Archive for May, 2014

Why You Should End the Year with Algebra

The Little RascalsI think much of what I know about teaching, about kids, about life itself, I learned from Spanky and Our Gang.

Like many of us here near the end of the school year, exhaustion has just about got the best of me. The wide-variety of year-end responsibilities and activities coupled with the cumulative day-to-day stress of the job itself has become a bit overwhelming. It has me looking for some fun but easy lessons to wrap up the last few weeks of school. It got me thinking that I’d like to share with my students some Little Rascals episodes, so I went looking for them on YouTube. If you’re not familiar with the Little Rascals, it’s the depression-era film shorts featuring the antics of impoverished kids such as Spanky, Alfalfa, Darla, and Stymie (and a mule named Algebra). I grew up watching “Spanky and Our Gang” on Channel 42 out of San Francisco—beamed to my home in Oregon via the relatively new innovation called cable-tv.

Sure enough, YouTube has a wide variety of clips and as I watched a few, my wife suggested that my love for kids and my destiny to become a teacher may have roots in the Little Rascals. The more I think about this, the more I believe it. There’s no doubt I admired the ingenuity and resiliency displayed by these kids. There were rarely any adults on the show. The kids had to solve complex problems and overcome difficulties without the assistance, guidance, or even supervision of grown-ups. I think this “can-do” attitude has helped me forge my way through life. And there’s no doubt I enjoyed the innocence and sweetness of all these kids. Yes, I think “Our Gang” had a profound impact on my career choices, as well as my penchant for using plays in class.

I have particularly strong recollections of the Our Gang “Follies,” in which the kids built a make-shift theater in a barn and staged a vaudeville show. Although these were not among my favorite episodes, I’m certain they influenced my teaching. In 1998, when I built a stage inside my classroom, I sewed together a heap of scrap fabric to make curtains that, not surprisingly, looked a lot like those that parted for Alfalfa’s performance of “I’m in the Mood for Love” or Darla’s tap and baton-twirling routine. I’m still using those curtains today, and I think about the Little Rascals every time I put them up for a play.

I intend on ending the year with an algebra lesson (that is, a segment of Little Rascals featuring Algebra the Mule), but another good activity with which to fill these last days of schools is reader’s theater. I believe read aloud plays are most beneficial when they’re read repetitively, when kids read and re-read the same text over and over again as they practice for an eventual performance. However, this time of year, there’s nothing wrong with giving kids a set of scripts and letting them wing it. Give them a session or two to utilize their “Spanky-esque Can Do Attitude” and then watch the follies unfold. To help you along, here’s a free PDF of my play based on O.Henry’s depression-era story, A Retrieved Reformation, but you should also try Peter Rabbit, Penelope Ann Poe’s Amazing Cell Phone, A Tell-Tale Heart, and Fly Me to the Moon, all of which are available on my TeachersPayTeachers page, as well as The Nose, Rikki Tikki Tavi, and The Open Window, from my book: Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories. Finally, Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America contains Argument at Mount Rushmore, As American as Apple Pie, and Eagles Over the Battlefield, each of which make for fun, impromptu entertainment that beats a real algebra lesson any day.

Happy directing!

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High Stakes Testing Leads to High Blood Pressure

The Birthmark scope cover pageThis time last year I admitted to a high degree of frustration when it comes to standardized testing. It drives my blood pressure up when fifth grader after fifth grader gets pulled out of class to either test or get remedial instruction. Rarely (if ever) do I have my full group. It makes for some dysfunctional lessons requiring the reteaching of material to kids who were already struggling to grasp material from previous missed sessions. Still, as my Admin is fond of saying, “testing is the reality in which we live.” Embrace it or die (at least that’s how I translate it). And with the Smarter-Balance test hitting the streets next year, it’s evident this testing craze isn’t going away anytime soon (can’t wait to hear from parents when their kids go home and say they flunked the ‘smarter test’).

Well, I’m happy to say my current students have once again done just fine on state standardized tests, especially in reading where nearly all either met standards or growth targets and average fluency scores soared. Why mention it here? Because I long ago abandoned traditional text books and instead built my reading program around read aloud plays. Along with chapter books and content reading (primarily history content from Storyworks magazine), read aloud plays are the mainstay of my instruction. Not only do they build fluency and provide the framework to teach comprehension skills, they also increase the love of reading.

While some of my colleagues look at the new Common Core Standards with trepidation, I’m confident my young thespians will continue to thrive. As always, I’m already mapping out another year of plays. You can see my tentative plans below, and if you’d care to jump on the reader’s theater bandwagon, you’ll find all of the titles (and many more) either on my TpT Storefront, in one of my books^, or coming soon via this website*.

I’ll close with one warning: using read aloud plays to improve test scores means more than just handing out scripts and inviting kids to read. To see the nuts and bolts of how it’s done, download my free article, Why Use Drama?

September–Introductory: Rikki Tikki Tavi^, Peter Rabbit, Argument at Mount Rushmore^

October—Just for Halloween: Penelope Ann Poe’s Amazing Cell Phone, The Tell-Tale Heart^, Cyclops v Odysseus

November/December–Holidays: Ebenezer Scrooge*, Gabriel Grub*, The Necklace^

January–American Revolution: The Secret Soldier*, The Legend of Betsy Ross^, Eagles Over the Battlefield^

February–Slavery & Civil War: Spies & Rebels, Freedom for the First Time, Box Brown’s Freedom Crate

March/April–Civil Rights: How Jackie Saved the World, Selma to Montgomery: Let it Shine*, I Have a Dream: The Childhood of MLK^

May—Just for Fun: A Piece of String*, Ransom for Red Chief*, The Nose^

All right, I’ll close (for real this time) with the fine print: Using Read Aloud Plays won’t stop your classroom instruction from being interrupted by standardized testing. Nor will it prevent your blood pressure from soaring due to the same. But done right, read aloud plays will have a positive impact on your reading test scores.

Happy directing!

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