High Stakes Testing Leads to High Blood Pressure

The Birthmark scope cover pageThis time last year I admitted to a high degree of frustration when it comes to standardized testing. It drives my blood pressure up when fifth grader after fifth grader gets pulled out of class to either test or get remedial instruction. Rarely (if ever) do I have my full group. It makes for some dysfunctional lessons requiring the reteaching of material to kids who were already struggling to grasp material from previous missed sessions. Still, as my Admin is fond of saying, “testing is the reality in which we live.” Embrace it or die (at least that’s how I translate it). And with the Smarter-Balance test hitting the streets next year, it’s evident this testing craze isn’t going away anytime soon (can’t wait to hear from parents when their kids go home and say they flunked the ‘smarter test’).

Well, I’m happy to say my current students have once again done just fine on state standardized tests, especially in reading where nearly all either met standards or growth targets and average fluency scores soared. Why mention it here? Because I long ago abandoned traditional text books and instead built my reading program around read aloud plays. Along with chapter books and content reading (primarily history content from Storyworks magazine), read aloud plays are the mainstay of my instruction. Not only do they build fluency and provide the framework to teach comprehension skills, they also increase the love of reading.

While some of my colleagues look at the new Common Core Standards with trepidation, I’m confident my young thespians will continue to thrive. As always, I’m already mapping out another year of plays. You can see my tentative plans below, and if you’d care to jump on the reader’s theater bandwagon, you’ll find all of the titles (and many more) either on my TpT Storefront, in one of my books^, or coming soon via this website*.

I’ll close with one warning: using read aloud plays to improve test scores means more than just handing out scripts and inviting kids to read. To see the nuts and bolts of how it’s done, download my free article, Why Use Drama?

September–Introductory: Rikki Tikki Tavi^, Peter Rabbit, Argument at Mount Rushmore^

October—Just for Halloween: Penelope Ann Poe’s Amazing Cell Phone, The Tell-Tale Heart^, Cyclops v Odysseus

November/December–Holidays: Ebenezer Scrooge*, Gabriel Grub*, The Necklace^

January–American Revolution: The Secret Soldier*, The Legend of Betsy Ross^, Eagles Over the Battlefield^

February–Slavery & Civil War: Spies & Rebels, Freedom for the First Time, Box Brown’s Freedom Crate

March/April–Civil Rights: How Jackie Saved the World, Selma to Montgomery: Let it Shine*, I Have a Dream: The Childhood of MLK^

May—Just for Fun: A Piece of String*, Ransom for Red Chief*, The Nose^

All right, I’ll close (for real this time) with the fine print: Using Read Aloud Plays won’t stop your classroom instruction from being interrupted by standardized testing. Nor will it prevent your blood pressure from soaring due to the same. But done right, read aloud plays will have a positive impact on your reading test scores.

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.

Common Core Wearing on Ya Yet?

TellTale Heart110x150Like most of you, the start of the new school year has left me scrambling to keep up. Fortunately, Read Aloud Plays can help. Take a look at what teachers are saying about using plays in the classroom.

Mack, Thanks for another excellent RT. I am a loyal fan of your work. Always a hit with my students too. – Anne J.,

Thank you! My wonderful editors at Scholastic and my fifth graders seem to be of the same opinion. My 45th play, an adaption of De Maupassant’s “A Piece of String,” is scheduled for release in an upcoming issue of Scope Magazine, and I have three other Scope-commissioned plays waiting in the wings. RT users can also utilize my work by purchasing either of my two collections: Symbols of America or Classic Short Stories. I also have twenty read aloud plays available on Teachers PayTeachers. Because most of these originally appeared in either Scope or Storyworks, you can bet the quality is top-notch..

Used this on a family civil war themed camping trip with my own family. – Dowdy K.

I find this really telling. After all, when was the last time anyone took an HM text book on a camping trip? Read Aloud Plays work because they’re fun. Couple the fun with great content such as a classic tale or an important historical event –and you have academic gold!

Highly Recommended. I was able to tie much of my social studies in with LA due to many good “reader’s Theater” plays like these. Thanks. – Shannon P.

I’ve crafted numerous reader’s theater scripts for Scholastic covering the Civil Right Movement and American History. Especially poignant plays include Sitting Down for Dr. King, which is set during the Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-Ins, and Freedom for the First Time, which deals with a slave family’s reaction to the conclusion of the Civil War. The latter made me cry when I wrote it, and even now after dozens of uses, still makes me tear up.

Another winner for this high school sped teacher!brettandjenn02

Read Aloud Plays allow students to read repetitively, something that many Sped students didn’t do when they were preschoolers. Consequently, RT is an ideal method of improving fluency. Download my free guide to using drama for more information on the brain research behind Read Aloud Plays.

Fantastic way to energize my 8th graders!sorlando678

An old veteran of the classroom once told me that “fun” teachers make sure kids enjoy school, good teachers make sure kids learn what they’re supposed to learn, but great teachers do both. Read Aloud Plays both engage students and support the CCSs.

This reader’s theatre provided a nice alternative to standard aloud reading for my class as they completed their short story unit.nancyhn

Rather than just reading a classic short story such a The Monkey’s Paw, Cyclops, Sleepy Hollow, or Peter Rabbit, how about reading the short story and enacting the play at the same time? What a great way for kids to develop their inferential comprehension!

Happy Directing!

With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino

Click here to preview or purchase at TpTIt’s spring, and aside from being that glorious time of year when we can finally start replenishing our supply of Vitamin D, it’s a great time to consider alternative settings for classroom play performances. “All the world’s a stage,” writes Shakespeare in As You Like It, which sounds to me like a good excuse to ditch the school auditorium and head out of doors. Take a walk around your school campus. That grassy knoll, that bridge across the playground structures, and the steps in front of the dilapidated main building might all be excellent venues. Have the performers present their play at the top of the steps, or seat your audience on the steps themselves and stage the play down below. Keep props and costumes to a minimum, provide your kids with multiple opportunities to practice (which builds fluency), and be sure to invite other classes to come watch.

Excellent plays to perform out-of-doors include How Jackie Saved the World (see previous post), Fly Me to the Moon (about the Apollo moon landing), Bird Girl (about Sacagawea), and my personal favorite, Peter Rabbit (a great one for olders to perform for youngers). If you’re lucky enough to have access to back issues of Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine, try Aesop’s Fables, Tom Sawyer’s Saturday, or Babe, the Valiant Pig. Finally, plan to take your back-to-school plays outside as well. Consider using my play, Cyclops vs. Odysseus, which originally appeared in Scholastic’s Scope magazine in September 2012. It’ll be available through TpT this August.

Happy Directing!

April 15th is Jackie Robinson Day

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 ballplayer, 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!

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!