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!

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Too Late to Stage The Best Holiday Pageant Ever?

Gabriel Grub holiday playI was recently contacted by a theater company in Maryland which wants to add my adaption of “The Gift of the Magi” to its annual Victorian Christmas Collection. They wanted to know how much I charge for performance rights. Normally, when you perform a play from publishing companies, you’re required to pay a substantial licensing fee. The Samuel French Company, for example, owns the rights to The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. If you want your students to perform it for the annual PTO bazaar, it’ll set you back $100 or 10% of the gate receipts, whichever is greater—and that’s often in addition to buying the scripts themselves (which run $8 or $9 each).

I craft my plays so that teachers can use them to build strong readers, self-confident speakers, and engaged learners. I don’t charge schools to perform my plays. Your three bucks gives you license to photocopy as many scripts as you need for your class AND the rights to perform the play in your school. Three bucks sounds like a pretty good deal compared to traditional publishers.

I’m pleased the Gift of the Magi is getting some love in Maryland, but I’m even happier that my holiday plays are finding their way into classrooms all over the country. It isn’t too late to work in a reading or even a quick performance of one of my Halloween plays into yours. The Birth-mark, which is based on the short story masterpiece by Hawthorne, is a good place to start. Says one purchaser of The Birth-mark:

“My students love Reader’s Theater. They loved reading this. They said that they were able to express the ‘darker side of themselves.’”

Also consider The Monkey’s Paw, the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and the Tell-Tale Heart. The Monkey’s Paw originally appeared in Scholastic’s Scope magazine, while the latter two are available in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories (Scholastic). You can purchase it as an e-book and have it ready for your students right away.

If you enjoy Poe, consider pairing the original story of Tell-Tale Heart with my modernized version: Penelope Ann Poe’s Amazing Cell Phone. It retells the story in a unique way. Says one user:

“My 8th grade students LOVED this assignment. I let them use their cell phones and make the ring tone noises while reading. It kept them engaged and we read it three different times during the class so they could read different parts. Highly recommend.”

Finally, I have a handful of engaging Christmas plays, too. Gabriel Grub–from Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers—is my newest script, and it’s as eerie as any Halloween tale. I also have two versions of A Christmas Carol. For a limited time, you can download my traditional version from TpT–or you can re-imagine Scrooge as a woman by using my Classic Short Stories version (which also includes Magi, by the way). No, it isn’t too late to stage the Best Holiday Pageant Ever.

Happy Directing!

Why this Play is Important

Click on the cover to preview or purchaseStudents will quickly connect with eight-year old Sheyann Webb. When African-Americans were being denied the right to vote, she became Martin Luther King’s “Smallest Freedom Fighter” by joining marches on the local courthouse. As the events in 1965 Selma, Alabama, escalated, Sheyann began sneaking out of the house to attend meetings at Brown Chapel. She was there, too, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge when Selma exploded with tear gas and Billy clubs. The event became known as Bloody Sunday, and it directly led to the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But what makes this story compelling is the perspective. We’re used to hearing about the Civil Rights struggle from the viewpoint of adults, yet here is the true story of a little girl who not only saw it, but was there on the front lines risking the same dangers as her adult counterparts. What better way to engage your students in the Civil Rights Movement!

My new play, “Gonna Let it Shine,” shares Sheyann Webb’s emotional, often frightening childhood experience. Carefully researched, it improves upon an earlier version that appeared in Storyworks in 2012. It’s important to your students because it’s a kid’s story. Your students will relate to Sheyann. They’ll admire her courage. They’ll wander if they’d have been as strong. And they’ll root for her, regardless of their own race. Most of all, they’ll be inspired by her. Sheyann will show your students that one doesn’t have to be a grown-up to have a grown-up influence on the world.

Gonna Let it Shine is available on my storefront at TeachersPayTeachers for preview or purchase. As with all my plays, the original purchaser is licensed to reproduce one class set per year for use in his or her own classroom.

Along with the play, I also created a free vocab and comprehension activity that aligns the play to specific Common Core standards. Be sure to share with your students the Disney movie, Selma, Lord, Selma. It depicts Sheyann’s story with typical Disney flare. There’s also an accurate and intriguing YouTube video detailing Sheyann’s contribution to Civil Rights that can be found here. Consider comparing and contrasting all three.

Finally, the Sheyann Webb of today has remained an advocate for children and civil rights. Find out more about her work by visiting the Sheyann Webb Group.

Happy Directing!

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!