Archive for category Free Stuff

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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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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Nine Minutes, Two Misconceptions, and One Easy Fix

The good people of America have some misconceptions about teaching. Planning for a lesson, they believe, is as easy as cracking open a text book and assigning the questions at the end of the chapter. Not only would that be low-level instruction, it also isn’t how today’s curricula are designed.

Why Use Drama cover 220x289The fifth grade reading text adopted by my school district, for example, includes a six-volume teacher’s edition, a balanced literacy planning guide, a CD-Rom planning guide, a manipulatives kit, a set of blackline masters, a classroom management kit, an integration kit, a set of theme tests, an extra-support management kit, two student workbooks and the teacher’s manual to go with them, three file boxes of mysterious support material I have yet to open, and fifteen small crates of so-called “mini-readers.” There’s so much of it that it takes a hand-truck to carry it anywhere.

Let’s ignore for a moment the cost of all this stuff (almost $3,000 for the teacher’s materials alone). What I want to accentuate here is that in order to plan one 30 minute reading lesson, I must wade through and be familiar with every last piece of it.

And how much time do I have to do it? According to planning time standards in my district: nine minutes. I have nine minutes to plan it, evaluate each individual student’s performance, record the results, and report the outcomes.

This leads me to another public misconception: teachers are only working when they’re standing in front of the class.

As we all know, delivering lessons to our students can be demanding. One study measuring stress by the number of decisions made per minute concluded that teaching is second only to air traffic control. So standing in front of our students is indeed “work.” But could it be possible that the time teachers spend planning may be the more demanding of the two?

You and I know that quality lessons take time to plan and prepare. But nine minutes? Imagine Jerry Seinfeld or Chris Rock preparing a ten minute bit for the Tonight Show but given only 3 minutes to do it. That’s the same ratio.

Nine minutes to plan, prepare, and assess each thirty minute lesson (not to mention all our other duties such as completing report cards, writing performance goals, communicating with parents, dealing with misbehavior, and attending meetings). Nine minutes.

The chefs on Hell’s Kitchen don’t have it any worse.

It’s no wonder I breathe a sigh of relief whenever I start a new set of classroom plays. In comparison to today’s over-stuffed textbook programs, planning and preparing read aloud plays is “easy-peasy.” To find out how easy, download my free guide on teaching with plays, Why Use Drama? Or tune in to this short podcast from the folks at Literacy Special Interest.

Read Aloud Plays are comparatively easy to plan, fun for the students and teacher, and inexpensive. And with a host of topics available—from Aesop’s Fables to the Apollo Moon Landing—they can be integrated with nearly every subject. What’s more, they’re an excellent way to teach to the Common Core (which refers to “drama” 47 times).

So this month, give your students and yourself a break: set aside that monster textbook and use you nine minutes to plan a month-long trio of Read Aloud Plays.

Happy directing!

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What’s Your Fatal Flaw?

Click on the cover to preview or purchase!In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic short story, The Birth-mark, the main character becomes obsessed with his beautiful wife’s one and only imperfection and ends up killing her in his attempt to remove it.

It’s a story about love, science, and perfection. It includes a mad scientist, a beautiful maiden, a bloody heart, an Igor-like lab assistant, secret potions, and fatal flaws. Kids love to enact it, and because it includes numerous literary devices that make for engaging discussions or fluid written responses, it’s a great way to teach to the Common Core.

Aylmer (the mad scientist), appears to be the main character, but is he really the protagonist or the antagonist? Both Aylmer and his beautiful wife (the victim) are dynamic characters. They both change significantly. How?  What does Aylmer’s nightmare, in which he removes Georgiana’s heart, foreshadow?  The play includes a character, James, who doesn’t appear in the original story. Why is he included and how does it impact point of view? Toss in the elements of setting, mood, imagery, and irony, and you have a made-to-order Common-Core-meeting reading activity.

I’ve been told by some that they just don’t have time to work “skits” or “drama” into their classroom; adherence to core reading, writing, and math leaves no room for fun stuff like Read Aloud Plays. But I protest! Drama is core reading. Read Aloud Plays, including such classics as The Birth-mark, The Monkey’s Paw, A Retrieved Reformation, and many others on my site, are a perfect way to teach to the CCSs. And now it’s even easier. Click here to download a FREE activity sheet. It addresses Literature: Key Ideas and Details, and can be used with any of my Read Aloud Plays from the classic short stories series.

Happy Directing!

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