You Fancy Me Mad?

Harry_Clarke_The_Tell-Tale_HeartFairies waving candied wands… Goblins drooling chocolate malt… Halloween has such a bizarre place in our classrooms. In my school it’s been informally “banned,” though the kinders still get to parade through the school in their costumes, and the rest of the student body gets to have an afternoon “party” that presumably has nothing to do with ghouls and ghosts. Personally, I like “Monte Carlo Day,” a party in which kids set-up, run, and risk candy tokens at a variety of “probability games” such as Roulette, 21, and the Shell Game. The kids still get their candy fix, but at least there’s a bit of math involved.

An even better approach to Halloween is to replace your parades and parties with a collection of play performances. Kids still get to dress up, you can serve treats at the performance, and it’s not only academically valid, but a fine way to satisfy standards. A trio of plays takes a few weeks to prepare and an afternoon to perform. You can also invite other classes to attend, thereby helping your colleagues with their Halloween alternatives. Though Halloween lands on a Saturday this year, a set of plays will make Friday the 30th a huge hit for all involved!

I have a number of Read Aloud Play titles that are perfect for Halloween. The Birth-mark, which is a classic short-story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, tells the story of a mad scientist who, in his quest to make his already beautiful bride “perfect,” kills her instead. The Monkey’s Paw is W.W. Jacobs’ classic Gothic tale about getting three wishes. The disturbing result will stay with your students long after Halloween has passed. The well-known Legend of Sleepy Hollow is available in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories (you can purchase and download it instantly at Scholastic Teacher Express). Pair it with YouTubeThe Birthmark scope cover page segments from the original Disney flick. You’ll also find Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart in the same book, which can be paired with my modernized version, Penelope Ann Poe’s Amazing Cell Phone. (At least one of my reader’s has commented that it’s “too strange,” which I think makes it a lot of fun for Halloween.) Finally, A Piece of String has a ghostly conclusion and Cyclops has a ferocious monster. All of these plays were originally published in Scholastic classroom magazines such as Scope and Storyworks, so you know they’re up to snuff, and they all come with reproduction and performance rights.

Ready to give it a try but unsure how to start? Download my free guide to teaching with plays. It’ll give you tips and ideas on how to use plays to make your language arts block the best section of the day. But get to it right away…those ghouls and goblins are already knocking at your door.

Happy Halloween and happy directing!

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Grades: Who Needs ’em?

The Bellringer (PD-1776)How do you grade a play?

I read an article recently about the merits of “gradelessness” in the classroom. It suggested that the assigning of letter grades to children is neither healthy nor effective. The premise works like this: if “Rafael” works hard on a writing task and shows progress compared to previous work, yet still lacks certain skills, will giving him a C-minus motivate him to improve? Or, is it better if we applaud Rafael for his effort and growth, show him where he did well, and give him specific things to work on? In other words, can a teacher forsake grades while still raising standards and providing effective evaluation?

Yes, and Read Aloud Plays provides an exceptional medium to do exactly that.

Plays provide an avenue to teach your students how to give and receive constructive feedback. Here’s how: Lead your students to define appropriate standards before you begin a play, post those standards, and consistently revisit them as you rehearse.

During practices, ask your students, “What are we doing well?” and “What do we need to work on?” “Maureen spoke with character and personality,” might be a comment you’ll hear. “Paulie lost her spot; she needs to follow along better,” is another.

Early in the year, teach your students to say, “Some of us…” as in “Some of us need to practice more at home so we’re better prepared.” As the year progresses, graduate to more specific statements such as “Charles, you have a really pleasant voice, but you need to speak up more so we can all hear it.” By using this approach, students will be not only be able to provide valuable feedback to their peers, they’ll also synthesize evaluative factors which they will naturally apply to their own performance, all without the negative emotional charge of a grade. As students become proficient at providing constructive criticism, consider applying it to other subject matter as well, such as writing, art, and presentations.

There may be perfectly good reasons to assign grades under some circumstances. You may also be faced with mandates requiring grades, but even in those cases, by teaching students to give and receive feedback, you can de-emphasize the grade and focus instead on developing the given skill through constructive criticism.

Revolution Cover 700x894These days when trolls roam the internet slamming people and businesses with nasty and often unjustified reviews, it’s especially important for students to learn the ethics of giving constructive criticism.

Whatever the case, as you kick-off a new school year, spend some time contemplating your approach to grading and consider using Read Aloud Plays to teach your students to develop their constructive feedback skills. If you’re already using Read Aloud Plays, leave a comment to let us know how you’re assessing play performances.

Speaking of plays, I’ve just released two new ones packaged together for the price of one. Revolutionary War Plays comes with two exclusive plays, comprehension activities, and additional supplementary material. Originally published in my book Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America (Scholastic), “Eagles Over the Battlefield” tells the story of the bald eagle becoming the emblem of the United States, and “A Bell for the Statehouse,” reveals the history of the The Liberty Bell. Both are fun, easy, and ideal for trying out some ungraded constructive feedback.

Happy directing!

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Old But New Favorites

Click on the cover to preview or purchase!Imagine saying the Pledge of Allegiance to a bright yellow flag featuring a coiled rattlesnake! The history of the flag of the United States is a compelling story, but historians are divided as to the facts. Did Betsy Ross really create the first flag? This play, which was originally published in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America and later reprinted in the January 2002 issue of Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine, encourages readers to become history sleuths. It includes the play script, a short reading supplement, a bubble quiz, a comprehension activity built around William Canby’s 1870 treatise on the matter, answer keys, and extension activities.

Betsy Ross: Fact or Fiction? is the first of several old but new plays destined for TeachersPayTeachers this season. Having recently re-acquired full publishing rights to the plays in my book, Symbols of America, I’ll be packaging up all these old favorites for easy downloading on TpT.

As with all my plays, the Symbols collection is suitable for reader’s theater or full stage production. You can use the plays to build fluency and to satisfy a variety of Common Core standards in Literature and Informational Text. Best of all, the original purchaser is licensed to print one class set per year for use in his or her own classroom.

To preview or purchase Betsy Ross, click here. Be sure to check back often for “old but new plays” about MLK, Mount Rushmore, the War of 1812, World War Two, and more.

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Prevent Zombies: Teach the Arts!

Is standardized testing creating zombies?In my school we’ve taken to referring to our state-of-the-art music room as the “Musicless Room.” Oh, it still says “Music” on the door, but after elementary music was cut a few years ago, it’s since been used as a computer lab, a professional development site, a Title I room, and this coming year, a regular ed classroom. Hence the name.

Way back in 2008, President Obama criticized No Child Left Behind legislation because its overemphasis on core subjects contributed to the loss of arts education. “Studies in Chicago have demonstrated that test scores improved faster for students enrolled in low-income schools that link arts across the curriculum than scores for students in schools lacking such programs,” read the President’s official statement on the Arts. Unfortunately, Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, the Common Core, and the Smarter-Balanced test all seem to have heightened the emphasis on testing and, as a result, further undermined the Arts.

But there’s hope! If you need help convincing your administrator to allow more time for the Arts, including the use of Read Aloud Plays, here are ten studies compiled by the staff writers at that show a strong connection between arts education and academics:

1.      A 2002 report by the Arts Education Partnership revealed that schoolchildren exposed to drama, music and dance are often more proficient at reading, writing, and math.

2.      The 2006 Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum study on art education showed a link between arts education and improved literacy skills.

3.      In 2007, Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland published a study stating the arts don’t actually improve academic performance, but it shouldn’t matter.

4.      A 2005 report by the Rand Corporation called “A Portrait of the Visual Arts” argues that art education does more than just give students a creative outlet. It can actually help connect them to the larger world, ultimately improving community cohesion.

5.      Teachers and students alike benefit from schools that have strong art climates, a 1999 study called “Learning In and Through the Arts” demonstrated.

6.      The Center for Arts Education published a report in 2009 that suggests arts education may improve graduation rates.

7.      A 2011 study called “Reinvesting in Arts Education” found that integrating arts with other subjects can help raise achievement levels.

8.      A study of Missouri public schools in 2010 found that greater arts education led to fewer disciplinary infractions and higher attendance, graduation rates and test scores.

9.      In “Neuroeducation: Learning, Arts and the Brain,” Johns Hopkins researchers shared findings showing that arts education can help rewire the brain in positive ways.

10. A 2009 survey, part of the “Nation’s Report Card: Arts 2008″ report, found that access to arts education opportunities hasn’t changed much in a decade.

Of course, all these studies really do is show that one can prove just about anything with a study. Just as these ten support arts education, there are numerous others that suggest there’s no correlation at all. This New York Times article does a pretty succinct job of debunking any notion that the Arts lead to improved scores in reading, writing, and math.

But so what? Whether or not the Arts contributes to better test scores shouldn’t be the question. I, for one, believe classroom activities that emphasize creativity build more well-rounded people and consequently better prepare students for professional life. While there are no doubt plenty of jobs out there that require workers to never deviate from a scripted set of instructions, there are also plenty of professions that value creative thinking, which is really what the Arts are all about. It was creative thinking that brought us Facebook, Starbucks, Dave Matthews Live at Red Rocks, and the device on which you’re reading this blog. If we want our schools to produce the next generation of worker drones and zombie-like consumers, then sure, let’s keep on “racing to the,” er, “top.” But if we want our schools to produce engineers, entrepreneurs, and the people who will solve the world’s problems, then for cryin’ out loud, let’s toss aside the textbooks and scripted programs and restore the Arts to our classrooms.

One easy method of embedding the Arts in the classroom while still fulfilling the Common Core requirements is to include Read Aloud Plays in your instruction (“drama” is referenced 47 times in the Common Core). For around three bucks you get performance rights (assuming you represent a school) and reproduction rights so that you can copy a full classroom set every year. Also, many of the plays come with supplemental activities or questioning strategies. For a fairly complete list of available titles, click here or visit

Thank you for inspiring the next generation of creative thinkers and decision-makers!

Happy directing!

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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 (expired), 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!

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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” (expired) 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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