Okay kids, fork over those taxes!

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 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.

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 taxes, pay fines for “breaking the law,” 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 when they’re twenty? 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’d been 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.

The Checkbook Project is a splendid behavior management system and a great way to teach kids about money. For more information, including how to download all the forms and procedures, click here.

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Two New Plays (and Free Comprehension Stuff, Too!)

Click here to preview or purchase at TpT!A guess you can qualify me as a “Vitamin D Addict.” This time of year, the sun is typically obscured by the greyness of the southern Oregon winter, so whenever it’s out and abundant, I make it a habit to soak in as much as I can. I just can’t bring myself to come inside and work until it disappears behind my neighbor’s chimney. I haven’t been entirely unproductive, however. My Read Aloud Play, A Piece of String, has finally been uploaded to TeachersPayTeachers, and my new play about the New York City newsboys strike of 1899 appears this month in Scholastic’s Scope magazine.

“Newsies” follows a Polish immigrant named Aniela as she embarks on a brief career as a newsboy. Following the Spanish-American War, thousands of children like Ani went on strike to protest the way papers such as William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s Evening World passed their expenses down to the lowly newsboy. It’s a compelling story about kids and child labor similar in theme to my play about Lewis Hine (“Stolen Childhoods”). “Newsies” is exclusively available from my friends at Scope. You can check it out here.

Meanwhile, my adaption of Guy De Maupassant’s classic short story, “A Piece of String,” tells about a habitual liar who gets hoisted on his own petard. When he’s accused of a crime he didn’t commit, his long history of lies make it impossible for him to prove his innocence. The play originally appeared in Scope’s Dec. 2013 edition. As with all my Scope and Storyworks plays, I’ve waited about a year to re-package it for TpT. Part of the reason this one took longer than usual—other than the sun’s pleasant cameo— is that I packaged it with a trio of free Common Core comprehension activities. You can download the free comprehension pack or the whole package. Middle school and early high school teacher s will find this play package to be a great way to introduce students to classic literature. Pair it with the original story to enhance engagement and comprehension. The lessons about good habits and a positive reputation will also play well with fourth, fifth, and sixth graders. Plus, your kids will enjoy using terms like “clodhopper” and “coot.”

Finally, Spring is a great time to engage students with The Checkbook Project. It’s math, it’s personal finance, it’s a behavior management program, and it’s entirely free. My own students started last week and are totally engrossed by it. Check it out by clicking on The Checkbook Project tab!

Happy directing!

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Tongue In, Mouth Closed

Click here to preview or download this free sampler pack!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.”

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Pairing Plays & Picture Books for Black History Month

Read on for a free Common Core activityWith Black History Month upon us, two bits of news caught my eye last week: the State of South Carolina issued a stirring acknowledgement of the injustices suffered by African-Americans in the 1950s and 60s when it apologized to “The Friendship Nine,” nine young men who, in 1961, were sentenced to thirty days on a chain gang simply for participating in a Sit-in.

The second item was an excellent post at the Center for Teaching Quality. Educator Liz Prather writes that the controversial elements of the recently-released Selma movie makes the film “a great discussion engine for subjects like non-violent activism, Dr. King, and the civil rights movement.” The Common Core, notes Prather, requires that we teach students to “evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.” While the Selma movie is too mature for elementary and middle school students, it got me thinking about pairing Read Aloud Plays with developmentally-appropriate books and films so to compare and contrast point of view. Here are a few:

* The Disney movie, Selma, Lord Selma, and the Read Aloud Play, Gonna Let it Shine.
* My play from the Montgomery Bus Boycott, The Girl Who Got Arrested, and Phillip Hoose’s book about Claudette Colvin, Twice Toward Justice.
*Sitting Down for Dr. King, which depicts the Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-ins of 1960, and Andrea Davis Pinkney’s book, Sit-in: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down.
* Peter Golenbrock’s book, Teammates, depicting the relationship between Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese, and the Read Aloud Play, How Jackie Changed America.
* We Shall Overcome, my play about the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, and Cynthia Levinson’s non-fiction book, We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March.
*Days of Jubilee, by Patricia and Fredrick McKissack, and my play, Freedom for the First Time, which is based on slave narratives from the Civil War.
*The Read Aloud Play, Box Brown’s Freedom Crate, and Ellen Levine’s book, Henry’s Freedom Box.

To get your classroom discussion going, I’ve developed a simple short-answer comparison activity covering Craft & Structure (Literature item 6 and Informational Text item 6). You can download it for free here and use it with my plays and any paired text to satisfy these standards by having students “analyze multiple accounts of the same event or topic.”

Happy directing!

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Celebrate Your Slow Readers

Free Black History Play (through Jan 31)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.

Happy directing!

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MLK Day Inspiration

Click on the cover to preview at TeachersPayTeachers!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.

Click on the cover to preview or purchase!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.

Happy Directing!

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Thanks!

SCOPE-110113-PlayAs 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!

Happy directing!

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