Archive for February, 2014

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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