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!

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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!

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!

How Engaging are Read Aloud Plays?

Why Use Drama cover 220x291How engaging are read aloud plays? Consider this bit of anecdotal evidence: In December my students were working on my adaption of Guy DeMaupassant’s The Necklace for presentation on stage, as well as a movie version of A Christmas Carol (which you can view if you scroll down a couple of posts). Consequently the kids went home for vacation with both these scripts tucked away in their binders. Upon returning, one of my students shared how on Christmas her family decided to use the scripts and act out the plays themselves. Imagine the scene: Dad croaking out “Bah Humbug,” middle school brother haunting him in the night, and Grandma chiming in as The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Note, too, that my student at the core of all this receives SPED services. These plays have gripped her (and her family) in a way that novels and text books haven’t. In my classroom, students regularly read chapter books in our “Book Clubs” and get plenty of instruction with short works, poetry, and non-fiction using Storyworks classroom magazine, but over twenty years of teaching, it’s consistently been the read aloud plays that most engage them. And let’s conclude with this, when was the last time your students took the text book home and read it around the Christmas tree? Visit my TeachersPayTeachers store for access to dozens of engaging play scripts. Each has been classroom-tested, most were originally published by Scholastic–which means they meet the highest standards–and all come with full production rights, meaning your $3 gets you a class set you can use year-after-year. 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!

Romeo Faceplants Off Elementary Stage!

Fortunately, fifth graders bounce. And because kids have a natural enthusiasm for acting out, the play always seems to go on. In the twenty years that I’ve been using read aloud plays in the classroom, I’ve seen just about everything: pratfalls, costume malfunctions, emergency ad-libs… And because read aloud plays are an effective way to teach fluency, comprehension, and content, I’ve also witnessed the blossoming of many a young reader. All of you who have made read aloud plays a staple of your reading instruction have no doubt had a play performance disaster, or coached a young Bill Shakespeare, or had an otherwise shaky reader come alive on stage. What are your favorite reader’s theater moments? Share your best drama disasters and most inspiring on-stage stories by e-mailing me at lewis@jeffnet.org. I’ll post as many as I can on my soon-to-be-launched website, ReadAloudPlays.com, and in so doing encourage other teachers to utilize this amazing instructional method. To make it worth your while, I’ll even e-mail you a free play!

For those of you who’ve yet discover the magic of reader’s theater, download my free article Why Use Drama?, and then take a look at dozens of professionally-crafted read aloud plays at my storefront on TeachersPayTeachers. Happy directing!

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.

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!