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.”
I recently read an article about how “slow reading” is gaining acceptance as an academic approach. Though the piece was aimed at high school and college instructors, the gist remains the same at the elementary and middle school levels: let’s slow our kids down and have them read meaningfully. To this I say, “hot dang!” I’ve long been an advocate of focusing on accuracy and beauty rather than speed.
The purveyors of Oral Reading Fluency measures no doubt developed their program with good intentions. They saw a correlation between quality reading and speed. They found that good readers, when tested by the minute, can read fast. Consequently, oral reading fluency has become the king of qualifiers for Special Ed and Title I services. The flaw is that the formula isn’t commutative (if I may borrow a math concept for a moment): good readers may be able to read fast, but it doesn’t work in the opposite direction. Emphasizing ORF scores teaches kids to read fast, but that doesn’t mean they’ll read well. In fact, all this emphasis on speed is probably causing kids to struggle more than ever.
The emphasis in my classroom is on reading with accuracy, personality, and comprehension. Obviously, I believe plays are the perfect vehicle for doing just that, though the process of re-training kids who have been under the ORF thumb for so long isn’t without its tribulations. My students just recorded their first set of radio dramas. When it came time to record, there was a lot of mumbling, stumbling, and stammering from some, while others read their parts like people actually talk. And, get this, there was no correlation between such quality reading and their ORF scores! In fact, some of my lowest “per minute” readers read the most beautifully; some of my highest, rather poorly. You guessed it: the factor of greatest influence was whether or not a given student read independently at home during the two weeks leading up to the recording session.
This month you can encourage great reading by staging a trio of plays for Black History Month in February. Plays such as Freedom for the First Time and Box Brown’s Freedom Crate teach about slavery while giving kids the chance to practice their slow southern drawls. Plays such as Sitting Down for Dr. King and The Girl Who Got Arrested re-enact inspiring moments from the Civil Rights Movement. There are several other Black History titles available (including this one–a free gift to my readers during January!), but whether you use my plays or not, consider jumping on the “slow reading” band wagon and let February be about teaching your students to read beautifully.
I’ve been fortunate to have forged a lasting relationship with Scholastic publishers, particularly the wonderful editors at Storyworks and Scope magazines. Through my work with them I’ve developed a reputation for writing compelling reader’s theater about Martin Luther King and African-American history in general. Somehow, I’ve been able to accurately represent the historical events and, more importantly, convey the spirit of Dr. King’s work through such plays as “Sitting Down for Dr. King.” With MLK Day upon us, and given that February is Black History Month, I want to encourage you to give some of my reader’s theater scripts a try.
I’m particularly proud of “Sitting Down.” I remember struggling over it when I was writing it back in 2002.There I was, bouncing one bad idea after another off my laptop screen, regretting having accepted the contract at all, when I realized how very simple my task was in comparison to the mammoth challenge undertaken by Dr. King. Soon thereafter I crafted the fictional story of “David,” a twelve-year-old white kid frustrated that these African-American college students were getting in the way of his birthday shortcake at the Woolworths. “Sitting Down” has since appeared in three different Scholastic venues including Storyworks, a text book series, and a leveled reading set, but I’m proud of it because it has a powerful ending that I believe Dr. King would have respected.
I think my play, “Gonna Let it Shine” also conveys the spirit of Dr. King’s work. It’s based upon the true story of Sheyann Webb, who was just eight years old when she braved tear gas and posse men while marching alongside Dr. King. She became known as “Dr. King’s Youngest Freedom Fighter,” and her story is the subject of the Disney movie, “Selma, Lord, Selma.” The play originally appeared in Storyworks under the title “Pigtails & Protests.” In the process of re-writing it for release on TeachersPayTeachers, I had the privilege to talk with Sheyann herself, who is today–some fifty years later–a public speaker and Civil Rights advocate. It was surreal to speak with someone who in my writing was still just a child. It was inspiring to connect with someone who not only knew Dr. King and numerous other heroes of the Movement, but was in fact a Civil Rights hero in her own right.
“We Shall Overcome” tells the story of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade. That’s the event where students, some nearly young as Sheyann, were attacked by police dogs and knocked to the ground by blasts from fire hoses. News coverage of their sacrifice swayed worldwide public opinion in favor of desegregation.
“The Girl Who Got Arrested,” meanwhile, tells the true story of Claudette Colvin, the first person to be hauled off a city bus and tried in court for defying Montgomery’s segregated busing law. Her story is depicted in the book, “Twice Toward Justice.” I certainly don’t want to diminish the work of Rosa Parks, but in my humble opinion, Claudette’s story is far more compelling.
One of my “under sung” plays is “MLK’s Freedom March.” It’s a work of historical fiction about a girl named Lucy who helps her ailing grandmother get to Washington to hear MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. There’s also “In the Jailhouse with Dr. King,” about a troubled teenage who turns it around when he witnesses King’s calm demeanor in the face of violence during the Bus Boycott. These and other plays capture the essence of MLK’s work. Consider celebrating MLK Day and/or Black History Month in your classroom by picking any three, dividing your class into three groups, practicing for a couple weeks, and then presenting them with opportunity for discussion in between. In so doing, you’ll be giving your students a strong foundation in MLK history, and perhaps the inspiration to make history themselves.
As we wrap up 2014, I just want to thank you for making this the best year yet for Read Aloud Plays. In the coming year, watch for a variety of new plays to become available including A Piece of String, which was originally published in the Nov. 2013 issue of Scholastic’s Scope magazine, and I Have a Dream, the story of Martin Luther King’s childhood, which originally appeared in the January 2000 issue of Storyworks. I also plan to revamp the formatting on nearly all my plays, making sure that each comes with a comprehension activity designed to help your students meet the Common Core. No need to wait to purchase them, however. One of the great features on TeachersPayTeachers is that buyers can download updated versions without additional charge. Each time I update a play, I’ll let you know that a new version is available. Here’s to a great 2015 full of fluency-building reader’s theater for the classroom!
One of my favorite scenes in literature is in Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Three bumbling trolls capture Bilbo and then argue about how to cook him. The trolls, which have the ridiculous names of Bert, Tom, and Bill, remind me of a trio of Julia Childs. It’s a silly scene in stark contrast to the grisly Trolls found elsewhere in the novel. I actually like these trolls. Most trolls, though, are nasty creatures who take unholy pleasure in dismembering other living things. They don’t exist in the real world . . . that is, except on the Internet.
Trolls, I’m told, is the term used to describe people who leave unjustly harsh reviews online. They hide behind the anonymity of their gravatar to dismember people with low ratings, negative reviews, and nasty comments. They seem to take pleasure in it. Typically, the bad reviews are undeserved, but even when they are warranted, trolls tend to go overboard with their attack. If you’re a blogger, or if you sell products online, or even if you’ve just posted a few comments on forums, you may have encountered a few trolls. I ran into one the other day and I’m still reeling from it. Drafting this post is perhaps my therapy.
In my case, a person purchased my read aloud play, Ebenezer Scrooge from TeachersPayTeachers. Apparently it wasn’t to his liking so he hammered me with a low rating and a snarky comment about finding a “freebie” on Google that was better. I initially replied with an equally-snarky answer: “And Happy Holidays to you, too. I hope you learn a little something from Scrooge.” But responses like that seem to empower trolls to even greater heights of hatred, so I deleted it and instead pointed out that TpT products have free previews. Buyers can download the preview before purchasing and thereby make sure the product meets their need. Conceivably, given TpT’s preview feature, a product should never receive a negative review. If a buyer hasn’t bothered to take a look at the preview or read the description, he or she doesn’t really have a basis for complaint. It’s especially true when it comes to artistic endeavors. A negative review isn’t justified simply because you don’t like the work. There are a lot of authors, artists, directors, and musicians whose work does not appeal to me, but that’s the nature of art. Matters of personal taste do not warrant bad reviews.
I recall another troll who downloaded a copy of my modernized Tell-Tale Heart script, Penelope Ann Poe’s Amazing Cell Phone, and then had the gall to complain that it was “too weird.” Of course it’s weird. It’s Poe! Had she bothered to read the description or download the preview, she would have seen that it was weird before “wasting” her money. I suspect most TpT users saw the two stars she gave my product and realized she was rating her own intelligence level, or at the very least her own diligence. Trolls, like the bunglers in The Hobbit, are easy to spot.
I ended up telling the Scrooge Troll that Scholastic had valued my script enough to publish it not once, but three times, rewarding me handsomely each time. In fact, since Storyworks originally publishing it in 1998, Scholastic has commissioned me to write nearly fifty classroom plays. The editors at Scope, Storyworks, Scholastic News, and other divisions of the world’s biggest children’s publishers apparently think my work is pretty darn good. So take that Mr. Troll.
So, if you’re shopping on TpT, whether on my storefront or someone else’s, don’t be a troll. Take the time to read the descriptions and check out the previews before placing an order. That way you won’t be surprised or disappointed. Certainly, if you download one of my Read Aloud Plays and have an issue with it, just shoot me an e-mail. I’ll find some way to make it right.
And if you’ve been victimized by a troll, take heart! When the cloak of darkness—their anonymity—is removed, they merely turn to stone. Just like Bill, Tom, and Bert.
Buzz about Oprah Winfrey’s new movie Selma is shining a light on the Selma to Montgomery March. The film, which depicts the 1965 events in Alabama, drew standing ovations at its screening in New York. Says film critic Roger Friedman, “Watching ‘Selma’ you really feel like all the plays, movies, TV shows, songs– every theater piece about King– all of it culminates in this film.” (Click here to see the trailer.)
Selma was the site of protests over voting rights. African-Americans there and in neighboring counties were routinely denied the right to vote through the use of poll taxes, threats of retribution, proficiency tests, and other manipulations. Today, that all sounds pretty vanilla, but make no mistake, Selma was a terrifyingly murderous place.
Dr. King, Hosea Williams, James Bevel, and other civil rights leaders organized a march to the state capital where they hoped to confront then-Governor George Wallace. But when the marchers arrived at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the outskirts of town, state troopers—including many on horseback—violently attacked the marchers with clubs and tear gas. It became known as Bloody Sunday. International news coverage of the violence led directly to the signing of the Voting Rights Act, a turning point in the civil rights struggle.
The movie’s release date (Christmas Day) is timed to take advantage of the annual focus on MLK Day in January and Black History Month in February. But this is an important bit of history regardless of one’s race. We live in an era of voter apathy, a time when we tend to take our right to vote for granted. If our students have any hope of changing the world, one would think they’ll need to reclaim the voting booth. Our kids need to know this story both for what it means to America’s history and for what it means for America’s future. “There’s a lump in your throat at the end of ‘Selma,’” says Friedman. Kids need to experience that lump in the throat.
I don’t know what the movie will be rated, but due to its mature content, I doubt any of us will ever be able to share it in our elementary or middle school classrooms. But you can take advantage of the interest in the film by using the read aloud play, Gonna Let it Shine. It depicts the Selma campaign from the perspective of Sheyann Webb, who was eight at the time. Sheyann, along with her friend Rachel West, became known as “Dr. King’s youngest freedom fighters.” Sheyann was there at the rallies, at the funerals, and on the bridge. She experienced the sting of teargas. She ran from Sheriff Clark’s posse. Her story is a great way to introduce students to the civil rights struggle and to help them appreciate their future voting rights.