Is There an App for That?

Indestructible NokiaI’m told school districts around the country are investing millions of dollars into iPads and other online devices. The idea is that students can use these devices to access their textbooks, dictionaries, and encyclopedias via the Internet. After all, hand-held devices, not printed volumes of the World Britannica, are the future.

Me, I’m salivating over a class set of laptops with which my fifth graders can do their writing, post to their webpages, watch student-created instructional videos, and bombard me with in-lesson feedback via Twitter.

But it’ll never happen. My district just can’t afford to invest $15K for a single classroom set of machines that will be outdated in just a few years. When put to the daily abuse levied by fifth graders, I doubt the machines would survive that long anyway.

But a funny thing keeps happening in my classroom. Whenever we need something that my generation had to find in a book, some student will invariably say, “Can I use my phone?” Need to know the definition for lugubrious? Need a picture of the state flag of Georgia? Need to know the formula for calculating the area of a circle? It’s all there at their fingertips on each student’s individual phone.

Kids can use their phones to record themselves reading, to film your next class play, to create short movies, to document field trips, and more. So why invest tax dollars in electronics the students already possess? Sure, you’ll have to bust a kid from time to time for texting when he’s supposed to be studying. But how’s that any different than busting him for passing notes? Do we ban pencils and paper? True, you may have that kid who uses his phone to cheat on a test. But that’s probably the same kid who’ll have notes scribbled on his arm or have his binder suspiciously open beneath his desk.

What about those kids who don’t have phones? Well, it wasn’t but a few years ago that only a handful of my students had online access at home. Today, that figure is around 95%. It won’t be too long before we see the same circumstances with phones. In fact, I estimate that nearly half of my 5th graders–eleven year olds!–already carry phones, and every one of ’em is vastly superior to my own woefully-outdated but indestructible Nokia. And before you go thinking my school is in some wealthy suburb of Portland, know that it has a 70% Free-and-Reduced population.

Consider this: we require $100 calculators for high school calculus (and I’ll bet you there’s an app for that), and those that can’t afford it have access to loaners. What’s wrong with applying the same logic to hand-held devices?

Cell phone technology creates life-long learners who are always just a click or two away from finding the information they need to accomplish nearly any given task. It’s how adults operate these days. It’s how we should be teaching our kids.

The future is already here, and most of our kids are holding it in their hands. We just have to let them turn the dang things on.

Happy Directing!

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Are You Among the 39% Who Survived?

SCOPE-031113-The Secret Soldier by Mack LewisAccording to an annual survey performed by Met Life, job satisfaction among teachers is just 39%–the lowest level in twenty-five years. It means six out of ten teachers are dissatisfied with their jobs. Six out of ten would quit and do something else if they could. Says one expert, it’s “a perfect storm of Common Core implementation, new teacher evaluations, and state accountability systems.” Another says teachers “are operating in an environment of public discourse that focuses on blame.”

But what I want to focus on is the 39%. Despite merit pay schemes, evaluations based on student test scores, and yet another massive (and some say unnecessary) school reform, 39% of us say we still like our jobs. Why?

There are, of course, a gillion factors, but I know one thing that helps keep me happy is the inclusion of Read Aloud Plays in my instruction. Here’s why:

Read Aloud Plays are fun. Where else can kids meet standards by popping out of a crate, holding aloft a “still-pulsing heart,” or pouring confetti over someone’s head? Crazy, inspiring, and magical things happen when working with plays.

Read Aloud Plays are easy to use. Simply select the plays you want, assign parts, and start meeting around your kidney-shaped table two or three times a week. Because there’s no need to spend hours wading through a complicated teacher’s edition, read aloud plays makes my job do-able.

Read Aloud Plays can be integrated with other subjects. Plays such as Sitting Down for Dr. King get kids actively engaged in the Civil Rights Movement. Fly Me to the Moon takes them to space. And The Secret Soldier (which appears in the March 11 issue of Scholastic’s Scope magazine) puts them on Bunker Hill. The wide variety of plays available makes teaching other subjects more interesting.

Read Aloud Plays create a tangible product. I’ve found no end of pleasure in recording movies and podcasts to post on our classroom webpage—and the kids have found no end of pleasure in sharing them with family and friends.

Read Aloud Plays meet the Standards. The CCSs justify using Read Aloud Plays by making reference to drama as a required literary form. In fact, “drama” appears 47 times in the Standards, giving me license to toss aside the textbook.

Read Aloud Plays make teaching a little less tough. For me, perhaps it’s just enough to keep me in that 39%.

Happy directing!

Even a Squirrel Can Do It!

Rikki Tikki TaviOkay, that’s not a squirrel. It’s a mongoose, as in Rikki Tikki Tavi of Jungle Book fame. My students are all jazzed about the play Rikki Tikki Tavi, which they just recorded for use as a podcast. If you’re a fan of using Read Aloud Plays but haven’t yet experimented with podcasting, I encourage you to give it a try. Hear our sample by clicking on the mongoose, or better yet, read on for two minutes and find out how easy it is for you and your students to make your own.

Using Read Aloud Plays in the classroom has numerous academic benefits. One, the Common Core State Standards put a great deal of emphasis on using drama to teach reading. In fact, the word drama appears 47 times in the standards. Two, kids love reading and enacting plays, meaning their engagement is heightened. Three, plays rapidly improve fluency. Using Read Aloud Plays accomplishes this because most students are willing to read and re-read the same script repetitively (the same way they probably read picture books when they were tots). One additional key to success, I think, is to offer authentic and varying ways to present your plays.

Don’t get me wrong. Divvying up parts and reading a play just once has its merits. In fact, my class will be doing just that for President’s Day. Using three plays from my book, Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America, we’ll be touching on the significance of the holiday without devoting an excess of class time. But in this case the emphasis is on teaching a specific history lesson rather than improving reading skills.

To really build fluency (and comprehension), I want my kids working with a given script for three to four weeks. They meet with me in “play groups” for “cast table readings” three times over the first week. Each play group is about a third of the class. Once they’ve demonstrated command of their given script, we move on to rehearsals. After two or three weeks of rehearsing (roughly three times a week for 20 minutes a pop), we present our plays in a few basic ways: Simple classroom staging, school stage production, full-blown musical, movie making, or podcasting.

Podcasting may initially seem daunting, but will become fairly simple with a bit of practice. You’ll need a laptop pre-loaded with Audacity software (a free download), a decent omnidirectional mic such as Samson’s Go Mic, and a quiet room. Students simply read their lines. You can stop between each scene, re-do scenes as necessary, edit out some of the stumbles, stutters, and pauses, and even alter the pitch. Editing may consume a couple hours of your weekend, but once you’ve done so you can export your play as an mp3 file. Share it with you class as you would any other digital sound clip. In my classroom, we post them on our webpage.

Visit my classroom website at dailyplatypus.com to see and hear samples of podcasts, play productions, and our Christmas Carol movie. If you’re working on plays for African-American History Month, it’s not too late to record your students for all posterity via a podcast. Maybe it isn’t so easy a squirrel can do it, but you can!

Happy directing!

Turn Your Plays Into Movies!

For a look at how much can be done with read aloud plays, a Flip camera, and simple Movie Maker software, check out this sixteen minute movie based on A Christmas Carol. The script comes from the book, Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories, while the actors include all thirty kids from my 5th grade classroom in southern Oregon. It’s just one more example of the great things that can be accomplished with read aloud plays. Enjoy!

Facebook Makes Us Stupider!

Yup, it’s a fact. Or at least it’s what researchers from the Pew Internet & American Life Project are saying. Students who can’t resist checking their Facebook page while studying have lower GPAs. It seems digital technology is so distracting, today’s students are simply unable to study effectively.

I have no doubt technology is a distraction, but I also have no doubt it can be used to empower students in ways we never before dreamed of. This weekend, for example, a trio of former students popped into my classroom for a visit. Fully-plugged-in middle schoolers, one of them pulled out a cellphone and said, “Check out this movie we made!” I then spent the next fifteen minutes watching a mini crime drama unfold on the tiny screen. Of their own volition these kids has gone out and produced a short film using nothing more than their brains and a cellphone. Sure, it was kid level stuff, but there was no shortage of quality film-making technique. They shot their scenes from different angles, effectively used flashbacks and close-ups, and kept their dialogue and action focused on the film’s objective. I enjoyed it immensely, but what strikes me most is that they pursued this endeavor all on their own, merely because they had the technology to do so.

While technology may indeed get in the way of kids studying the three R’s, it can also be used to help them embrace them. I’m not a true techie, but I’ve embraced technology because it provides good teaching tools that engage learners. In my classroom kids use Twitter to post their learning objectives, cellphones to time themselves when practicing their math facts, webpages to build their portfolios, and Youtube to post their performances. Our classroom webpage, The Daily Platypus, also gives them access to homework sheets they may have forgotten at school, extra credit work, and opportunities to read and respond to instructionally-related questions, videos, and posts. Instead of being a distraction, these technologies are proving to be conducive to learning. The read aloud play scripts I write and teach with are powerful in themselves, but they take on a whole new dimension when coupled with technology.

Of course, this still doesn’t mean my students aren’t going to blow off their homework once in awhile and instead spend the evening chatting on Faceboook…or watching television…or going to football practice…or shooting mini-crime dramas on their cellphones. “Technology is not going to disappear from our world,” says journalist Larry Rosen, whose syndicated article covers the Pew Report. “…in fact, it is only going to get more appealing as screens become sharper, video becomes clearer, and touch screens become the norm, all of which attract our sensory system and beckon us to pay attention to them rather than schoolwork or the people in front of us.”

The challenge for teachers will be in figuring out how to take advantage. Visit The Daily Platypus to see some of the ways we’re utilizing technology to enhance learning, and if you haven’t tried recording a play, either as a podcast or Youtube video, I’d encourage it.