We Are Taxi Drivers

America’s Power Companies’ advertisement from 1956 depicting a future with autonomous cars.Ever notice how determined Uber and Lyft are to develop autonomous cars? After replacing taxi drivers with contract laborers (many of whom are now on strike), their next goal seems to be that of replacing the drivers with robots. Ridesharing execs have always made it seem like their app-based service was a win-win for everybody, but others suggest it’s destined to make a ton of extra cash for CEOs and stockholders at the expense of tens of thousands of unemployed people.

Could the same thing happen in education? It seems to me, teachers around the country are facilitating their own demise by turning their teaching over to online platforms. Students come to school and plug into programs such as Moby Max, Summit Learning, and Zearn while the teachers stare out the window or play Solitare. People are starting to wonder if someone will eventually point at those teachers and say, “What are we paying them for?” and then suggest replacing them with low-wage, unlicensed proctors.

Might the schools themselves be the next to go? One must assume the companies offering the online programs are collecting data—including contact information—and could eventually use that info to “cut out the middleman”—that is, the school itself. After all, why send your kid to an unsafe place like a school campus when they can “Zearn” in their own home?

Click on the cover to preview or purchaseThe digital age promised to revolutionize education, but these days, some are beginning to wonder if the revolution hasn’t gone too far. Could teachers be merely taxi drivers in the Uber era?

While there are certainly many programs beneficial to instruction, perhaps teachers should be asking if the system to which they’re subscribing isn’t after their job. Summit, Zearn, and Moby Max may, in fact, be quite useful, but teachers need to continue to provide the one commodity “autonomous teachers” cannot: themselves. When it comes to education, a robot cannot match the passion great teachers bring to the profession. Accelerated Reader isn’t going to be able to convey your enthusiasm for a great piece of literature. IXL won’t convince little Johnny the multiplication tables are a stepping stone to veterinary school. Nor is Summit going to get your whole class talking in a Russian accent for a stage performance of Gogol’s “The Nose.” That’s where you come in.

So enough with all this screen time. Let’s grab some good books, a Read Aloud Play (such as my Peter Rabbit adaption–a fun one to conclude the year), or something new from TpT and do what teachers do best.

Happy directing!

Talk Like a Russian Day

The Nose read aloud play readers theater skit by Mack Lewis“Talk Like a Russian Day” was a big hit in my classroom. Though it coincided with certain political events, there was nothing political about it. We started the day by watching a YouTube short of a Hollywood voice actor giving us hints about speaking with a Russian accent. He told us not to emulate Chekov from the Star Trek series. Russians, he said, don’t substitute w’s for v’s. None-the-less, we decided Chekov’s style was to our liking, as was Gru’s in Despicable Me. We also liked the cosmonaut in the Armageddon movie. So after watching short clips of each, we embarked on a day in which the goal was to “talk like a Russian” all day long.

Though it seems like a crazy way to run a classroom, especially when I’m trying to deliver instruction on converting between decimals and fractions, the point was to encourage my students to use an accent in their presentation of my play, “The Nose.” The Nose is a short story by Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol, who lived and wrote in the 1800’s. It’s an example of literary farce, meaning a story that defies explanation. Gogol used it to criticize the Russian hierarchy. As the story goes, a mid-level but prideful bureaucrat awakes one morning to find that his nose has inexplicably gone missing. Clasping a handkerchief over his face, he heads straightaway for the police inspector, but on his way he spots his nose getting out of a carriage. Amazingly, it appears to be dressed as a Vice-Governor! Well, the story follows the bureaucrat as he attempts to reclaim his nose, one crazy twist after another.

One of my students, R____, is particularly engaging with her accent and an inspiration to the rest of us. Her enunciation is so scintillating, her sense of timing and inflection so ideal, well, when she is on stage, the play reaches a magical level. R____, by the way, is a Sped student, which just goes to show how powerful Read Aloud Plays can be for otherwise struggling readers.

This week we’re busy building the papier-mâché nose costume, which will be the final touch on what I think will be a smash performance. My second play group, meanwhile, is preparing for their performance of an as of yet unreleased play set in the Wild West, so we followed “Talk with a Russian Day” with “Talk Like a Cowpoke Day.” (The day after that we tried, “Talk Like a Russian Cowpoke,” which we decided meant speaking in a Russian accent while using phrases like “Yippeekayay.”)

The final stretch of another school year is a great time to be messing around with Read Aloud Plays. And no matter how silly the story, plays are an excellent way to promote fluency and engage young readers. Some fun ones to end with include The Nose (which can be found in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories and online here), The Open Window (also from Classic Short Stories), and Peter Rabbit (while the story may seem young, my upper elementary students always have a blast with it). My Jackie Robinson play is both socially impactful and fun to perform, as is The Newsies (“Talk like a Bronxite Day” doesn’t have the same ring to it, but it’d be fun anyway).

If you’ve been doing plays all year and are ready for something more powerful, some hard-hitting titles worth considering include Sitting Down for Dr. King, Stolen Childhoods, and Freedom for the First Time. I try to incorporate accents, dialect, or tidbits of foreign language into my plays whenever I can, so whether serious or silly, you can almost always have a “Talk Like a ____ Day.”

Happy directing!