Nine Minutes, Two Misconceptions, and One Easy Fix

The good people of America have some misconceptions about teaching. Planning for a lesson, they believe, is as easy as cracking open a text book and assigning the questions at the end of the chapter. Not only would that be low-level instruction, it also isn’t how today’s curricula are designed.

Why Use Drama cover 220x289The fifth grade reading text adopted by my school district, for example, includes a six-volume teacher’s edition, a balanced literacy planning guide, a CD-Rom planning guide, a manipulatives kit, a set of blackline masters, a classroom management kit, an integration kit, a set of theme tests, an extra-support management kit, two student workbooks and the teacher’s manual to go with them, three file boxes of mysterious support material I have yet to open, and fifteen small crates of so-called “mini-readers.” There’s so much of it that it takes a hand-truck to carry it anywhere.

Let’s ignore for a moment the cost of all this stuff (almost $3,000 for the teacher’s materials alone). What I want to accentuate here is that in order to plan one 30 minute reading lesson, I must wade through and be familiar with every last piece of it.

And how much time do I have to do it? According to planning time standards in my district: nine minutes. I have nine minutes to plan it, evaluate each individual student’s performance, record the results, and report the outcomes.

This leads me to another public misconception: teachers are only working when they’re standing in front of the class.

As we all know, delivering lessons to our students can be demanding. One study measuring stress by the number of decisions made per minute concluded that teaching is second only to air traffic control. So standing in front of our students is indeed “work.” But could it be possible that the time teachers spend planning may be the more demanding of the two?

You and I know that quality lessons take time to plan and prepare. But nine minutes? Imagine Jerry Seinfeld or Chris Rock preparing a ten minute bit for the Tonight Show but given only 3 minutes to do it. That’s the same ratio.

Nine minutes to plan, prepare, and assess each thirty minute lesson (not to mention all our other duties such as completing report cards, writing performance goals, communicating with parents, dealing with misbehavior, and attending meetings). Nine minutes.

The chefs on Hell’s Kitchen don’t have it any worse.

It’s no wonder I breathe a sigh of relief whenever I start a new set of classroom plays. In comparison to today’s over-stuffed textbook programs, planning and preparing read aloud plays is “easy-peasy.” To find out how easy, download my free guide on teaching with plays, Why Use Drama? Or tune in to this short podcast from the folks at Literacy Special Interest.

Read Aloud Plays are comparatively easy to plan, fun for the students and teacher, and inexpensive. And with a host of topics available—from Aesop’s Fables to the Apollo Moon Landing—they can be integrated with nearly every subject. What’s more, they’re an excellent way to teach to the Common Core (which refers to “drama” 47 times).

So this month, give your students and yourself a break: set aside that monster textbook and use you nine minutes to plan a month-long trio of Read Aloud Plays.

Happy directing!

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Why You Should Teach Black History on April 15th

Click here to preview or purchase at TpTThe Major League Baseball season 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.

Happy directing!

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Is There an App for That?

Indestructible NokiaI’m told school districts around the country are investing millions of dollars into iPads and other online devices. The idea is that students can use these devices to access their textbooks, dictionaries, and encyclopedias via the Internet. After all, hand-held devices–not printed volumes of the World Britannica–are the future.

Me, I’m salivating over a class set of laptops with which my fifth graders can do their writing, post to their webpages, watch student-created instructional videos, and bombard me with in-lesson feedback via Twitter.

But it’ll never happen. My district just can’t afford to invest $15K for a single classroom set of machines that will be outdated in just a few years. When put to the daily abuse levied by fifth graders, I doubt the machines would survive that long anyway.

But a funny thing keeps happening in my classroom. Whenever we need something that my generation had to find in a book, some student will invariably say, “Can I use my phone?” Need to know the definition for lugubrious? Need a picture of the state flag of Georgia? Need to know the formula for calculating the area of a circle? It’s all there at their fingertips on each student’s individual phone.

Kids can use their phones to record themselves reading, to film your next class play, to create short movies, to document field trips, and more. So why invest tax dollars in electronics the students already possess? Sure, you’ll have to bust a kid from time to time for texting when he’s supposed to be studying. But how’s that any different than busting him for passing notes? Do we ban pencils and paper? True, you may have that kid who uses his phone to cheat on a test. But that’s probably the same kid who’ll have notes scribbled on his arm or have his binder suspiciously open beneath his desk.

What about those kids who don’t have phones? Well, it wasn’t but a few years ago that only a handful of my students had online access at home. Today, that figure is around 95%. It won’t be too long before we see the same circumstances with phones. In fact, I estimate that nearly half of my 5th graders–eleven year olds!–already carry phones, and every one of ‘em is vastly superior to my own woefully-outdated but indestructible Nokia (pictured at left). And before you go thinking my school is in some wealthy suburb of Portland, know that it has a 70% Free-and-Reduced population.

Consider this: we require $100 calculators for high school calculus (and I’ll bet you there’s an app for that), and those that can’t afford it have access to loaners. What’s wrong with applying the same logic to hand-held devices?

Cell phone technology creates life-long learners who are always just a click or two away from finding the information they need to accomplish nearly any given task. It’s how adults operate these days. It’s how we should be teaching our kids.

The future is already here, and most of our kids are holding it in their hands. We just have to let them turn the dang things on.

Happy Directing!

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What’s Your Fatal Flaw?

Click on the cover to preview or purchase!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.

Happy Directing!

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Desk Rent is Due Friday!

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 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.

Happy directing!

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One of My Best MLK Plays, Free!

1964-PD Lib of Cong US News World Report CollectionAs 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.

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I Propose a Speed Limit for Young Readers

speed limit for young readersImagine 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.

Happy directing!

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