Archive for category Teaching Strategies

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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Checkbooks & Taxes

Jamie's Checkbook RegisterWhile digging around for something to write about this week I stumbled upon a transcript from a pretty cool podcast I appeared on several years ago. The show, Talking Fin Lit, which was sponsored by McGraw-Hill, was designed to look at issues of financial literacy and education. Host Mark Gura interviewed me at length about The Checkbook Project, and since March is the ideal time to kick off checkbooks in the classroom, I thought it might be neat to share some of the material. What’s here is actually the “pre-interview.” Though the show is no longer being produced, the web portal is still there, meaning you can hear the actual interview here.

TFL: We’ll start out by my asking you for your background. How long have you been a teacher? Curriculum writer? Describe your current involvement in Education, etc.

I’ve been teaching for twenty years. I’m currently teaching 4th and 5th grade in southern Oregon. I started writing material for Scholastic in 1998. My editor at Storyworks, one of the classroom magazines, has kind of championed my work, giving me opportunities to write for Scope, Scholastic News, Instructor, and other divisions. I’ve also published three books through Scholastic Teaching Resources.

When it comes to curriculum writing, I suspect every teacher is a curriculum writer to some degree. You get so much material thrown at you that just doesn’t work, material created by people who don’t actually teach, who don’t understand the realities of the classroom, and who certainly don’t know the unique needs of your given class, you end up creating your own.

I think what you see at TeachersPayTeachers, the website where people can purchase teacher-created curriculum, is something of a backlash against the big textbook companies. Not only is everything there created by people on the front lines of teaching, but it’s comparatively cheap, you can buy only what you need, and it’s kid-tested.
TFL: What attracted you to create Financial Literacy Curriculum?

I work hard to help kids connect what they do in school with the real world. Creating The Checkbook Project was an attempt to do that.

Kids and their families today tend to dismiss the importance of education—I call it “academic apathy.” It was particularly profound in a class I had six or seven years ago [now ten or twelve years ago]. In an effort to motivate that group of children, I started developing The Checkbook Project. It helped them connect their work habits with the real world. They could see the relationship between their habits and their financial or material success.

TFL: “The Checkbook Project classroom economy financial literacy” – is one of the FREE lessons available through the Teachers Pay Teachers. Can you comment about your decision to ‘give away’ this very well produced item? (and maybe you can comment about Teachers Pay Teachers while we’re at it)…

From a business standpoint, I’m using it to drive traffic to my website and to showcase the quality of my other material on TpT. Of course, I could have done that with one of my other products just a easily.
I’m pretty cynical about the way our society operates these day. I look at our economy and I see snake-oil salesmen at every turn. Those with financial savvy are taking advantage of a populace with very little financial sense. I want my students to see how the real world works so that they don’t become victims. Maybe I see making The Checkbook Project available for free as a way to stick it to The Man just a bit.

TFL: On your profile at TpT you state, “They’re my kids, so naturally I want the best for them. The materials I create are designed to give them the most academically-rewarding and personally enjoyable school experience possible.” How does The Checkbook Project reflect that understanding and philosophy?

My students love coming to class, and a big reason is the kid-centric activities I use. The Checkbook Project is especially engaging. Kids clamor to be in my class because of it. These days, my colleagues have all adopted it, so every 4th and 5th grader in our building gets to participate.

TFL: The Checkbook Project isn’t a “lesson” in the classic sense of the word. It’s more establishing a unique CONTEXT that establishes a model reality… one that models and demonstrates important (finance) lessons by immersing the students in it. It occurs to me that there’s something of the “MicroSociety” approach to education here (in which a miniature replica of the real world is established in the school or class so that the students can “live” it… and there’s something of MONOPOLY in it, too. Please take a few minutes to describe what The Checkbook Project is – How it runs in your classroom (and that of teachers who replicate it)…

A micro-society is a great way to describe it. In short, kids get paid for the work they do in the classroom. For example, they earn $1 for each percentage point on tests they’ve passed, they get paid for classroom jobs, and they earn money for turning in their homework. You could say it’s imaginary money, but it really isn’t because they turn around and use their earnings to pay rent on their desks, buy goods and services, and pay taxes. They keep track of all this in checkbook registers donated by local banks, and they report their earnings on a weekly tax report.

Each year the classroom economy takes on a life of its own. Kids start businesses, some selling products such as school supplies, jewelry, or candy, and others offering services such as desk cleaning. I’ve had kids start charities or become landlords. Every year some ingenious kid comes up with a new twist, and its always organic. All I do is get it started.

TFL: How did you come to develop The Checkbook Project?

I had a class of kids who were seriously apathetic about school. They didn’t care whether they passed tests or got good grades. Their parents didn’t seem to care if they did homework or even came to school. The Checkbook Project was designed to motivate them. The financial literacy that comes with it is a natural outcome.

TFL: What do you feel/know your students get from it?

The kids tend to improve their work ethic. They see the relationship between their work habits and financial success, and therefore make connections with the real world. It focuses kids on their habits, behaviors, and judgment.

Four years ago I had an extremely challenging class of kids, a class widely known for its poor behavior and thuggery; but after using The Checkbook Project for three months, it finished the year as one of the best classes in the school.

TFL: What sorts of response and feedback have you gotten from: Students? Parents? Supervisors? Replicating colleagues?

Everyone who has witnessed The Checkbook Project at work in my classroom has praised it. Because a non-performing student can become “homeless” or “bankrupt,” I always worry about offending parents, so I make a point to say that we’d rather have the kids learn these harsh lessons in 5th grade than in real life. Parents seem to get that.

TFL: Please describe the materials that are available for teachers interested in replicating… what sorts of materials have you produced? And how can teachers get them? How might they be modified?

You can get The Checkbook Project guide for free on my storefront at TpT. The guide provides the “how-to.” I also have a variety of helpful student forms on my website at macklewis.com. The tax report is a must have, but there is also a fun classroom job application, a desk rental agreement, and many others.

TFL: What next? How would you like to further refine this program? Extend it?

Each season I try to add another piece based on where my kids and colleagues take it. Perhaps at some point I’ll package it up and offer it to my publisher. We’ll see.

TFL: Would you care to comment about the state of Personal Finance readiness/sophistication that US kids demonstrate? The state of Financial Literacy Education?

I find it interesting that in many high schools, students are required to take calculus or trigonometry, yet they no longer take any form of consumer math. It seems to me that for the average kid, the skills learned in consumer math are far more likely to be needed in the real world.

TFL: What would you best advice be to educators who are just about to start a program of personal finance or who have started but need to refine and deepen their program now?

Not that I’m trying to sell my program—after all, it’s free—but I’d encourage them to go to my website and take a look at it.

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It’s Not Too Late to Celebrate Black History Month!

MLK Plays Preview3 700x900My plays often make return appearances in Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine, such as The Daring Escape of Henry “Box” Brown this time last year. In addition to a new look with original illustrations, Storyworks subscribers get treated to a host of top-notch CCSs comprehension activities via Scholastic’s web-based library, which didn’t exist when many of my plays originally appeared ten to twenty years ago. Pretty sweet. Coincidentally, my TpT version of Box Brown, along with many of my other original plays, have also gone through updates that added comprehension activities and improved formatting, so you’re in luck either way.

But “Box” isn’t the only reader’s theater title suitable for celebrating Black History Month. In fact, I have a wide assortment. You can quickly preview four of them by downloading 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, $3.50 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!

As they do every year, my fifth graders will be learning and presenting three of these plays over the coming months as they learn about the importance and significance of the Civil Rights Crusade for all of us. Join us. Celebrate the legacy of Dr. King with engaging reader’s theater from ReadAloudPlays.com.

Happy directing!

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Pairing Picture Books & Plays for Black History Month

Read on for a free Common Core activity

The Common Core 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.” One way to do that is to pair Read Aloud Plays with developmentally-appropriate books and films so to compare and contrast point of view. Black History Month presents an ideal opportunity for the following pairings:

* 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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Perhaps the Most Important Thing You’ll Teach This Year

Imlk-plays-preview3-700x900t’s not my aim to be political, but no matter one’s affiliation, it’s hard to deny that racial tension has resurfaced in this country. It would seem teachers have their work cut out for them, and with Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month right around the corner, now is the time to start preparing lessons that will help the current generation of children overcome such issues. In my humble opinion, one of the best ways is to put your children in the middle of the action by using Read Aloud Plays.

Sitting Down for Dr. King, for example, puts students inside the Greensboro Woolworth’s during the 1963 lunch counter sit-ins. They’ll see this pivotal protest through the eyes of David, a white boy who recognizes the injustice of prejudice and decides to set aside his own interests to stand with the African-American college students.

Gonna Let it Shine tells the true story of Sheyenne Webb, an eight year old crusader there on the bridge in Selma when state troopers and local police used tear gas and billy clubs to disperse and intimidate peaceful protesters.

And Martin’s Big Dream relates an incident from the childhood from Martin Luther King, Jr., in which two white boys in the neighborhood refused to play baseball with him because of the color of his skin. It is one of the most highly-regarded play scripts ever to appear in Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine.

Other plays about Jackie Robinson, Claudette Colvin, the March on Washington, and the Birmingham Children’s Crusade provide engaging stories that will give your students an intimate understanding of race in America. While still others, such as Box Brown’s Freedom Crate and Freedom for the First Time, reveal to your students the injustice of slavery.

Nearly all my plays have been vetted and edited by Scholastic’s amazing editors, and for just three or four bucks, you get the rights to reproduce a class set every year. What’s more, most come with support material and comprehension activities.

Black history is our history. It’s America’s history. As educators, it’s our responsibility to share this history with our students. It’s quite possibly the most important thing you’ll teach this year.

Happy directing.

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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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