How to Counteract the Terrible Test

Read Aloud Play: A Retrieved ReformationI can gripe with the best of ‘em, and every year the teaching profession seems to provide plenty of new stuff to gripe about. My biggest gripe this year isn’t about class size (though I’ve had an exhausting 36 fourth graders), but instead, it’s about all the new bureaucracy associated with Common Core and the Smarter Balanced test. It seems to me our politicians and administrators have painted us into an academic corner. They’ve made teaching so complicated that it’s venturing toward the impossible

In my school, we’re currently mid-stream on the Smarter Balanced test. We’re finding the “performance task” to be a farce akin to safe-cracking and the test itself to be unnecessarily tricky and technologically unwieldy. It’s no wonder people all across the country are “opting-out”—156,000 in New York alone. The test is so bad and so unpopular that many of us are wondering if we’ll soon see the proverbial pendulum forced in the opposite direction. Let’s hope so. If you ask me, all this emphasis on testing is sucking the joy out of the classroom.

HBO’s “Tonight with John Oliver,” which you can find on YouTube, has a rant about standardized testing worth seeing (though it includes mature language). Oliver points out that the typical American public school student must complete as many as 130+ standardized tests during his or her school career. He also points out that since NCLB was enacted, our academic performance compared to the rest of the globe has actually decreased. So much for standardized testing saving the school system. Instead, the big winners in the testing game appear to be the test publishers. Corporate America. Go figure.

The experts say the point of all these tests is so that we can identify which of our students need extra help. Really? My hand is up! Pick me, please! I can already tell you which of my students need extra help. I can already tell you which of my students are unlikely to graduate. I can already tell you which of my students are likely to have a rough go of it in the real world. I don’t need a standardized test to figure it out. I can also tell you that testing these kids isn’t going to solve their problems.

I’m feeling sorry for my students right now. That they have to trudge down to our computer lab four times a week to endure this punishment is a travesty. I think they should love coming to school, so I’m trying to counteract the test by concluding the year with another bank of Read Aloud Plays. This week we’re splitting into three groups, assigning parts, and reading and re-reading our plays around a table and at home. Next week we’ll go outside into our courtyard and choreograph our on-stage movements, and a week or two later we’ll invite a couple of other classes to come watch. It’s simple, it’s academically valid, and it’s fun for kids–a nice contrast to the torture and unnecessary complexity of standardized testing.

Scope Reformation CoverSome enjoyable plays with which to end the year include Cyclops (that famed one-eyed monster!), O’ Henry’s A Retrieved Reformation (about safe-cracking ex-con Jimmy Valentine) and Penelope Ann Poe’s Amazing Cell Phone (a spoof of A Tell-Tale Heart). If you have my book, Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories, try “The Nose”, “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” and “The Open Window.” Really, though, any of my Read Aloud Plays will do. This time of year it shouldn’t matter which CCSS or content strand they fit (although they fit many). This time of year, with that doggone standardized test soon behind us, it should just be for fun. For the love of reading. For the love of school.

Do something this month to make your kids love school. Try a set of Read Aloud Plays.

Let me help you get started: click here for a free download of “A Retrieved Reformation” and here for an always free copy of “Why Use Drama,” my popular guide to using reader’s theater in the classroom. If you like these products, please visit my storefront at TeachersPayTeachers and take a gander at my wide variety of classroom plays.

Happy directing!

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Teacher Appreciation Week

Click here to visit the EZSubPlans page at TpT!I told my students the best thing they could do for me for Teacher Appreciation Week is to stay home. I was kidding, of course. But there’s no doubt that I’d feel more appreciated if I knew people were out there trying to make my job a little more doable. This time of year, as fatigue starts to take its toll, I’m probably the one who needs to stay home once in awhile. But who wants to do all that sub planning? Well, one of my contributions toward making your job easier is EZSubPlans. These emergency absence plans provide seven hours of standards-based lessons that can be implemented at the press of a button, and this week, in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, they’re on sale at TeachersPayTeachers. Click on the banner to go directly to EZSubPlans at TpT, or click here to learn more about how having a couple of sets of EZSubPlans handy will make your next absence worry-free.

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Nine 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!

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Are You the Mad Scientist?

Mad-sciJust as all television families seem to live in mini mansions, whenever TV-world students put on plays, the sets are extravagant and the costuming looks as if a team of seamstresses have worked ‘round the clock for months on end. Think Spanish Man-o-Wars in full regalia, or Elizabethan jodhpurs, not cardboard swords and Dollar Store wigs. It’s as if the teacher has but 15 students and no other task at hand but to produce that play! Those of us who’ve directed class plays in the real world, however, know that’s not typically how it works. When staging a Read Aloud Play, you needn’t try to emulate what you see on TV. A few carefully-selected props and a bit of personalization is all that’s needed to turn a simple reading activity into a smash hit.

A teacher using my Read Aloud Play, “A Retrieved Reformation,” recently left this comment: “We added a train as a prop to get the actors on and off stage and from one scene to another. We also localized the locations by using the name of our city and nearby towns.”

What fantastic modifications! And simple, too.

In my classroom, whenever we enact “Fly Me to the Moon,” we put the student playing Walter Cronkite into a cardboard 1960’s television set. In “How Jackie Robinson Saved the World,” the peanut vending narrators actually toss bags of peanuts to audience members (who are themselves cast members). When we perform “Box Brown’s Freedom Crate,” we put Henry inside a cardboard box painted to look like a wooden crate (and when the curtains close on that scene, we replace him with a dummy so that the audience thinks he’s still in there when the crate is being roughly tossed from wagon to train to ship).

Read Aloud Plays are designed to build reading fluency and comprehension skills. The repetitive process of practicing for a performance or class reading simulates the process kids go through when they’re first learning to read from favorite picture books. This alone justifies making them part of your reading curriculum. But including props and personalizing the plays makes them that much more enjoyable and effective. For fictional stories like “A Piece of String” and “The Birth-mark,” consider letting your students change the names of characters and places. (Maybe they’ll name the mad scientist in Birth-mark after you!) Whether fiction or non-fiction, consider creating a few key props. Baskets of “cotton” might make sense for “Freedom for the First Time,” or if you’re performing “Cyclops,” consider creating a giant-sized (and especially hideous) mask for the student who plays the monster.

You can give your students creative license as well. In my last set of plays I asked students to research their characters and come up with one costuming element that represented who they were. A student playing Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, rolled in on a wheel chair (borrowed from the health room), and a little gal playing Abe Lincoln showed up with a top hat.

What key props or creative modifications have you tried with my Read Aloud Plays? My readers and I would like to hear from you. You can leave a comment about your props and mods on my TpT storefront, or email me directly at lewis@jeffnet.org (I do not retain or compile email addresses).

Happy directing!

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Okay kids, fork over those taxes!

Jamie's Checkbook RegisterNo 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 created The Checkbook Project nearly 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 in the safety 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.

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 taxes, pay fines for “breaking the law,” 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 when they’re twenty? 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’d been 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.

The Checkbook Project is a splendid behavior management system and a great way to teach kids about money. For more information, including how to download all the forms and procedures, click here.

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Two New Plays (and Free Comprehension Stuff, Too!)

Click here to preview or purchase at TpT!A guess you can qualify me as a “Vitamin D Addict.” This time of year, the sun is typically obscured by the greyness of the southern Oregon winter, so whenever it’s out and abundant, I make it a habit to soak in as much as I can. I just can’t bring myself to come inside and work until it disappears behind my neighbor’s chimney. I haven’t been entirely unproductive, however. My Read Aloud Play, A Piece of String, has finally been uploaded to TeachersPayTeachers, and my new play about the New York City newsboys strike of 1899 appears this month in Scholastic’s Scope magazine.

“Newsies” follows a Polish immigrant named Aniela as she embarks on a brief career as a newsboy. Following the Spanish-American War, thousands of children like Ani went on strike to protest the way papers such as William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s Evening World passed their expenses down to the lowly newsboy. It’s a compelling story about kids and child labor similar in theme to my play about Lewis Hine (“Stolen Childhoods”). “Newsies” is exclusively available from my friends at Scope. You can check it out here.

Meanwhile, my adaption of Guy De Maupassant’s classic short story, “A Piece of String,” tells about a habitual liar who gets hoisted on his own petard. When he’s accused of a crime he didn’t commit, his long history of lies make it impossible for him to prove his innocence. The play originally appeared in Scope’s Dec. 2013 edition. As with all my Scope and Storyworks plays, I’ve waited about a year to re-package it for TpT. Part of the reason this one took longer than usual—other than the sun’s pleasant cameo— is that I packaged it with a trio of free Common Core comprehension activities. You can download the free comprehension pack or the whole package. Middle school and early high school teacher s will find this play package to be a great way to introduce students to classic literature. Pair it with the original story to enhance engagement and comprehension. The lessons about good habits and a positive reputation will also play well with fourth, fifth, and sixth graders. Plus, your kids will enjoy using terms like “clodhopper” and “coot.”

Finally, Spring is a great time to engage students with The Checkbook Project. It’s math, it’s personal finance, it’s a behavior management program, and it’s entirely free. My own students started last week and are totally engrossed by it. Check it out by clicking on The Checkbook Project tab!

Happy directing!

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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.”

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