Promoting the Work and Words of Dr. King

At the height of Covid restrictions, the Palace Youth Theatre in New York state crafted this wonderful pairing of my Ruby Bridges script and my play about Martin Luther King’s childhood. With MLK Day just a few weeks away, and Black History Month right behind it, consider sharing these professionally-produced performances with your students. Perhaps you’ll be inspired to try a few of my other critically-acclaimed plays promoting the work and words of Dr. King and other crusaders. They’re available on my TeachersPayTeachers and Etsy storefronts. Happy directing!

Four Plays for the Humbug Holidays

I noticed the artificial Christmas trees arrived at my local home store even before the inflatable Frankensteins and motion-activated witches had been discounted. I guess the stores are worried the holidays will sneak up on us. 

For teachers, that’s a real possibility. After all, our “classroom Christmas” typically comes a week or two before the real one. That means the “cafeteria elves” my students create every year have to be done before Thanksgiving. And in order to have ample time to cast, rehearse, and stage a holiday play, we need to get directing even sooner. So let’s get right to it. Here are four holiday classics you should consider downloading right away.   

A Christmas Carol.  This one comes with two versions. The first, a traditional, kid-friendly version, was originally published in the December 1998 issue of Storyworks.  The second, alternative-gender version, was originally published in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories. It features the likes of  Eleanora Scrooge, Gladys Marley, and Tiny Tina.

Gabriel Grub. Though it has the same theme as Carol, it’s even more of a ghost story. With its cacophony of goblins, it’s downright creepy—which is why it’s a blast to enact. Check out this radio drama my students created a few years back.

Escape from the Blacking House. If you have some talented student-actors, create “A Dickens Christmas” by stringing together two or three Dickens plays. “Blacking House” isn’t so much a holiday play, but instead beautifully depicts the story of Dickens’ “perilous” youth. Use it as a heart-warming preface to one or both of the other plays.

The Gift of the Magi. You know this story: a young woman sells her beautiful hair so she can buy her hard-working but impoverished husband a fancy chain for his pocket watch. Meanwhile, the young husband sells his prized pocket watch so he can buy his lovely wife some fancy combs for her hair. It’s a lovely version of O.Henry’s story about the spirit of giving.

Each of these plays takes from 15 to 20 minutes to enact, but two to four weeks to prepare a full stage production. Use them as reader’s theater, podcast, or stage performance—or as just a single reading for your classroom Christmas. They’re available on TeachersPayTeachers and Etsy. They come with the license to print a class set, and limited public school performance rights.  There are also FREE Google Forms quizzes for each of them on TpT.

Happy directing!

War Stories

Kasserine Pass, Feb. 1943 (PD McGary)

Both my parents served in the military. My mom had a short stint as a WAC in DC before landing in the secretarial pool at the White House. She eventually had a temporary assignment working for Matthew Connelly, Harry Truman’s executive secretary. She used to tell a story about sneaking down a long corridor in hopes of seeing the presidential swimming pool before being caught by a guard and sent back to her post. Despite her brush with security, she was eventually offered a permanent position but, regretfully I suspect, turned it down because the bus commute from her quarters in Virginia was too long.  Those, she would later tell me, were the best years of her life.

My dad, meanwhile, served in both World War II and Korea. I’m told his experiences were vast and extreme, that he piloted a plane, that he commanded a POW camp, that he was at the disastrously fierce Battle of Kasserine Pass. But he himself never spoke of any of it. Not a word. For him it was far too painful—as it is for many veterans. 

It was with them in mind that I crafted “War Stories” for Scholastic several years ago.  It speaks to the pain of war, the sacrifice of those who’ve served, and the meaning of Veterans’ Day. I encourage you to share it with your students in grades four and up prior to the holiday on November 11.

Happy directing.    

A New Play for Halloween

Back a hundred years ago, ghoulishness was captured in short stories rather than comic books. Writers like Poe, Shelley, and Stevenson creeped out their audiences with dark tales of superstition, mystery, and insanity. The Gothic themes they created have been permeating literature, television, and cinema ever since. Case in point, for the last couple of years I’ve been not-quite-binge watching episodes of Dark Shadows, the Gothic TV show about Barnabas Collins—arguably the world’s second-most famous vampire (Step aside, Edward). The show’s witches, werewolves, and headless dudes had me mesmerized when it originally aired back in the 1960’s. Now, viewing the rather campy soap through adult eyes, I’m recognizing that all its creepiness came from classic short stories like The Cask of AmontilladoFrankenstein, and The Headless Horseman. They’re all in there! Go figure.

Your students know these themes, too. They’ve seen them on the Simpsons and Family Guy, in Goosebumps and Marvel Comics. But do they know from whence they come?  Though the archaic language and complex structures of these classic tales present barriers for most middle grade readers, you can make the stories more accessible by pairing them with reader’s theater. And what better a time to do it than Halloween?

So what if your students are mesmerized by Venom and Doctor Octopus? There are plenty of mangled monsters and the criminally insane in W.W. Jacob’s classic, The Monkey’s Paw, Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, and Hawthorne’s The Birthmark. They’ll also find that familiar ol’ headless horseman in Sleepy Hollow, and a hapless ghost in Twain’s A Ghost Story. Finally, I’ve just released my version of Rappaccini’s Daughter.  No, your kids won’t find it Pennywise-creepy or Slenderman-scary, but its chemical concoctions and mad scientists make it very nearly as engaging. Most certainly, it’s a key to unlocking the original’s subtleties and complexities.    

All these plays are available on my TeachersPayTeachersEtsy, and Amazon storefronts. They’re critically-acclaimed. They’re cheap. And they each come with a comprehension exercise. Suitable for reader’s theater, podcast radio drama, or full stage production, they’re perfect for fifth graders and up— but get started early to have them well-rehearsed by Halloween.

Happy directing!

Six New Plays!

When last November a friend chided me for never having any free time, I decided to go on a one month writing sabbatical. It soon became a two month writing sabbatical—then six and eventually eight. I must admit, I didn’t miss the grind of slogging through another chapter, the gut punch of yet another rejection letter, or the stress of trying to balance my personal life on top of teaching on top of writing. But with summer came my annual furlough and the chance to reconnect with my keyboard. Though I’ve yet to tackle the enormous task of researching lit agents and crafting queries, I did manage to put together six new plays. Six! Granted, most of these plays were already written—usually for Scholastic—so they merely needed to be re-packaged, but you’d be surprised how much work goes into the task.

No play I’ve ever written has been more fun than The Nose. It’s Nikolai Gogol’s short story about a Russian man who awakes one morning to discover that his nose has fled his face. When he goes looking for it, he realizes the nose is masquerading as a government official. It’s an unforgettable example of farce. The events in the story cannot be explained—though students may have a lot of fun trying. They’ll have a fun time staging it, too.  In my classroom, we built a papier mâché nose and stuck a kid inside. We also worked on our Russian accents, holding a “Talk Like a Russian Day” in which we did all our lessons while trying to emulate the cosmonaut from the movie Armageddon. We had a blast. The play is from my Scholastic book, Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories, which is now out-of-print. I’ve wrapped it up with a comprehension activity and a new easier-to-read format. It’s perfect for back-to-school whether in-person or online. Start the school year talking to your kids in a Russian accent, you say? What a great way to break the ice!

Along with The Nose, I’m also releasing three other plays, but you’ll have to visit one of my digital download sites to check them out. They’re all available on TeachersPayTeachers, my Etsy store, as well as Amazon. In the next couple of weeks I’ll also be releasing the fifth and sixth plays: The Mad Scientist’s Daughter and Nature Talks Back. I’m excited about both of them. I hope you will be too.

Cheers to a successful new school year! Let’s hope we finally get past the pandemic!

Happy directing!

Commemorating Juneteenth

My most poignant play—and it’s perfect for celebrating Juneteenth! Based on actual slave narratives, Freedom for the First Time is historically-accurate, kid-friendly, and comes embedded with comprehension questions and historic photos. It’s the narrative of ten-year old Tyree, a slave during the time of the Civil War. Like many slaves, Tyree believes whatever her masters say. But when Tyree’s brother, Sweet Walter, arrives with a band of Union soldiers to tell her the war is over, she and her family experience their day of Jubilee, the day they know freedom for the first time. Pair it with Days of Jubilee, Patricia and Frederick McKissack’s exceptional non-fiction book about slavery and the Civil War, or try creating a podcast performance or Zoomer’s Theater play. Click here to see the fantastic things the kids at the Baker Montessori School in Houston did with the script! It’s available on my Etsy storefront, and like all my plays, it includes performance rights. 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!

So Bad, It’s Funny

Call them flops, bombs, fiascos. Read Aloud Plays have turned out to be pretty ideal for the Covid classroom because the pre-assigned parts make for uninterrupted reading, but sometimes they’re just so bad, they’re funny.

If you’ve used “Zoomer’s theater,” you know that feedback and bandwidth lag can sometimes derail a play. But that wasn’t what created such a mess this go-round. After practicing three MLK plays for the last three weeks, my lovely fifth graders met in separate Zoom sessions for the final performances—recordings to be posted on our class web page. That’s when the chaos broke out. Actors showed up to the wrong session or went missing altogether. There was an acute outbreak of ADHD. One kid muted himself and then got his fingers struck in a Chinese finger puzzle. Another kid read half her lines while chomping on leftover pepperoni pizza. Ugh! 

In “MLK’s Freedom March,” the kid playing Dr. King, unbeknownst to the rest of us, left for an extended trip to the bathroom right before his big scene, leaving a broad swath of dead air. That’s when three other actors decided they needed to cover for him. They all attempted to read the lines over the top of one another, which created an effect not-unlike the echo one might have heard on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In another play, the distracted student playing Dr. King (who I suspect was knocking out some Happy Numbers minutes in a failed attempt at multi-tasking) missed his cue. When another kid jumped in, Dr. King suddenly interjected, “Hey! That’s my line!” (Now remember, this is our recorded take). “Well are you going to read the rest of it or not?” growled the first kid, which incited a twenty second spat in the middle of our recording.

 And then there’s the word “crap.” It shows up right in the middle of an otherwise well-done reading of “Martin’s Big Dream.” The student in question had just belted out his lines, but upon realizing he was still muted, tapped his space bar, only to lead with his one-word frustration.

Me? As one gaff piled atop the other, all I could do was laugh into my hand and occasionally cover my face in mock distress. It was simultaneously disheartening and hysterical.

Despite the failure, the plays were really a roaring success. The kids had a dozen good practice sessions in which repetitive reading contributed to fluency growth. They spent a ton of time discussing Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement—which is pretty darned pertinent these days. They developed a bit of character as they owned their mistakes and distractedness. And they also had a good time. I contend that any time this generation of kid has a good time reading, well, that’s solid gold.

All this confirms for me that even classroom flops are academic hits.

Whether you’re still teaching remotely or heading back to the classroom, February is a great month for reader’s theater. I have a host of plays and paired texts for Black History Month (see my previous post), but I also have a handful of fun plays for Presidents’ Day. Because they’re on the easier end of things, you can expect smooth reading in just a handful of practices. “Argument at Mount Rushmore” is a hoot. The four Rushmore presidents argue with one another while attempting to explain to some tourists what they did to be so honored. In “Presidents’ Day Dream,” several presidents humorously share how hard it is to serve. It pairs well with the picture book, “So You Want to Be President” by Judith St. George. There’s also “Eagles Over the Battlefield” (you’ll find it in “Two Plays from the American Revolution”), and “The War of 1812,” which gives some insight into our earliest presidents. Finally, “President Lincoln’s Spies and Rebels” fits both Black History Month and Presidents’ Day.

Happy (and hysterical) directing—even when it’s a flop!

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!

Reader’s Theater for MLK Day

MLK Day feels especially important this year. Let’s face it, we have a lot of work to do if we’re to fulfill the dream Dr. King spoke of so poignantly more than fifty years ago. We have a lot of work to do if we’re to validate the effort and sacrifice of people like John Lewis, Medgar Evers, Rev. Jonathan Daniels, and other heroes of the Civil Rights Crusade. We have a lot of work to do if we’re to heal from all the wounds torn open by the tragedies and injustices of these last few years. Can we accomplish all that on a single holiday in January?

Of course not.

But MLK Day is a platform. It’s a launch pad. It’s a starting point for the hard work of sharing the stories, teaching the history, and promoting the diversity that will make the next generation happier and healthier. I don’t pretend to think my reader’s theater plays will accomplish all that by themselves, but I think you’ll find them useful tools in undertaking that challenge. Download this free preview pack, visit my Black History & Civil Rights page, and see if you can’t make your MLK Day and Black History Month something special. Make it an MLK Day that matters.

Happy directing.