Why You Should End the Year with Algebra

The Little RascalsI think much of what I know about teaching, about kids, about life itself, I learned from Spanky and Our Gang.

Like many of us here near the end of the school year, exhaustion has just about got the best of me. The wide-variety of year-end responsibilities and activities coupled with the cumulative day-to-day stress of the job itself has become a bit overwhelming. It has me looking for some fun but easy lessons to wrap up the last few weeks of school. It got me thinking that I’d like to share with my students some Little Rascals episodes, so I went looking for them on YouTube. If you’re not familiar with the Little Rascals, it’s the depression-era film shorts featuring the antics of impoverished kids such as Spanky, Alfalfa, Darla, and Stymie (and a mule named Algebra). I grew up watching “Spanky and Our Gang” on Channel 42 out of San Francisco—beamed to my home in Oregon via the relatively new innovation called cable-tv.

Sure enough, YouTube has a wide variety of clips and as I watched a few, my wife suggested that my love for kids and my destiny to become a teacher may have roots in the Little Rascals. The more I think about this, the more I believe it. There’s no doubt I admired the ingenuity and resiliency displayed by these kids. There were rarely any adults on the show. The kids had to solve complex problems and overcome difficulties without the assistance, guidance, or even supervision of grown-ups. I think this “can-do” attitude has helped me forge my way through life. And there’s no doubt I enjoyed the innocence and sweetness of all these kids. Yes, I think “Our Gang” had a profound impact on my career choices, as well as my penchant for using plays in class.

I have particularly strong recollections of the Our Gang “Follies,” in which the kids built a make-shift theater in a barn and staged a vaudeville show. Although these were not among my favorite episodes, I’m certain they influenced my teaching. In 1998, when I built a stage inside my classroom, I sewed together a heap of scrap fabric to make curtains that, not surprisingly, looked a lot like those that parted for Alfalfa’s performance of “I’m in the Mood for Love” or Darla’s tap and baton-twirling routine. I’m still using those curtains today, and I think about the Little Rascals every time I put them up for a play.

I intend on ending the year with an algebra lesson (that is, a segment of Little Rascals featuring Algebra the Mule), but another good activity with which to fill these last days of schools is reader’s theater. I believe read aloud plays are most beneficial when they’re read repetitively, when kids read and re-read the same text over and over again as they practice for an eventual performance. However, this time of year, there’s nothing wrong with giving kids a set of scripts and letting them wing it. Give them a session or two to utilize their “Spanky-esque Can Do Attitude” and then watch the follies unfold. To help you along, here’s a free PDF of my play based on O.Henry’s depression-era story, A Retrieved Reformation, but you should also try Peter Rabbit, Penelope Ann Poe’s Amazing Cell Phone, A Tell-Tale Heart, and Fly Me to the Moon, all of which are available on my TeachersPayTeachers page, as well as The Nose, Rikki Tikki Tavi, and The Open Window, from my book: Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories. Finally, Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America contains Argument at Mount Rushmore, As American as Apple Pie, and Eagles Over the Battlefield, each of which make for fun, impromptu entertainment that beats a real algebra lesson any day.

Happy directing!

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!

State Testing Linked to Premature Baldness

The Birthmark scope cover pageI’m willing to admit to a high degree of frustration when it comes to standardized testing. In fact, during the latter part of the most recent school year, state testing had me secretly yanking fistfuls of grey hair from my head. I had so many kids being pulled out of my fifth grade class to either test or get remedial instruction, rarely (if ever) did I have my full group. It made for some dysfunctional lessons requiring reteaching material to kids who were already being retaught material from previous years. 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).

Well, I’m happy to say my students did 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. It was no surprise to me that during our annual book give-away the last week of school, one of my reluctant readers eagerly snatched up a copy of A Christmas Carol. He’d had a small part in our movie adaption back in December and was still enthusiastic about it.

While some of my colleagues look at the new Common Core Standards with trepidation, I’m confident my young thespians will continue to thrive. In fact, I’m already mapping out another year of read aloud 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 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–Exploration: The Fountain of Youth, Lewis & Clark and Bird Girl, Fly Me to the Moon

October—Halloween Theme: Penelope Ann Poe’s Amazing Cell Phone, The Tell-Tale Heart^, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow^, The Monkey’s Paw, The Birthmark*

November/December–Christmas Theme: Ebenezer Scrooge, The Gift of the Magi^, 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: Sitting Down for Dr. King, Freedom March, We Shall Overcome, Selma to Montgomery: Let it Shine*, The Girl Who Got Arrested, In the Jailhouse with Dr. King, I Have a Dream: The Childhood of MLK^

May—Just for Fun: Peter Rabbit, A Retrieved Reformation, Cyclops v Odysseus*

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

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!