Archive for May, 2015

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 (expired), 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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How to Counteract the Terrible Test

Read Aloud Play: A Retrieved ReformationI can gripe with the best of ‘em, and every year the teaching profession seems to provide plenty of new stuff to gripe about. My biggest gripe this year isn’t about class size (though I’ve had an exhausting 36 fourth graders), but instead, it’s about all the new bureaucracy associated with Common Core and the Smarter Balanced test. It seems to me our politicians and administrators have painted us into an academic corner. They’ve made teaching so complicated that it’s venturing toward the impossible

In my school, we’re currently mid-stream on the Smarter Balanced test. We’re finding the “performance task” to be a farce akin to safe-cracking and the test itself to be unnecessarily tricky and technologically unwieldy. It’s no wonder people all across the country are “opting-out”—156,000 in New York alone. The test is so bad and so unpopular that many of us are wondering if we’ll soon see the proverbial pendulum forced in the opposite direction. Let’s hope so. If you ask me, all this emphasis on testing is sucking the joy out of the classroom.

HBO’s “Tonight with John Oliver,” which you can find on YouTube, has a rant about standardized testing worth seeing (though it includes mature language). Oliver points out that the typical American public school student must complete as many as 130+ standardized tests during his or her school career. He also points out that since NCLB was enacted, our academic performance compared to the rest of the globe has actually decreased. So much for standardized testing saving the school system. Instead, the big winners in the testing game appear to be the test publishers. Corporate America. Go figure.

The experts say the point of all these tests is so that we can identify which of our students need extra help. Really? My hand is up! Pick me, please! I can already tell you which of my students need extra help. I can already tell you which of my students are unlikely to graduate. I can already tell you which of my students are likely to have a rough go of it in the real world. I don’t need a standardized test to figure it out. I can also tell you that testing these kids isn’t going to solve their problems.

I’m feeling sorry for my students right now. That they have to trudge down to our computer lab four times a week to endure this punishment is a travesty. I think they should love coming to school, so I’m trying to counteract the test by concluding the year with another bank of Read Aloud Plays. This week we’re splitting into three groups, assigning parts, and reading and re-reading our plays around a table and at home. Next week we’ll go outside into our courtyard and choreograph our on-stage movements, and a week or two later we’ll invite a couple of other classes to come watch. It’s simple, it’s academically valid, and it’s fun for kids–a nice contrast to the torture and unnecessary complexity of standardized testing.

Scope Reformation CoverSome enjoyable plays with which to end the year include Cyclops (that famed one-eyed monster!), O’ Henry’s A Retrieved Reformation (about safe-cracking ex-con Jimmy Valentine) and Penelope Ann Poe’s Amazing Cell Phone (a spoof of A Tell-Tale Heart). If you have my book, Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories, try “The Nose”, “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” and “The Open Window.” Really, though, any of my Read Aloud Plays will do. This time of year it shouldn’t matter which CCSS or content strand they fit (although they fit many). This time of year, with that doggone standardized test soon behind us, it should just be for fun. For the love of reading. For the love of school.

Do something this month to make your kids love school. Try a set of Read Aloud Plays.

Let me help you get started: click here for a free download of “A Retrieved Reformation” (expired) and here for an always free copy of “Why Use Drama,” my popular guide to using reader’s theater in the classroom. If you like these products, please visit my storefront at TeachersPayTeachers and take a gander at my wide variety of classroom plays.

Happy directing!

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Teacher Appreciation Week

Click here to visit the EZSubPlans page at TpT!I told my students the best thing they could do for me for Teacher Appreciation Week is to stay home. I was kidding, of course. But there’s no doubt that I’d feel more appreciated if I knew people were out there trying to make my job a little more doable. This time of year, as fatigue starts to take its toll, I’m probably the one who needs to stay home once in awhile. But who wants to do all that sub planning? Well, one of my contributions toward making your job easier is EZSubPlans. These emergency absence plans provide seven hours of standards-based lessons that can be implemented at the press of a button, and this week, in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, they’re on sale at TeachersPayTeachers. Click on the banner to go directly to EZSubPlans at TpT, or click here to learn more about how having a couple of sets of EZSubPlans handy will make your next absence worry-free.

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