and then last night as I was driving, a song came on that just seemed to fit my vision of him at this point of the story. I got to thinking that we could probably tie a lot of characters that we study into songs – that sometimes, by taking a look at both our understanding of the characters and our understanding or a feel for a song – we can really take both to a deeper level.

And that’s what spawned this project.

The Book Thief – Using Songs to Examine Character

When I listen to music, it tends to happen in one of two ways. Actually, that’s not really completely accurate — it starts with me having everything on shuffle, then a great song comes on that I haven’t heard in a while and I hit the repeat button. Then I listen to nothing but that song for a week straight. This takes me through a lot of different genres of music, which I also like to experience.

Just like my listening preferences, listening to a lot of different things, that’s how my project came out. There’s softer stuff for a character like Rudy and harder stuff for somebody like Max. Then again, I could read it again next year, and could possibly have a totally different feel for the characters.



I go back and forth with Liesel – I love her at times and just want to shake some sense into her at others. Having said that, I can completely associate with her sense of abandonment, her desire to please, and just her sense of bewilderment at times. I can’t help but think of her first appearing at the Hubermann’s house, refusing to get out of the car for Rosa – she’s just horribly frightened of this new arrangement and feels abandoned by her mother. It’s also at this point that we see the bonding between Liesel and Hans begin: “Outside, through the circle she’d made, Liesel could see the tall man’s fingers, still holding the cigarette. Ash stumbled from its edge and lunged and lifted several times until it hit the ground. It took nearly fifteen minutes to coax her from the car. It was the tall man who did it. Quietly” (Zusak 28). This happened after Rosa had just got done asking what was wrong with this child. At the same time, I just see her as being really, really innocent.  It’s for these reasons that I chose Scala & Kolacny’s cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” to represent Liesel and her confusion. There’s something haunting about this version, yet the lyrics still act as a punch to the gut. I feel as though they get to all of the issues I’ve spoken about above – as long as there have been children and teenagers, there have been children who are lost in the process of finding themselves.

“When you were here before

couldn’t look you in the eye.

You’re just like an angel,

your skin makes me cry.

You float like a feather

in a beautiful world.

I wish I was special

You’re so (very) special.”

One of the things that I like the most about this choice for Liesel is that, to me, both the music and the lyrics fit her so well. While the music seems to be operatic and beautiful, the words themselves that they are singing are biting. This is how I see Liesel – carefree and full of wonderment at times, yet harsh and bitter at others. It’s for these reasons that I’m really able to see Liesel as I hear this one.

(That’s a cleaned up version of the song, by the way…)



This was actually the first song that came to mind, and, well, the song that sparked this idea, I should say. Rudy loves Liesel – in the narrator’s words “He loved her so incredibly hard” (Zusak 303). And we see him go up and down with this love. At times he knows when to push things, while at others he realizes when he needs to back off. At times, he’s that sounding board, that listener whom Liesel so desperately needs in her life. But he can’t help but to develop feelings for Liesel, and this sets himself up for these ups and downs in general.

We see Rudy struggle with many things in general, which is why Ray LaMontagne’s “Let It Be Me” immediately made me think of him. We’ve all been there; we’ve all had moments when we feel that the weight of the world is on our shoulders, that nothing can possibly go the way we envision it going. All he wants is a win – and LaMontagne expresses that pretty well in not only his lyrics, but also in the music itself:


lieselanddeathI know how strange it can seem to someone who hasn’t read the book, but Death is just an awesome character, an awesome narrator. It’s actually a little weird to even type that sentence! In this book, though, Zusak is quick to remind us that  “Even death has a heart” (242). From the start, when we’re told that Death is searching for reasons to understand why humans are worth it, we’re taken on a journey of redemption.


We see things through the eyes of a sympathetic, yet complicated, character. Instead of Death being this negative presence, however, I come to see him as being just kind of there, overseeing everything – questioning everything, wondering, worrying, thinking. In a sense, I see him floating above everything in a very ethereal way. Because of this, I also see Death being tied into another LaMontagne song called “Empty.” The song has a lilting quality about it – the instruments just seem to hang in the background a little and his voice doesn’t overpower anything at the same time. There are particular lyrics within this song that hit me pretty hard, though. At 4:07, LaMontagne sings “Well I looked my demons in the eye, laid bare my chest, said do your best to destroy me. You see I’ve been to hell and back so many times, I must admit you kind of bore me.” Now, it might seem weird that I’m applying this to Death, when in reality, LaMontagne is calling death out. But in a roundabout way, this is what Zusak’s Death is going through. He tells us that “(He’s) seen more eclipses than he cares to remember” (Zusak 11). It makes perfect sense to me that Death needs to hear LaMontagne’s words — that he just might be comforted by them.


hansHans is just this awesome, Atticus Finch-like character. He has all of the right answers, he knows everything to say and when to say it, and he just gets Liesel to adore him in such a natural way. Like Atticus, I think he’s this heroic father-figure whom everyone wants as a father and every father wants to be.

At the same time, he’s very complex. Take a stand against the Nazis during World War II, putting your life and your family’s in imminent danger because you refuse to join the Nazi Party? Check. Take it one step further by hiding a Jew in your basement? Check. Take a stand against everything being shoved down your throat – by actually acting as a human should – by offering a hungry person (who just so happens to be a Jew) food? You’re darn right he’s going to do this.

Perhaps the line that hit me the hardest concerning Hans wasn’t even something that he, himself, said, but rather was thought by Liesel some time later. Earlier in the novel, he had excused Max for turning his back on his own father when he was a youngster, passing this behavior off because he was so young. Now it was Liesel’s turn to justify her father’s behavior; after Hans came to realize he had jeopardized his family even more, he was beating himself up, calling himself “‘an idiot.'”  While it took over a year for the words to come to her, Liesel realized that this wasn’t the case all along when she said “‘No, Papa. You’re just a man'” (Zusak 402).

I have to admit that the first song that came to mind as I was thinking about Hans was “Lean on Me,” by Bill Withers – he’s such a comforting person. And there’s not a doubt in my mind that this makes sense. But the more that I read this book, the more I respect Hans for not taking the easy way, for standing up to what he knew to be wrong, which is why I went with The Ramones’ “My Brain is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg).” I feel like Hans is the kind of character who cares about what the greater good is – he can’t let his conscience get the best of him – he’s making decisions based upon what his dad would think of him (and whether or not his dad would slap him upside the head!) There’s just so much pent up anger in this song, yet it still makes perfect sense. I can see Hans jamming to this, as weird as it might sound, perhaps because of the first verse:

“You’ve got to pick up the pieces

C’mon, sort your trash

You better pull yourself back together,

Maybe you’ve got too much cash

Better call, call the law,

When you gonna turn yourself in? Yeah

You’re a politician

Don’t become one of Hitler’s children.”

I just see so much defiance in the decisions that Hans chooses to make. At the same time, I see him doing the right thing rather than the easy thing and I feel that this sums up this song by The Ramones pretty well:



I remember the first time that I read this book and talking to our Librarian, Mrs. Carrie Vottero, about how much I HATED Rosa. I’m not even sure that that word is strong enough for how I felt about her. My immediate thoughts about her actually take me to a song like “One” by Metallica – something that’s just dark and gloomy and miserable. But Mrs. Vottero told me about how much she LOVED Rosa. I was just shocked. How could anyone think this was even debatable? Rosa was just insanely horrendous and I would not change my feelings on her.

And then I read further. And I saw some slight changes happening. And I started to see a glimpse of an actual human being. And then I started to (gasp!) come around on her. Dang, I had to admit to Mrs. Vottero that she was right!

I watched as Rosa seemingly changed into a human being. I watched her show that she cared, and in turn, I started to care for her as well. Whereas at the beginning of the novel I felt it was all about her and that she was annoyed with Liesel, I now feel that she’s got a big heart and have to commend her for even taking on Liesel in a very difficult situation. By no means did the Hubermanns have to take in the daughter of a communist during this time period, let alone hiding a Jew in her basement. Rosa, truly, demonstrated that she was a wildcard, for sure, but also a “good woman for a crisis” (Zusak 211). I saw Rosa become vulnerable – and that’s something that I truly love about a person and a character.

I have to admit that I had some difficulty finding a song that fit Rosa. Nothing was coming to me immediately, and then I realized that maybe this paralleled my love/hate relationship with her as a character. Hmmm, makes sense to me. So I started to think about songs in my own iTunes library that I’ve turned to when I’ve needed comforting; songs that don’t necessarily bring me out of a funk, but make me realize that I’m not the only one in that funk. And then it hit me. Lone Justice’s “Shelter” is a song that I’ve leaned on many, many times. Again, here’s this woman who has taken on a child in an extremely difficult situation, comes on strong, yet becomes a mother to her in the process. I can almost hear Rosa singing this song to Liesel, especially after Hans has left. It’s almost like a lullaby; a reassurance that things are going to be fine. (Of course, the only way that Rosa could sing this song would be if it contained words like saukerl or saumensch or scheisse). For some reason, I can just see Rosa singing “Disillusion has an edge so sharp, it tears at your soul and leaves a stain upon your heart,” (1:35) – and I’m not so sure whether she would be singing it to Liesel or to herself.



I tend to go back and forth on Max, depending on what’s going on in my own life at the time. We joke about being on #teamrudy or #teammax, and there have certainly times, even during a particular reading alone, that I lean toward Max (for the record, I tend to lean more toward Rudy, however). For this most recent reading, I really liked the scenes with Rudy concerning his fighting. I liked the idea of him telling us that “‘When death captures me…he will feel my fist on his face'” (Zusak 189). Further hearing the stories we are told about Max and Walter intrigues me even more. I like that Max is a fighter – and he absolutely needed to be one as a Jew during this time period.

Because of these reasons, I see something fast, something in your face, musically, to represent Max. I really bought in to him as a fighter and entering that ring to face off with Hitler. So I see him needing an entrance song that sets things off, something like Drowning Pool’s “Bodies.” While this isn’t typically my preferred type of music, I do think it’s fitting. I like the repetition of “Nothing’s wrong with me,” and “Something’s got to give” – I think it parallels Max being in the basement. He’s a Jew being hidden by Germans. At some point, something is just going to have to happen. But I also like the lyrics in what might be the only actual verse of the song (2:07): “Skin against skin, blood and bone, You’re all by yourself but you’re not alone – You wanted in now you’re here, Driven by hate, consumed by fear.” I read those lyrics with Max in mind and feel as though they’re just so fitting.

I just see a lot of power in both Max and the song itself. Max needed it to keep him going, to keep the fight alive, and I believe this is a great song to set that all off.

Wrapping it all up:

I think that it can be seen, in a piece as visual as Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, that ties to specific songs can be made. In my opinion, each of these characters has a definitive feeling that goes along with Zusak’s portrayal and it is possible to provide a deeper analysis of each of the characters through different songs and their lyrics themselves. Making these ties provided me with a deeper understanding of not only the book, but they also enabled me to further examine the characters while listening to these songs.

And now, for something completely different…

Movies. No tie to education. Just movies. I love them and love this time of year when people make their cases for the best this and the best that. Considering that the vast majority of people believe that Due Date was the year’s best movie (it’s not even right to call it a film – and I actually liked parts of it, but it’s not nomination-worthy, of course), and would never dream of seeing Rabbit Hole or The Kids are All Right (lesbian parents, gasp!), I always think it’s interesting to see what the experts have to say about the year’s offerings.

So I thought I’d give my thoughts about the movies that are eligible for this year’s Oscars that I have seen. After going through the list, I realized that while I watched a ton of movies last year, the vast majority are actually older movies that weren’t even released during the past year – and this surprised me. But here goes, in no particular order:

The American – George Clooney kept an air of mystery about himself in this and his understated performance worked for me. The movie was average, but the cinematography was absolutely incredible. I’m not sure that I’ve seen a movie that has made me want to move to where it was set more than A River Runs Through It, but this is sure close.

The Ghost Writer – I actually really liked the idea of this movie much more so than the actual movie. Maybe this is because I have a hard time seeing Ewan McGregor in anything. Maybe it’s because I prefer to see Pierce Brosnan with a side of Rene Russo. Either way, I was underwhelmed.

Salt – I have no issues with admitting that I’m an Angelina Jolie kind of guy – and I’m not talking about her acting talents. That being said, I really didn’t think it’d be possible to sit through a movie like this and actually like her less. The movie itself was a poor man’s No Way Out and did what many movies keep trying to do – the amazing, you-never-would-have-guessed-it-but-here-comes-a-surprise-twist-ending that makes absolutely no sense and insults your intelligence. Shame on you, Angelina – but I still will think of you kindly just because of your performance in Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

Shutter Island – Admittedly, I wasn’t a big Leonardo DiCaprio kind of guy from the time of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? to Blood Diamond. That movie and The Departed won me over and he’s been strong since, in my opinion. His performance in Martin Scorcese’s take on Dennis Lahane’s novel was solid as well. If you haven’t read the book, you’ll enjoy this movie more. It’s not that the movie’s bad, it’s just that Lahane crafted a magnificent novel that just didn’t come completely to life on screen. (Incidentally, the same could be said for Mystic River – Sean Penn was strong, as was Tim Robbins, but the movie was a paltry attempt at the actual book).

Inception – One of this year’s most anticipated movies was Inception, and it didn’t let me down. I was impressed with DiCaprio again (although one can make the argument that this movie and Shutter Island are almost the same movie, when you get down to it…),  but even more impressed with Christopher Nolan’s work in directing this movie. Visually, it’s monumental, and yes, I said monumental. It was 2010’s The Matrix – and that’s a good thing. I’ve seen it several times and pick up on something different each time. If nothing else, it will get you thinking, and that’s a good thing. Simply put, does the top stop spinning or not? The beautiful thing is that this movie doesn’t leave you when you walk out of the theatre.

Due Date – Yeah, I went to see this hoping for this year’s The Hangover, and while it was nowhere near close to being as funny, it still had its moments. Specifically, scenes with a dog in the backseat of the car (we’ll leave it at that) and a short spot by Danny McBride come to mind. Worthy of a rental, but you didn’t miss that much if you didn’t get to see it at the theatre.

The Town – This could be the movie that defines Ben Affleck’s career. Go ahead and think about trying to name one movie in which he truly gave a solid performance (and unless you make the claim that it was in State of Play, I’m not going to agree with you – not even Good Will Hunting). Beyond his acting performance, Affleck also had a hand in writing the screenplay and directed this movie. I was pleasantly surprised with these efforts as well. He brought this town to life for me and I really felt as though he captured this story well with some interesting, yet non-invasive techniques thrown in to boot. In addition, I was impressed with Jon Hamm’s performance – typically, I look at him as the old Ben Affleck – stiff and overacting everything, but I thought he did well in this.

The Next Three Days – Sure I went to see it mainly because it was shot in Pittsburgh. I love to see chase scenes that are just so out there and geographically inaccurate (if you know the area, then you know that you can’t quite go directly through the Fort Pitt Tunnel into Oakland). I was entertained and impressed with just how beautiful Elizabeth Banks is without being all made up. Yeah, I’m reaching.

Rabbit Hole – I’ve paid attention to Aaron Eckhart ever since Thank You for Smoking – he’s pretty inconsistent in his performances, but he gave a good one here. More importantly, Nicole Kidman gave the best performance of her career – and while I realize that’s not saying that much, she was very solid in this movie. I liked that the movie took a look at how we deal with grief – and didn’t take the easy way out as so many movies these days do.

True Grit – I shouldn’t admit this, but I’ve never seen the original version of this movie. In fact, I’ve never even seen a movie with John Wayne in it. Take away my movie “card” if you like, but I’ve just never seen anything. Perhaps I’m missing out – but I will say that I think Jeff Bridges is morphing into the character I always envisioned John Wayne being, if that makes any sense. He was brilliant in Crazy Heart and pretty darn good in this role as Rooster Cogburn. I have a hard time taking Matt Damon seriously in just about anything that doesn’t include Bourne, and I had a hard time with him in this as well. And the critics are absolutely correct about Haille Steinfeld – she hands down steals the show. As some people have said, I just didn’t feel a lot of sympathy for these characters – and perhaps showing what set everything in motion rather than just telling us would have helped this.

The Kids are All Right – You had me at Annette Bening and Julianne Moore. Seriously. Throw in a great storyline and Mark Ruffalo and I’m definitely in. Again, I saw a movie that didn’t take the easy way out, demonstrating to us that relationships are hard. It demonstrated to us that raising kids is hard and it doesn’t matter who you are, how old you are or what you do for a living. Bening gave a very strong performance and Moore was pretty darn good as well, although she’s not being recognized as much as Bening is. And oh yeah, they’re lesbians. Hide yo kids. Bening’s spot on throughout – especially when at dinner at Ruffalo’s (I’ll leave it at that so as not to give anything completely away), but she was brilliant in this scene in particular.

The King’s Speech – I’ve definitely saved the best for last. There’s no real action in this movie – so if you’re a Con-Air kind of person (and I’m not going to hyperlink to anything with that, it doesn’t deserve it whatsoever), you might want to just skip along now. But a lack of action, and a focus on characterization appeals to me at times. I have never in my life felt more sympathetic toward a character than I did for King George VI. Quite simply, Colin Firth was incredible in this role. Throw in a little Geoffrey Rush (who continues to excel as the character who doesn’t appear to be all there) and Helena Bonham Carter (who plays a character who is definitely all there, which is a little abnormal for her) and you’ve got a masterpiece of a movie. The movie built up to a speech. That’s it – a speech – yet it had me from the get-go. This film deserves every award it wins and it should most definitely win Best Picture, Director and Actor. Rush also deserves strong consideration for yet another strong piece of work, but will probably lose out to Christian Bale’s performance in The Fighter. I can’t say enough great things about this movie.

So that’s it. I missed some good ones, I think. I haven’t seen The Fighter or Black Swan or Fair Game or The Social Network. I hope they’re all good, but I truly can’t see any of them being nearly as good as The King’s Speech.

Your thoughts on the best films of 2010 or others that I missed and should have seen?

I believe that I have a sickness…

As I said in the post before this, I love to read and I love books. I collect them in a sense – I don’t throw any of the books I have read away and haven’t done so in quite some time. I’d guesstimate that I’ve got around 500 or so and they all mean something to me because they’ve all taken places. Most aren’t worth anything – at least not now – but I’ve also got a first edition (with the errors) of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and a first edition of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys that is also signed by the author.

This part isn’t really the sickness, though. My problem – my sickness – is that I can’t stop buying books. I love being in a book store and can’t help wandering around. I can be in the middle of one book and see another and convince myself that I need to buy it now. I don’t know why it is, but I just can’t wait until I’m done with the one I’m on – I feel compelled to get the next one before I’m done.

Well, they add up, and what happens is that I end up with a stack of books that I still have to read. If you look down at the left side of this site, you’ll see a picture that I took recently of just a few. So I’ve now vowed that I have to do something about it. I’m not going to buy another book until I’ve made it through that stack. Now keep in mind, there are probably two more stacks like that one. But I’m going to try to knock the stack down a little.

I’m currently reading Boots on the Ground by Dusk: My Tribute to Pat Tillman, by Mary Tillman, and will move on to one of the others once I’m done. Because of school, I’m not able to get through them as quickly as I’d like, but I’ve got to figure out a way to stick to this. Is there a program for this???

At any rate, because that picture is somewhat cut off, here’s what’s in it:

Don’t worry, I’ll cross them off as I go – I’m sure you’re concerned… ha…


Well, something brought you here. I’m not exactly sure what that is, but you’re here – and I’m going to try hard to keep you here and keep you coming back (you might not necessarily agree with what I have to say, but I will hopefully evoke a reaction – so make sure that you subscribe by hitting that button on the right).

The main purpose of this blog is to both rant and rave about what’s going on in the life of an educator. Check out the About Me page above for more information on my background and feel free to join in the conversation.