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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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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New Plays and Product Updates

Click on the cover to preview at TpTTeachersPayTeachers has grown immensely over the last decade. Back when I first started using it as a secondary market for my plays, products could be pretty simple. In fact, most were in black and white. These days there are a bazillion teacher-marketers selling product, so competition has become pretty fierce. Consequently, I’m constantly trying to update my Read Aloud Play packages and post new ones. Thanks to a couple of snow days here in southern Oregon, I was recently able to revamp several products. I’ve added comprehension activities, teacher notes, and answer keys to The Monkey’s Paw, W.W. Jacobs’ fabulous masterpiece about three wishes, The Birthmark, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wickedly wonderful “mad scientist” story, and Cyclops, from Homer’s Odyssey. These three plays are perfect for introducing middle-schoolers to the otherwise difficult original stories. Whether you use the play before or after, student engagement and comprehension skyrocket when you pair the original with a play. But they’re also engaging stories for fourth and fifth graders to read and act aloud. (What could be better than your 5th grade Cyclops eating a bunch of 4th grade Greeks?) All three of these plays originally appeared in Scholastic classroom magazines, so they’ve been “vetted” by Scholastic’s professional editors. Add to that the new comprehension activities and they’re a fantastic deal.

I’ve also updated The Secret Soldier, which has previously appeared in both Scope and Storyworks. It’s the true story of Deborah Samson, the first woman to serve in the U.S. Military. Samson disguised herself as a man to enlist in the militia near the end of the American Revolution, was twice seriously wounded, and even performed surgery on herself to avoid being found out. It’s a must-have for any Revolution unit study. Like the other updated plays, it now comes with the additional support material—as do my other plays from the era. Be sure to check out Betsy Ross: Fact or Fiction, Two Plays from the American Revolution, and my newest product, So You Want to Be President. This last one is another “Two for One” pack. It comes with two of my favorite plays from my 2003 Scholastic title, Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America, which is no longer in print. Both plays cover the history of the presidency and the character traits necessary to serve successfully. Given today’s political climate, they’re important additions to your history and reading curriculum, but they’re also a lot of fun to read and enact.

Finally, MLK Day and Black History Month are already upon us. If you haven’t yet read my earlier post about my Civil Rights and African-American history plays, be sure to scroll down and take a look.

Happy directing!

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I Dare You.

I concede I don’t know much about the organization Teach.org, but I absolutely love this video they’ve released. It challenges people to enter the teaching profession, but it’s also a hardy pat on the back to all of you who are already “in the trenches” doing great things for kids. You’re awesome! Have a wonderful 2017. I hope you’ll use some of my plays, but you’re awesome either way. Happy directing!

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