In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic short story, The Birth-mark, the main character becomes obsessed with his beautiful wife’s one and only imperfection and ends up killing her in his attempt to remove it.
It’s a story about love, science, and perfection. It includes a mad scientist, a beautiful maiden, a bloody heart, an Igor-like lab assistant, secret potions, and fatal flaws. Kids love to enact it, and because it includes numerous literary devices that make for engaging discussions or fluid written responses, it’s a great way to teach to the Common Core.
Aylmer (the mad scientist), appears to be the main character, but is he really the protagonist or the antagonist? Both Aylmer and his beautiful wife (the victim) are dynamic characters. They both change significantly. How? What does Aylmer’s nightmare, in which he removes Georgiana’s heart, foreshadow? The play includes a character, James, who doesn’t appear in the original story. Why is he included and how does it impact point of view? Toss in the elements of setting, mood, imagery, and irony, and you have a made-to-order Common-Core-meeting reading activity.
I’ve been told by some that they just don’t have time to work “skits” or “drama” into their classroom; adherence to core reading, writing, and math leaves no room for fun stuff like Read Aloud Plays. But I protest! Drama is core reading. Read Aloud Plays, including such classics as The Birth-mark, The Monkey’s Paw, A Retrieved Reformation, and many others on my site, are a perfect way to teach to the CCSs. And now it’s even easier. Click here to download a FREE activity sheet. It addresses Literature: Key Ideas and Details, and can be used with any of my Read Aloud Plays from the classic short stories series.
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 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.
As part of its Black History Month celebration, Scholastic publishers is offering my most oft-published play for free. I Have a Dream shows how experiences during Martin’s childhood prepared him for the day he’d deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. It’s included in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America, but you can download it in PDF simply by clicking here (the download link is near the bottom of the page). Scholastic’s site even includes questioning strategies, and best of all, there are no strings! It’s completely free. If you enjoy “I Have a Dream,” be sure to check out my other Civil Rights plays including Sitting Down for Dr. King, We Shall Overcome, and MLK’s Freedom March.
Imagine if we tested prospective drivers the way we test our students for reading fluency. Instead of mumbling to the newly-turned sixteen year old to “make a left hand turn at the next intersection,” the DMV test administrator would give a whoop and shout, “Alright Jimmy, if you can get this Taurus doin’ 120, you’ll have your license in no time!”
Driving too fast is dangerous. That’s why we don’t encourage our young drivers to exceed the speed limit. That’s why we have speed limits to begin with. What we want from people is thoughtful driving. Thoughtful driving means being aware of the road signs, pedestrians, and potential hazards. It means being under control. Even NASCAR drivers practice being safe and under control.
Good readers are also thoughtful and under control. They’re aware of hazards, such as awkward sentences, irony, and homographs, which may require them to slow down or re-read. They’re familiar with road signs, such as periods, commas, indentations, and quotation marks, each requiring a change in cadence, a certain inflection, or merely a tap on the brakes. And good readers are aware of those pesky pedestrians—their audience.
Rare is the young reader who can read fast and under-control. Just as there are no ten-year-olds driving at Daytona, we shouldn’t be pushing our fifth graders to read 200 words per minute. In fact, I think the emphasis on speed as the primary measure of reading fluency is probably damaging our young readers. I think we’re actually handicapping our kids.
I was listening to one of my struggling readers the other day. She’s of normal intellect, works hard, and has normal phonic skills (I’ve checked ‘em). But over the past five years, she’s been taught that what’s important is that she attains that magic number—that ever-increasing oral fluency reading rate. It was no surprise listening to her read that she was trying to go so fast that she was stumbling over every third word and having to re-read every other phrase—and this was in a casual reading environment, not the ORF test.
This problem is not limited to struggling readers. How many of your “benchmark-meeting” readers blow through endmarks, substitute minor words, and run-over complex words? How many of your speed readers are thoughtless readers?
Instead of measuring fluency based on words per minute read, we should be emphasizing modest speeds and safe driving habits. Unfortunately, quantifying thoughtful reading is far more complex than generating the data a weekly one minute reading test provides. With no push to get the data miners out of our schools, the question becomes, how do we teach thoughtful reading despite the education industry’s ill-placed emphasis on speed?
One great way is with Read Aloud Plays.
Plays require students to read the way they speak, to use inflection and recognize punctuation. Plays require personality and accuracy. Frequent play reading, particularly if it includes performance, requires thoughtful reading.
To prove my point, try having your students read a play using their best 171 word per minute pace. Make sure the kids have never seen the play before (after all, dry reading is another element of the ORF test). One of my fifteen minute plays will take all of four minutes. The kids may be rolling on the floor with laughter—until you ask them to summarize what they read (many of my plays, such as those from Symbols of America, include comprehension tests).
I encourage you to then spend several sessions reading the same play thoughtfully, culminating with a simple performance in front of the class. Emphasize reading the way the given character would talk. Such plays will be enjoyed and understood by audience and performers alike.
Black History Month is a great time of year to incorporate Read Aloud Plays into your instruction. From slavery and civil war, to Jackie Robinson, to the civil rights struggle, I have numerous scripts ready for your students to hone their thoughtful reading skills. If you’re new to using plays, be sure to download my free guide, Why Use Drama? which provides a host of tips. And if you’re worried about the Common Core, don’t be. Drama is mentioned 47 times in the CCSs.
Turn your wanna-be NASCAR readers into thoughtful readers with Read Aloud Plays.
I’ve heard horror stories. There’s one about a federal official who caught a band teacher photocopying sheet music. The school was fined $10,000 and the band director lost his job. True story? I don’t know, but it’s evident from the FBI warning at the beginning of that Bill Nye video I show every year that copyright infringement is serious stuff.
This got personal for me when the criminal underworld started pirating my plays, apparently in an attempt to turn a fast buck (which is ironic, given that I have yet to make a fast buck from writing these things). A thoughtful reader contacted me about it after discovering a site where my play, Stolen Childhoods, could be illegally downloaded.
I immediately went into sleuth mode, quickly tracking down the offending site, fully prepared to fire off a cease and desist e-mail or maybe even call the 1-800 number on that Bill Nye video. I quickly discerned, though, that the “criminal” was merely a middle school language arts teacher who’d posted my play online for her students to read as a homework assignment. Seemed innocent enough to me. Here was a hard-working middle school teacher using my work as the centerpiece of what looked like a pretty significant unit of study about child labor during the Great Depression. I was flattered. And yet, this did indeed represent a copyright infringement.
I’m a great fan of technology. I use it extensively with my own students, and I want to encourage others to do the same. But I suspect we could all use a little tutoring when it comes to copyright infringement. If you want to post one of my plays on your classroom website, go for it. However, please toss in a few safeguards. Consider password protecting your site, adding a watermark to the posted-PDF, and at the very least, including a highly-visible warning that ONLY your students have legal authorization to download (maybe one showing a big badge like they have on the FBI warning!).
Another reader recently asked me if I’d develop a play based on Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s THE Great American Novel as well as a significant player in the high school literary canon. Frankly, I’d love to craft a play around it.
But I can’t. It would be an infringement. Because To Kill a Mockingbird is still under copyright, without the permission of the copyright owner, I don’t have the right to sell any such adapt ion. This makes me wonder about a host of other reader’s theater scripts for sale on TpT. From Charlie Brown to Charlotte’s Web to Dr. Seuss…I wonder just how “legal” such products really are.
Know that every play I produce has been legally adapted. What’s more, most all of them have previously appeared in Scope and Storyworks, meaning my wonderful editors and diligent fact-checkers at Scholastic have gone over them with a magnifying glass and a copy of the Chicago Elements of Style.
All my plays also come with reproduction and performance rights. The original purchaser is licensed to print a full classroom set for use in his or her classroom once each year. And that same class is licensed to perform it, whether in the gym or the Performing Arts Center over on Ethel Merman Boulevard. That’s not the case with scripts appearing in most drama magazines or with plays available from theater publishers. Their terms require you to purchase expensive performance rights—even if you’re an underfunded school.
I didn’t ask that middle school teacher to remove my play from her site. I don’t want to discourage her from using my play or technology, and for the most part, her classroom site is difficult to find. My hope is that, like the reader who reported it to me, my customers will respect the copyright notice clearly printed on each play and purchase legal versions. To those of you who respect copyright, thank you!
Imagine seeing the words “Whites Only” at your favorite restaurant! We can be thankful that it’s unthinkable today. But when so much time has passed, how do we help today’s kids truly make sense of such attitudes and events?
On February 1st, 1960, four African-American college students walked into a Woolworth’s Store, sat down at the lunch counter, ordered and were refused coffee. They vowed to stay until the store desegregated its lunch counter. Five months later, Woolworth’s finally relented and began serving blacks and whites alike. It was an important moment in the history of American. The event is portrayed in my original Storyworks play, “Sitting Down for Doctor King.”
What better way to honor his legacy, meet the Common Core, and give your students an authentic Civil Rights experience than by re-enacting events such as Greensboro? Read aloud plays put your students in the action, allowing them to understand the motivations and feelings of the participants firsthand. Read Aloud Plays also help satisfy many of the Literature and Information Text standards in grades 3 through 7. But students can also utilize Read Aloud Plays to “adapt speech to a variety of contexts”, “evaluate a speaker’s point of view”, and “integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media…,” which are all Speaking and Listening standards.
And there’s no limit as to how you use them. Pair plays with discussion, history videos (there are a ton of them on the Web), chapters from your History text book, works of literature, picture books, and more. Read a play once, or divvy up parts and practice for three or four weeks. Read Aloud Plays can be fit into almost any schedule and almost any curriculum.
For starters, check out my original Read Aloud Plays about the Greensboro Sit-ins, the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and The March on Washington, where Dr. King presented his I Have a Dream speech. Or explore some of my other Black History plays. Nearly all my plays were commissioned by and originally published by Scholastic, so you know they’re of the highest quality, and all of them come with reproduction and performance rights. If you’re new to using drama, also be sure to download my free guide.
Satisfy the CCSs and bring MLK Day to life for your students. Download some Read Aloud Plays today. Happy Directing!
Here’s both a holiday treat and an example of how Read Aloud Plays can be adapted to be recorded as short films. This one, developed and enacted by my 5th graders from 2012-13, is based on my Christmas Carol play from Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories, but with a little creative thought (and, admittedly, a lot of logistics), nearly any of my plays can be adapted for film. Happy Directing!