Build better Readers, Writers, and Math Masters from Day One

My Fact Car Rally program is overdue for an update, but that doesn’t mean you can’t snag a copy right now and use it to lead your elementary students toward mastery of the math facts. When the update comes out, you’ll have full access to the revision. Did I say that kids love Fact Car Rally? They do! Much more so than competing programs—and it’s more effective, too! Follow the simple directions to create your racetrack during pre-service week, and then give your kids some low-key time during Week One to create their “fact cars.” By the second week, your students will be well on their way to true mastery of the facts–the foundation of all things math. Preview or purchase FCR here, and be sure to check out the tutorial video here.

In addition to building math masters, build better writers in grades 3 through 7 with my Super Sentences and Perfect Paragraphs program. It’s a teacher-friendly, student-friendly, daily writing method—the only thing you’ll need all year. No complicated teacher editions to wade through. No workshops to attend. It’s practically plug and play! Check out both the full version, the various ala-carte pieces, and the tutorial videos.

If you’ve never read my shtick about repetitive reading and how read aloud plays build beautiful readers, check it out here, and then snag some fun plays plays to start the year.  Peter Rabbit, Nature Talks Back, and my latest, a “slightly twisted” version of The Pied Piper (see previous post) are all fantastic icebreakers. They’re all available on my TpT storefront.

While you’re there, don’t forget that Halloween is just around the corner, so grab copies of The Monkey’s Paw, Tell-Tale Heart, the Birth-mark, or the Mad Scientist’s Daughter for your Gothic RT!

Happy directing!

Greatness Isn’t Born

I don’t usually do reviews, but I just finished an awesome book called The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle (2009, Bantam). Greatness isn’t born, argues the author. It’s grown. Think about that for a minute and then apply it to your classroom.

Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown.

There are no “naturally gifted” kids. Your students didn’t inherit their spelling/math/reading deficiencies from a parent. In fact, Coyle shows that IQ and physical attributes are largely irrelevant.

And he proves it using brain science.

Now, I’ve written about neuroscience before. Brain research by Lev Vygtsky and other experts is the basis for using reader’s theater to build fluency. The repetitive, “slow reading” nature of practicing a play builds the neural pathways that make mastery possible. Coyle, though, takes it further, citing more contemporary research. I’m stoked because Coyle’s work not only justifies using reader’s theater, it also affirms the effectiveness of my Super Sentences writing program, which relies on targeted, mistake-focused practice. And Perfect Paragraphs, which has to do with being imitative. And my Fact Car Rally program, too!

The book is chock full of concepts important to learning. It explains why special education kids are often mistakenly perceived as having short-term memory disabilities. It reveals what’s behind vacation “brain drain,” and how speed-focused oral reading fluency leads to mediocrity, and why stuff like Harry Potter and Twilight can ignite an entire generation of writers.

It also honors great teachers. What we do can’t be delivered by an online platform, nor scripted in a textbook!

So, I encourage you to grab a copy of The Talent Code off Ebay. (A copy used is less than $10 and you’ll be able to write notes in it!) Despite being all about neurons, synapsis and myelin, it’s an engaging read. (It’s kind of gone viral within my school setting.) Plus, it’ll have a huge impact on your teaching.

And while we’re on the subject, consider building some slow-reading, mistake-focused readers with some deep practice using my read aloud play scripts! For Women’s History Month you might want to try Girl. Fighter. Hero! about “the female Paul Revere,” or The Secret Solider, which tells the story of Deborah Samson, America’s first female soldier. You could also try my original play about Sacagawea, or my story from the Montgomery Bus Boycott about Claudette Colvin.   

Happy directing!   

Monster Plays for Spring

I recently surveyed my fifth graders about what they’d like more of. It probably won’t surprise you that “more Zoom” received zero votes. “More plays,” on the other hand, won hands-down. Sure it did! Whether in-person or remote, reader’s theater works. Plays teach kids to read purposefully and thoughtfully rather than merely for speed. They always have developmentally-appropriate parts for both your advanced readers and your most reluctant ones. And once parts are assigned, you don’t have to prompt kids to chime in. Best of all, plays are fun.

With my kids coming back to class, I want to have fun again, so I’m busting out my favorite monster play: Cyclops. It has some campy lines and a gruesome story, making it super appealing to kids (hint: Cyclops likes Greek food). Here are some other enjoyable plays for spring: Peter Rabbit (it seems too young for 5th and 6th graders, but they love doing it—especially when they get to perform it for youngers); How Jackie Saved the World (The Peanut Vendor and the Hot Dog Man emerge from the grandstands to tell Jackie Robinson’s story); And Fly Me to the Moon (it features Walter Cronkite stuffed inside a TV-shaped box!).

This time of year, many classrooms are focused on the American Revolution.  Though the subject matter is more serious, the plays are just as fun: The Secret Solider (how Deborah Samson disguised herself as a man in order to join the military); Girl. Fighter. Hero.  (“the female Paul Revere”); Betsy Ross: Fact or Fiction (more about examining historical proof than it is about Betsy herself); And Two Plays from the American Revolution (2 for 1–the bald eagle and the Liberty Bell).

I hope you’re as excited as I am to have kids back in class, but whether you’re in-person or remote, give my critically-acclaimed RT a try.  Most of it was originally published by Scholastic, it always comes with standards-based comprehension activities, and need I say it again? It’s fun! You kids will love it. Happy directing!

Ten Plays for Black History Month

February is Black History Month. While I encourage you to acknowledge it with some dedicated activities, I’m also reminded that black history is American history; it need not be limited to a single month! The end of the Civil War, Jackie Robinson’s breaking of baseball’s color barrier, and MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech certainly rank among some of the most significant moments in American history. With that in mind, here are ten great paired texts with which to recognize Black History Month while also meeting numerous standards. All the plays are based on the given event–not it’s paired text (in most cases the play was published before the given book). That means each pairing represents distinctly unique points of view. Each includes a comprehension activity, too, and all were originally commission by or published in Scholastic’s Storyworks and Scope magazines, so they’ve been professionally vetted, making them the best reader’s theater available. Clicking on an image will take you to either my Etsy or TpT stores. You can also download free previews of each play on my Black History & Civil Rights page, and you’ll find FREE Google Docs versions of the comprehension quizzes on TpT. Happy directing!

How to Create that Interactive Vibe

I’ve heard many teachers lament that this online instruction deal isn’t what they signed-up for, yet here we are. What we miss most is that teacher-to-student interaction. That being the case, allow me to review a couple interactive activities that worked well in the spring.

“Zoom-Aloud” Plays

The Legend of Sleepy HollowThere’s still a place for reader’s theater in your remote instruction. During the spring, I had a lot of fun interacting with my kids using “Zoomer’s Theater.” I assigned parts to each of my “active” students, had them practice independently, and then met regularly via Zoom for rehearsals. The goal of each play was to eventually record them as “performances.” Granted, absenteeism and broadband speed caused glitches that required some patience, but in the end, I found I got a lot of favorable mileage out of each play. Not only did students tend to be more engaged than with regular reading assignments, they were usually willing to read and re-read their play repetitively, which not only improved their fluency, but filled hours of instruction time. Plus, unlike regular reading assignments, when I was done I had a sharable product: a performance that could be posted on my webpage or sent to parents.

This fall, I plan on keeping my expectations low for the first set of plays, but I think once my students see how they work and how much fun they are, the second set should be dynamite. I also think I’ll try having kids show up to their final Zoom session in costume, too. That should be a hoot! Note: it doesn’t matter whether you’re using Zoom or some other meeting platform. The only requirement is that you have some way to record and share your final session, even if just the audio.

I want to encourage you to give it a try, too. In grades 3 through 6 or maybe 7, start out with something simple. My Peter Rabbit play, Argument at Mount Rushmore, and Two Plays from the American Revolution are ideal. For October, try something more elaborate, such as any of my “Halloween plays” including my newest posting, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Pair it with The Birth-mark, The Monkey’s Paw, or The Tell-Tale Heart.

Almost all my plays were previously published in Scholastic classroom magazines such as Storyworks and Scope, so you know they meet the highest standards. Most also come with Common Core-based comprehension activities that have been digitized for online instruction.

Super Sentences

Super Sentences & Perfect ParagraphsPerhaps the most productive and rewarding element of my instruction in the spring was my Super Sentences program. It’s a straight-forward way to teach and practice writing on a daily basis, it doesn’t overwhelm kids, it’s fun, and it’s well-suited to Google Classroom. By the end of the spring, my students were spending 45 minutes in a live Classroom stream nearly every day, and each of these sessions produced more than 300 back and forth comments–student-to-student feedback about writing. To get the details, check out this post from last spring, then take a look at Super Sentences and Perfect Paragraphs on my TeachersPayTeachers store.

Happy directing (and interacting)!

Another Great Zoomer’s Theater Script!

The Necklace is a cautionary tale written in 1884 by French writer Guy de Maupassant. It tells about a young woman who, despite having a very comfortable life, is discontent. Her desire to appear wealthier than she actually is comes at a great cost. In the end she loses her comfort, beauty, and status. The play can be related to modern consumerism–how people today enslave themselves to debt while living beyond their means–but the story is mostly about honesty. It was originally published in Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories (Scholastic 2010). What makes it unique is that it’s told from the perspective of an aloof, French-speaking cat (Maupassant) and his rodent sidekick (Flaubert). Scholastic also published other “aged-up” versions (meaning they had me re-write it without the Disney-treatment), but this version remains one my most well-liked plays, even among older students. It’s a great story to talk about irony, plot, and moral, and it’s a great way to promote student engagement and fluency while teaching to the Common Core standards. It includes parts for eight actors, and is best-suited for grades 4 through 8 as “Zoomer’s Theater,” radio drama/podcast, or short stage performance. It includes a comprehension quiz, embedded prompts, teacher notes, and answer keys. Like all my plays, the original purchaser is licensed to print a full class set every year for use in his or her classroom, and performance rights are included. You can preview and purchase it on my TpT storefront. Happy directing!

How to Use Super Sentences in Google Classroom

It’s easy to make the transition to remote instruction with Super Sentences. Here’s how:

Assign a specific time for your students to be online. While much of your home instruction may be independent work, the benefits of Super Sentences is the interactivity. The kids need to be online sharing their sample sentences and providing feedback to one another.

On Monday, introduce a new stream or thread in Google Classroom by typing the week’s given structure. For example, were I teaching structure #14, Command, I’d post this: “Commands give orders or directions, but they only require an exclamation point if they’re delivered in a commanding tone. For example, at the end of this lesson, your teacher may give you a command requiring only a period: Turn in your papers.”

In the same thread, type the sample sentence: “Take off your shower cap this instant or I’ll feed your liver and onions to the neighbor’s goat!”
Next, give the students three topics and invite them to post their own sentence. You’ll need to remind them to remain IN THE SAME THREAD. I’ve capitalized it because I’ve found students jumping threads is the death knell to online interactivity. This cannot be emphasized enough!
As students post their sentences, invite them also to comment on one another’s. I provide feedback by asking the class questions like “Can anyone help Chuck see what’s missing in his sentence?” Or, “Chuck is missing a key piece of punctuation. Can anyone spot it?” I also fire off compliments when I see a really great sentence such as, “Chuck’s sentence is awesome. Can anyone tell us why?” (Just added: here’s a screenshot of an actual thread with mu students; it ended up being about 80 comments long. Hopefully it’ll be legible enough to give you the gist of it.)

On Tuesday and Wednesday I repeat the same process, but I use one of the kids sentence as the example.

On Thursday, I have students post and submit their sentence on a Google Form. This is their weekly test. Have they learned the given structure? Were they able to write an error-free sentence? I grade these sentences and send each student feedback/corrections via Classroom.

Finally, on Friday I have my students post their corrected sentence on our class webpage. I create a post entitled “This Week’s Super Sentences.” Students post their sentences in the “comments” field.

Super Sentences was originally published by Scholastic. I’ve updated and made it available on my TpT storefront in various ala-carte volumes. Sentence structures range from simple sentences to things like “sentences containing a metaphor” and “sentences using commas in a series.” No, it’s not full blown essay writing (you’ll need Perfect Paragraphs for that), but it provides kids in grades 3 through 8 daily writing practice, leading them to develop that innate sense of sentence structure so important to reading and writing competence. It’s engaging because it uses their own writing as the lesson (as opposed to a traditional grammar text that offer stilted “Dick & Jane-type” sentences to correct). Give it a try. It’s inexpensive and come with reproduction rights (make sure you’re respecting copyright when posting online). Best of all, when this pandemic is over, you’ll have your complete PDF of Super Sentences to use no matter what the circumstances: in the regular classroom, in your computer lab, on Chromebooks, or remotely.

Take care, my friends!

A Little Help for Your Online Instruction

At my school we’re expecting to be “teaching remotely” until the end of April. What that means remains to be seen, but it’ll obviously require a lot of content to be delivered online. Unless you can rig up a conference call with ten or twelve students at a time, reader’s theater is probably a scratch, so I’m focusing instead on other material. There is a ton of new fangled “plug and play” programs out there, but if you’d like a bit of the tried and true mixed in to your online content, here’s some of what I’ll be using next month.

Super Sentences will keep your kids writing and discussing even during a shut down. It has students write one sentence fitting a specific construct each day. One week you might work on “Dialogue Sentences” and the next you might teach “Sentences Containing a Compound Predicate.” Almost all your grammar instruction is embedded in the program, and it’s perfectly built for Google Classroom. You’ll get the nitty gritty in the detailed product instructions, but the basics look like this: Post the example and the tips as an “Assignment” and have each student respond with his or her sentence. Because the whole group can see the responses, both you and your students can provide feedback, just as in the regular class. On the next day, choose two or three sentences to repost with your teacher comments, and then have kids write new sentences, repeating this process daily until crafting error-free sentence on the test at the end of the week. Super Sentences comes in two ala-carte volumes. Volume One is included in tandem with Perfect Paragraphs, which is another item suited to online learning.

Perfect Paragraphs asks students to unscramble a sample paragraph fitting a specific genre. Once they’ve re-arranged the sentences in the proper paragraph format, they’re then directed to write a paragraph of their own on the same topic and following the same structure. (The concept here is that kids become proficient by initially imitating. Think human speech, or how you own child learned to read, or how Picasso learned to paint.) As with any writing task, editing, revising, and sharing follow. I plan on having my students complete one paragraph-writing activity every other week. Once again, the details are in the product instructions, but Google Docs is a perfect match given how teacher and student can watch one another write and comment in real time. Ideally, students will need to be able to view a PDF of the unscrambling worksheet and the paragraph writing template before doing all their typing in Docs. Perfect Paragraphs comes as a complete package or in three ala-carte levels, including a set of multi-paragraph writing tasks. You can try out a free sample here.

EZSub Plans are typically marketed to subs and teachers in need of emergency, self-directed lessons. Well, this is an emergency and it turns out these plans are pretty ideal for remote learning! You merely need to provide PDFs of each lesson. Each package always includes reading, writing, math, and art activities, as well as a few mini-lessons. Kids may have to be a bit more resourceful than they are in the classroom, making due with materials on hand and tracking down certain tools (such as a ruler), but most of it is within reason. EZSubPlans are fun for kids and designed to be easy to teach. They come in four grade levels—3rd through 6th–but they’re interchangeable to a large degree (the 3rd grade sets could be considered 3rd-5th; the 4th and 5th grade sets are suitable for 4th and up, etc.) If grading is important, students can send their answers to you via Google Classroom. Or if you prefer, you can simply share each included answer key and have students self-correct. Cake!

One super important asterisk about sharing all this material online: please be careful about posting copyrighted material. If someone outside your class can download it, you’ll be violating copyright. While programs such as Google Classroom allow you to share items within a private environment (students must sign-in), class webpages are often public or “open.” I see this frequently with Weebly pages. Teachers with good intentions share material from, say, Scope magazine. They’re simply trying to provide remote access to their students. The problem is that everyone else on the web can access it too. So, whether you’re using my products or someone else’s, please respect copyright by making sure your online access is restricted.

Now, how about we figure out a way to arrange that conference call? I’ve got some great Read Aloud Plays that are ideal for Spring, whether school is shuttered or not…

Let’s hope and pray for a quick end to this virus.

Important Moments in American History

February is Black History Month. While I encourage you to acknowledge it with some dedicated activities, I’m also reminded that black history is American history; it need not be limited to a single month! The end of the Civil War, Jackie Robinson’s breaking of baseball’s color barrier, and MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech certainly rank among some of the most significant moments in American history. With that in mind, here are ten great paired texts with which to recognize those great moments while meeting numerous Language Arts standards. All the plays are based on the given event–not it’s paired text (in most cases the play was published before the given book). That means each pairing represents distinctly unique points of view (Literature CCSS #6), making for livelier discussions and quality comparisons (CCSS Lit #7). And because these plays are based on real events, they’ll also satisfy CCSS Informational Text #6. Each includes a comprehension activity, too, assuring your students will satisfy numerous other standards as well. And because almost all my plays were originally commission by and published in Scholastic’s Storyworks and Scope magazines, they’ve been professionally vetted, making them the best reader’s theater on the market. Just click on the image to preview or purchase on my TeachersPayTeachers storefront. Happy directing!