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!

Why You Need a Cardboard Box for Black History Month

Box Brown's Freedom Crate graphicIf you’ve never heard one of your students attempt a southern drawl you must give Box Brown’s Freedom Crate a whirl during Black History Month. Ever since I wrote it for Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine back 1999, Box Brown has always been a favorite among my students. Consequently my class learns and performs it almost every year. Even if you’re teaching in the Southern U.S.—where the dialect might not be so unique—there remain many compelling reasons to teach with this play.

Box Brown’s Freedom Crate is based on The Autobiography of Henry “Box” Brown. Henry was the slave who mailed himself to the North inside a wooden crate and lived—just barely—to tell the world about it. Why do kids like this play so much? The large cardboard box we use as the main prop is one reason It’s painted to look like an old-fashioned shipping crate and is just big enough for a moderately-sized fifth grader to climb inside. The student playing Henry disappears within it during Scene 4 and then discreetly exits while the curtains are closed. From there he appears to get battered as the box is tossed from wagon to train to steamer until it finally gets cracked open at the Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia. Henry then rises from his coffin only to quickly swoon away from exhaustion and dehydration. This is of course a dramatic moment in Henry’s true story, and one kids don’t soon forget.

There are also sound academic reasons to enact plays such as Box Brown’s Freedom Crate. For example, because kids are willing to read and reread their lines over and over again, Read Aloud Plays build reading fluency. The brain science behind this repetition suggests it actually forms the neural pathways that make reading possible. Read Aloud Plays are easily leveled and they provide the exposure to drama the new Common Core Standards demand. They also allow students to experience history “first hand,” which helps them to relate to people like Henry, to understand some of the heartache and suffering Henry might have felt. …Plus there’s still that whole southern accent thing.

Visit my storefront at TeachersPayTeachers to download a free preview of Box Brown or one of my other Black History plays about such important events and people as Ruby Bridges, Claudette Colvin, and the Day of Jubilee. I’ve used every one in my own classroom, and because most have been previously published in Scholastic classroom magazines, you can rest-assured they’re of the highest quality.

Box Brown’s Freedom Crate is suitable for 4th-8th graders and includes parts for from ten to twenty students depending on your needs. Hear Box Brown being performed by students by clicking on the “podcasts” tab, and to get the most out of your reader’s theater, be sure to download my free article entitled “Why Use Drama?” Happy directing!

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!

Saki’s “The Open Window”

Saki's The Open WindowHaving reacquired my publishing rights to collection of my plays, I’ve just repackaged “The Open Window” and made it available on my TeachersPayTeachers storefront. It now includes my reader’s theater script, the original text, three comprehension activities, and teacher’s notes and answer keys. The story was written in 1914 by English writer H.H. Munro, who went by the pen name, Saki. It tells about a man named Framton Nuttel who comes to the countryside to recover from “a bad case of the nerves.” Too bad he meets young Vera Sappleton, a teenaged trickster, who sends Framton over the edge. It’s a highly accessible for middle grade readers because of its brevity, the way Saki sets up the victim, and because the lead character is a youngster. It was originally published in Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories (Scholastic 2010). It includes parts for eight actors and one barking dog. Use it with grades 4 through 8 as reader’s theater, a radio drama/podcast, or full stage performance. Happy directing!

“Don’t Bother Teaching Facts”

Recent Storyworks play coverI recently attended a workshop in which the keynote speaker pointed out that in this current age of information, teaching content is largely irrelevant. Information is at our fingertips, he suggested, so there’s no point in dwelling on it in class. He advocated teaching skills such as coding, collaboration, and even gaming instead, relying on the natural interests of the students to guide them.

While his presentation did have merit, I disagree with the premise that content is no longer relevant. Some things, I believe, still need to be taught explicitly.

The speaker suggested people will seek information when they need it. Often times, though, we don’t know what we need to know until it’s presented to us. How, for example, does a person realize he or she needs to know about Claudette Colvin, a figure in the Civil Rights Movement? Will they wake up some morning and say, “I wonder if Rosa Parks really was the first African-America to be arrested for refusing to give up a seat on the bus.” How does anyone know to ask such a question unless the facts have already been introduced? For that matter, what would compel someone to go looking for information about Rosa Parks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, or any history event if they hadn’t already heard something about it?

While “natural interests” may motivate children, without accurate information, they’ll be rudderless in their journey. Consequently, it’s essential that certain subjects—history especially—be taught explicitly. While exact dates and capital cities may be good questions to pose Alexa or Siri, the how and why of important events is still of significance in the classroom. Simply put, there are some things everyone must know and understand for our society to survive.

January and February are traditionally the months in which we teach content related to the Civil Rights Movement and our African-American heritage. These are important events and ideas that we all need to understand. Don’t let the opportunity to be explicit slip by. Rather than let their Facebook friends teach them this history, introduce your students to it by using some of my reader’s theater scripts. Many of my plays are told from the perspective of young people—actual heroes from the movement—such as Ruby Bridges, Sheyann Webb, and a young Martin Luther King—and Claudette, too.

My plays are inexpensive, they include teacher-created comprehension activities, they align with standards, and the majority of them were originally published in Scholastic classroom magazines, so you can rest assured they’ve been thoroughly fact-checked. Access them on my storefront at TeachesrPayTeachers. You can even download a free Civil Right RT Preview.

We really need to start viewing this as the Age of Disinformation, which means the facts matter more than ever. The great work you do to teach those facts has never been more important.

Happy directing!

Rikki Tikki Tavi

Rikki-tikki-tavi coverOriginally published by Scholastic, here’s another of my classroom plays getting new life on TeachersPayTeachers! Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, Rudyard Kipling’s classic short story from The Jungle Books, tells the story of a courageous mongoose who must protect an English family living in India from vengeful cobras. The product includes my original play script, a comprehension quiz, teacher notes and key, plus the original text broken into sections corresponding with the scenes from the play. It makes for some excellent compare & contrast! Aimed at grades three through seven, there are parts for eleven students. It’s great for reader’s theater, a classroom play, or full stage production, and it’s makes a great pairing with my other Kipling play, How the Elephant Got Its Trunk. Plus, it’s aligned to a host of Common Core standards. Happy directing!

Pip & the Prisoner

Click on the cover to preview or purchase!When most people think about Charles Dickens’ novel, Great Expectations, they land on Miss Havisham and her creepy old mansion full of spider webs, or on the adult Pip’s aspirations for greatness, or on his unrequieted love for Estella. But what I like best about the novel are those chapters focusing on Pip as a child. Maybe it has something to do with why I’m an elementary school teacher, or maybe it’s because there’s something Roald Dahl-like about Pip (no doubt Dahl was heavily inspired by Dickens), or maybe it’s just the marvelous way Dickens penned young Pip’s encounter with the escaped convict (How terrifying for a little kid—and an orphan, too—to encounter such a “wretched varmint,” and in a graveyard yet!). Whatever the case, I’ve long wanted to craft a play focusing on those early chapters of Great Expectations and am very pleased to introduce it here.

“Pip & The Prisoner” is an original script based on the first five chapters of the Dickens’ masterpiece. The script endeavors to introduce the main character, Pip, in such a way as to motivate students to want to read the full novel (presumably when assigned to them in high school), but whether Great Expectations is in one’s curriculum or not, I think you’ll find “Pip & the Prisoner” to be a lovely stand-alone bit of literature. It’s aimed at 6th through 8th graders, but could potentially be used with students in other grades (I intend to use it with my 5th graders). The story is full of irony, anxiety, and engaging dialect as Dickens successfully captures Pip’s innocence and fears while weaving in marvelously subtle humor. The play seeks to capitalize on that humor.

Great Expectations, incidentally, was published in 1860 in Dickens’ own weekly periodical, All Year Round. Because it was published serially—or one exciting section at a time—it reminds many readers of a modern soap opera, or perhaps a binge-worthy television series with a ton of twists, turns, and suspenseful cliffhangers.

The 20-minute play includes parts for ten students and numerous non-speaking “soldiers.” It was written with the stage in mind, but it can also be presented as reader’s theater or a pod-casted radio drama. The script comes with embedded discussion prompts, a standards-based comprehension and essay writing activity, teacher’s notes, answer key, and a printable of the novel’s first five chapters for easy comparing and contrasting.

Consider pairing with my other Dickens’ plays including “Gabriel Grub” and “A Christmas Carol.” Though it isn’t indicated in the play, the story take place on Christmas Eve, so all three plays could be presented as a holiday event.

Happy directing!

“Musifying” Your Next Play

I have a theory about Walt Disney. Disney, of course, is known for animation. Way back in 1928—almost a century ago—Disney released Steamboat Willie to world-wide acclaim. Disney, though, wasn’t the first to produce an animated cartoon. What set Steamboat Willie apart and turned Disney into the $100 billion company it is today, wasn’t the animation.

It was the music.

Steamboat Willie and all of Disney’s subsequent productions included musical scores. Disney knew early on that something magical happens when you add music to a project.

That’s certainly true with classroom plays. Plays are wonderful vehicles for teaching reading and engaging reluctant readers, but when you add music, they become something altogether extraordinary. It’s no wonder the musicals I’ve directed are among the highlights of my career.

Needing a class-wide collaborative project to present at my school’s “Exhibition Night,” I recently embarked on the task of “musifying” my Newsies play script. Why so, you might ask, when Disney has a perfectly good Newsies musical of its own? First of all, Broadway musical scores (and Disney scripts) require costly performance licenses, which I can’t afford. Secondly, Disney’s script is way too complex for my fifth graders. And thirdly, like many (if not most) commercial movie projects, it isn’t as historically accurate as I would like it to be. The newsboy strike of 1899, and all the child labor issues surrounding it, is already quite fascinating. One needs only to Google the images—shoe shine boys dressed in rags, child coal miners covered in soot, newsboys sleeping in alleys—to be completely drawn in to the era. So why change the facts? Why dramatize something that’s already colorful and dramatic?

Newsies Against the World Mini MusicalUnfortunately, my class returned from Christmas break surly and unmotivated. If it didn’t involve an emoji, YouTube, or Fortnite, they simply weren’t interested. Memorize a play script? You must be kidding.

But then I introduced the music: Louis Armstrong’s “When You’re Smiling,” Guy Lombardo’s version of “The Sidewalks of New York,” and most fun of all, “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.” It didn’t matter that these were ancient tunes originally recorded on 78 rpm vinyl. It didn’t matter that the tracks crackle as if being played on a hand-cranked gramophone. Just like Disney has taught us, the music had turned our ordinary class play into something enchanting.

Plays are tremendously rewarding and often hysterically unpredictable—and there are certainly a ton of awesome ones on ReadAloudPlays.com. But if you want to take it up a notch, if you want to experience that Disney-esque magic, try “musifying” a play. I’ve already done a lot of the work for you by creating my Newsies Against the World mini musical. It tells the story of Aniela Kozlowski, an eleven year-old Polish immigrant who must take to the streets to sell “papes” during the 1899 newsboy strike. Though dramatically different than the Disney Newsies show, it’s historically accurate and includes “sing-along” period music from the early 20th-century, all of which is available for free (non-commercial) download from archive.org. (Hint: visit my classroom webpage, The Daily Platypus, and check out my edited versions.) The script includes production notes, is prints in booklet form, and comes with performance rights for public schools.

Happy directing!