Pairing Plays & Picture Books for Black History Month

Focus on Common Core Point of View activity freeThe Common Core requires that we teach students to “evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.” One way to do that is to pair Read Aloud Plays with developmentally-appropriate books and films so to compare and contrast point of view. Black History Month presents an ideal opportunity for the following pairings:

* The Disney movie, Selma, Lord Selma, and the Read Aloud Play, Gonna Let it Shine.
* My play from the Montgomery Bus Boycott, The Girl Who Got Arrested, and Phillip Hoose’s book about Claudette Colvin, Twice Toward Justice.
*Sitting Down for Dr. King, which depicts the Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-ins of 1960, and Andrea Davis Pinkney’s book, Sit-in: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down.
* Peter Golenbrock’s book, Teammates, depicting the relationship between Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese, and the Read Aloud Play, How Jackie Changed America.
* We Shall Overcome, my play about the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, and Cynthia Levinson’s non-fiction book, We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March.
*Days of Jubilee, by Patricia and Fredrick McKissack, and my play, Freedom for the First Time, which is based on slave narratives from the Civil War.
*The Read Aloud Play, Box Brown’s Freedom Crate, and Ellen Levine’s book, Henry’s Freedom Box.

To get your classroom discussion going, I’ve developed a simple short-answer comparison activity covering Craft & Structure (Literature item 6 and Informational Text item 6). You can download it for free here and use it with my plays and any paired text to satisfy these standards by having students “analyze multiple accounts of the same event or topic.”

Happy directing!

New Plays and Product Updates

Click on the cover to preview at TpTTeachersPayTeachers has grown immensely over the last decade. Back when I first started using it as a secondary market for my plays, products could be pretty simple. In fact, most were in black and white. These days there are a bazillion teacher-marketers selling product, so competition has become pretty fierce. Consequently, I’m constantly trying to update my Read Aloud Play packages and post new ones. Thanks to a couple of snow days here in southern Oregon, I was recently able to revamp several products. I’ve added comprehension activities, teacher notes, and answer keys to The Monkey’s Paw, W.W. Jacobs’ fabulous masterpiece about three wishes, The Birthmark, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wickedly wonderful “mad scientist” story, and Cyclops, from Homer’s Odyssey. These three plays are perfect for introducing middle-schoolers to the otherwise difficult original stories. Whether you use the play before or after, student engagement and comprehension skyrocket when you pair the original with a play. But they’re also engaging stories for fourth and fifth graders to read and act aloud. (What could be better than your 5th grade Cyclops eating a bunch of 4th grade Greeks?) All three of these plays originally appeared in Scholastic classroom magazines, so they’ve been “vetted” by Scholastic’s professional editors. Add to that the new comprehension activities and they’re a fantastic deal.

I’ve also updated The Secret Soldier, which has previously appeared in both Scope and Storyworks. It’s the true story of Deborah Samson, the first woman to serve in the U.S. Military. Samson disguised herself as a man to enlist in the militia near the end of the American Revolution, was twice seriously wounded, and even performed surgery on herself to avoid being found out. It’s a must-have for any Revolution unit study. Like the other updated plays, it now comes with the additional support material—as do my other plays from the era. Be sure to check out Betsy Ross: Fact or Fiction, Two Plays from the American Revolution, and my newest product, So You Want to Be President. This last one is another “Two for One” pack. It comes with two of my favorite plays from my 2003 Scholastic title, Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America, which is no longer in print. Both plays cover the history of the presidency and the character traits necessary to serve successfully. Given today’s political climate, they’re important additions to your history and reading curriculum, but they’re also a lot of fun to read and enact.

Finally, MLK Day and Black History Month are already upon us. If you haven’t yet read my earlier post about my Civil Rights and African-American history plays, be sure to scroll down and take a look.

Happy directing!

The End of Standardized Testing?

Click here to watch this TED TalkWe’ve been seeing it for the last year or so: the education pendulum on the verge of swinging. Standardized testing, Common Core standards, standards-based report cards (with all their annoying numbers), all being shown the door—or at least a dingy corner of the room. Enter, stage right, what I’m calling “purpose-driven instruction.” If you’re not familiar with it, check out this TED talk by education expert Sir Ken Robinson. He shows how the “factory model” of education created by the industrial revolution is outdated. The education documentary “Most Likely to Succeed,” which debuted not long ago at Sundance and is now in limited release, takes it a step further. It shows how “soft skills” such as critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and leadership need to be the focal point of instruction. Rather than having students memorize content (which is all readily available at our thumb-tips), we teach these soft skills through purpose-driven instruction.

Purpose-driven instruction involves having an end product. This end product determines the skills that need to be learned and provides the motivation to learn them. A person building a deck, for example, needs to know about the permit requirements, how to prepare the site, footings, measurement, using a chop saw, and a host of other things. Said person learns all this stuff, in a sense, “on the job,” while actually working on his or her deck. And because he or she is motivated to finish the project, said person is willing to learn the skills, even when it’s as uncomfortable as navigating the city’s building permit process. This person gains mastery through authentic application. (Sound like project-based learning, right? Sure, but keep reading.)

To teach those same skills independent of actually building a deck seems rather ludicrous, but it’s what we do in school all the time. For example, we typically teach calculus without any purpose other than that we might need to know it at some point in the future. No wonder kids ask, “Why do I need to know this?” And even when kids do “know it,” they usually don’t. The “Most Likely to Succeed” filmmakers demonstrate how even students who demonstrate assessed mastery forget pretty much everything within just a few months.

What’s all this got to do with Read Aloud Plays? Well, plays, by their nature, are purpose-driven. Simply by scheduling a performance and inviting an audience, a read aloud play becomes an authentic way to teach a host of “soft-skills.” Get this: in “Most Likely to Succeed,” a play performance is presented as the epitome of purpose-driven instruction and with amazing results (I can’t wait for you to see the documentary!). Plays are especially effective in that you can use them even with large classes (a fundamental symptom of our industrialized education approach). In any given month, I have my class of 34 split into three groups, each working on a play. Granted, these are rather simple performances. Sets are kept to a minimum, if at all, costuming is limited to just a few accessories to signify character (a parasol or a certain hat, for instance), and kids can carry their script in their hand if they want. But it remains that students must collaborate and cooperate, they must practice independently and as a team, and they must “finish” (the play must go on) regardless of broken legs, absenteeism, or fire bells. Students learn about subtle forms of communication such as inflection and innuendo, about body language and movement, all while happily developing their core reading skills. Instead of being forcibly required to read a text book, presumably to improve assessable fluency, they’re willingly—even eagerly—honing their fluency to present a successful performance. That’s a significant shift of the paradigm, as Robinson calls it.

With Read Aloud Plays, students can do more than just read and act, too. They can direct. They can build sets. They can write and adapt scripts. They can design and make costumes. They can create playbills. They can create tickets to the show. They can build online promos. They can create posters. They can film and post the video of the play online. They can serve as ushers. They can run a snack bar. They can write reviews. And, of special importance, they can self-evaluate and provide feedback. No letter grade, report card, or standardized test required.

Those of you who’ve been around for a couple decades have probably seen “purpose-driven instruction” under different names. And critical thinking skills certainly aren’t new to the education community. But whether you’re a proponent of project-based learning, student-led conferences, or reader’s theater who has had to fly under the radar of the standardized data miners, Read Aloud Plays are for you. Whether you’re someone looking to try something other than the text book, or someone who remains committed to teaching to the Common Core, Read Aloud Plays are for you. They’re a fantastic purpose-driven way to teach to the reading standards while simultaneously developing those essential “soft skills.”

Click on the Read Aloud Plays tab for access to a wide-variety of plays with focused content. You’ll find great classroom plays about explorers, the Revolution, Civil Rights, and more, or visit my store at TeachersPayTeachers. And if you haven’t yet seen “Most Likely to Succeed,” look for a screening near you.

Happy directing!

How to Host an “Old School” Writers’ Festival

Anthology of Public School WritingWhen seven-year-old Kelsey Drake stepped to the microphone, she hesitated. Perhaps she felt nervous about presenting her writing before such a large audience. Then again, maybe it was just the mouthful of prize-winning devil’s food cake she was chewing. After a moment’s pause and a hard swallow, without regard for the goo smeared all over her face, or the chocolate finger prints across her otherwise fresh copy of Yeah Huh!, she calmly clutched the mic and in a sometimes stuttered, sing-songy voice, read her masterpiece:

One day I went hunting with my dad and my big brother and their friends in the woods. I got the biggest deer and it had very big antlers. The big boys cried. We took the deer home and Mom said, “The boys are big babies.” I said, “Maybe next time, babies.”

Though clearly a beginner, in that moment Kelsey received everything real writers want. True, her byline came in a book you can’t buy through Amazon. And her audience was merely a gym full of kids. It’s also unlikely Roald Dahl ever accepted payment in the form of a pecan kiss, a piece of German lebkuchen, or a slice from a cake shaped like a big yellow school bus. But the exhilaration for Kelsey is the same. At that moment, she’s a real writer.

Professionals write to express themselves to a wide audience, to make money, and for that oft-elusive byline. Kids, however, seldom have this opportunity. In fact, rarely do we give them any more motivation to write than to assign a topic and wave their report card at them. These days my students routinely publish their writing on the Web, but while doing so seemed really cutting-edge a decade ago, it now seems to be losing its appeal. The Web appears so vast that a fifth grader’s eloquently-crafted poem about donut holes can quickly disappear in the mud we call bandwidth.

All this has me thinking about simpler days when we used to print real books full of student-writing, books you could hold in your hand and re-read over and over again. I have a number of such books in my classroom. While it would be rare for a current student to go back through the archives of my school webpage to read student-writing from even a few years ago, they still pick up my copies of Fresh Corn, Yeah Huh!, and Mmm!, three lovely little anthologies from more than a decade ago.

I miss those days.

So, I dug out an article I published in Instructor on organizing a school-wide writers’ festival. It’s excerpted below. My hope is that it’ll germinate into getting such an event started at my current school. And, I challenge you to do the same at yours.

At my old school, every student who submitted material–generally about 70% of the k-5 population–became a published author. They also attended a dessert banquet where they scarfed down a smorgasbord of sweets concocted by staff members and parents. They received their contributor’s copy of the anthology, gathered the autographs of their fellow authors, and had the chance to read their work into an open mic. It was all designed to motivate students to hone their skills and reward them for their effort.

“It’s a good feeling,” said then-student Casey C. when recalling the festival. “It’s kind of cool to see your writing in a book.” She credited the event for her enthusiasm for writing. “Before the festival, I didn’t think I was much of a writer. Now I feel like I’m pretty good, so I really enjoy it.”

The anthology validates the kids’ work,” explained fourth grade teacher Matt D. “It makes it more meaningful. Consequently, they put more effort into it.”

Back in those days, the festival went beyond just encouraging young writers. It contributed to a favorable school climate, one that enriched learning in general. Perhaps that’s why those kids were so comfortable with a mic.

“I like reading into the microphone best,” noted one student. Her younger sister Olivia agreed. Unfortunately, she found herself at the end of the line and didn’t get the chance. “It would have been embarrassing,” said Olivia, “but I still wanted to do it.”

Still, are the benefits enough to justify all the work that goes into developing your own festival? Certainly. It promotes a school-wide focus on a subject that, due to its inherent difficulty, is sometimes neglected. The open mike also gives students practice with public speaking, and the anthology itself encourages reading. “I keep the old copies in my classroom,” said one teacher. “The kids like to go back and look for their friends.” Third grader Tim B. admitted to being too scared to read his work aloud. “But I read all the other kids’ when they were up there,” he said. “I was following along.”

If all that’s not enough to convince you to start your own festival, just have a chat with then-third grader Doug V. “When you’re focused on being graded,” said Doug, “you get all worried. But when you’re writing for fun, you do better. The Writers’ Festival makes it fun.”

Ready to give it a shot? Here are the steps we followed:

Promote it. Begin by visiting classrooms. Your personal sales pitch will generate immediate interest. Point out the joys of being published and the gastronomical pleasures of the dessert banquet. You could even share some food samples during your pitch! Also, be sure to send a flyer home with every student. It’s often the parents of a student who most encourage participation.

Give it an identity. Generate extra excitement by holding a school-wide contest to name the anthology. We looked for quirky, easy-to-remember titles that captured the personality and youthfulness of our students. Our first edition, based on a sign along the road near the school, was entitled Fresh Corn. Later additions bore names such as Pinky Toe. Each edition is also subtitled “An Anthology of Public School Writing.” Also hold a cover art contest. In addition to selecting a winner (to whom we awarded a $5 to $10 gift certificate) we also used the best of the rest to dress up the inside of the anthology. Be careful, though, about distracting students from their stories. Wait until after the deadline for written submissions has passed before opening your cover contest.

Enlist the cooperation of your staff. Encourage teachers to devote class time to generating entries. The writing their students do for the festival can double as an in-class assignment, or students can simply select their entry from a portfolio of material they’ve written during the school year. The latter approach promoted reflection and self-evaluation. It also resulted in a broader range of modes appearing in the anthology, though we found we got better material when we encouraged first-person narratives.

Print it. With modern computer technology, publishing a respectable anthology is relatively simple. Still, if you have to type one hundred or more manuscripts yourself, your book may never reach the printing press. Therefore, don’t accept hard copies. Consider using Google Docs or some other mechanism to have kids “drop” their manuscript to a pre-determined electronic location. This will allow you to focus your energies on formatting and editing rather than typing. Because our anthology was produced by a single individual, these requirements were essential. Also allow yourself some time to play with formatting. It’s accomplished with relative ease by adjusting margins and font headings, but in order to get the pages in just the right order and printing front to back, plan on doing some experimenting.

We always wanted our publication to look as much like a book as possible. After reviewing “real” literary anthologies, we decided to avoid spiral binding and instead used a half-sheet format. Standard 8 ½ x 11 inch sheets are turned horizontally and folded, then bound using a binding stapler. The result is a 5 ½ x 8 ½ inch book with black printing. For the cover we used good quality color stock with a grey tone art. If you have an excessive number of entries–more than seventy pages worth–produce two volumes. Be sure to allow plenty of time. Our first year, I had to turn my third grade class into an assembly line to collate, then stayed up nights folding and stapling by hand.

Print enough for every participant—and then print a few more. We put a $1 “suggested donation” price tag on ours. It lent an element of prestige to the book, and the twenty or thirty additional copies we sold in our office paid for some of the printing costs. The kids get excited when their moms come in to buy one for Grandma or to mail to an aunt.

Make the authors’ reception a big event. It’s the payoff for the kids: their name in print, an audience for their work, and a tangible–in our case, edible–reward. If all those sweets worry you, or if your school has a prohibition against homemade baked goods, we discovered that most kids favor watermelon over just about anything. A more formal, evening event with fruit punch or lemonade and lace is another worthy idea. Regardless, this is the time to “release” the anthology and give students a chance to be acknowledged as writers. “It felt good,” said third grader Megan S. when discussing her work in Mmm! “It was the first book I was ever in. But I was also nervous because everybody was reading my story.”

It will feel good for you as well. When the festival is all over, you’ll be as proud of your accomplishment as you are exhausted from your effort, but it’s the joy in the voices of the kids that will drive you to take on the challenges of this project year after year. One of my favorite festival memories took place as I wiped down tables after our first dessert banquet. Everyone had gone back to their classrooms except for one little primary student. It didn’t matter to her that I was the only one who’d hear her story. Perhaps she didn’t even realize it. She stepped up to the mic and belted it out as if reciting to a capacity crowd. It’s as I listened that I began making plans for the next year’s festival.

A Few More Tips:

Don’t hold your festival too early. Give teachers time to develop a writing program with their current students. Give students time to develop a portfolio from which to choose their entry. February is late enough in the year to have honed some writing skills, yet early enough to complete all the printing.

Include everyone. The purpose of your anthology should be to encourage writing and build confidence. Even the one sentence story from the first grader has value.

Establish a maximum length.
We used to tell our students that their hand-written rough draft must be three pages or less. Less tends to be better, as elementary students tend to ramble.

Edit. Published writers have editors, so too should your student authors. Even your most advanced students will submit work needing further polishing, particularly because they’ll be more likely to attempt techniques beyond their developmental level. However, limit your editing to the basics.

Include an index or table of contents. Students get frustrated if they can’t quickly locate their friends’ stories, but creating this page can be a challenge. Wait until all the stories have been processed and the pages numbered, then go through and develop your contents page.

Recruit parents to help with purchasing and/or preparing the items you plan to serve at the reception. Check on your district’s food policy. Some schools prohibit homemade food from being served. Also arrange some help with clean-up.

Limit your mic time. While most of the stories your students will be reading will be short, suggest to your more advanced writers that they read only the first few paragraphs to “hook” the audience into continuing on their own.

Alert the media. Invite your local news people to attend your dessert banquet. Make sure they get copies of your anthology. Favorable publicity is always beneficial to your school and public education in general.

Allow your festival to develop its own personality. All that really matters is that your students have fun becoming “real writers.”

Finally, (here’s my sales pitch), use my book Super Sentences & Perfect Paragraphs to teach your kids foundation writing skills. It’s a complete daily and weekly writing program in a straight-forward, systematic format. Published by Scholastic, it’s available through Amazon, Scholastic, and Teacher Express. You can also pick up a free sample activity from TeachersPayTeachers.

Happy directing, er, emceeing.

Bart Simpson: Smarter? Balanced?

Bart take the Smarter Balanced testSpringfield, Oregon, has made national news for something other than being the birthplace of Bart Simpson. The Springfield School District Board of Education has openly rejected the state-mandated Smarter Balanced tests. Though unable to officially “opt-out” as a district, the Board has strongly encouraged its district families to refuse to allow their children to participate.

I haven’t seen the Simpson’s recently, but this is sounding a bit like one of its episodes. Imagine Bart and Lisa taking the Smarter Balanced test. Lisa would be stressed out. The test would dominate her world for weeks. There’d be sleepless nights, hair loss, perhaps counseling sessions. Bart, on the other hand, he’d get it. Despite Marge saying he’s neither smart nor balanced, Bart would understand that the test has no bearing on whether or not he’ll graduate, that he won’t even be at Springfield Elementary when the scores are finally released (and therefore Marge will probably never see them), and that the best way to stab at that teacher who made him stay in during recess is to punch in a bunch of random answers. Ask Bart or most any fifth grader about the Smarter Balanced test and they’ll tell you the same thing the Springfield Board of Education is saying: it’s a colossal waste of time.

The real Springfield isn’t some backwoods town rejecting the test because of some Ned Flanders-inspired Common Core conspiracy theory. Instead, it’s a thriving community of 60,000 just a stone’s throw from liberal-thinking Eugene and its University of Oregon, a driving force in education theory. With nearly 11,000 students, Springfield is the 13th largest school district in Oregon. Nor is the Board’s decision without consequences. Students who don’t test are counted among the number of students who don’t meet standards. If all of Springfield’s students reject the test, Springfield’s percentage of students meeting will appear as a zero. Furthermore, schools and districts that fall below a 95 percent participation rate on state tests are not eligible for awards or recognition. (State of Washington OSPI)

Smarter Balanced “was designed to compare districts and teachers, not to help students learn,” said one board member. I take it a step further by saying that the test itself so interferes with real instruction, its impact on learning should be classified along with bomb threats and snow days.

The Board also points out the cost. “These dollars could be spent in other, more productive areas for our students.” While the old Oregon test (OAKS) cost the state about $3 million annually, Smarter Balanced costs $27.3 million. For those who don’t want to do the math, that’s more than a 900% increase. Over ten years, the new test will cost taxpayers an extra quarter of a billion dollars. This in a state that has one of the highest class sizes in the nation and among the shortest school years. (Note: if I were a 5th grader taking the Smarter Balanced test, I’d have to spend the next several paragraphs explaining the details of that math, including the fact that I’ve rounded off that $300,000 because, well, I really don’t want to waste your time with trivialities…though I sense $300k is trivial only to bureaucrats and politicians.)

The Board also speaks to the fact that the test’s content and format is dramatically different than that of the SAT and ACT (which, when you get down to it, are the only standardized tests that have any real bearing on a student’s future), that the test is unfair, and that, well, it’s just too darn long. In my school, when we’re not sending kids off to show they’re both Smarter and more Balanced than their peers, we’re subjecting them to a long battery of data-driven tests with no relation to the classroom. Some kids even miss instruction so they can take the same test every week, over and over again, as if they’ll have magically changed in the four school days since the last one.

We’re told the test is important because it reveals which students need extra assistance and in which areas our instruction is deficient, but these are hollow excuses. Any good teacher can spot the real-world Barts without special testing. And when it comes to assessing our own instructional weaknesses, we were more able to discern them using the old OAKS test. In fact, data derived from the test benefits no one. Because my fifth graders have all moved on to middle school where it is unlikely anyone will examine their individual results when the data is finally released sometime next year, they will NEVER know their scores.

Concludes the Springfield board: “the Smarter Balanced test is neither smart nor balanced. It is poorly designed, discriminatory, often punitive and is of little benefit to our students. It does not inform student learning, and furthermore, does not make the best use of limited classroom time. It encumbers teachers and staff to focus both time and resources on an assessment that has shown little, if any, value.”

I say, three cheers for Springfield. I wish more school boards would stand with Springfield and reject this madness, but I guess maybe you have to have a little bit of Bart Simpson in your DNA for such bravado.

What does any of this have to do with read aloud plays? Well, if you’re using enriching activities such as plays, musicals, tensbooks, Storyworks magazine, read-alouds, hands-on Science, math games, or whatever it is you do to get kids excited about learning, three cheers to you. Don’t let testing stop you from teaching.

Happy directing!

9 Ways to Prepare for a Sub

Nine Ways to Prep for a Sub1. Don’t bother. Ignore that cough. Cancel that meeting. Show up to class with a box of Kleenex and a bottle of DayQuil.

2. Don’t bother #2. Let the sub fend for him- or herself.

3. Don’t bother #3. Put a kid in charge. Your students can tell the sub where to find all the “worksheets,” the tempera paints, the science chemicals.

4. Stay up late the night before to get all those sub notes written out. Why not? You’re gonna sleep all day tomorrow, right?

5. Go in early. You’ll probably already be up vomiting at 4 a.m. anyway.

6. Leave a collection of Disney movies and Bill Nye videos on your desk.

7. Leave the same sub plans your neighboring teacher used last week and hope the sub can adjust.

8. Hope for a snow day.

9. Or, download EZSubPlans. It’s the easiest and most professional way to prepare for a sub. We all know preparing for a sub is tedious and time consuming, but it doesn’t have to be. Just click, print, and relax! Rather than staying up late, showing up sick, or throwing your sub under the bus, give our emergency lesson plans a try. Because they provide your students with quality, standards-based lessons that don’t interfere with your regular instruction, EZSubPlans represent good practice. And they’re just a click away. Download your EZSubPlans today so you’re prepared tomorrow!

Whether a classroom teacher, substitute, or administrator, EZSubPlans will provide you with inexpensive, kid-tested plans at the touch of a button. Each EZSubPlans package includes at least seven hours of grade-specific lessons designed to make your next absence easy and worry-free. Classroom teachers wanting to avoid the frustrating and time-consuming process of preparing for an absence and substitute teachers needing back-up material will find everything they need with EZSubPlans. And what better time to prepare than before the school year begins! Days are labeled by grade level, but each can be easily adapted to suit one grade level up or down. A fifth grade teacher, for example, could use the lesson plans for grades 4, 5, and 6–that’s six days in all. Teachers need only to download, print, and photocopy–the sub does everything else.

Imagine, your first six absences of the school year already prepared. On each of those mornings, you merely set the EZSubPlans file on your desk and walk away! Click here for more information about EZSubPlans or click here to preview or purchase at TeachersPayTeachers. How much is a stress-free sub day worth? Who can say? How much does a stress-free sub day cost? Just $5 a day with EZSubPlans. Don’t wait for that first cough, download your EZSubsPlans now and have them ready to go come the first day of school!

You Fancy Me Mad?

Harry_Clarke_The_Tell-Tale_HeartFairies waving candied wands… Goblins drooling chocolate malt… Halloween has such a bizarre place in our classrooms. In my school it’s been informally “banned,” though the kinders still get to parade through the school in their costumes, and the rest of the student body gets to have an afternoon “party” that presumably has nothing to do with ghouls and ghosts. Personally, I like “Monte Carlo Day,” a party in which kids set-up, run, and risk candy tokens at a variety of “probability games” such as Roulette, 21, and the Shell Game. The kids still get their candy fix, but at least there’s a bit of math involved.

An even better approach to Halloween is to replace your parades and parties with a collection of play performances. Kids still get to dress up, you can serve treats at the performance, and it’s not only academically valid, but a fine way to satisfy standards. A trio of plays takes a few weeks to prepare and an afternoon to perform. You can also invite other classes to attend, thereby helping your colleagues with their Halloween alternatives. Though Halloween lands on a Saturday this year, a set of plays will make Friday the 30th a huge hit for all involved!

I have a number of Read Aloud Play titles that are perfect for Halloween. The Birth-mark, which is a classic short-story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, tells the story of a mad scientist who, in his quest to make his already beautiful bride “perfect,” kills her instead. The Monkey’s Paw is W.W. Jacobs’ classic Gothic tale about getting three wishes. The disturbing result will stay with your students long after Halloween has passed. The well-known Legend of Sleepy Hollow is available in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories (you can purchase and download it instantly at Scholastic Teacher Express). Pair it with YouTubeThe Birthmark scope cover page segments from the original Disney flick. You’ll also find Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart in the same book, which can be paired with my modernized version, Penelope Ann Poe’s Amazing Cell Phone. (At least one of my reader’s has commented that it’s “too strange,” which I think makes it a lot of fun for Halloween.) Finally, A Piece of String has a ghostly conclusion and Cyclops has a ferocious monster. All of these plays were originally published in Scholastic classroom magazines such as Scope and Storyworks, so you know they’re up to snuff, and they all come with reproduction and performance rights.

Ready to give it a try but unsure how to start? Download my free guide to teaching with plays. It’ll give you tips and ideas on how to use plays to make your language arts block the best section of the day. But get to it right away…those ghouls and goblins are already knocking at your door.

Happy Halloween and happy directing!

Old Favorites

Click on the cover to preview or purchase!Imagine saying the Pledge of Allegiance to a bright yellow flag featuring a coiled rattlesnake! The history of the flag of the United States is a compelling story, but historians are divided as to the facts. Did Betsy Ross really create the first flag? This play, which was originally published in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America and later reprinted in the January 2002 issue of Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine, encourages readers to become history sleuths. It includes the play script, a short reading supplement, a bubble quiz, a comprehension activity built around William Canby’s 1870 treatise on the matter, answer keys, and extension activities.

Betsy Ross: Fact or Fiction? is the first of several old but new plays destined for TeachersPayTeachers this season. Having recently re-acquired full publishing rights to the plays in my book, Symbols of America, I’ll be packaging up all these old favorites for easy downloading on TpT.

As with all my plays, the Symbols collection is suitable for reader’s theater or full stage production. You can use the plays to build fluency and to satisfy a variety of Common Core standards in Literature and Informational Text. Best of all, the original purchaser is licensed to print one class set per year for use in his or her own classroom.

To preview or purchase Betsy Ross, click here. Be sure to check back often for “old but new plays” about MLK, Mount Rushmore, the War of 1812, World War Two, and more.

Happy directing!

Prevent Zombies: Teach the Arts!

Is standardized testing turning us into zombies? In my school we’ve taken to referring to our state-of-the-art music room as the “Musicless Room.” Oh, it still says “Music” on the door, but after elementary music was cut a few years ago, it’s since been used as a computer lab, a professional development site, a Title I room, and this coming year, a regular ed classroom. Hence the name.

Way back in 2008, President Obama criticized No Child Left Behind legislation because its overemphasis on core subjects contributed to the loss of arts education. “Studies in Chicago have demonstrated that test scores improved faster for students enrolled in low-income schools that link arts across the curriculum than scores for students in schools lacking such programs,” read the President’s official statement on the Arts. Unfortunately, Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, the Common Core, and the Smarter-Balanced test all seem to have heightened the emphasis on testing and, as a result, further undermined the Arts.

But there’s hope! If you need help convincing your administrator to allow more time for the Arts, including the use of Read Aloud Plays, here are ten studies compiled by the staff writers at OnlineColleges.net that show a strong connection between arts education and academics:

1. A 2002 report by the Arts Education Partnership revealed that schoolchildren exposed to drama, music and dance are often more proficient at reading, writing, and math.

2. The 2006 Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum study on art education showed a link between arts education and improved literacy skills.

3. In 2007, Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland published a study stating the arts don’t actually improve academic performance, but it shouldn’t matter.

4. A 2005 report by the Rand Corporation called “A Portrait of the Visual Arts” argues that art education does more than just give students a creative outlet. It can actually help connect them to the larger world, ultimately improving community cohesion.

5. Teachers and students alike benefit from schools that have strong art climates, a 1999 study called “Learning In and Through the Arts” demonstrated.

6. The Center for Arts Education published a report in 2009 that suggests arts education may improve graduation rates.

7. A 2011 study called “Reinvesting in Arts Education” found that integrating arts with other subjects can help raise achievement levels.

8. A study of Missouri public schools in 2010 found that greater arts education led to fewer disciplinary infractions and higher attendance, graduation rates and test scores.

9. In “Neuroeducation: Learning, Arts and the Brain,” Johns Hopkins researchers shared findings showing that arts education can help rewire the brain in positive ways.

10. A 2009 survey, part of the “Nation’s Report Card: Arts 2008″ report, found that access to arts education opportunities hasn’t changed much in a decade.

Of course, all these studies really do is show that one can prove just about anything with a study. Just as these ten support arts education, there are numerous others that suggest there’s no correlation at all. This New York Times article does a pretty succinct job of debunking any notion that the Arts lead to improved scores in reading, writing, and math.

But so what? Whether or not the Arts contributes to better test scores shouldn’t be the question. I, for one, believe classroom activities that emphasize creativity build more well-rounded people and consequently better prepare students for professional life. While there are no doubt plenty of jobs out there that require workers to never deviate from a scripted set of instructions, there are also plenty of professions that value creative thinking, which is really what the Arts are all about. It was creative thinking that brought us Facebook, Starbucks, Dave Matthews Live at Red Rocks, and the device on which you’re reading this blog. If we want our schools to produce the next generation of worker drones and zombie-like consumers, then sure, let’s keep on “racing to the,” er, “top.” But if we want our schools to produce engineers, entrepreneurs, and the people who will solve the world’s problems, then for cryin’ out loud, let’s toss aside the textbooks and scripted programs and restore the Arts to our classrooms.

One easy method of embedding the Arts in the classroom while still fulfilling the Common Core requirements is to include Read Aloud Plays in your instruction (“drama” is referenced 47 times in the Common Core). For around three bucks you get performance rights (assuming you represent a school) and reproduction rights so that you can copy a full classroom set every year. Also, many of the plays come with supplemental activities or questioning strategies. For a fairly complete list of available titles, navigate through the tabs (at left if on a computer) or below (if on a mobile device).

Thank you for inspiring the next generation of creative thinkers and decision-makers!

Happy directing!

Tongue In, Mouth Closed

Click here to preview or download this free sampler pack!McKenna, one of my most “with-it” fourth graders, came up with a new concept I think is worth sharing here. The class was working from my book Super Sentences & Perfect Paragraphs (2009, Scholastic), writing “Dialogue Sentences with Alternate Tags.” My book teaches kids to use the phrases “open mouth” and “closed mouth” to describe open and closing quotation marks. Such a concrete image seems to help them understand where to place the marks. But another necessary punctuation mark in a dialogue sentence is that little comma separating what was said from who said it.

“I’d sure like a package of Necco Assorted Wafers,” drooled Freddie as he stared through the front window of Candy’s Candy Shop.

That little comma between “wafers” and “drooled” is often neglected by young writers, and even when remembered, it’s sometimes incorrectly placed outside the closing quotes. Young McKenna came up with a solution by referring to is as “the tongue.” “You need to pull your tongue in before you close your mouth,” she said, and the rest of the class has quickly capitalized on it.

I’m not surprised. Because “Super Sentences” facilitates thoughtful discussion of and feedback about writing, my students are constantly coming up with unique perspectives—and great sentences. True, they’re still just 4th graders and therefore subject to all the forgetfulness and sloppiness familiar to intermediate and middle school teachers everywhere. But Super Sentences has certainly improved their writing skills. You can purchase and immediately download a PDF version of Super Sentences from Scholastic Teacher Express for just a few bucks. You can also download a free sampler of Super Sentences and Perfect Paragraph here.

In an era when we seem to be over-complicating teaching to the point that we’re nearly dysfunctional, Super Sentences & Perfect Paragraphs is simple, easy-to-use, and fun to teach. It’s as straight forward as “pulling your tongue in before you close your mouth.”