Archive for category Common Core State Standards

Teaching Grit & Resilience

Sybil Cover_ScopeSome of my colleagues were complaining recently that kids today don’t have much in the way of grit, meaning that indefinable resilience that pushes one to overcome hardship. I’ve had enough kids with runny noses whine about needing to call home sick to think maybe it’s true. Then again, as I write this I’m picturing the faces of former students who overcame poverty and homelessness to earn college degrees. Whatever the case, “grit” is an important “soft skill” worthy of our attention. It can be taught, and a great way to teach it is by sharing the story of Sybil Ludington.

Few folks outside upstate New York know much about Sybil–if you’ve ever passed through Carmel, maybe you caught a glimpse of a statue depicting her grit—but she’s considered a hero of the American Revolution.

When General Tryon’s British fleet landed near Danbury, Connecticut, Sybil leapt upon her horse and rode forty miles in the dead of night to call to arms the American troops. She was just sixteen at the time, and her grit and determination is believed to have saved the Hudson Highlands from invasion.

Sybil’s story is a compelling one, and the best way to share it is through a Read Aloud Play. My play about Sybil appeared in the September 2015 issue of Scholastic’s Scope magazine, and this month it makes a reappearance in Storyworks. Imagine your students playing the part of Sybil, or General Washington, or the famous American spy, Enoch Crosby. How much more powerful the story when kids actually get to be Tories and bandits, minutemen, or even Sybil herself?

You can still snag a class set of the Sybil play by becoming a Storyworks subscriber. Storyworks has been providing fantastic language arts content for twenty-four years, and these days it also comes with a host of extraordinary online support material and extensions, all carefully aligned with Common Core standards. On top of that, nearly all my plays appear in Storyworks at least a year before they’re available at TpT. You can check out Storyworks by clicking here.

But Sybil isn’t the only resilient character around whom I’ve built a Read Aloud Play. Deborah Sampson demonstrates grit in The Secret Soldier, as does Sheyann Webb’s character in Gonna Let it Shine and Claudette Colvin’s in The Girl Who Got Arrested. The Newsies, Stolen Childhoods, Box Brown, Jackie Robinson, and Bird Girl are equally great scripts for teaching toughness and determination.

Do any of today’s students have Sybil Ludington’s kind of grit? Let’s hope they never have to face the same conditions. But just in case, consider giving them a bit of training through a Read Aloud Play.

Happy directing!

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The End of Standardized Tests?

Click here to watch this TED TalkWe’ve been seeing it for the last year or so: the education pendulum on the verge of swinging. Standardized testing, Common Core standards, standards-based report cards (with all their annoying numbers), all being shown the door—or at least a dingy corner of the room. Enter, stage right, what I’m calling “purpose-driven instruction.” If you’re not familiar with it, check out this TED talk by education expert Sir Ken Robinson. He shows how the “factory model” of education created by the industrial revolution is outdated. The education documentary “Most Likely to Succeed,” which debuted not long ago at Sundance and is now in limited release, takes it a step further. It shows how “soft skills” such as critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and leadership need to be the focal point of instruction. Rather than having students memorize content (which is all readily available at our thumb-tips), we teach these soft skills through purpose-driven instruction.

Purpose-driven instruction involves having an end product. This end product determines the skills that need to be learned and provides the motivation to learn them. A person building a deck, for example, needs to know about the permit requirements, how to prepare the site, footings, measurement, using a chop saw, and a host of other things. Said person learns all this stuff, in a sense, “on the job,” while actually working on his or her deck. And because he or she is motivated to finish the project, said person is willing to learn the skills, even when it’s as uncomfortable as navigating the city’s building permit process. This person gains mastery through authentic application. (Sound like project-based learning, right? Sure, but keep reading.)

To teach those same skills independent of actually building a deck seems rather ludicrous, but it’s what we do in school all the time. For example, we typically teach calculus without any purpose other than that we might need to know it at some point in the future. No wonder kids ask, “Why do I need to know this?” And even when kids do “know it,” they usually don’t. The “Most Likely to Succeed” filmmakers demonstrate how even students who demonstrate assessed mastery forget pretty much everything within just a few months.

What’s all this got to do with Read Aloud Plays? Well, plays, by their nature, are purpose-driven. Simply by scheduling a performance and inviting an audience, a read aloud play becomes an authentic way to teach a host of “soft-skills.” Get this: in “Most Likely to Succeed,” a play performance is presented as the epitome of purpose-driven instruction and with amazing results (I can’t wait for you to see the documentary!). Plays are especially effective in that you can use them even with large classes (a fundamental symptom of our industrialized education approach). In any given month, I have my class of 34 split into three groups, each working on a play. Granted, these are rather simple performances. Sets are kept to a minimum, if at all, costuming is limited to just a few accessories to signify character (a parasol or a certain hat, for instance), and kids can carry their script in their hand if they want. But it remains that students must collaborate and cooperate, they must practice independently and as a team, and they must “finish” (the play must go on) regardless of broken legs, absenteeism, or fire bells. Students learn about subtle forms of communication such as inflection and innuendo, about body language and movement, all while happily developing their core reading skills. Instead of being forcibly required to read a text book, presumably to improve assessable fluency, they’re willingly—even eagerly—honing their fluency to present a successful performance. That’s a significant shift of the paradigm, as Robinson calls it.

With Read Aloud Plays, students can do more than just read and act, too. They can direct. They can build sets. They can write and adapt scripts. They can design and make costumes. They can create playbills. They can create tickets to the show. They can build online promos. They can create posters. They can film and post the video of the play online. They can serve as ushers. They can run a snack bar. They can write reviews. And, of special importance, they can self-evaluate and provide feedback. No letter grade, report card, or standardized test required.

Those of you who’ve been around for a couple decades have probably seen “purpose-driven instruction” under different names. And critical thinking skills certainly aren’t new to the education community. But whether you’re a proponent of project-based learning, student-led conferences, or reader’s theater who has had to fly under the radar of the standardized data miners, Read Aloud Plays are for you. Whether you’re someone looking to try something other than the text book, or someone who remains committed to teaching to the Common Core, Read Aloud Plays are for you. They’re a fantastic purpose-driven way to teach to the reading standards while simultaneously developing those essential “soft skills.”

Click on the Read Aloud Plays tab for access to a wide-variety of plays with focused content. You’ll find great classroom plays about explorers, the Revolution, Civil Rights, and more, or visit my store at TeachersPayTeachers. And if you haven’t yet seen “Most Likely to Succeed,” look for a screening near you.

Happy directing!

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Act Aloud Plays

The Lewis Hine photo that serves as an inspiration for the fictional AnielaThat you’re visiting my blog tells me you’re most likely already a fan of reader’s theater, so I needn’t tell you how reader’s theater makes literature class that much more compelling, or how drama is referenced 47 times in the Common Core, or how nearly all my plays are first “vetted” by the editors of Scholastic classroom magazines where they’re published long before hitting TeachersPayTeachers. Instead, let me tell you how my Read Aloud Plays could just as easily be called “Act Aloud Plays.” My evidence? Well, every so often I stumble upon a classroom webpage featuring a videocast of a school play or musical that turns out to be mine. And because most publishers charge a pound of flesh, a fatted cow, and a hefty fee for performance rights, I frequently get emails from polite teachers verifying that such rights are indeed included in the original purchase price (they are). I also get requests to adapt my stories or include them in performances outside the school setting. For example, last year a community theater in Carolina included my adaption of A Christmas Carol in its holiday dinner theater, and the Tshwane Children’s Theatre in Irene, South Africa, performed my Peter Rabbit play in rural African schools. Pretty cool.

I think the popularity of these plays stems from the fact that they’re written to be acted out, not merely read aloud. When I create a play for Scholastic, I imagine students performing it on stage. How will the kids move across the floor? How simple can the set be? What must the characters say and do to help the audience grasp what’s going on? Is the setting consistent throughout the scene? How can I minimize the presence of the narrator? Such questions help build plays teachers can use on the actual stage.

Click on the cover to preview or purchaseSays Officer Lockstock, the narrator in the Broadway musical Urinetown, “nothing can kill a show like too much exposition.” Save for the occasional soliloquy, narration is rare in 3-act shows, yet it’s often necessary in classroom plays. It quickly provides the background information required to reduce a complex story to a 15 or 20 minute performance. Still, as I craft scripts, I ‘m constantly looking for ways to minimize the exposition or find creative ways to deliver it. In my Jackie Robinson play, for example, the narration is delivered by the hot dog and peanut vendors. They set-up Jackie’s story while simultaneously hawking ballpark franks and Cracker Jacks. It’s as if they themselves are characters speaking to a grandstand full of spectators.

Though my latest TpT release utilizes narrators, it was most certainly designed with the stage in mind. The Newsies first appeared in the March 2015 issue of Scholastic’s Scope magazine. It tells the story of the New York newsboy strike of 1899 through the eyes of a 12-year-old Polish immigrant. Aniela Kozlowski goes to work selling newspapers just as the strike unfolds (no pun intended, just questionable blogging). Ani’s character is based upon one of my own students who shares with me a Polish heritage, so I was particularly thrilled to watch her play the role late this past school year. Historically-accurate, rich with dialect, and embedded with great pictures from famed photographer Lewis Hine, The Newsies is unquestionably one of my best plays to date. Not only is it a play about actual kids showing the grit, determination, and unity necessary to overcome some pretty extreme challenges, it’s also a nice reminder that battles had to be fought to establish some degree of balance between the interests of big business and the common laborer, that unionism has played a significant role in establishing the American Dream.

You can preview or purchase The Newsies at TeachersPayTeachers. I encourage you to pair it with Stolen Childhoods, my play from the same era about Lewis Hine’s crusade to end child labor. Or, take The Newsies to a whole other level and make it a musical. I did this very thing with a Br’er Rabbit script this past year. Though initially rather daunting, something magical happened once the kids started singing (and eventually dancing) to Zippity Doo Dah and Sinatra’s High Hopes. Br’er Rabbit ended up being the highlight of our school year. By incorporating songs from the 1890s, The Newsies will be a smash hit, too. You’ll find Ta-ra-ra Boom de-ay, The Sidewalks of New York, A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight, In the Good Ol’ Summer Time, and My Wild Irish Rose all on Youtube and/or Amazon. I can see places in the script for all of them.

Of course, there are dozens of other “act aloud plays” on my webpage and TpT site. Any one of them might be just what you need to get your students up and active on stage—to bring a little extra magic to your language arts class.

Happy directing!

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Bart Simpson: Smarter? Balanced?

Bart take the Smarter Balanced testSpringfield, Oregon, has made national news for something other than being the birthplace of Bart Simpson. The Springfield School District Board of Education has openly rejected the state-mandated Smarter Balanced tests. Though unable to officially “opt-out” as a district, the Board has strongly encouraged its district families to refuse to allow their children to participate.

I haven’t seen the Simpson’s recently, but this is sounding a bit like one of its episodes. Imagine Bart and Lisa taking the Smarter Balanced test. Lisa would be stressed out. The test would dominate her world for weeks. There’d be sleepless nights, hair loss, perhaps counseling sessions. Bart, on the other hand, he’d get it. Despite Marge saying he’s neither smart nor balanced, Bart would understand that the test has no bearing on whether or not he’ll graduate, that he won’t even be at Springfield Elementary when the scores are finally released (and therefore Marge will probably never see them), and that the best way to stab at that teacher who made him stay in during recess is to punch in a bunch of random answers. Ask Bart or most any fifth grader about the Smarter Balanced test and they’ll tell you the same thing the Springfield Board of Education is saying: it’s a colossal waste of time.

The real Springfield isn’t some backwoods town rejecting the test because of some Ned Flanders-inspired Common Core conspiracy theory. Instead, it’s a thriving community of 60,000 just a stone’s throw from liberal-thinking Eugene and its University of Oregon, a driving force in education theory. With nearly 11,000 students, Springfield is the 13th largest school district in Oregon. Nor is the Board’s decision without consequences. Students who don’t test are counted among the number of students who don’t meet standards. If all of Springfield’s students reject the test, Springfield’s percentage of students meeting will appear as a zero. Furthermore, schools and districts that fall below a 95 percent participation rate on state tests are not eligible for awards or recognition. (State of Washington OSPI)

Smarter Balanced “was designed to compare districts and teachers, not to help students learn,” said one board member. I take it a step further by saying that the test itself so interferes with real instruction, its impact on learning should be classified along with bomb threats and snow days.

The Board also points out the cost. “These dollars could be spent in other, more productive areas for our students.” While the old Oregon test (OAKS) cost the state about $3 million annually, Smarter Balanced costs $27.3 million. For those who don’t want to do the math, that’s more than a 900% increase. Over ten years, the new test will cost taxpayers an extra quarter of a billion dollars. This in a state that has one of the highest class sizes in the nation and among the shortest school years. (Note: if I were a 5th grader taking the Smarter Balanced test, I’d have to spend the next several paragraphs explaining the details of that math, including the fact that I’ve rounded off that $300,000 because, well, I really don’t want to waste your time with trivialities…though I sense $300k is trivial only to bureaucrats and politicians.)

The Board also speaks to the fact that the test’s content and format is dramatically different than that of the SAT and ACT (which, when you get down to it, are the only standardized tests that have any real bearing on a student’s future), that the test is unfair, and that, well, it’s just too darn long. In my school, when we’re not sending kids off to show they’re both Smarter and more Balanced than their peers, we’re subjecting them to a long battery of data-driven tests with no relation to the classroom. Some kids even miss instruction so they can take the same test every week, over and over again, as if they’ll have magically changed in the four school days since the last one.

We’re told the test is important because it reveals which students need extra assistance and in which areas our instruction is deficient, but these are hollow excuses. Any good teacher can spot the real-world Barts without special testing. And when it comes to assessing our own instructional weaknesses, we were more able to discern them using the old OAKS test. In fact, data derived from the test benefits no one. Because my fifth graders have all moved on to middle school where it is unlikely anyone will examine their individual results when the data is finally released sometime next year, they will NEVER know their scores.

Concludes the Springfield board: “the Smarter Balanced test is neither smart nor balanced. It is poorly designed, discriminatory, often punitive and is of little benefit to our students. It does not inform student learning, and furthermore, does not make the best use of limited classroom time. It encumbers teachers and staff to focus both time and resources on an assessment that has shown little, if any, value.”

I say, three cheers for Springfield. I wish more school boards would stand with Springfield and reject this madness, but I guess maybe you have to have a little bit of Bart Simpson in your DNA for such bravado.

What does any of this have to do with read aloud plays? Well, if you’re using enriching activities such as plays, musicals, tensbooks, Storyworks magazine, read-alouds, hands-on Science, math games, or whatever it is you do to get kids excited about learning, three cheers to you. Don’t let testing stop you from teaching.

Happy directing!

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Ten Plays for Black History Month

MLK Plays Preview3 700x900The Daring Escape of Henry “Box” Brown is making a reappearance in the January issue of Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine. In addition to a new look with original illustrations, it means Storyworks subscribers have access to a host of top-notch CCSs comprehension activities via Scholastic’s web-based library. Pretty sweet. Coincidentally, the TpT version also just went through an update that adds a couple of comprehension activities and improved formatting, so you’re in luck either way.

But “Box” isn’t the only reader’s theater title suitable for Black History Month or MLK Day celebrations. In fact, I have a wide assortment. You can quickly preview four of them with my newest product: MLK Plays Free Preview Pack. It includes summaries and the first couple of pages of four MLK reader’s theater scripts including Martin’s Big Dream (The Childhood of Martin Luther King, Jr.), MLK’s Freedom March (lovely historical fiction set against the March on Washington where King delivered his most famous speech), In the Jailhouse with Dr. King (another potent work of historical fiction set during the Bus Boycott), and Gonna Let it Shine (non-fiction about the “Bloody Sunday” events in Selma, Alabama). You can download the free PDF preview at TpT.

But there’s still more. Click on the Read Aloud Plays tab to uncover wonderful reader’s theater about Jackie Robinson, Claudette Colvin, the Greensboro Four, and others. In all cases, $3 gives the original purchaser reproduction rights to copy a full class set each year for use in his or her own classroom. It even includes school performance rights!

In my classroom, my 76 fifth graders will be learning and presenting six of these plays over the next two months. It’s going to make for a memorable Black History Month. Join us. Celebrate the legacy of Dr. King with engaging reader’s theater from ReadAloudPlays.com.

Happy directing!

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Old But New Favorites

Click on the cover to preview or purchase!Imagine saying the Pledge of Allegiance to a bright yellow flag featuring a coiled rattlesnake! The history of the flag of the United States is a compelling story, but historians are divided as to the facts. Did Betsy Ross really create the first flag? This play, which was originally published in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America and later reprinted in the January 2002 issue of Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine, encourages readers to become history sleuths. It includes the play script, a short reading supplement, a bubble quiz, a comprehension activity built around William Canby’s 1870 treatise on the matter, answer keys, and extension activities.

Betsy Ross: Fact or Fiction? is the first of several old but new plays destined for TeachersPayTeachers this season. Having recently re-acquired full publishing rights to the plays in my book, Symbols of America, I’ll be packaging up all these old favorites for easy downloading on TpT.

As with all my plays, the Symbols collection is suitable for reader’s theater or full stage production. You can use the plays to build fluency and to satisfy a variety of Common Core standards in Literature and Informational Text. Best of all, the original purchaser is licensed to print one class set per year for use in his or her own classroom.

To preview or purchase Betsy Ross, click here. Be sure to check back often for “old but new plays” about MLK, Mount Rushmore, the War of 1812, World War Two, and more.

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Prevent Zombies: Teach the Arts!

Is standardized testing creating zombies?In my school we’ve taken to referring to our state-of-the-art music room as the “Musicless Room.” Oh, it still says “Music” on the door, but after elementary music was cut a few years ago, it’s since been used as a computer lab, a professional development site, a Title I room, and this coming year, a regular ed classroom. Hence the name.

Way back in 2008, President Obama criticized No Child Left Behind legislation because its overemphasis on core subjects contributed to the loss of arts education. “Studies in Chicago have demonstrated that test scores improved faster for students enrolled in low-income schools that link arts across the curriculum than scores for students in schools lacking such programs,” read the President’s official statement on the Arts. Unfortunately, Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, the Common Core, and the Smarter-Balanced test all seem to have heightened the emphasis on testing and, as a result, further undermined the Arts.

But there’s hope! If you need help convincing your administrator to allow more time for the Arts, including the use of Read Aloud Plays, here are ten studies compiled by the staff writers at OnlineColleges.net that show a strong connection between arts education and academics:

1.      A 2002 report by the Arts Education Partnership revealed that schoolchildren exposed to drama, music and dance are often more proficient at reading, writing, and math.

2.      The 2006 Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum study on art education showed a link between arts education and improved literacy skills.

3.      In 2007, Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland published a study stating the arts don’t actually improve academic performance, but it shouldn’t matter.

4.      A 2005 report by the Rand Corporation called “A Portrait of the Visual Arts” argues that art education does more than just give students a creative outlet. It can actually help connect them to the larger world, ultimately improving community cohesion.

5.      Teachers and students alike benefit from schools that have strong art climates, a 1999 study called “Learning In and Through the Arts” demonstrated.

6.      The Center for Arts Education published a report in 2009 that suggests arts education may improve graduation rates.

7.      A 2011 study called “Reinvesting in Arts Education” found that integrating arts with other subjects can help raise achievement levels.

8.      A study of Missouri public schools in 2010 found that greater arts education led to fewer disciplinary infractions and higher attendance, graduation rates and test scores.

9.      In “Neuroeducation: Learning, Arts and the Brain,” Johns Hopkins researchers shared findings showing that arts education can help rewire the brain in positive ways.

10. A 2009 survey, part of the “Nation’s Report Card: Arts 2008″ report, found that access to arts education opportunities hasn’t changed much in a decade.

Of course, all these studies really do is show that one can prove just about anything with a study. Just as these ten support arts education, there are numerous others that suggest there’s no correlation at all. This New York Times article does a pretty succinct job of debunking any notion that the Arts lead to improved scores in reading, writing, and math.

But so what? Whether or not the Arts contributes to better test scores shouldn’t be the question. I, for one, believe classroom activities that emphasize creativity build more well-rounded people and consequently better prepare students for professional life. While there are no doubt plenty of jobs out there that require workers to never deviate from a scripted set of instructions, there are also plenty of professions that value creative thinking, which is really what the Arts are all about. It was creative thinking that brought us Facebook, Starbucks, Dave Matthews Live at Red Rocks, and the device on which you’re reading this blog. If we want our schools to produce the next generation of worker drones and zombie-like consumers, then sure, let’s keep on “racing to the,” er, “top.” But if we want our schools to produce engineers, entrepreneurs, and the people who will solve the world’s problems, then for cryin’ out loud, let’s toss aside the textbooks and scripted programs and restore the Arts to our classrooms.

One easy method of embedding the Arts in the classroom while still fulfilling the Common Core requirements is to include Read Aloud Plays in your instruction (“drama” is referenced 47 times in the Common Core). For around three bucks you get performance rights (assuming you represent a school) and reproduction rights so that you can copy a full classroom set every year. Also, many of the plays come with supplemental activities or questioning strategies. For a fairly complete list of available titles, click here or visit ReadAloudPlays.com.

Thank you for inspiring the next generation of creative thinkers and decision-makers!

Happy directing!

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