42: The Most Important Number to Teach This Month

Public domain picture of jackie robinsonThe Major League Baseball season’s Spring Training 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.How Jackie saved the World readers theater play skit

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!

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!

Why You Should Teach Black History on April 15th

Click here to preview or purchase at 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!

Your Happy Place

The Birthmark Scope CoverAfter announcing the approach of my first grandchild via Facebook, I received a message from a former student thanking me for the year she spent in my class a decade ago. “Samantha” told me how the only happy moments of her childhood were in my classroom. Although I’m proud that I was able to provide her with a safe, nurturing environment, I’m saddened I hadn’t done more to make her life less chaotic. Whatever the case, it has prompted me to ponder what makes a classroom “happy.” Certainly there’s the nurturing that all good teachers provide their kids, loving them despite their flaws, considering their interests when writing lesson plans, being accessible, consistent, and safely predictable. But in my classroom I’ve also concluded that Read Aloud Plays has something to do with it. I know this because my students always seem to be happiest when we’re working on a play, and former students always seem to mention a play when reflecting on their time with me.

My current students recently performed my adaption of Nathanial Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark.” It appears in the Jan. 14th issue of Scholastic’s Scope magazine. Like nearly all the plays I craft for Scholastic, my students performed it in advance of publication. Judging by the always-awesome Scope cover, you wouldn’t think it a “happy” play at all, but it had the kids giggling and gaffawing like mad. It’s simultaneously romantic and ghoulish, giving them the chance to express a wide variety of emotions. Why, how often does your average fifth grade boy get to get on one knee and profess his love to a classmate? How often does your second-language learner get to stuff a pillow in his shirt and pretend to be a hunchback Boris Karloff?

Textbooks, standardized tests, and leveled readers may perhaps be worthwhile academic tools, but they’re not in themselves able to contribute toward that happy place Samantha remembers. If you haven’t tried using Read Aloud Plays, now is a great time to start. Although The Birthmark won’t be available on my website until next year, I have dozens of others–all written with the student in mind. Black History Month titles such as Box Brown’s Freedom Crate, Sitting Down for Dr. King, and How Jackie Changed the World are consistently ranked as favorites with the kids. Give ‘em a try and help create that happy place students will write to you about.

Happy directing!

Why You Need a Cardboard Box for Black History Month

Box Brown's Freedom Crate graphicIf you’ve never heard one of your students attempt a southern accent you must give Box Brown’s Freedom Crate a whirl this February during Black History Month. Ever since I wrote it for Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine back 1999, Box Brown has always been a favorite among my students. Consequently my class learns and performs it almost every year. Even if you’re teaching in the Southern U.S.—where the dialect might not be so unique—there remain many compelling reasons to teach with this play.

Box Brown’s Freedom Crate is based on The Autobiography of Henry “Box” Brown. Henry was the slave who mailed himself to the North inside a wooden crate and lived—just barely—to tell the world about it. Why do kids like this play so much? The Deep South dialect of slaves and slave bosses is certainly one reason. So too is the large cardboard box we use as the main prop. It’s painted to look like an old-fashioned shipping crate and is just big enough for a moderately-sized fifth grader to climb inside. The student playing Henry disappears within it during Scene 4 and then discreetly exits while the curtains are closed. From there he appears to get battered as the box is tossed from wagon to train to steamer until it finally gets cracked open at the Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia. Henry then rises from his coffin only to quickly swoon away from exhaustion and dehydration. This is of course a dramatic moment in Henry’s true story, and one kids don’t soon forget.

There are sound academic reasons to enact plays such as Box Brown’s Freedom Crate. For example, because kids are willing to read and reread their lines over and over again, Read Aloud Plays build reading fluency. The brain science behind this repetition suggests it actually forms the neural pathways that make reading possible. Read Aloud Plays are easily leveled and they provide the exposure to drama the new Common Core Standards demand. They also allow students to experience history “first hand,” which helps them to relate to people like Henry, to understand some of the heartache and suffering Henry might have felt. …Plus there’s still that whole southern accent thing.

Visit my storefront at TeachersPayTeachers to download a free preview of Box Brown or one of my other Black History plays. I’ve used every one in my own classroom, and because most have been previously published in Scholastic classroom magazines, you can rest-assured they’re of the highest quality.

Box Brown’s Freedom Crate is suitable for 4th-8th graders and includes parts for from ten to twenty students depending on your needs. Hear Box Brown being performed by students by clicking on the “podcasts” tab, and to get the most out of your reader’s theater, be sure to download my free article entitled “Why Use Drama?” Happy directing!

Engaging Kids for MLK Day

King and Johnson With Martin Luther King Day just around the corner, I’ve frequently been asked of late, “How do you get kids meaningfully engaged in Civil Rights and Black History?” It’s a good question. Other than the appeal of the teacher, why should some white kid in suburban Flagstaff care about King’s work fifty years after the fact?

I’ve heard about good simulations, such as the one where classrooms segregate students based on eye-color, hair-color, or by lottery and allow one group to abuse the other for a day. Such activities are powerful—but they’re also controversial. Civil Rights is an important topic, but there’s no reason to do something that’s going to make your students cry, land you in your administrator’s office, or possibly require the services of an attorney.

A better way, I’m convinced, is to re-enact actual events through Read Aloud Plays. Imagine your students actually marching in Birmingham, getting thrown off the bus in Montgomery, or being tear-gassed in Selma.
How can we create in our students true empathy for what victims of racism experienced? How about having them enact the play The Girl Who Got Arrested in which—a year before Rosa Parks—a teenaged girl becomes the first to get thrown in jail for challenging Montgomery’s segregated bus system?

How do we get kids today to feel what the crusaders felt? Have them enact the play, Sitting Down for Dr. King, in which a white boy in Greensboro watches the Lunch Counter Sit-ins unfold around him and ultimately sacrifices his own interests to join the protestors.

Using Read Aloud Plays to teach Civil Rights comes with the added benefits that the approach improves reading fluency, aids comprehension, and helps meet 47 Common Core Standards. Forty-seven! Nearly all of my Black History plays have been previously published in Scholastic classroom magazines such as Storyworks and Scope, so they meet the highest standards. And because I’ve been writing and using Black History plays with my own students for nearly twenty years, I can attest to the fact that kids LOVE enacting these plays and learning about these events.

We Shall Overcome, my most popular Civil Rights play on TeachersPayTeachers, re-enacts the Birmingham Children’s Crusade. Television reporters cover the events as Bull Conner bullies protestors and school kids, and firehouses blast away as crusaders sing, “We shall overcome/we shall overcome/ we shall overcome someday…” Donning the persona of these characters, be they Bull Conners, MLKs, or Ruby Bridges, changes a person. Kids love to discuss how it makes them feel.

So, how do you get kids meaningfully engaged in Civil Rights and Black History this MLK Day? With Read Aloud Plays. For tips on how to get the most out of Read Aloud Plays, download my free article, “Why Use Drama?”

Plays Meet 47 Common Core Standards

Common Core logoAdmit it. You’re using one of those big fat textbooks to teach reading, one of those monstrosities brought to you by publishers determined to make sure its refrigerator-box full of materials met every standard ever concocted in Texas, California, Pennsylvania, the U.S. Protectorates, and Saturn’s Ring. Too bad the kids are yawning.

If you’re like most people, the new Common Core Standards might have you a bit flustered. You can rely on those textbooks, which will provide certain coverage of the standards but will drive your students back to their video games, or you can delve into literature, classroom magazines, and reader’s theater, which will require more documentation on your part but will more likely create lifelong readers. The truth is, using what administrators like to call “supplementary material” is more engaging to students, more enjoyable to teach, and not so hard to justify against the CCSs. Consider this: “drama” is mentioned nearly fifty times in the Standards! That being the case, reader’s theater is more relevant than ever.

Here are just a few examples from the Reading Standards for Literature (RL) where drama or an element of drama is explicitly referenced:

RL4.5Explain major differences between poems, dramas, and prose….
RL5.4Explain how a series of chapters, scenes or stanzas fits together….
RL5.6Describe how a narrator’s or speaker’s point of view influences how events are described.
RL6.3Describe how a particular story’s or drama’s plot unfolds in a series of episodes….
RL7.3Analyze how particular elements of a story or drama interact.

And don’t assume that using drama is only useful in teaching drama. One user of my play adaption of the classic short story, The Monkey’s Paw, commented how reading the play helped her students comprehend the original text. Because plays have to break stories down to their essence, using adaptions of classic stories is likely to help students meet the RL standards for any number of otherwise challenging texts at the high end of the “complexity band” (RL4-8.10)

But plays also help students meet standards in Reading Fluency. Consider RF 4.4cUse context to confirm or self-correct word recognition and understanding…. Because drama puts the reader in the moment, and because the playwright cannot waste words within a 20 minutes classroom script, students are more able to make immediate contextual connections. In fact, drama is ideal for improving reading fluency in general. Because it mimics the repetition beginning readers use when first learning to read, it actually forms new neural pathways. (Check out the brain research by Vgotsky and others, or for a shortcut, read my article “Why Use Drama.”)

Recently, a former student of mine provided a powerful endorsement of using drama to teach literature. I hadn’t seen this young man for over four years, but he told me he’d just been thinking of me the day before. He’d been sitting in his 8th grade English class yawning over yet another mundane text book assignment when his mind drifted back to my then-third grade classroom. “I was just thinking about hopping around our classroom stage when we did that Aesop’s Fables play,” he said. “I enjoyed that.” That seems pretty telling to me.

Ready to set aside that textbook for a while and give drama a try? You can find a wide variety of read-aloud plays at my TeachersPayTeachers store. Try my Ebenezer Scrooge play (available only for the holidays), Peter Rabbit (excellent for intermediate kids to present to youngers), or Box Brown’s Freedom Crate (kids love experimenting with a southern dialect). You’ll also find numerous titles appropriate for Black History Month, which is right around the corner. Nearly all my plays have been previously published in Scholastic classroom magazine’s such as Storyworks and Junior Scholastic, so you can rest assured that they meet the highest standards. Not sure how to make it all work? Click here. For samples of kids performing classroom plays click on the “podcasts” tab up top. And for still more validation of using drama to meet the CCSs, check out this article from the New York Times.

Happy directing!