The End of Standardized Testing?

Click here to watch this TED TalkWe’ve been seeing it for the last year or so: the education pendulum on the verge of swinging. Standardized testing, Common Core standards, standards-based report cards (with all their annoying numbers), all being shown the door—or at least a dingy corner of the room. Enter, stage right, what I’m calling “purpose-driven instruction.” If you’re not familiar with it, check out this TED talk by education expert Sir Ken Robinson. He shows how the “factory model” of education created by the industrial revolution is outdated. The education documentary “Most Likely to Succeed,” which debuted not long ago at Sundance and is now in limited release, takes it a step further. It shows how “soft skills” such as critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and leadership need to be the focal point of instruction. Rather than having students memorize content (which is all readily available at our thumb-tips), we teach these soft skills through purpose-driven instruction.

Purpose-driven instruction involves having an end product. This end product determines the skills that need to be learned and provides the motivation to learn them. A person building a deck, for example, needs to know about the permit requirements, how to prepare the site, footings, measurement, using a chop saw, and a host of other things. Said person learns all this stuff, in a sense, “on the job,” while actually working on his or her deck. And because he or she is motivated to finish the project, said person is willing to learn the skills, even when it’s as uncomfortable as navigating the city’s building permit process. This person gains mastery through authentic application. (Sound like project-based learning, right? Sure, but keep reading.)

To teach those same skills independent of actually building a deck seems rather ludicrous, but it’s what we do in school all the time. For example, we typically teach calculus without any purpose other than that we might need to know it at some point in the future. No wonder kids ask, “Why do I need to know this?” And even when kids do “know it,” they usually don’t. The “Most Likely to Succeed” filmmakers demonstrate how even students who demonstrate assessed mastery forget pretty much everything within just a few months.

What’s all this got to do with Read Aloud Plays? Well, plays, by their nature, are purpose-driven. Simply by scheduling a performance and inviting an audience, a read aloud play becomes an authentic way to teach a host of “soft-skills.” Get this: in “Most Likely to Succeed,” a play performance is presented as the epitome of purpose-driven instruction and with amazing results (I can’t wait for you to see the documentary!). Plays are especially effective in that you can use them even with large classes (a fundamental symptom of our industrialized education approach). In any given month, I have my class of 34 split into three groups, each working on a play. Granted, these are rather simple performances. Sets are kept to a minimum, if at all, costuming is limited to just a few accessories to signify character (a parasol or a certain hat, for instance), and kids can carry their script in their hand if they want. But it remains that students must collaborate and cooperate, they must practice independently and as a team, and they must “finish” (the play must go on) regardless of broken legs, absenteeism, or fire bells. Students learn about subtle forms of communication such as inflection and innuendo, about body language and movement, all while happily developing their core reading skills. Instead of being forcibly required to read a text book, presumably to improve assessable fluency, they’re willingly—even eagerly—honing their fluency to present a successful performance. That’s a significant shift of the paradigm, as Robinson calls it.

With Read Aloud Plays, students can do more than just read and act, too. They can direct. They can build sets. They can write and adapt scripts. They can design and make costumes. They can create playbills. They can create tickets to the show. They can build online promos. They can create posters. They can film and post the video of the play online. They can serve as ushers. They can run a snack bar. They can write reviews. And, of special importance, they can self-evaluate and provide feedback. No letter grade, report card, or standardized test required.

Those of you who’ve been around for a couple decades have probably seen “purpose-driven instruction” under different names. And critical thinking skills certainly aren’t new to the education community. But whether you’re a proponent of project-based learning, student-led conferences, or reader’s theater who has had to fly under the radar of the standardized data miners, Read Aloud Plays are for you. Whether you’re someone looking to try something other than the text book, or someone who remains committed to teaching to the Common Core, Read Aloud Plays are for you. They’re a fantastic purpose-driven way to teach to the reading standards while simultaneously developing those essential “soft skills.”

Click on the Read Aloud Plays tab for access to a wide-variety of plays with focused content. You’ll find great classroom plays about explorers, the Revolution, Civil Rights, and more, or visit my store at TeachersPayTeachers. And if you haven’t yet seen “Most Likely to Succeed,” look for a screening near you.

Happy directing!

Act Aloud Plays

The Lewis Hine photo that serves as an inspiration for the fictional AnielaThat you’re visiting my blog tells me you’re most likely already a fan of reader’s theater, so I needn’t tell you how reader’s theater makes literature class that much more compelling, or how drama is referenced 47 times in the Common Core, or how nearly all my plays are first “vetted” by the editors of Scholastic classroom magazines where they’re published long before hitting TeachersPayTeachers. Instead, let me tell you how my Read Aloud Plays could just as easily be called “Act Aloud Plays.” My evidence? Well, every so often I stumble upon a classroom webpage featuring a videocast of a school play or musical that turns out to be mine. And because most publishers charge a pound of flesh, a fatted cow, and a hefty fee for performance rights, I frequently get emails from polite teachers verifying that such rights are indeed included in the original purchase price (they are). I also get requests to adapt my stories or include them in performances outside the school setting. For example, last year a community theater in Carolina included my adaption of A Christmas Carol in its holiday dinner theater, and the Tshwane Children’s Theatre in Irene, South Africa, performed my Peter Rabbit play in rural African schools. Pretty cool.

I think the popularity of these plays stems from the fact that they’re written to be acted out, not merely read aloud. When I create a play for Scholastic, I imagine students performing it on stage. How will the kids move across the floor? How simple can the set be? What must the characters say and do to help the audience grasp what’s going on? Is the setting consistent throughout the scene? How can I minimize the presence of the narrator? Such questions help build plays teachers can use on the actual stage.

Click on the cover to preview or purchaseSays Officer Lockstock, the narrator in the Broadway musical Urinetown, “nothing can kill a show like too much exposition.” Save for the occasional soliloquy, narration is rare in 3-act shows, yet it’s often necessary in classroom plays. It quickly provides the background information required to reduce a complex story to a 15 or 20 minute performance. Still, as I craft scripts, I ‘m constantly looking for ways to minimize the exposition or find creative ways to deliver it. In my Jackie Robinson play, for example, the narration is delivered by the hot dog and peanut vendors. They set-up Jackie’s story while simultaneously hawking ballpark franks and Cracker Jacks. It’s as if they themselves are characters speaking to a grandstand full of spectators.

Though my latest TpT release utilizes narrators, it was most certainly designed with the stage in mind. The Newsies first appeared in the March 2015 issue of Scholastic’s Scope magazine. It tells the story of the New York newsboy strike of 1899 through the eyes of a 12-year-old Polish immigrant. Aniela Kozlowski goes to work selling newspapers just as the strike unfolds (no pun intended, just questionable blogging). Ani’s character is based upon one of my own students who shares with me a Polish heritage, so I was particularly thrilled to watch her play the role late this past school year. Historically-accurate, rich with dialect, and embedded with great pictures from famed photographer Lewis Hine, The Newsies is unquestionably one of my best plays to date. Not only is it a play about actual kids showing the grit, determination, and unity necessary to overcome some pretty extreme challenges, it’s also a nice reminder that battles had to be fought to establish some degree of balance between the interests of big business and the common laborer, that unionism has played a significant role in establishing the American Dream.

You can preview or purchase The Newsies at TeachersPayTeachers. I encourage you to pair it with Stolen Childhoods, my play from the same era about Lewis Hine’s crusade to end child labor. Or, take The Newsies to a whole other level and make it a musical. I did this very thing with a Br’er Rabbit script this past year. Though initially rather daunting, something magical happened once the kids started singing (and eventually dancing) to Zippity Doo Dah and Sinatra’s High Hopes. Br’er Rabbit ended up being the highlight of our school year. By incorporating songs from the 1890s, The Newsies will be a smash hit, too. You’ll find Ta-ra-ra Boom de-ay, The Sidewalks of New York, A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight, In the Good Ol’ Summer Time, and My Wild Irish Rose all on Youtube and/or Amazon. I can see places in the script for all of them.

Of course, there are dozens of other “act aloud plays” on my webpage and TpT site. Any one of them might be just what you need to get your students up and active on stage—to bring a little extra magic to your language arts class.

Happy directing!

How to Host an “Old School” Writers’ Festival

Anthology of Public School WritingWhen seven-year-old Kelsey Drake stepped to the microphone, she hesitated. Perhaps she felt nervous about presenting her writing before such a large audience. Then again, maybe it was just the mouthful of prize-winning devil’s food cake she was chewing. After a moment’s pause and a hard swallow, without regard for the goo smeared all over her face, or the chocolate finger prints across her otherwise fresh copy of Yeah Huh!, she calmly clutched the mic and in a sometimes stuttered, sing-songy voice, read her masterpiece:

One day I went hunting with my dad and my big brother and their friends in the woods. I got the biggest deer and it had very big antlers. The big boys cried. We took the deer home and Mom said, “The boys are big babies.” I said, “Maybe next time, babies.”

Though clearly a beginner, in that moment Kelsey received everything real writers want. True, her byline came in a book you can’t buy through Amazon. And her audience was merely a gym full of kids. It’s also unlikely Roald Dahl ever accepted payment in the form of a pecan kiss, a piece of German lebkuchen, or a slice from a cake shaped like a big yellow school bus. But the exhilaration for Kelsey is the same. At that moment, she’s a real writer.

Professionals write to express themselves to a wide audience, to make money, and for that oft-elusive byline. Kids, however, seldom have this opportunity. In fact, rarely do we give them any more motivation to write than to assign a topic and wave their report card at them. These days my students routinely publish their writing on the Web, but while doing so seemed really cutting-edge a decade ago, it now seems to be losing its appeal. The Web appears so vast that a fifth grader’s eloquently-crafted poem about donut holes can quickly disappear in the mud we call bandwidth.

All this has me thinking about simpler days when we used to print real books full of student-writing, books you could hold in your hand and re-read over and over again. I have a number of such books in my classroom. While it would be rare for a current student to go back through the archives of my school webpage to read student-writing from even a few years ago, they still pick up my copies of Fresh Corn, Yeah Huh!, and Mmm!, three lovely little anthologies from more than a decade ago.

I miss those days.

So, I dug out an article I published in Instructor on organizing a school-wide writers’ festival. It’s excerpted below. My hope is that it’ll germinate into getting such an event started at my current school. And, I challenge you to do the same at yours.

At my old school, every student who submitted material–generally about 70% of the k-5 population–became a published author. They also attended a dessert banquet where they scarfed down a smorgasbord of sweets concocted by staff members and parents. They received their contributor’s copy of the anthology, gathered the autographs of their fellow authors, and had the chance to read their work into an open mic. It was all designed to motivate students to hone their skills and reward them for their effort.

“It’s a good feeling,” said then-student Casey C. when recalling the festival. “It’s kind of cool to see your writing in a book.” She credited the event for her enthusiasm for writing. “Before the festival, I didn’t think I was much of a writer. Now I feel like I’m pretty good, so I really enjoy it.”

The anthology validates the kids’ work,” explained fourth grade teacher Matt D. “It makes it more meaningful. Consequently, they put more effort into it.”

Back in those days, the festival went beyond just encouraging young writers. It contributed to a favorable school climate, one that enriched learning in general. Perhaps that’s why those kids were so comfortable with a mic.

“I like reading into the microphone best,” noted one student. Her younger sister Olivia agreed. Unfortunately, she found herself at the end of the line and didn’t get the chance. “It would have been embarrassing,” said Olivia, “but I still wanted to do it.”

Still, are the benefits enough to justify all the work that goes into developing your own festival? Certainly. It promotes a school-wide focus on a subject that, due to its inherent difficulty, is sometimes neglected. The open mike also gives students practice with public speaking, and the anthology itself encourages reading. “I keep the old copies in my classroom,” said one teacher. “The kids like to go back and look for their friends.” Third grader Tim B. admitted to being too scared to read his work aloud. “But I read all the other kids’ when they were up there,” he said. “I was following along.”

If all that’s not enough to convince you to start your own festival, just have a chat with then-third grader Doug V. “When you’re focused on being graded,” said Doug, “you get all worried. But when you’re writing for fun, you do better. The Writers’ Festival makes it fun.”

Ready to give it a shot? Here are the steps we followed:

Promote it. Begin by visiting classrooms. Your personal sales pitch will generate immediate interest. Point out the joys of being published and the gastronomical pleasures of the dessert banquet. You could even share some food samples during your pitch! Also, be sure to send a flyer home with every student. It’s often the parents of a student who most encourage participation.

Give it an identity. Generate extra excitement by holding a school-wide contest to name the anthology. We looked for quirky, easy-to-remember titles that captured the personality and youthfulness of our students. Our first edition, based on a sign along the road near the school, was entitled Fresh Corn. Later additions bore names such as Pinky Toe. Each edition is also subtitled “An Anthology of Public School Writing.” Also hold a cover art contest. In addition to selecting a winner (to whom we awarded a $5 to $10 gift certificate) we also used the best of the rest to dress up the inside of the anthology. Be careful, though, about distracting students from their stories. Wait until after the deadline for written submissions has passed before opening your cover contest.

Enlist the cooperation of your staff. Encourage teachers to devote class time to generating entries. The writing their students do for the festival can double as an in-class assignment, or students can simply select their entry from a portfolio of material they’ve written during the school year. The latter approach promoted reflection and self-evaluation. It also resulted in a broader range of modes appearing in the anthology, though we found we got better material when we encouraged first-person narratives.

Print it. With modern computer technology, publishing a respectable anthology is relatively simple. Still, if you have to type one hundred or more manuscripts yourself, your book may never reach the printing press. Therefore, don’t accept hard copies. Consider using Google Docs or some other mechanism to have kids “drop” their manuscript to a pre-determined electronic location. This will allow you to focus your energies on formatting and editing rather than typing. Because our anthology was produced by a single individual, these requirements were essential. Also allow yourself some time to play with formatting. It’s accomplished with relative ease by adjusting margins and font headings, but in order to get the pages in just the right order and printing front to back, plan on doing some experimenting.

We always wanted our publication to look as much like a book as possible. After reviewing “real” literary anthologies, we decided to avoid spiral binding and instead used a half-sheet format. Standard 8 ½ x 11 inch sheets are turned horizontally and folded, then bound using a binding stapler. The result is a 5 ½ x 8 ½ inch book with black printing. For the cover we used good quality color stock with a grey tone art. If you have an excessive number of entries–more than seventy pages worth–produce two volumes. Be sure to allow plenty of time. Our first year, I had to turn my third grade class into an assembly line to collate, then stayed up nights folding and stapling by hand.

Print enough for every participant—and then print a few more. We put a $1 “suggested donation” price tag on ours. It lent an element of prestige to the book, and the twenty or thirty additional copies we sold in our office paid for some of the printing costs. The kids get excited when their moms come in to buy one for Grandma or to mail to an aunt.

Make the authors’ reception a big event. It’s the payoff for the kids: their name in print, an audience for their work, and a tangible–in our case, edible–reward. If all those sweets worry you, or if your school has a prohibition against homemade baked goods, we discovered that most kids favor watermelon over just about anything. A more formal, evening event with fruit punch or lemonade and lace is another worthy idea. Regardless, this is the time to “release” the anthology and give students a chance to be acknowledged as writers. “It felt good,” said third grader Megan S. when discussing her work in Mmm! “It was the first book I was ever in. But I was also nervous because everybody was reading my story.”

It will feel good for you as well. When the festival is all over, you’ll be as proud of your accomplishment as you are exhausted from your effort, but it’s the joy in the voices of the kids that will drive you to take on the challenges of this project year after year. One of my favorite festival memories took place as I wiped down tables after our first dessert banquet. Everyone had gone back to their classrooms except for one little primary student. It didn’t matter to her that I was the only one who’d hear her story. Perhaps she didn’t even realize it. She stepped up to the mic and belted it out as if reciting to a capacity crowd. It’s as I listened that I began making plans for the next year’s festival.

A Few More Tips:

Don’t hold your festival too early. Give teachers time to develop a writing program with their current students. Give students time to develop a portfolio from which to choose their entry. February is late enough in the year to have honed some writing skills, yet early enough to complete all the printing.

Include everyone. The purpose of your anthology should be to encourage writing and build confidence. Even the one sentence story from the first grader has value.

Establish a maximum length.
We used to tell our students that their hand-written rough draft must be three pages or less. Less tends to be better, as elementary students tend to ramble.

Edit. Published writers have editors, so too should your student authors. Even your most advanced students will submit work needing further polishing, particularly because they’ll be more likely to attempt techniques beyond their developmental level. However, limit your editing to the basics.

Include an index or table of contents. Students get frustrated if they can’t quickly locate their friends’ stories, but creating this page can be a challenge. Wait until all the stories have been processed and the pages numbered, then go through and develop your contents page.

Recruit parents to help with purchasing and/or preparing the items you plan to serve at the reception. Check on your district’s food policy. Some schools prohibit homemade food from being served. Also arrange some help with clean-up.

Limit your mic time. While most of the stories your students will be reading will be short, suggest to your more advanced writers that they read only the first few paragraphs to “hook” the audience into continuing on their own.

Alert the media. Invite your local news people to attend your dessert banquet. Make sure they get copies of your anthology. Favorable publicity is always beneficial to your school and public education in general.

Allow your festival to develop its own personality. All that really matters is that your students have fun becoming “real writers.”

Finally, (here’s my sales pitch), use my book Super Sentences & Perfect Paragraphs to teach your kids foundation writing skills. It’s a complete daily and weekly writing program in a straight-forward, systematic format. Published by Scholastic, it’s available through Amazon, Scholastic, and Teacher Express. You can also pick up a free sample activity from TeachersPayTeachers.

Happy directing, er, emceeing.

Bart Simpson: Smarter? Balanced?

Bart take the Smarter Balanced testSpringfield, Oregon, has made national news for something other than being the birthplace of Bart Simpson. The Springfield School District Board of Education has openly rejected the state-mandated Smarter Balanced tests. Though unable to officially “opt-out” as a district, the Board has strongly encouraged its district families to refuse to allow their children to participate.

I haven’t seen the Simpson’s recently, but this is sounding a bit like one of its episodes. Imagine Bart and Lisa taking the Smarter Balanced test. Lisa would be stressed out. The test would dominate her world for weeks. There’d be sleepless nights, hair loss, perhaps counseling sessions. Bart, on the other hand, he’d get it. Despite Marge saying he’s neither smart nor balanced, Bart would understand that the test has no bearing on whether or not he’ll graduate, that he won’t even be at Springfield Elementary when the scores are finally released (and therefore Marge will probably never see them), and that the best way to stab at that teacher who made him stay in during recess is to punch in a bunch of random answers. Ask Bart or most any fifth grader about the Smarter Balanced test and they’ll tell you the same thing the Springfield Board of Education is saying: it’s a colossal waste of time.

The real Springfield isn’t some backwoods town rejecting the test because of some Ned Flanders-inspired Common Core conspiracy theory. Instead, it’s a thriving community of 60,000 just a stone’s throw from liberal-thinking Eugene and its University of Oregon, a driving force in education theory. With nearly 11,000 students, Springfield is the 13th largest school district in Oregon. Nor is the Board’s decision without consequences. Students who don’t test are counted among the number of students who don’t meet standards. If all of Springfield’s students reject the test, Springfield’s percentage of students meeting will appear as a zero. Furthermore, schools and districts that fall below a 95 percent participation rate on state tests are not eligible for awards or recognition. (State of Washington OSPI)

Smarter Balanced “was designed to compare districts and teachers, not to help students learn,” said one board member. I take it a step further by saying that the test itself so interferes with real instruction, its impact on learning should be classified along with bomb threats and snow days.

The Board also points out the cost. “These dollars could be spent in other, more productive areas for our students.” While the old Oregon test (OAKS) cost the state about $3 million annually, Smarter Balanced costs $27.3 million. For those who don’t want to do the math, that’s more than a 900% increase. Over ten years, the new test will cost taxpayers an extra quarter of a billion dollars. This in a state that has one of the highest class sizes in the nation and among the shortest school years. (Note: if I were a 5th grader taking the Smarter Balanced test, I’d have to spend the next several paragraphs explaining the details of that math, including the fact that I’ve rounded off that $300,000 because, well, I really don’t want to waste your time with trivialities…though I sense $300k is trivial only to bureaucrats and politicians.)

The Board also speaks to the fact that the test’s content and format is dramatically different than that of the SAT and ACT (which, when you get down to it, are the only standardized tests that have any real bearing on a student’s future), that the test is unfair, and that, well, it’s just too darn long. In my school, when we’re not sending kids off to show they’re both Smarter and more Balanced than their peers, we’re subjecting them to a long battery of data-driven tests with no relation to the classroom. Some kids even miss instruction so they can take the same test every week, over and over again, as if they’ll have magically changed in the four school days since the last one.

We’re told the test is important because it reveals which students need extra assistance and in which areas our instruction is deficient, but these are hollow excuses. Any good teacher can spot the real-world Barts without special testing. And when it comes to assessing our own instructional weaknesses, we were more able to discern them using the old OAKS test. In fact, data derived from the test benefits no one. Because my fifth graders have all moved on to middle school where it is unlikely anyone will examine their individual results when the data is finally released sometime next year, they will NEVER know their scores.

Concludes the Springfield board: “the Smarter Balanced test is neither smart nor balanced. It is poorly designed, discriminatory, often punitive and is of little benefit to our students. It does not inform student learning, and furthermore, does not make the best use of limited classroom time. It encumbers teachers and staff to focus both time and resources on an assessment that has shown little, if any, value.”

I say, three cheers for Springfield. I wish more school boards would stand with Springfield and reject this madness, but I guess maybe you have to have a little bit of Bart Simpson in your DNA for such bravado.

What does any of this have to do with read aloud plays? Well, if you’re using enriching activities such as plays, musicals, tensbooks, Storyworks magazine, read-alouds, hands-on Science, math games, or whatever it is you do to get kids excited about learning, three cheers to you. Don’t let testing stop you from teaching.

Happy directing!

9 Ways to Prepare for a Sub

Nine Ways to Prep for a Sub1. Don’t bother. Ignore that cough. Cancel that meeting. Show up to class with a box of Kleenex and a bottle of DayQuil.

2. Don’t bother #2. Let the sub fend for him- or herself.

3. Don’t bother #3. Put a kid in charge. Your students can tell the sub where to find all the “worksheets,” the tempera paints, the science chemicals.

4. Stay up late the night before to get all those sub notes written out. Why not? You’re gonna sleep all day tomorrow, right?

5. Go in early. You’ll probably already be up vomiting at 4 a.m. anyway.

6. Leave a collection of Disney movies and Bill Nye videos on your desk.

7. Leave the same sub plans your neighboring teacher used last week and hope the sub can adjust.

8. Hope for a snow day.

9. Or, download EZSubPlans. It’s the easiest and most professional way to prepare for a sub. We all know preparing for a sub is tedious and time consuming, but it doesn’t have to be. Just click, print, and relax! Rather than staying up late, showing up sick, or throwing your sub under the bus, give our emergency lesson plans a try. Because they provide your students with quality, standards-based lessons that don’t interfere with your regular instruction, EZSubPlans represent good practice. And they’re just a click away. Download your EZSubPlans today so you’re prepared tomorrow!

Whether a classroom teacher, substitute, or administrator, EZSubPlans will provide you with inexpensive, kid-tested plans at the touch of a button. Each EZSubPlans package includes at least seven hours of grade-specific lessons designed to make your next absence easy and worry-free. Classroom teachers wanting to avoid the frustrating and time-consuming process of preparing for an absence and substitute teachers needing back-up material will find everything they need with EZSubPlans. And what better time to prepare than before the school year begins! Days are labeled by grade level, but each can be easily adapted to suit one grade level up or down. A fifth grade teacher, for example, could use the lesson plans for grades 4, 5, and 6–that’s six days in all. Teachers need only to download, print, and photocopy–the sub does everything else.

Imagine, your first six absences of the school year already prepared. On each of those mornings, you merely set the EZSubPlans file on your desk and walk away! Click here for more information about EZSubPlans or click here to preview or purchase at TeachersPayTeachers. How much is a stress-free sub day worth? Who can say? How much does a stress-free sub day cost? Just $5 a day with EZSubPlans. Don’t wait for that first cough, download your EZSubsPlans now and have them ready to go come the first day of school!

Why You Should Teach Baseball on April 15th

Click here to preview or purchase on TpTThe Major League Baseball season is underway, which seems a trivial point in the broad scheme of academics. Yet were it not for Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color-barrier, education in America might look alarmingly different.

When I was growing up, I was a sports fanatic. By then, professional sports had already been integrated, so it was easy for me–as Dr. King would say--to judge a man by his character rather than the color of his skin. The grit and tenacity of Matty Alou on the baseball diamond and Terry Metcalf on the gridiron made them my heroes and helped teach me to be “color-blind.” But the fact that Alou and Metcalf were out there at all was the direct result of Jackie Robinson’s own grit and determination.

There was never any doubt that Robinson had the talent to play in the Major Leagues. The issue was whether or not he’d have the character necessary to withstand the racist slurs and physical violence that followed him everywhere he went, both on and off the ballfield. Imagine what would have happened had Jackie responded in kind, perhaps taking a swing at a white player who’d deliberately spiked him, or kicking dirt at an umpire who refused to call a fair game. He would have been quickly drummed out of baseball. Integration of all our institutions, including education, would have been delayed for decades.

No doubt you have a crop of kids in your classroom who idolize professional athletes. Whether black, white, or striped (as Pee Wee Reese is quoted as saying), learning about Jackie Robinson will help them judge their fellow man by his character just as they judge their sports heroes by their grit.

April 15th is Jackie Robinson Day, the day every Major League player wears number 42 in Jackie’s honor. The league doesn’t celebrate it because Jackie was a great player, but because of the importance and difficulty of Jackie’s accomplishment. It’s a great time to enact How Jackie Saved the World. Kids consistently tell me it’s one of their absolute favorites to perform. I’m confident your students—especially your young sports fans—will enjoy it as well. You can preview and/or purchase it from TeachersPayTeachers by clicking here. You can also listen to some of my students performing it by following this link.

Happy directing!

Desk Rent is Due Friday!

Jamie's Checkbook RegisterI realize you may have landed on ReadAloudPlays.com looking for some great reader’s theater to use this spring. If so, please click on the links at left. You’ll find dozens of engaging plays, and because most were originally published in Scholastic classroom magazines, you can rest assured they’ve been fully vetted by pro editors. But allow me to depart from “Happy Directing” for a moment to tell you about one of the most impactful products I offer…and it’s free.

No doubt you’ve had kids ask, “Why do we need to know this stuff?” In my classroom, we spend a lot of time talking about the “real world,” and nothing we do is more “real world” than The Checkbook Project. In my building, we implement it around this time of year with all our 4th and 5th graders. If we waited any longer, the kids would riot!

I want to encourage you to give it a try—and this is a great time of year to do so—but before you do, heed this warning:

In The Checkbook Project, kids maintain checkbook registers. They earn money by completing assignments, attending class, and passing tests. School is their job. They also pay fines for “breaking the law,” pay taxes, and rent or buy their desks. Kids who work hard and consistently attend class tend to do well, accumulating upwards of three grand by the end of May. Kids with poor study skills, poor attendance, or poor spending habits tend to struggle—so much so that some even end up in “the homeless shelter.”

The homeless shelter is a single desk around which kids gather when they don’t have the resources to rent their desks. Granted, it sounds a bit harsh. It may even be a bit controversial. Certainly, it gives me no pleasure to see Stevie, Pablo, or Cynthia crowded around a single desk at the front of the room. But isn’t it better Stevie, Pablo, and Cynthia experience the consequences of poor work ethic in fifth grade rather than on the mean streets of real life? After all, homeless shelters do exist in the real world, and perhaps it’s the threat of landing there that keep many of us working hard.

Click on the cover for more details!Poverty and homelessness are serious problems in America. There are plenty of folks out there facing such grim prospects despite their best efforts. The Checkbook Project isn’t meant to degrade them. Better, the project prompts numerous discussions on the subject. One of my favorites is about how the guy holding that sign on the freeway ramp got there. Students have a host of preconceived notions and theories about homelessness, including that he might not be standing there at all had his fifth grade teacher used The Checkbook Project.

I’ve also seen the Homeless Shelter bring about the best in my students. If you implement The Checkbook Project, you’ll see neighbors help neighbors make rent. You’ll see students push their buddies to get their work done. One year I even had a kid start a charity organization. He maintained a second register in which he collected donations from his classmates and doled out grants to needy students who were short on rent.

I recently received a text from a former student-teacher telling me her administration has told her to disband or at least rename her “homeless shelter.” I wish I were there to lobby her principal and parents, but she’s half way across the country. The best I can do is suggest some politically-correct alternatives. “Group house”, “hostel”, and “shared housing” come to mind. So too does “Dickens’ House” and “Grandma’s Basement.” (Okay, that last one may not be so politically-correct.) Regardless of the name, whether it’s a homeless shelter or merely communal living, it will likely motivate struggling students to work a bit harder.

I created The Checkbook Project over a decade ago to combat what I call “academic apathy.” Over the years it has consistently proven itself to be an engaging way to get kids invested in their studies, teach work ethic, and give kids “real world” experience within the safe confines of the classroom. And because I believe these are essential lessons every kid needs, it’s also free. Every last bit of it. For more details on how it works, click here.

Happy directing!

What’s Hindering Your Low Readers?

Perhaps many of you have figured this stuff out long ago. Me, after nearly 25 years of teaching, I recently had a couple of instructional epiphanies.

Click here to visit Lauren Tarshis' author pageThe first one was when one of my 5th graders showed me a picture of her mother. “This was at the visitation center,” she said. “The only time I get to see my mom is when we go to the visitation center.” A day later we were on our way to the local science museum when another student pointed out the window and piped up, “I think that’s the safe house we stayed at one time.” Later that same day my admin handed me my latest set of Oral Reading Fluency scores showing both of those students near the bottom. As I looked over the rest of the data, I suddenly realized all my lowest performing students are victims of childhood trauma: violence, tempestuous divorce, drugs, homelessness… Then, taking a look at my top performers, I realized nearly all are from healthy, financial stable, intact families. Thinking back over years of high and low test scores, the correlation is obvious. Early-childhood trauma and neglect may be the most significant factor contributing to academic failure. Politicians who ignore it are insincere in their efforts to “improve schools.”

If you’re like me, you’re constantly wrestling with how to help these kids. What works? We’re not going to undo the trauma or erase their memories. When it comes to reading, however, I’ve landed on three things that appear to hook them, three things that seem to motivate even these reluctant readers to put some “miles on the tongue.”

The first, naturally, is Read Aloud Plays. I write and promote read aloud plays not merely because I want to sell you a script, but because they’re exceptionally effective. I don’t need to belabor the point here. If you want to know more about reader’s theater, including the brain research that supports it, check out my free download entitled, “Why Use Drama?”

Roald Dahl books are also compelling for this group of kids, though admittedly this may be as much about my own enthusiasm for Matilda and The Witches as it is the books themselves. I have so much fun reading aloud sections of Boy or having small groups read Fantastic Mr. Fox, even my most reluctant readers catch the Dahl bug.

But the best thing I’ve discovered lately is the I Survived series. These books are written by my editor at Storyworks, Lauren Tarshis, so it surprises me that it’s taken me so long to start using them in class. This year, having finally amassed enough copies, I was able to assign all my students the task of reading one during silent reading sessions. Yeah, I know: SSR is often a waste of time; many students—especially the struggling ones—only pretend to read. Consequently, I use an approach I call “Directed Silent Reading.” It works with any age-appropriate books, but because these I Survived books have consistent themes, high-interest plots, and conquerable reading levels, they’re particularly fruitful. So much so that even my lowest performing students are begging for more.

I begin by telling my students they’re only going to read for a minute. At the end of the minute, I ask the kids to “turn and talk” to a neighbor about something they found interesting from their minute (or two) of reading. After they’ve had a couple minutes to share, I then ask for three or four volunteers to share out with the class. As the students hear their classmates tell about Hurricane Katrina or Pearl Harbor, the enthusiasm becomes contagious. We repeat the process, this time for three or four minutes of reading, and then again for eight to ten more. You can vary the questioning, too. “Be prepared to tell us something you know about your main character,” or “Provide some details about the story’s setting” are other “go to” questions. By the end of the session, all my kiddos have read for 20 minutes, discussed what they’ve read, and have invested enough in the story that they’ve committed to it. You don’t get such enthusiasm or commitment from homework reading, traditional SSR, or even oral reading, especially not from struggling readers.

There are no easy answers when it comes to overcoming the childhood trauma suffered by our lowest-performing students. But by using plays, Roald Dahl books, the I Survived series, and Directed Silent Reading, perhaps we can help them create a survival story of their own.

Happy directing.

Ten Plays for Black History Month

MLK Plays Preview3 700x900The Daring Escape of Henry “Box” Brown is making a reappearance in the January issue of Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine. In addition to a new look with original illustrations, it means Storyworks subscribers have access to a host of top-notch CCSs comprehension activities via Scholastic’s web-based library. Pretty sweet. Coincidentally, the TpT version also just went through an update that adds a couple of comprehension activities and improved formatting, so you’re in luck either way.

But “Box” isn’t the only reader’s theater title suitable for Black History Month or MLK Day celebrations. In fact, I have a wide assortment. You can quickly preview four of them with my newest product: MLK Plays Free Preview Pack. It includes summaries and the first couple of pages of four MLK reader’s theater scripts including Martin’s Big Dream (The Childhood of Martin Luther King, Jr.), MLK’s Freedom March (lovely historical fiction set against the March on Washington where King delivered his most famous speech), In the Jailhouse with Dr. King (another potent work of historical fiction set during the Bus Boycott), and Gonna Let it Shine (non-fiction about the “Bloody Sunday” events in Selma, Alabama). You can download the free PDF preview at TpT.

But there’s still more. Click on the Read Aloud Plays tab to uncover wonderful reader’s theater about Jackie Robinson, Claudette Colvin, the Greensboro Four, and others. In all cases, $3 gives the original purchaser reproduction rights to copy a full class set each year for use in his or her own classroom. It even includes school performance rights!

In my classroom, my 76 fifth graders will be learning and presenting six of these plays over the next two months. It’s going to make for a memorable Black History Month. Join us. Celebrate the legacy of Dr. King with engaging reader’s theater from ReadAloudPlays.com.

Happy directing!

A Good Time to Say Thanks.

This week I just want to say THANK YOU to all you FANTASTIC teachers who have used Read Aloud Plays in class. I hope they’ve brought you and your students a ton of enjoyment and value. Thank you also for all your positive comments. With 38 fifth graders demanding my attention every day, I simply don’t have enough time to respond to many of them, but here are a few recent ones I think are especially fruitful.

"Twice Toward Justice" play, one of many Civil Rights plays first appearing in StoryworksYour plays are wonderful and they make the original texts more approachable to my students! Thank you! ~ Laura M. (regarding The Monkey’s Paw gothic masterpiece)

I think we can all relate to the challenges of reading a piece of Victorian literature. Why subject yourself to the yawns of middle school readers when you can first wake them up with a read aloud play?

I added songs in between each of the scenes and used this for our Black History Month performance! The children enjoyed it, and learned a lot in the process. Thank you! ~ Linsey P. (Jackie Robinson black history play)

Two of my plays—“We Shall Overcome” and “Gonna Let in Shine”—have the songs built in to the play, but several others are easily adapted. Black History Month is just around the corner, so take Lindsey’s advice and consider staging a Civil Rights musical.

I like how it’s short and to the point. After reading the novel, the 6th grade wants to make a movie and we’re using that script. Thanks! ~ Barbara Ann M. (Ebenezer Scrooge: A Christmas Carol play)

Thank you! Because the majority of my plays were first published in classroom magazines including Scope and Storyworks, they’re specifically designed to be short and to the point. My goal is to capture the essence of the original story while limiting the play to about fifteen minutes in length. Still, I encourage teachers and students to edit and adapt. A few years ago my 5th graders also used this script to make a movie, but they added several short scenes, modernized the setting, and changed several lines to suit what they wanted to portray. I consider that 16 minute movie (which can be viewed here, if you’re interested) as one of the highlights of my career.

Lewis never disappoints. This will be terrific as part of my Spooktober unit for theater class. ~ Lu J. (Hawthorne’s The Birthmark Gothic Reader’s Theater)

What a wonderful compliment! Thank you. And I love the idea of a Spooktober theater event. I’m going to try that next year!

Great resource and student engaging. You can practice RT daily to work on fluency and comprehension. Thank you! ~ Heather W. (Lewis & Clark and Bird Girl: Sacagawea play )

Fluency practice is really the academic justification for reader’s theater, isn’t it? But I think the foundation is that most kids love it. Simply put, Read Aloud Plays make school fun. Admittedly, my plays are geared to intermediate and lower middle school, but when you can find good material, even jaded upper middle school and high school kids enjoy RT.

Excellent play. This tied in perfectly with my Civil Rights unit. ~ Dayan S. (Montgomery Bus Boycott MLK “Twice Toward Justice” Play)

Thank you. I’m particularly proud of my civil rights plays. My editors at Storyworks recently asked me to work on a new one for this spring. To create a consistent “feel,” I re-read some of the old ones. I think the “Twice Toward Justice” play is indeed powerful, but I also rediscovered what I think is a real gem in the play entitled “MLK’s Freedom March.” I highly recommend it.

Next month, I’ll be releasing on TpT my very first Civil Rights play. “I Have a Dream: the Childhood of Martin Luther King, Jr” first appeared in Storyworks sixteen years ago. How fortunate I am that my editors liked it so much. They’ve been feeding me much-loved Black History assignments ever since.

Our high school graciously offered to perform this for my middle school class. To prepare in a jiffy, we did this reader’s theater and the kids loved it – especially the ghost noises. Turns out the HS play was very ‘stylized’ and there is NO WAY my kids would have known what was happening if they hadn’t had this resource as a basis to get the underlying plot. This was absolutely perfect. Many thanks. ~ Michelle C. (Ebenezer Scrooge: A Christmas Carol play)

I love this. Haven’t we all at some point shared a story, taken our students to a performance, or watched a movie that was beyond the developmental level of our students? How nice it is to have a Read Aloud Play to introduce kids to the story or historical event before hitting them with the original text or text book account.

Thanks again, and cheers to a new year of Read Aloud Plays! I have a lot of great items planned for 2016, so stay with me, won’t you?

Happy directing!