The 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 player, 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.
No doubt you’ve had kids ask, “Why do we need to know this stuff?” In my classroom, we spend a lot of time talking about the “real world,” and nothing we do is more “real world” than The Checkbook Project. In my building, we implement it around this time of year with all our 4th and 5th graders. If we waited any longer, the kids would riot!
I want to encourage you to give it a try—and this is a great time of year to do so—but before you do, heed this warning:
In The Checkbook Project, kids maintain checkbook registers. They earn money by completing assignments, attending class, and passing tests. School is their job. They also pay fines for “breaking the law,” pay taxes, and rent or buy their desks. Kids who work hard and consistently attend class tend to do well, accumulating upwards of three grand by the end of May. Kids with poor study skills, poor attendance, or poor spending habits tend to struggle—so much so that some even end up in “the homeless shelter.”
The homeless shelter is a single desk around which kids gather when they don’t have the resources to rent their desks. Granted, it sounds a bit harsh. It may even be a bit controversial. Certainly, it gives me no pleasure to see Stevie, Pablo, or Cynthia crowded around a single desk at the front of the room. But isn’t it better Stevie, Pablo, and Cynthia experience the consequences of poor work ethic in fifth grade rather than on the mean streets of real life? After all, homeless shelters do exist in the real world, and perhaps it’s the threat of landing there that keep many of us working hard.
Poverty and homelessness are serious problems in America. There are plenty of folks out there facing such grim prospects despite their best efforts. The Checkbook Project isn’t meant to degrade them. Better, the project prompts numerous discussions on the subject. One of my favorites is about how the guy holding that sign on the freeway ramp got there. Students have a host of preconceived notions and theories about homelessness, including that he might not be standing there at all had his fifth grade teacher used The Checkbook Project.
I’ve also seen the Homeless Shelter bring about the best in my students. If you implement The Checkbook Project, you’ll see neighbors help neighbors make rent. You’ll see students push their buddies to get their work done. One year I even had a kid start a charity organization. He maintained a second register in which he collected donations from his classmates and doled out grants to needy students who were short on rent.
I recently received a text from a former student-teacher telling me her administration has told her to disband or at least rename her “homeless shelter.” I wish I were there to lobby her principal and parents, but she’s half way across the country. The best I can do is suggest some politically-correct alternatives. “Group house”, “hostel”, and “shared housing” come to mind. So too does “Dickens’ House” and “Grandma’s Basement.” (Okay, that last one may not be so politically-correct.) Regardless of the name, whether it’s a homeless shelter or merely communal living, it will likely motivate struggling students to work a bit harder.
I created The Checkbook Project over a decade ago to combat what I call “academic apathy.” Over the years it has consistently proven itself to be an engaging way to get kids invested in their studies, teach work ethic, and give kids “real world” experience within the safe confines of the classroom. And because I believe these are essential lessons every kid needs, it’s also free. Every last bit of it. For more details on how it works, click here.
Perhaps many of you have figured this stuff out long ago. Me, after nearly 25 years of teaching, I recently had a couple of instructional epiphanies.
The first one was when one of my 5th graders showed me a picture of her mother. “This was at the visitation center,” she said. “The only time I get to see my mom is when we go to the visitation center.” A day later we were on our way to the local science museum when another student pointed out the window and piped up, “I think that’s the safe house we stayed at one time.” Later that same day my admin handed me my latest set of Oral Reading Fluency scores showing both of those students near the bottom. As I looked over the rest of the data, I suddenly realized all my lowest performing students are victims of childhood trauma: violence, tempestuous divorce, drugs, homelessness… Then, taking a look at my top performers, I realized nearly all are from healthy, financial stable, intact families. Thinking back over years of high and low test scores, the correlation is obvious. Early-childhood trauma and neglect may be the most significant factor contributing to academic failure. Politicians who ignore it are insincere in their efforts to “improve schools.”
If you’re like me, you’re constantly wrestling with how to help these kids. What works? We’re not going to undo the trauma or erase their memories. When it comes to reading, however, I’ve landed on three things that appear to hook them, three things that seem to motivate even these reluctant readers to put some “miles on the tongue.”
The first, naturally, is Read Aloud Plays. I write and promote read aloud plays not merely because I want to sell you a script, but because they’re exceptionally effective. I don’t need to belabor the point here. If you want to know more about reader’s theater, including the brain research that supports it, check out my free download entitled, “Why Use Drama?”
Roald Dahl books are also compelling for this group of kids, though admittedly this may be as much about my own enthusiasm for Matilda and The Witches as it is the books themselves. I have so much fun reading aloud sections of Boy or having small groups read Fantastic Mr. Fox, even my most reluctant readers catch the Dahl bug.
But the best thing I’ve discovered lately is the I Survived series. These books are written by my editor at Storyworks, Lauren Tarshis, so it surprises me that it’s taken me so long to start using them in class. This year, having finally amassed enough copies, I was able to assign all my students the task of reading one during silent reading sessions. Yeah, I know: SSR is often a waste of time; many students—especially the struggling ones—only pretend to read. Consequently, I use an approach I call “Directed Silent Reading.” It works with any age-appropriate books, but because these I Survived books have consistent themes, high-interest plots, and conquerable reading levels, they’re particularly fruitful. So much so that even my lowest performing students are begging for more.
I begin by telling my students they’re only going to read for a minute. At the end of the minute, I ask the kids to “turn and talk” to a neighbor about something they found interesting from their minute (or two) of reading. After they’ve had a couple minutes to share, I then ask for three or four volunteers to share out with the class. As the students hear their classmates tell about Hurricane Katrina or Pearl Harbor, the enthusiasm becomes contagious. We repeat the process, this time for three or four minutes of reading, and then again for eight to ten more. You can vary the questioning, too. “Be prepared to tell us something you know about your main character,” or “Provide some details about the story’s setting” are other “go to” questions. By the end of the session, all my kiddos have read for 20 minutes, discussed what they’ve read, and have invested enough in the story that they’ve committed to it. You don’t get such enthusiasm or commitment from homework reading, traditional SSR, or even oral reading, especially not from struggling readers.
There are no easy answers when it comes to overcoming the childhood trauma suffered by our lowest-performing students. But by using plays, Roald Dahl books, the I Survived series, and Directed Silent Reading, perhaps we can help them create a survival story of their own.
The Daring Escape of Henry “Box” Brown is making a reappearance in the January issue of Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine. In addition to a new look with original illustrations, it means Storyworks subscribers have access to a host of top-notch CCSs comprehension activities via Scholastic’s web-based library. Pretty sweet. Coincidentally, the TpT version also just went through an update that adds a couple of comprehension activities and improved formatting, so you’re in luck either way.
But “Box” isn’t the only reader’s theater title suitable for Black History Month or MLK Day celebrations. In fact, I have a wide assortment. You can quickly preview four of them with my newest product: MLK Plays Free Preview Pack. It includes summaries and the first couple of pages of four MLK reader’s theater scripts including Martin’s Big Dream (The Childhood of Martin Luther King, Jr.), MLK’s Freedom March (lovely historical fiction set against the March on Washington where King delivered his most famous speech), In the Jailhouse with Dr. King (another potent work of historical fiction set during the Bus Boycott), and Gonna Let it Shine (non-fiction about the “Bloody Sunday” events in Selma, Alabama). You can download the free PDF preview at TpT.
But there’s still more. Click on the Read Aloud Plays tab to uncover wonderful reader’s theater about Jackie Robinson, Claudette Colvin, the Greensboro Four, and others. In all cases, $3 gives the original purchaser reproduction rights to copy a full class set each year for use in his or her own classroom. It even includes school performance rights!
In my classroom, my 76 fifth graders will be learning and presenting six of these plays over the next two months. It’s going to make for a memorable Black History Month. Join us. Celebrate the legacy of Dr. King with engaging reader’s theater from ReadAloudPlays.com.
This week I just want to say THANK YOU to all you FANTASTIC teachers who have used Read Aloud Plays in class. I hope they’ve brought you and your students a ton of enjoyment and value. Thank you also for all your positive comments. With 38 fifth graders demanding my attention every day, I simply don’t have enough time to respond to many of them, but here are a few recent ones I think are especially fruitful.
Your plays are wonderful and they make the original texts more approachable to my students! Thank you! ~ Laura M. (regarding The Monkey’s Paw gothic masterpiece)
I think we can all relate to the challenges of reading a piece of Victorian literature. Why subject yourself to the yawns of middle school readers when you can first wake them up with a read aloud play?
I added songs in between each of the scenes and used this for our Black History Month performance! The children enjoyed it, and learned a lot in the process. Thank you! ~ Linsey P. (Jackie Robinson black history play)
Two of my plays—“We Shall Overcome” and “Gonna Let in Shine”—have the songs built in to the play, but several others are easily adapted. Black History Month is just around the corner, so take Lindsey’s advice and consider staging a Civil Rights musical.
I like how it’s short and to the point. After reading the novel, the 6th grade wants to make a movie and we’re using that script. Thanks! ~ Barbara Ann M. (Ebenezer Scrooge: A Christmas Carol play)
Thank you! Because the majority of my plays were first published in classroom magazines including Scope and Storyworks, they’re specifically designed to be short and to the point. My goal is to capture the essence of the original story while limiting the play to about fifteen minutes in length. Still, I encourage teachers and students to edit and adapt. A few years ago my 5th graders also used this script to make a movie, but they added several short scenes, modernized the setting, and changed several lines to suit what they wanted to portray. I consider that 16 minute movie (which can be viewed here, if you’re interested) as one of the highlights of my career.
Lewis never disappoints. This will be terrific as part of my Spooktober unit for theater class. ~ Lu J. (Hawthorne’s The Birthmark Gothic Reader’s Theater)
What a wonderful compliment! Thank you. And I love the idea of a Spooktober theater event. I’m going to try that next year!
Great resource and student engaging. You can practice RT daily to work on fluency and comprehension. Thank you! ~ Heather W. (Lewis & Clark and Bird Girl: Sacagawea play )
Fluency practice is really the academic justification for reader’s theater, isn’t it? But I think the foundation is that most kids love it. Simply put, Read Aloud Plays make school fun. Admittedly, my plays are geared to intermediate and lower middle school, but when you can find good material, even jaded upper middle school and high school kids enjoy RT.
Excellent play. This tied in perfectly with my Civil Rights unit. ~ Dayan S. (Montgomery Bus Boycott MLK “Twice Toward Justice” Play)
Thank you. I’m particularly proud of my civil rights plays. My editors at Storyworks recently asked me to work on a new one for this spring. To create a consistent “feel,” I re-read some of the old ones. I think the “Twice Toward Justice” play is indeed powerful, but I also rediscovered what I think is a real gem in the play entitled “MLK’s Freedom March.” I highly recommend it.
Next month, I’ll be releasing on TpT my very first Civil Rights play. “I Have a Dream: the Childhood of Martin Luther King, Jr” first appeared in Storyworks sixteen years ago. How fortunate I am that my editors liked it so much. They’ve been feeding me much-loved Black History assignments ever since.
Our high school graciously offered to perform this for my middle school class. To prepare in a jiffy, we did this reader’s theater and the kids loved it – especially the ghost noises. Turns out the HS play was very ‘stylized’ and there is NO WAY my kids would have known what was happening if they hadn’t had this resource as a basis to get the underlying plot. This was absolutely perfect. Many thanks. ~ Michelle C. (Ebenezer Scrooge: A Christmas Carol play)
I love this. Haven’t we all at some point shared a story, taken our students to a performance, or watched a movie that was beyond the developmental level of our students? How nice it is to have a Read Aloud Play to introduce kids to the story or historical event before hitting them with the original text or text book account.
Thanks again, and cheers to a new year of Read Aloud Plays! I have a lot of great items planned for 2016, so stay with me, won’t you?
A couple of my fifth grade girls showed up at school today wearing Santa hats. “Santa hats?” I said. “We haven’t even had Thanksgiving yet!” They giggled and told me they didn’t care, to which the Scrooge in me growled , “No Christmas stuff until after Black Friday!” Of course, three hours later they were still wearing them.
It reminded me that Christmas really is just around the corner, and a great way to celebrate it is with a trio of holiday plays. You can pick up a class set of Ebenezer Scrooge for just three bucks at my TeachersPayTeachers store. This play originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 1998 issue of Storyworks and has been republished in several other Scholastic venues. It’s a succinct version developmentally-suited to upper elementary kids. Another holiday classic is O. Henry’s Gift of the Magi. It’s appeared in Storyworks, Scope, and Scholastic News, and today is available in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories. You can often snag a PDF for just a few bucks at Teacher Express and download it immediately.
Before devising Scrooge, Charles Dickens was experimenting with the same theme in Gabriel Grub. Grub is a foul-tempered gravedigger who on Christmas Eve gets haunted by a troop of maniacal goblins. The goblins put him on trial and find him guilty of being without the Christmas spirit. It’s wildly funny and eerily spooky at the same time. Suitable for 5th through 8th graders, it’s a great play for that last chaotic day before vacation.
Especially if a few of those goblins are wearing Santa hats.
Women soldiers? It’s not so unusual in 2015, but back in the 18th century, the very idea would have drawn guffaws from even the most liberal-minded colonist. “A ridiculous notion,” one patriot leader was known to have said. And yet, History provides numerous examples of women performing acts of heroism throughout the American Revolution itself. Lydia Darragh, for example, is considered one of America’s first spies. Then there’s Deborah Sampson. She disguised herself as a man and enlisted in the Continental Army under the name Robert Shurtliff. Twice wounded, she performed surgery on herself to avoid detection. Another heroin was Sybil Ludington, the 16-year-old girl who rode forty miles on horseback through the Hudson Highlands (on a stormy night, no less!) to muster the militia in defense of Danbury. She’s known as “The Female Paul Revere,” and according to Martha Lamb’s 1880 “The History of the City of New York,” George Washington himself personally thanked her for her stalwart effort. Her story is captured in my latest play, “Girl, Fighter, Hero,” which appears in the November/December issue of Scholastic’s Scope magazine. Although it’s available exclusively to Scope subscribers, you can still get it by clicking here.
Whether you use Sybil’s story or not, a kick-in-the-pants way to get kids excited about your American Revolution unit is to build it around a trio of Read Aloud Plays. Start with a FREE download of “Betsy Ross: Fact or Fiction.” It first appeared in Storyworks back in 1999, and then in my book, Symbols of America. It challenges students to examine the facts associated with the first U.S. flag and draw their own conclusions. It’s FREE on my TpT storefront until November 1st. Free. I’m convinced you’ll love it and want to then grab “The Secret Soldier,” a historically-accurate depiction of America’s first female fighter, and “Eagles Over the Battlefield,” a dramatic yet subtly humorous play about how the eagle came to be an American symbol (as opposed to the turkey, the turkey vulture, and the groundhog). Eagles, by the way, is part of a BOGO deal with “A Bell for the Statehouse,” which relives that infamous crack in The Liberty Bell.
As with all my plays, these were all carefully-researched, fact-checked by Scholastic editors, and best of all, kid-tested by my own students.
One added note this week is that my play “Cyclops: The Monster in the Cave,” is making an encore appearance, this time in Storyworks. It’s been freshly revised by editor-extraordinaire Lauren Tarshis (author of the I Survived series). Check out the new artwork by Sebastia Serra, too! If you’re not yet a Storyworks subscriber, you should be, but you can also grab the original version of Cyclops off my website.