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Would This Guy Pass the New Test?

Would Will hunting pass the Smarter Balanced test?Am I wrong, or is the title of the nation’s new standardized test grammatically incorrect? Did the benevolent creators of this new system mean to say the test represents a “smarter balance” when compared to previous tests? If so, shouldn’t they have said balance—a noun—rather than balanced, a verb? Or maybe they meant smartly balanced, which makes me wonder why they used an adjective rather than an adverb.

Or perhaps they mean this fancy new test is both smarter and balanced? No doubt someone in the marketing department didn’t like the way the punctuation looked in the logo. Apparently, neither hyphens nor commas compel us to buy. Personally, I suspect they probably want the test to represent a Smart Balance, but when they discovered that such a moniker connotes a “smooth buttery consistency,” well, that’s when the trouble surely began.Smart-Balance or Smarter-Balanced?

Whether smartly balanced, a smarter balance, or smarter-balanced, one thing’s for sure: the new test is giving teachers and admins the heebie jeebies pretty much everywhere. I recently attended a Smarter Balanced workshop put on by the Oregon Department of Education covering details of the assessment. Here are a few take-aways:

*It’s finally time to give up teaching cursive.  The tests, regardless of subject, will evaluate keyboarding skills as much or more than anything else. (I suspect even Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting would have a hard time passing the Smarter math test. Those complex math proofs he delineates on the chalkboard? He’d have to type them on a computer screen using numbers and words, not those alien symbols only true math geeks understand.) What you can do now: have your students word process everything–and in all subjects. Be sure, too, to practice highlighting individual sentences. Pity the school that has fallen behind technologically.

* Say “so long” to Romeo & Juliet. There will be greater emphasis placed on non-fiction texts. According the the Dept. of Ed: the higher the grade level, the more students should be reading non-fiction. What to do now: have your students read (and write) more non-fiction.

* Dust off the MLA Handbook. The uptick in plagiarism during the digital age has the experts all worked up about citing sources. On the test, students will be expected to recall direct quotations from a given text and use phrases such as “According to” when referring back to them. What to do now: lots of persuasive reading and writing. Storyworks magazine has a nice “debate” activity in every issue in which students must read a non-fiction text and then debate (in writing) each side of a given argument. That’s good practice for the test.

* Teach them to be sleuths. Having the right answer won’t be enough anymore. Students have to be able to identify the evidence. Where in the text did they find the information necessary to answer the question? What to do now: teach students to highlight evidence when completing comprehension activities or discussing what they’ve read.

* Do you validate? What you’re teaching now is still worthwhile. The writing process: still valid. Higher level taxonomy: still valid (though they’ve abandoned Bloom’s for what appears to be a decent system called “Depth of Knowledge” or DOK). And here comes my shameless plug: if you use my daily writing program, Super Sentences and Perfect Paragraphs, you’re already teaching to certain elements of the test. Not only does SSPP teach standard writing skills, it also asks kids to highlight and color code specific kinds of sentences. At my school, students word-process their paragraphs and then highlight and color code each sentence. Super Sentences also teaches sentence structures using the “According to” and “In my opinion” phrasing, as well as how to use direct and indirect quotations.

Whether smartly balanced or just a smooth, buttery consistency, I’m confident the Smarter Balanced test won’t be around forever. It’s the fourth standardized testing system implemented during my twenty-plus year career. If history has anything to say about it, we’ll be talking about something different in six or seven years. Consider this, when the sons and daughters of politicians go home and say, “I flunked the smarter test,” something’s gonna give. In the meantime, the skills the test evaluates are indeed important, so we all may as well just jump right in.


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Desk Rent is Due Friday!

Jamie's Checkbook RegisterNo doubt you’ve had kids ask, “Why do we need to know this stuff?” In my classroom, we spend a lot of time talking about the “real world,” and nothing we do is more “real world” than The Checkbook Project. In my building, we implement it around this time of year with all our 4th and 5th graders. If we waited any longer, the kids would riot!

I want to encourage you to give it a try—and this is a great time of year to do so—but before you do, heed this warning:

In The Checkbook Project, kids maintain checkbook registers. They earn money by completing assignments, attending class, and passing tests. School is their job. They also pay fines for “breaking the law,” pay taxes, and rent or buy their desks. Kids who work hard and consistently attend class tend to do well, accumulating upwards of three grand by the end of May. Kids with poor study skills, poor attendance, or poor spending habits tend to struggle—so much so that some even end up in “the homeless shelter.”

The homeless shelter is a single desk around which kids gather when they don’t have the resources to rent their desks. Granted, it sounds a bit harsh. It may even be a bit controversial. Certainly, it gives me no pleasure to see Stevie, Pablo, or Cynthia crowded around a single desk at the front of the room. But isn’t it better Stevie, Pablo, and Cynthia experience the consequences of poor work ethic in fifth grade rather than on the mean streets of real life? After all, homeless shelters do exist in the real world, and perhaps it’s the threat of landing there that keep many of us working hard.

Poverty and homelessness are serious problems in America. There are plenty of folks out there facing such grim prospects despite their best efforts. The Checkbook Project isn’t meant to degrade them. Better, the project prompts numerous discussions on the subject. One of my favorites is about how the guy holding that sign on the freeway ramp got there. Students have a host of preconceived notions and theories about homelessness, including that he might not be standing there at all had his fifth grade teacher used The Checkbook Project.

I’ve also seen the Homeless Shelter bring about the best in my students. If you implement The Checkbook Project, you’ll see neighbors help neighbors make rent. You’ll see students push their buddies to get their work done. One year I even had a kid start a charity organization. He maintained a second register in which he collected donations from his classmates and doled out grants to needy students who were short on rent.

I recently received a text from a former student-teacher telling me her administration has told her to disband or at least rename her “homeless shelter.” I wish I were there to lobby her principal and parents, but she’s half way across the country. The best I can do is suggest some politically-correct alternatives. “Group house”, “hostel”, and “shared housing” come to mind. So too does “Dickens’ House” and “Grandma’s Basement.” (Okay, that last one may not be so politically-correct.) Regardless of the name, whether it’s a homeless shelter or merely communal living, it will likely motivate struggling students to work a bit harder.

I created The Checkbook Project nearly a decade ago to combat what I call “academic apathy.” Over the years it has consistently proven itself to be an engaging way to get kids invested in their studies, teach work ethic, and give kids “real world” experience in the safety of the classroom. And because I believe these are essential lessons every kid needs, it’s also free. Every last bit of it. For more details on how it works, click here.

Happy directing!

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How Much is a Stress-Free Sub Day Worth?

EZSubPlans 4.1Whether a classroom teacher, substitute, or administrator, EZSubPlans will provide you with inexpensive, kid-tested plans at the touch of a button. Each EZSubPlans package includes at least seven hours of grade-specific lessons designed to make your next absence easy and worry-free.  Classroom teachers wanting to avoid the frustrating and time-consuming process of preparing for an absence and substitute teachers needing back-up material will find everything they need with EZSubPlans.  And what better time to prepare than before the school year begins! Days are labeled by grade level, but each can be easily adapted to suit one grade level up or down. A fifth grade teacher, for example, could use the lesson plans for grades 4, 5, and 6–that’s six days in all.  Teachers need only to download, print, and photocopy–the sub does everything else.

Imagine, your first six absences of the school year already prepared. On each of those mornings, you merely set the EZSubPlans file on your desk and walk away!  Click here for more information about EZSubPlans or click here to preview or purchase at TeachersPayTeachers. How much is a stress-free sub day worth? Who can say. How much does a stress-free sub day cost? Just $5 a day with EZSubPlans.

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Are Your Students Paying Enough Taxes?

cover incredible silverRight after Spring Break is when many teachers implement The Checkbook Project in their classrooms, so this week I’m foregoing my usual spiel about reader’s theater to instead offer some checkbook tips.

If you’re not familiar with The Checkbook Project, it’s a classroom incentive program, a behavioral management system, and a math-heavy financial literacy unit all rolled together. It’s completely free, kids love it, and it’s relatively easy to manage.  In my classroom we kick-started our economy three weeks ago by giving each student a $50 “Spring Stimulus.”  Already I have kids aspiring to be slumlords. “Mr. Lewis, can I buy that desk at the back of the classroom and charge kids a bunch of money to sit there?” asked one student. Another wanted to know when she can take out a mortgage, and a third was already asking about a business license.  Still others are already borrowing money from their friends just to make rent.

You can download The Checkbook Project by following this link. Once you do, the following tips will get you off to a good start.

1. Provide help with tax reports.  Though not as complicated as the Form 1040 you and I file each April, completing the Friday Tax Report (a key element to the program) is initially challenging for the students. Be sure to file taxes at the end of the very first first week, allow extra time (45-60 minutes), have extra adults on hand if you can, and use a simple 10% tax rate. Once kids get used to filing, you be able to file every other week, you’ll only have to assist your neediest kids, and you’ll be able to raise the tax rate to more complex figures like 17.86%. Their moans and groans will spark a great discussion about how taxes in the real world pay for things like schools, police protection, and sewers.

2. Don’t be too generous. Keep your rewards low and your penalties high. I hand out a $5 bonus for a quiet class, but a $10 fine for a noisy one. I start the project paying fifty cents per percentage points on tests, gradually raising the rate of pay as the trimester continues.  For example, if a student gets a 70% (the minimum) on a vocabulary exam, I pay out $35. I raise the rate when I need to increase motivation, but I also decrease it when students are accumulating too great a stash in their checkbook.

3. Charge for everything. You want to strike a balance between student income and expenses. If the balance in their checkbook is growing too rapidly, you’re paying out too much or not charging for things you should.  I charge for pencils, snacks, special seating privileges, having to reprint homework, leaving chairs untucked, messy desks, and more.  I have a yoga ball in my room students can rent for a day at a time. When it’s in high demand, I charge thirty bucks or more—and all I have to do is say the words, “Deduct $30 from your checkbook.”

4. Phase-in other elements. In Week One we learn how to keep track of our income and expenses and complete our first tax report.  At the end of Week Two the kids begin renting their desks.  During Week Three I let them begin selling their own items at auction. I wait until weeks Four and Five to let them mortgage their desks, open businesses, and apply for classroom jobs.

5. Don’t be in a hurry to raise desk rent.  “Should I buy or rent?” You’ll want kids to wrestle with this question when you begin offering mortgages, but if rents are already excessive, your entire class will become “desk owners” too quickly. One of the richest “teachable moments” is when half the class—the desk owners—have burned their mortgages, while the other half are subject to ever increasing rents.

6. Collect checkbooks every Friday.  Doing so makes the student feel more accountable about keeping accurate entries. The only record keeping I do is to write down each student’s ending balance on Friday’s.  In so doing I’m able to spot oddities. I can also quickly skim through questionable accounts.  When I find one, I usually make an example of him or her with a full audit (and some hefty tax penalties).

For more on The Checkbook Project, visit and click on The Checkbook Project tab. You’ll find more tips and all the forms you need to make the project a hit with your parents, students, and admins. And in case you came here today looking for information on great Read Aloud Plays, please take a few minutes to explore my site, and my storefront at TeachersPayTeachers.  Happy directing!

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Facebook Makes Us Stupider!

Yup, it’s a fact. Or at least it’s what researchers from the Pew Internet & American Life Project are saying. Students who can’t resist checking their Facebook page while studying have lower GPAs. It seems digital technology is so distracting, today’s students are simply unable to study effectively.

I have no doubt technology is a distraction, but I also have no doubt it can be used to empower students in ways we never before dreamed of. This weekend, for example, a trio of former students popped into my classroom for a visit. Fully-plugged-in middle schoolers, one of them pulled out a cellphone and said, “Check out this movie we made!” I then spent the next fifteen minutes watching a mini crime drama unfold on the tiny screen. Of their own volition these kids has gone out and produced a short film using nothing more than their brains and a cellphone. Sure, it was kid level stuff, but there was no shortage of quality film-making technique. They shot their scenes from different angles, effectively used flashbacks and close-ups, and kept their dialogue and action focused on the film’s objective. I enjoyed it immensely, but what strikes me most is that they pursued this endeavor all on their own, merely because they had the technology to do so.

While technology may indeed get in the way of kids studying the three R’s, it can also be used to help them embrace them. I’m not a true techie, but I’ve embraced technology because it provides good teaching tools that engage learners. In my classroom kids use Twitter to post their learning objectives, cellphones to time themselves when practicing their math facts, webpages to build their portfolios, and Youtube to post their performances. Our classroom webpage, The Daily Platypus, also gives them access to homework sheets they may have forgotten at school, extra credit work, and opportunities to read and respond to instructionally-related questions, videos, and posts. Instead of being a distraction, these technologies are proving to be conducive to learning. The read aloud play scripts I write and teach with are powerful in themselves, but they take on a whole new dimension when coupled with technology.

Of course, this still doesn’t mean my students aren’t going to blow off their homework once in awhile and instead spend the evening chatting on Faceboook…or watching television…or going to football practice…or shooting mini-crime dramas on their cellphones. “Technology is not going to disappear from our world,” says journalist Larry Rosen, whose syndicated article covers the Pew Report. “…in fact, it is only going to get more appealing as screens become sharper, video becomes clearer, and touch screens become the norm, all of which attract our sensory system and beckon us to pay attention to them rather than schoolwork or the people in front of us.”

The challenge for teachers will be in figuring out how to take advantage. Visit The Daily Platypus to see some of the ways we’re utilizing technology to enhance learning, and if you haven’t tried recording a play, either as a podcast or Youtube video, I’d encourage it.

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Missing Links and Dead Pages

Due to a hardware malfunction, we’re experiencing some tech issues. Instead of trying to negotiate around those dead links and missing pages, jump over to my other site, The information you need about The Checkbook Project, EZSubPlans, Read-Aloud Plays, and more is all right there. Thanks for your patience.

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Back to School Sale at TpT

Thousands of teacher-created products  are 28% off at TeachersPayTeachers annual Back-to-School sale. Just click on the banner to go directly to TpT and use the promocode BTS12 before midnight on Monday, August 13th. Take advantage of the savings on items for the start of the school year. Prep your emergency sub plans for just $3.60 per day with EZSubPlans. Set-up your math facts program using Formula Fun Fact Car Rally Race. Or add some zest to your explorers unit with a compare and contrast using our original read-aloud plays about Ponce deLeon, Lewis & Clark, and the Apollo moon landing. Everything is on sale, but only on Sunday and Monday, August 12-13th.  Have a great school year!

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