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!

Sub Planning 101

Nine Ways to Prep for a Sub1. Don’t! Ignore that cough. Cancel that meeting. Show up to class with a box of Kleenex and a bottle of DayQuil.

2. Don’t. Let the sub fend for him- or herself.

3. Don’t. Put a kid in charge instead. Your students can tell the sub where to find all the “worksheets,” the tempera paints, the science chemicals….

4. Stay up late. Use the night before to get all those sub notes written out. Why not? You’re gonna sleep all day tomorrow, right?

5. Go in early. You’ll probably already be up vomiting at 4 a.m. anyway.

6. Give ‘e more screen time. Leave a collection of Disney movies and Bill Nye videos on your desk.

7. Copy. Leave the same sub plans your neighboring teacher used last week and hope the sub can adjust.

8. Hope for a snow day.

9. Or, download EZSubPlans. It’s the easiest and most professional way to prepare for a sub. We all know preparing for a sub is tedious and time consuming, but it doesn’t have to be. Just click, print, and relax! Rather than staying up late, showing up sick, or throwing your sub under the bus, give our emergency lesson plans a try. Because they provide your students with quality, standards-based lessons that don’t interfere with your regular instruction, EZSubPlans represent good practice. And they’re just a click away. Download your EZSubPlans today so you’re prepared tomorrow!

Whether 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. 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. Each set includes a reading text and comprehension exercise, a spiraling math activity with extensions, a grammar lesson, an art project, a writing task, and even opening and closing activities.Teachers need only to download and print–the sub does everything else.

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.

10 Compelling Paired Texts for Black History Month

Here are ten great paired texts with which to recognize black history month 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!

New Play for MLK Day

Click to Preview or Purchase at TpT!Celebrate Martin Luther King’s legacy and teach his core values with any of a number of plays available on my storefront at TpT. “Martin’s Big Dream,” which is about MLK’s childhood, is one of the most highly-regarded plays ever to appear in Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine. “In the Jailhouse” offers a unique perspective on the events in Montgomery, “Gonna Let it Shine” covers the Selma march, and “We Shall Overcome”—my most popular civil rights play—depicts the Birmingham Children’s Crusade. But allow me to add a new one to the fold. Though not specifically about MLK, “A Simple Act of Courage” will give your students unique insights into everything Dr. King stood for.

Through My Eyes by Ruby BridgesRuby Bridges was headline news in 1960 as she naively trudged into the all-white William Frantz School. Her compelling story, that of a first grader—a mere first grader!—integrating New Orleans Public Schools is indelible. Famed American author John Steinbeck wrote about it. Norman Rockwell painted it. And Ruby herself, nearly forty years later, revisited it in her stunning book, Through My Eyes. Ruby’s book is likely in your school library if not on your classroom bookshelf. By pairing it with this lovely reader’s theater script, you’ll have MLK curriculum that’ll stay with your students for years to come.

All of my MLK plays are emotional retellings based on carefully-researched real events. Your students will enjoy enacting them on stage or simply reading them in class, and the comprehension activities and support material will ensure your kids will meet the standards, too.

Happy directing!