Archive for category Reading Fluency

How to Create a Library Culture

Click on the library card to preview this title at TpTOne of the greatest things my mother ever did for me was regularly take me to the public library when I was a kid. I don’t recall any exact schedule or regular routine, but I’m guessing every two weeks or so—perhaps more during the summer. On these days my mom would drag my little sister Karen and me away from whatever mud puddle or walnut tree we were in, and we’d all slither into her Ford Falcon and head off to the main branch downtown.

Karen was my best friend growing up, but at the library we mined different tracts. So engaged was I by our library outings that I have no recollection whatsoever of Karen even being present, though I know she was. I sought Daniel Boone and Davy Crocket novelizations, wildlife fiction, and sports biographies, always coming home with a stack of books to conquer before the next visit. I also Dewey-decimaled my way into the architecture section upstairs, pouring over books about drafting and design. When my mom bought me a drafting set one Christmas, I became a master with a t-square and determined to become an architect myself. I got side-tracked during the adolescence of high school, but I’ve used those drafting and design skills in many endeavors. Such was the power of those public library visits.

Click on the library card to preview this play at TpTThe library remains a significant aspect of my lifestyle today. It befuddles me when I see letters to the editor decrying the latest library bond. The writers of these letters want our libraries to charge user fees. They begrudge the $127.45 in annual taxes they pay to maintain our library system. Clearly, these folks never developed that library culture. Perhaps their mothers never took them to the library when they were young.

These days I find myself missing those childhood trips to the library. Perhaps that’s what inspired me to produce my latest Read Aloud Play, The Library Card. I originally wrote this script for Storyworks, where it appeared in October of 2001. It tells the story of African-American author Richard Wright’s relationship with the library. Wright wrote numerous books of significance during the middle of the 20th-century including Native Son and the semi-autobiographical Black Boy. The play is based on an incident from Wright’s youth in which he was denied access to the public library due to his race. The racism theme is obvious, making it an ideal fit for Black History Month, but make no mistake, this play is ultimately about the love of reading and the significance of libraries. With any luck, students who act-out this play will quit taking their access to the library for granted. Should you give the play a run, you might also consider pairing it with a trip to your local public library where you can help kids apply for their own library cards. It’s also worth noting that the story was popularized in William Miller’s inspiring picture book, “Richard Wright and the Library Card,” which makes for another ideal pairing.

Well, I’m off to the library. More plays are coming soon. Happy directing!

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Talk Like a Russian Day

“Talk Like a Russian Day” was a big hit in my classroom. Though it coincided with certain political events, there was nothing political about it. We started the day by watching a YouTube short of a Hollywood voice actor giving us hints about speaking with a Russian accent. He told us not to emulate Chekov from the Star Trek series. Russians, he said, don’t substitute w’s for v’s. None-the-less, we decided Chekov’s style was to our liking, as was Gru’s in Despicable Me. We also liked the cosmonaut in the Armageddon movie. So after watching short clips of each, we embarked on a day in which the goal was to “talk like a Russian” all day long.

Though it seems like a crazy way to run a classroom, especially when I’m trying to deliver instruction on converting between decimals and fractions, the point was to encourage my students to use an accent in their presentation of my play, “The Nose.” The Nose is a short story by Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol, who lived and wrote in the 1800’s. It’s an example of literary farce, meaning a story that defies explanation. Gogol used it to criticize the Russian hierarchy. As the story goes, a mid-level but prideful bureaucrat awakes one morning to find that his nose has inexplicably gone missing. Clasping a handkerchief over his face, he heads straightaway for the police inspector, but on his way he spots his nose getting out of a carriage. Amazingly, it appears to be dressed as a Vice-Governor! Well, the story follows the bureaucrat as he attempts to reclaim his nose, one crazy twist after another.

One of my students, R____, is particularly engaging with her accent and an inspiration to the rest of us. Her enunciation is so scintillating, her sense of timing and inflection so ideal, well, when she is on stage, the play reaches a magical level. R____, by the way, is a Sped student, which just goes to show how powerful Read Aloud Plays can be for otherwise struggling readers.

This week we’re busy building the papier-mâché nose costume, which will be the final touch on what I think will be a smash performance. My second play group, meanwhile, is preparing for their performance of an as of yet unreleased play set in the Wild West, so we followed “Talk with a Russian Day” with “Talk Like a Cowpoke Day.” (The day after that we tried, “Talk Like a Russian Cowpoke,” which we decided meant speaking in a Russian accent while using phrases like “Yippeekayay.”)

The final stretch of another school year is a great time to be messing around with Read Aloud Plays. And no matter how silly the story, plays are an excellent way to promote fluency and engage young readers. Some fun ones to end with include The Nose (which can be found in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories and online here), The Open Window (also from Classic Short Stories), and Peter Rabbit (while the story may seem young, my upper elementary students always have a blast with it). My Jackie Robinson play is both socially impactful and fun to perform, as is The Newsies (“Talk like a Bronxite Day” doesn’t have the same ring to it, but it’d be fun anyway).

If you’ve been doing plays all year and are ready for something more powerful, some hard-hitting titles worth considering include Sitting Down for Dr. King, Stolen Childhoods, and Freedom for the First Time. I try to incorporate accents, dialect, or tidbits of foreign language into my plays whenever I can, so whether serious or silly, you can almost always have a “Talk Like a ____ Day.”

Happy directing!

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April 15 is Jackie Robinson Day

The Major League Baseball season’s Spring Training is underway, which seems a trivial point in the broad scheme of academics. Yet were it not for Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color-barrier, education in America might look alarmingly different.

When I was growing up, I was a sports fanatic. By then, professional sports had already been integrated, so it was easy for me–as Dr. King would say--to judge a man by his character rather than the color of his skin. The grit and tenacity of Matty Alou on the baseball diamond and Terry Metcalf on the gridiron made them my heroes and helped teach me to be “color-blind.” But the fact that Alou and Metcalf were out there at all was the direct result of Jackie Robinson’s own grit and determination.

There was never any doubt that Robinson had the talent to play in the Major Leagues. The issue was whether or not he’d have the character necessary to withstand the racist slurs and physical violence that followed him everywhere he went, both on and off the ballfield. Imagine what would have happened had Jackie responded in kind, perhaps taking a swing at a white player who’d deliberately spiked him, or kicking dirt at an umpire who refused to call a fair game. He would have been quickly drummed out of baseball. Integration of all our institutions, including education, would have been delayed for decades.

No doubt you have a crop of kids in your classroom who idolize professional athletes. Whether black, white, or striped (as Pee Wee Reese is quoted as saying), learning about Jackie Robinson will help them judge their fellow man by his character just as they judge their sports heroes by their grit.

April 15th is Jackie Robinson Day, the day every Major League player wears number 42 in Jackie’s honor. The league doesn’t celebrate it because Jackie was a great player, but because of the importance and difficulty of Jackie’s accomplishment. It’s a great time to enact How Jackie Saved the World. Kids consistently tell me it’s one of their absolute favorites to perform. I’m confident your students—especially your young sports fans—will enjoy it as well. You can preview and/or purchase it from TeachersPayTeachers by clicking here. You can also listen to some of my students performing it by following this link.

Happy directing!

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So You Want to Be President?

It would appear being president didn't do Taft's health any favors.Ah, politics. Everywhere you turn, folks are questioning the qualifications and competencies of each of the current candidates for the White House. No doubt your students are, too–parroting the perspective of their parents. It leads me to believe that kids need to hear what History reveals about being Commander-in-Chief. Take for example William Howard Taft (at left). Teddy Roosevelt used to call him a fathead, right there in public. And not just on the campaign trail either, but while Taft was serving in the Oval Office! Or how about Benjamin Harrison? He once said the Presidency was akin to being in jail!

With all that in mind, here’s a free play on the subject. It’s from my book, Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America, and it’s free. Perhaps it’ll help your students to begin forming their own ideas about leading the country. At the very least, it’ll provide you with a timely language arts activity.

Note that this free version hasn’t been reformatted like all the rest of my plays. My apologies for the low-quality PDF of pages from the book (with an updated copyright notice slapped in place). I felt it was more important to get this to you before the debates and the election itself than take the time to get it reformatted. But if you like it, consider tracking down the original (its out-of-print, so it can be hard to find, but available through Scholastic’s Teacher Express), or watch for the reformatted version coming soon to ReadAloudPlays.com. It’ll be paired with a second “presidential” play and include extension activities, teaching notes, and a comprehension activity. You can also check out a ton of other nifty plays at my TeachersPayTeachers store. Nearly all have been previously published in Scholastic classroom magazines, so you know they’re of professional quality!

Whatever the case–and regardless of your political affiliation–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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What’s Hindering Your Low Readers?

Perhaps many of you have figured this stuff out long ago. Me, after nearly 25 years of teaching, I recently had a couple of instructional epiphanies.

Click here to visit Lauren Tarshis' author pageThe first one was when one of my 5th graders showed me a picture of her mother. “This was at the visitation center,” she said. “The only time I get to see my mom is when we go to the visitation center.” A day later we were on our way to the local science museum when another student pointed out the window and piped up, “I think that’s the safe house we stayed at one time.” Later that same day my admin handed me my latest set of Oral Reading Fluency scores showing both of those students near the bottom. As I looked over the rest of the data, I suddenly realized all my lowest performing students are victims of childhood trauma: violence, tempestuous divorce, drugs, homelessness… Then, taking a look at my top performers, I realized nearly all are from healthy, financial stable, intact families. Thinking back over years of high and low test scores, the correlation is obvious. Early-childhood trauma and neglect may be the most significant factor contributing to academic failure. Politicians who ignore it are insincere in their efforts to “improve schools.”

If you’re like me, you’re constantly wrestling with how to help these kids. What works? We’re not going to undo the trauma or erase their memories. When it comes to reading, however, I’ve landed on three things that appear to hook them, three things that seem to motivate even these reluctant readers to put some “miles on the tongue.”

The first, naturally, is Read Aloud Plays. I write and promote read aloud plays not merely because I want to sell you a script, but because they’re exceptionally effective. I don’t need to belabor the point here. If you want to know more about reader’s theater, including the brain research that supports it, check out my free download entitled, “Why Use Drama?”

Roald Dahl books are also compelling for this group of kids, though admittedly this may be as much about my own enthusiasm for Matilda and The Witches as it is the books themselves. I have so much fun reading aloud sections of Boy or having small groups read Fantastic Mr. Fox, even my most reluctant readers catch the Dahl bug.

But the best thing I’ve discovered lately is the I Survived series. These books are written by my editor at Storyworks, Lauren Tarshis, so it surprises me that it’s taken me so long to start using them in class. This year, having finally amassed enough copies, I was able to assign all my students the task of reading one during silent reading sessions. Yeah, I know: SSR is often a waste of time; many students—especially the struggling ones—only pretend to read. Consequently, I use an approach I call “Directed Silent Reading.” It works with any age-appropriate books, but because these I Survived books have consistent themes, high-interest plots, and conquerable reading levels, they’re particularly fruitful. So much so that even my lowest performing students are begging for more.

I begin by telling my students they’re only going to read for a minute. At the end of the minute, I ask the kids to “turn and talk” to a neighbor about something they found interesting from their minute (or two) of reading. After they’ve had a couple minutes to share, I then ask for three or four volunteers to share out with the class. As the students hear their classmates tell about Hurricane Katrina or Pearl Harbor, the enthusiasm becomes contagious. We repeat the process, this time for three or four minutes of reading, and then again for eight to ten more. You can vary the questioning, too. “Be prepared to tell us something you know about your main character,” or “Provide some details about the story’s setting” are other “go to” questions. By the end of the session, all my kiddos have read for 20 minutes, discussed what they’ve read, and have invested enough in the story that they’ve committed to it. You don’t get such enthusiasm or commitment from homework reading, traditional SSR, or even oral reading, especially not from struggling readers.

There are no easy answers when it comes to overcoming the childhood trauma suffered by our lowest-performing students. But by using plays, Roald Dahl books, the I Survived series, and Directed Silent Reading, perhaps we can help them create a survival story of their own.

Happy directing.

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