One of the greatest things my mother ever did for me was regularly take me to the public library when I was a kid. I don’t recall any exact schedule or regular routine, but I’m guessing every two weeks or so—perhaps more during the summer. On these days my mom would drag my little sister Karen and me away from whatever mud puddle or walnut tree we were in, and we’d all slither into her Ford Falcon and head off to the main branch downtown.
Karen was my best friend growing up, but at the library we mined different tracts. So engaged was I by our library outings that I have no recollection whatsoever of Karen even being present, though I know she was. I sought Daniel Boone and Davy Crocket novelizations, wildlife fiction, and sports biographies, always coming home with a stack of books to conquer before the next visit. I also Dewey-decimaled my way into the architecture section upstairs, pouring over books about drafting and design. When my mom bought me a drafting set one Christmas, I became a master with a t-square and determined to become an architect myself. I got side-tracked during the adolescence of high school, but I’ve used those drafting and design skills in many endeavors. Such was the power of those public library visits.
The library remains a significant aspect of my lifestyle today. It befuddles me when I see letters to the editor decrying the latest library bond. The writers of these letters want our libraries to charge user fees. They begrudge the $127.45 in annual taxes they pay to maintain our library system. Clearly, these folks never developed that library culture. Perhaps their mothers never took them to the library when they were young.
These days I find myself missing those childhood trips to the library. Perhaps that’s what inspired me to produce my latest Read Aloud Play, The Library Card. I originally wrote this script for Storyworks, where it appeared in October of 2001. It tells the story of African-American author Richard Wright’s relationship with the library. Wright wrote numerous books of significance during the middle of the 20th-century including Native Son and the semi-autobiographical Black Boy. The play is based on an incident from Wright’s youth in which he was denied access to the public library due to his race. The racism theme is obvious, making it an ideal fit for Black History Month, but make no mistake, this play is ultimately about the love of reading and the significance of libraries. With any luck, students who act-out this play will quit taking their access to the library for granted. Should you give the play a run, you might also consider pairing it with a trip to your local public library where you can help kids apply for their own library cards. It’s also worth noting that the story was popularized in William Miller’s inspiring picture book, “Richard Wright and the Library Card,” which makes for another ideal pairing.
Well, I’m off to the library. More plays are coming soon. Happy directing!
Seven years ago I assigned my fifth grade class a task called Letter to Myself at Graduation. “I want your fifth grade self to write to your future self,” I told them. “Talk about what’s important to you now, about your time in elementary school, and what you expect to be doing when you graduate from high school. Share some memories. Make some predictions. Say whatever you like. No one but your future-self will ever read it.”
The kids cranked out their letters and, with a bit of coaching, addressed their envelopes (it always surprises me how many fifth graders don’t know their own address). I then stashed the letters away with a yellow sticky note marked, “Class of 2017.” Well, obviously, last week I finally got to give them out! Some I handed directly to kids visiting our elementary school as part of our “Graduation Walk.” Others I delivered at graduation itself. A few more I mailed, having encouraged students over the years to keep their address updated with me.
The results were quite fun. After reading her letter, one young lady said, “Mr. Lewis, this is the dumbest thing I’ve ever read. Fifth graders are so stupid!” Like many kids, her goals and interests had changed profoundly over the years. Another boy came up to me and said, “This is hysterical.” He’d spent a good portion of his letter talking about which girls in class he found cute. One of them was across the gym reading her own letter. Another young lady opened her letter while standing in front of me and immediately let out a delightful squeal. “I gave myself a dollar!”
By no means do I think this activity is particularly unique. I’m sure many teachers all across the continent do something similar. These days, it’s a regular part of my year-end activities. I’m sharing about it here for three reasons: 1.) it’s rewarding for all involved and provides a nice connection to kids who are no longer four feet tall or interested in Pokemon; 2.) it serves to explain why I haven’t crafted a post or published a play in awhile. As it was for many of you, the last weeks of the school year were exceptionally crowded with things like finding purple shore crabs during our outdoor ed trip, creating meaningful comments on report cards, building a giant nose costume for a play performance, and convincing my principal in my performance review why I’m still relevant. There were softball games to watch, middle school honors night to attend, high school graduation itself, and numerous other events. Many of them—like handing out those graduation letters–were wonderfully rewarding. All of them were time consuming, which is my excuse for being so doggone slow at posting something new. And 3.) I have no doubt at least a few of those kids made mention in their letters something about a play in which they appeared or a role they got to play. Read aloud plays are always among the significant memories.
So, now that I’ve sent all the litter buggers home to immerse themselves in video games and YouTube, and the bigger buggers off to figure out real life, I’m using my summer “furlough” from teaching to get back to work on some new plays. Stay tuned. Thank you for your patience. And happy directing!
“Talk Like a Russian Day” was a big hit in my classroom. Though it coincided with certain political events, there was nothing political about it. We started the day by watching a YouTube short of a Hollywood voice actor giving us hints about speaking with a Russian accent. He told us not to emulate Chekov from the Star Trek series. Russians, he said, don’t substitute w’s for v’s. None-the-less, we decided Chekov’s style was to our liking, as was Gru’s in Despicable Me. We also liked the cosmonaut in the Armageddon movie. So after watching short clips of each, we embarked on a day in which the goal was to “talk like a Russian” all day long.
Though it seems like a crazy way to run a classroom, especially when I’m trying to deliver instruction on converting between decimals and fractions, the point was to encourage my students to use an accent in their presentation of my play, “The Nose.” The Nose is a short story by Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol, who lived and wrote in the 1800’s. It’s an example of literary farce, meaning a story that defies explanation. Gogol used it to criticize the Russian hierarchy. As the story goes, a mid-level but prideful bureaucrat awakes one morning to find that his nose has inexplicably gone missing. Clasping a handkerchief over his face, he heads straightaway for the police inspector, but on his way he spots his nose getting out of a carriage. Amazingly, it appears to be dressed as a Vice-Governor! Well, the story follows the bureaucrat as he attempts to reclaim his nose, one crazy twist after another.
One of my students, R____, is particularly engaging with her accent and an inspiration to the rest of us. Her enunciation is so scintillating, her sense of timing and inflection so ideal, well, when she is on stage, the play reaches a magical level. R____, by the way, is a Sped student, which just goes to show how powerful Read Aloud Plays can be for otherwise struggling readers.
This week we’re busy building the papier-mâché nose costume, which will be the final touch on what I think will be a smash performance. My second play group, meanwhile, is preparing for their performance of an as of yet unreleased play set in the Wild West, so we followed “Talk with a Russian Day” with “Talk Like a Cowpoke Day.” (The day after that we tried, “Talk Like a Russian Cowpoke,” which we decided meant speaking in a Russian accent while using phrases like “Yippeekayay.”)
The final stretch of another school year is a great time to be messing around with Read Aloud Plays. And no matter how silly the story, plays are an excellent way to promote fluency and engage young readers. Some fun ones to end with include The Nose (which can be found in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories and online here), The Open Window (also from Classic Short Stories), and Peter Rabbit (while the story may seem young, my upper elementary students always have a blast with it). My Jackie Robinson play is both socially impactful and fun to perform, as is The Newsies (“Talk like a Bronxite Day” doesn’t have the same ring to it, but it’d be fun anyway).
If you’ve been doing plays all year and are ready for something more powerful, some hard-hitting titles worth considering include Sitting Down for Dr. King, Stolen Childhoods, and Freedom for the First Time. I try to incorporate accents, dialect, or tidbits of foreign language into my plays whenever I can, so whether serious or silly, you can almost always have a “Talk Like a ____ Day.”
The Major League Baseball season’s Spring Training 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.
While digging around for something to write about this week I stumbled upon a transcript from a pretty cool podcast I appeared on several years ago. The show, Talking Fin Lit, which was sponsored by McGraw-Hill, was designed to look at issues of financial literacy and education. Host Mark Gura interviewed me at length about The Checkbook Project, and since March is the ideal time to kick off checkbooks in the classroom, I thought it might be neat to share some of the material. What’s here is actually the “pre-interview.” Though the show is no longer being produced, the web portal is still there, meaning you can hear the actual interview here.
TFL: We’ll start out by my asking you for your background. How long have you been a teacher? Curriculum writer? Describe your current involvement in Education, etc.
I’ve been teaching for twenty years. I’m currently teaching 4th and 5th grade in southern Oregon. I started writing material for Scholastic in 1998. My editor at Storyworks, one of the classroom magazines, has kind of championed my work, giving me opportunities to write for Scope, Scholastic News, Instructor, and other divisions. I’ve also published three books through Scholastic Teaching Resources.
When it comes to curriculum writing, I suspect every teacher is a curriculum writer to some degree. You get so much material thrown at you that just doesn’t work, material created by people who don’t actually teach, who don’t understand the realities of the classroom, and who certainly don’t know the unique needs of your given class, you end up creating your own.
I think what you see at TeachersPayTeachers, the website where people can purchase teacher-created curriculum, is something of a backlash against the big textbook companies. Not only is everything there created by people on the front lines of teaching, but it’s comparatively cheap, you can buy only what you need, and it’s kid-tested.
TFL: What attracted you to create Financial Literacy Curriculum?
I work hard to help kids connect what they do in school with the real world. Creating The Checkbook Project was an attempt to do that.
Kids and their families today tend to dismiss the importance of education—I call it “academic apathy.” It was particularly profound in a class I had six or seven years ago [now ten or twelve years ago]. In an effort to motivate that group of children, I started developing The Checkbook Project. It helped them connect their work habits with the real world. They could see the relationship between their habits and their financial or material success.
TFL: “The Checkbook Project classroom economy financial literacy” – is one of the FREE lessons available through the Teachers Pay Teachers. Can you comment about your decision to ‘give away’ this very well produced item? (and maybe you can comment about Teachers Pay Teachers while we’re at it)…
From a business standpoint, I’m using it to drive traffic to my website and to showcase the quality of my other material on TpT. Of course, I could have done that with one of my other products just a easily.
I’m pretty cynical about the way our society operates these day. I look at our economy and I see snake-oil salesmen at every turn. Those with financial savvy are taking advantage of a populace with very little financial sense. I want my students to see how the real world works so that they don’t become victims. Maybe I see making The Checkbook Project available for free as a way to stick it to The Man just a bit.
TFL: On your profile at TpT you state, “They’re my kids, so naturally I want the best for them. The materials I create are designed to give them the most academically-rewarding and personally enjoyable school experience possible.” How does The Checkbook Project reflect that understanding and philosophy?
My students love coming to class, and a big reason is the kid-centric activities I use. The Checkbook Project is especially engaging. Kids clamor to be in my class because of it. These days, my colleagues have all adopted it, so every 4th and 5th grader in our building gets to participate.
TFL: The Checkbook Project isn’t a “lesson” in the classic sense of the word. It’s more establishing a unique CONTEXT that establishes a model reality… one that models and demonstrates important (finance) lessons by immersing the students in it. It occurs to me that there’s something of the “MicroSociety” approach to education here (in which a miniature replica of the real world is established in the school or class so that the students can “live” it… and there’s something of MONOPOLY in it, too. Please take a few minutes to describe what The Checkbook Project is – How it runs in your classroom (and that of teachers who replicate it)…
A micro-society is a great way to describe it. In short, kids get paid for the work they do in the classroom. For example, they earn $1 for each percentage point on tests they’ve passed, they get paid for classroom jobs, and they earn money for turning in their homework. You could say it’s imaginary money, but it really isn’t because they turn around and use their earnings to pay rent on their desks, buy goods and services, and pay taxes. They keep track of all this in checkbook registers donated by local banks, and they report their earnings on a weekly tax report.
Each year the classroom economy takes on a life of its own. Kids start businesses, some selling products such as school supplies, jewelry, or candy, and others offering services such as desk cleaning. I’ve had kids start charities or become landlords. Every year some ingenious kid comes up with a new twist, and its always organic. All I do is get it started.
TFL: How did you come to develop The Checkbook Project?
I had a class of kids who were seriously apathetic about school. They didn’t care whether they passed tests or got good grades. Their parents didn’t seem to care if they did homework or even came to school. The Checkbook Project was designed to motivate them. The financial literacy that comes with it is a natural outcome.
TFL: What do you feel/know your students get from it?
The kids tend to improve their work ethic. They see the relationship between their work habits and financial success, and therefore make connections with the real world. It focuses kids on their habits, behaviors, and judgment.
Four years ago I had an extremely challenging class of kids, a class widely known for its poor behavior and thuggery; but after using The Checkbook Project for three months, it finished the year as one of the best classes in the school.
TFL: What sorts of response and feedback have you gotten from: Students? Parents? Supervisors? Replicating colleagues?
Everyone who has witnessed The Checkbook Project at work in my classroom has praised it. Because a non-performing student can become “homeless” or “bankrupt,” I always worry about offending parents, so I make a point to say that we’d rather have the kids learn these harsh lessons in 5th grade than in real life. Parents seem to get that.
TFL: Please describe the materials that are available for teachers interested in replicating… what sorts of materials have you produced? And how can teachers get them? How might they be modified?
You can get The Checkbook Project guide for free on my storefront at TpT. The guide provides the “how-to.” I also have a variety of helpful student forms on my website at macklewis.com. The tax report is a must have, but there is also a fun classroom job application, a desk rental agreement, and many others.
TFL: What next? How would you like to further refine this program? Extend it?
Each season I try to add another piece based on where my kids and colleagues take it. Perhaps at some point I’ll package it up and offer it to my publisher. We’ll see.
TFL: Would you care to comment about the state of Personal Finance readiness/sophistication that US kids demonstrate? The state of Financial Literacy Education?
I find it interesting that in many high schools, students are required to take calculus or trigonometry, yet they no longer take any form of consumer math. It seems to me that for the average kid, the skills learned in consumer math are far more likely to be needed in the real world.
TFL: What would you best advice be to educators who are just about to start a program of personal finance or who have started but need to refine and deepen their program now?
Not that I’m trying to sell my program—after all, it’s free—but I’d encourage them to go to my website and take a look at it.
My plays often make return appearances in Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine, such as The Daring Escape of Henry “Box” Brown this time last year. In addition to a new look with original illustrations, Storyworks subscribers get treated to a host of top-notch CCSs comprehension activities via Scholastic’s web-based library, which didn’t exist when many of my plays originally appeared ten to twenty years ago. Pretty sweet. Coincidentally, my TpT version of Box Brown, along with many of my other original plays, have also gone through updates that added comprehension activities and improved formatting, so you’re in luck either way.
But “Box” isn’t the only reader’s theater title suitable for celebrating Black History Month. In fact, I have a wide assortment. You can quickly preview four of them by downloading 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, $3.50 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!
As they do every year, my fifth graders will be learning and presenting three of these plays over the coming months as they learn about the importance and significance of the Civil Rights Crusade for all of us. Join us. Celebrate the legacy of Dr. King with engaging reader’s theater from ReadAloudPlays.com.