Celebrate Your Slow Readers

Free Black History Play (through Jan 31)I recently read an article about how “slow reading” is gaining acceptance as an academic approach. Though the piece was aimed at high school and college instructors, the gist remains the same at the elementary and middle school levels: let’s slow our kids down and have them read meaningfully. To this I say, “hot dang!” I’ve long been an advocate of focusing on accuracy and beauty rather than speed.

The purveyors of Oral Reading Fluency measures no doubt developed their program with good intentions. They saw a correlation between quality reading and speed. They found that good readers, when tested by the minute, can read fast. Consequently, oral reading fluency has become the king of qualifiers for Special Ed and Title I services. The flaw is that the formula isn’t commutative (if I may borrow a math concept for a moment): good readers may be able to read fast, but it doesn’t work in the opposite direction. Emphasizing ORF scores teaches kids to read fast, but that doesn’t mean they’ll read well. In fact, all this emphasis on speed is probably causing kids to struggle more than ever.

The emphasis in my classroom is on reading with accuracy, personality, and comprehension. Obviously, I believe plays are the perfect vehicle for doing just that, though the process of re-training kids who have been under the ORF thumb for so long isn’t without its tribulations. My students just recorded their first set of radio dramas. When it came time to record, there was a lot of mumbling, stumbling, and stammering from some, while others read their parts like people actually talk. And, get this, there was no correlation between such quality reading and their ORF scores! In fact, some of my lowest “per minute” readers read the most beautifully; some of my highest, rather poorly. You guessed it: the factor of greatest influence was whether or not a given student read independently at home during the two weeks leading up to the recording session.

This month you can encourage great reading by staging a trio of plays for Black History Month in February. Plays such as Freedom for the First Time and Box Brown’s Freedom Crate teach about slavery while giving kids the chance to practice their slow southern drawls. Plays such as Sitting Down for Dr. King and The Girl Who Got Arrested re-enact inspiring moments from the Civil Rights Movement. There are several other Black History titles available (including this one–a free gift to my readers during January!), but whether you use my plays or not, consider jumping on the “slow reading” band wagon and let February be about teaching your students to read beautifully.

Happy directing!

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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!

What’s Your Fatal Flaw?

Click on the cover to preview or purchase!In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic short story, The Birth-mark, the main character becomes obsessed with his beautiful wife’s one and only imperfection and ends up killing her in his attempt to remove it.

It’s a story about love, science, and perfection. It includes a mad scientist, a beautiful maiden, a bloody heart, an Igor-like lab assistant, secret potions, and fatal flaws. Kids love to enact it, and because it includes numerous literary devices that make for engaging discussions or fluid written responses, it’s a great way to teach to the Common Core.

Aylmer (the mad scientist), appears to be the main character, but is he really the protagonist or the antagonist? Both Aylmer and his beautiful wife (the victim) are dynamic characters. They both change significantly. How? What does Aylmer’s nightmare, in which he removes Georgiana’s heart, foreshadow? The play includes a character, James, who doesn’t appear in the original story. Why is he included and how does it impact point of view? Toss in the elements of setting, mood, imagery, and irony, and you have a made-to-order Common-Core-meeting reading activity.

I’ve been told by some that they just don’t have time to work “skits” or “drama” into their classroom; adherence to core reading, writing, and math leaves no room for fun stuff like Read Aloud Plays. But I protest! Drama is core reading. Read Aloud Plays, including such classics as The Birth-mark, The Monkey’s Paw, A Retrieved Reformation, and many others on my site, are a perfect way to teach to the CCSs. And now it’s even easier. Click here to download a FREE activity sheet. It addresses Literature: Key Ideas and Details, and can be used with any of my Read Aloud Plays from the classic short stories series.

Happy Directing!

Black Students Denied Service

Rodney_Powell_Nashville_sit-ins_1960 PD NonrenewedImagine seeing the words “Whites Only” at your favorite restaurant! We can be thankful that it’s unthinkable today. But when so much time has passed, how do we help today’s kids truly make sense of such attitudes and events?

On February 1st, 1960, four African-American college students walked into a Woolworth’s Store, sat down at the lunch counter, ordered and were refused coffee. They vowed to stay until the store desegregated its lunch counter. Five months later, Woolworth’s finally relented and began serving blacks and whites alike. It was an important moment in the history of American. The event is portrayed in my original Storyworks play, “Sitting Down for Doctor King.”

What better way to honor his legacy, meet the Common Core, and give your students an authentic Civil Rights experience than by re-enacting events such as Greensboro? Read aloud plays put your students in the action, allowing them to understand the motivations and feelings of the participants firsthand. Read Aloud Plays also help satisfy many of the Literature and Information Text standards in grades 3 through 7. But students can also utilize Read Aloud Plays to “adapt speech to a variety of contexts”, “evaluate a speaker’s point of view”, and “integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media…,” which are all Speaking and Listening standards.

And there’s no limit as to how you use them. Pair plays with discussion, history videos (there are a ton of them on the Web), chapters from your History text book, works of literature, picture books, and more. Read a play once, or divvy up parts and practice for three or four weeks. Read Aloud Plays can be fit into almost any schedule and almost any curriculum.

For starters, check out my original Read Aloud Plays about the Greensboro Sit-ins, the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and The March on Washington, where Dr. King presented his I Have a Dream speech. Or explore some of my other Black History plays. Nearly all my plays were commissioned by and originally published by Scholastic, so you know they’re of the highest quality, and all of them come with reproduction and performance rights. If you’re new to using drama, also be sure to download my free guide.

Satisfy the CCSs and bring MLK Day to life for your students. Download some Read Aloud Plays today. Happy Directing!

When Your Character Gets Questioned

SCOPE-110113-PlayWhat can you do when your character gets questioned but you’re unable to defend yourself? In my new play in the November issue of Scholastic’s Scope Magazine, a peasant in 19th-century France is accused of a crime he didn’t commit. The harder he tries to clear his name, the less people believe him. Does he get what he deserves? Guy de Maupassant’s classic story, A Piece of String, makes a great characterization activity. Vivid characters, a compelling plot, and a interesting moral make for great classroom discussion. You can get A Piece of String by becoming a Scope subscriber, and you can preview the play here.