Could This Guy Pass the Smarter Test?

Would Will hunting pass the Smarter Balanced test?Am I wrong, or is the title of the nation’s new standardized test grammatically incorrect? Did the benevolent creators of this new system mean to say the test represents a “smarter balance” when compared to previous tests? If so, shouldn’t they have said balance—a noun—rather than balanced, a verb? Or maybe they meant smartly balanced, which makes me wonder why they used an adjective rather than an adverb.

Or perhaps they mean this fancy new test is both smarter and balanced? No doubt someone in the marketing department didn’t like the way the punctuation looked in the logo. Apparently, neither hyphens nor commas compel us to buy. Personally, I suspect they probably want the test to represent a Smart Balance, but when they discovered that such a moniker connotes a “smooth buttery consistency,” well, that’s when the trouble surely began.Smart-Balance or Smarter-Balanced?

Whether smartly balanced, a smarter balance, or smarter-balanced, one thing’s for sure: the new test is giving teachers and admins the heebie jeebies pretty much everywhere. I recently attended a Smarter Balanced workshop put on by the Oregon Department of Education covering details of the assessment. Here are a few take-aways:

*It’s finally time to give up teaching cursive. The tests, regardless of subject, will evaluate keyboarding skills as much or more than anything else. (I suspect even Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting would have a hard time passing the Smarter math test. Those complex math proofs he delineates on the chalkboard? He’d have to type them on a computer screen using numbers and words, not those alien symbols only true math geeks understand.) What you can do now: have your students word process everything–and in all subjects. Be sure, too, to practice highlighting individual sentences. Pity the school that has fallen behind technologically.

* Say “so long” to Romeo & Juliet. There will be greater emphasis placed on non-fiction texts. According the the Dept. of Ed: the higher the grade level, the more students should be reading non-fiction. What to do now: have your students read (and write) more non-fiction.

* Dust off the MLA Handbook. The uptick in plagiarism during the digital age has the experts all worked up about citing sources. On the test, students will be expected to recall direct quotations from a given text and use phrases such as “According to” when referring back to them. What to do now: lots of persuasive reading and writing. Storyworks magazine has a nice “debate” activity in every issue in which students must read a non-fiction text and then debate (in writing) each side of a given argument. That’s good practice for the test.

* Teach them to be sleuths. Having the right answer won’t be enough anymore. Students have to be able to identify the evidence. Where in the text did they find the information necessary to answer the question? What to do now: teach students to highlight evidence when completing comprehension activities or discussing what they’ve read.

* Do you validate? What you’re teaching now is still worthwhile. The writing process: still valid. Higher level taxonomy: still valid (though they’ve abandoned Bloom’s for what appears to be a decent system called “Depth of Knowledge” or DOK). And here comes my shameless plug: if you use my daily writing program, Super Sentences and Perfect Paragraphs, you’re already teaching to certain elements of the test. Not only does SSPP teach standard writing skills, it also asks kids to highlight and color code specific kinds of sentences. At my school, students word-process their paragraphs and then highlight and color code each sentence. Super Sentences also teaches sentence structures using the “According to” and “In my opinion” phrasing, as well as how to use direct and indirect quotations.

Whether smartly balanced or just a smooth, buttery consistency, I’m confident the Smarter Balanced test won’t be around forever. It’s the fourth standardized testing system implemented during my twenty-plus year career. If history has anything to say about it, we’ll be talking about something different in six or seven years. Consider this, when the sons and daughters of politicians go home and say, “I flunked the smarter test,” something’s gonna give. In the meantime, the skills the test evaluates are indeed important, so we all may as well just jump right in.

Advertisements

Text Books vs Read Aloud Plays

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.

cyclops coverAnd 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. Stock up on titles for the next school year. 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 or this podcast from the folks at Literacy Special Interests.

Happy directing!

Nine Minutes, Two Misconceptions, and One Easy Fix

The good people of America have some misconceptions about teaching. Planning for a lesson, they believe, is as easy as cracking open a text book and assigning the questions at the end of the chapter. Not only would that be low-level instruction, it also isn’t how today’s curricula are designed.

Why Use Drama cover 220x289The fifth grade reading text adopted by my school district, for example, includes a six-volume teacher’s edition, a balanced literacy planning guide, a CD-Rom planning guide, a manipulatives kit, a set of blackline masters, a classroom management kit, an integration kit, a set of theme tests, an extra-support management kit, two student workbooks and the teacher’s manual to go with them, three file boxes of mysterious support material I have yet to open, and fifteen small crates of so-called “mini-readers.” There’s so much of it that it takes a hand-truck to carry it anywhere.

Let’s ignore for a moment the cost of all this stuff (almost $3,000 for the teacher’s materials alone). What I want to accentuate here is that in order to plan one 30 minute reading lesson, I must wade through and be familiar with every last piece of it.

And how much time do I have to do it? According to planning time standards in my district: nine minutes. I have nine minutes to plan it, evaluate each individual student’s performance, record the results, and report the outcomes.

This leads me to another public misconception: teachers are only working when they’re standing in front of the class.

As we all know, delivering lessons to our students can be demanding. One study measuring stress by the number of decisions made per minute concluded that teaching is second only to air traffic control. So standing in front of our students is indeed “work.” But could it be possible that the time teachers spend planning may be the more demanding of the two?

You and I know that quality lessons take time to plan and prepare. But nine minutes? Imagine Jerry Seinfeld or Chris Rock preparing a ten minute bit for the Tonight Show but given only 3 minutes to do it. That’s the same ratio.

Nine minutes to plan, prepare, and assess each thirty minute lesson (not to mention all our other duties such as completing report cards, writing performance goals, communicating with parents, dealing with misbehavior, and attending meetings). Nine minutes.

The chefs on Hell’s Kitchen don’t have it any worse.

It’s no wonder I breathe a sigh of relief whenever I start a new set of classroom plays. In comparison to today’s over-stuffed textbook programs, planning and preparing read aloud plays is “easy-peasy.” To find out how easy, download my free guide on teaching with plays, Why Use Drama? Or tune in to this short podcast from the folks at Literacy Special Interest.

Read Aloud Plays are comparatively easy to plan, fun for the students and teacher, and inexpensive. And with a host of topics available—from Aesop’s Fables to the Apollo Moon Landing—they can be integrated with nearly every subject. What’s more, they’re an excellent way to teach to the Common Core (which refers to “drama” 47 times).

So this month, give your students and yourself a break: set aside that monster textbook and use you nine minutes to plan a month-long trio of Read Aloud Plays.

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!

Expert: Common Core May Be Too Complex for Your Students

SSPP CoverI recently attended a presentation by a University of Oregon professor discussing the challenges of revamping the curriculum to satisfy the Common Core. One thing I came away with was that consistently using Super Sentences & Perfect Paragraphs will most certainly help, so rather than blog about reader’s theater, this week I’d like to chat about your writing instruction.

The good professor displayed a question from a fifth grade standardized test and asked, “What makes the following difficult?”

The Earth is a bit like a perfectly boiled egg—with a semi-liquid yolk or “core,” surrounded by a thick, soft layer called the mantle, and covered by a thin hard shell called the crust. The core in the very center is metal but the crust and mantle are made entirely from rock.

Fifth graders, she suggested, are not typically exposed to sentences with multiple clauses or with such a breadth of punctuation. When they do encounter such complexity—such as when reading independently—they’re typically left to decipher it themselves. Users of Super Sentences & Perfect Paragraphs, however, know that my writing program teaches these deciphering skills explicitly. By asking kids to construct and discuss sentences containing commas in a series, dialogue, dashes, or even ellipses, they’re more prepared to understand them when they encounter them in their reading.

Everyone publishing anything having to do with curriculum is claiming it meets Common Core. No doubt you’re discovering that many don’t actually do so. However, the Super Sentences program very clearly aligns to Conventions of Standard English in grades 3 through 6 (L.3.2, L.4.2, L.5.2, L.6.2). For example, L.4.2.c requires that students “Use a comma before a coordinating conjunction in a compound sentence,” which is taught in Super Sentences activity #5 and reinforced throughout all later sentence-writing tasks. Super Sentences, in fact, teaches all the Language standards (L), while Perfect Paragraphs covers all the Writing standards (W). Additionally, Super Sentences & Perfect Paragraphs indirectly supports meeting the standards for Craft and Structure in both Literature (RL.#.4, RL.#.6) and Informational Text (RI.#.4, RI.#.6).

Now you can watch a “how-to video” on using Super Sentences in the classroom. The fourteen minute tutorial consolidates four days of instruction. In each 20 minute session, each student wrote one sentence fitting a specific construction (in this case, using semi-colons), and the class analyzed and discussed four  or five of these student-generated sentences each day. On the fourth day, students crafted the sentence on which they received a grade (using a simple rubric). The teacher’s role is to facilitate student discussion. Of course, complete details on how to implement the program appear in the book.

You can purchase Super Sentences & Perfect Paragraphs at Scholastic.com, at Amazon.com, or for immediate download in PDF, at Scholastic Teacher Express. It’s a complete year-long daily writing program in a small package, and it’s a surefire way to help prepare your students in grades 3 through 8 for the complex new world of the Common Core.

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!

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!

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!