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!

The Anatomy of a Play

Like most of you, summer furlough is upon me, which for me means some time to find my mojo on a variety of writing projects. Having just finished a new Read Aloud Play based on the legend of The Pied Piper, I’m reflective about how much work went into it. Allow me to explain.

You might think it easy to churn out these plays, but writing can be quite laborious. Take my friend and Storyworks editor Lauren Tarshis, author of the I Survived series. She tells me how hard it often is to sit down and produce another disaster story. Play writing is no different. It’s serious work, especially since we’re both determined to tell a great story.

In the case of The Pied Piper, my first inclination was to tell the traditional folktale, but I learned something while watching episodes of the The Regular Show with my granddaughter: kids like silliness. The main characters on The Regular Show, which you’ll find on Disney+, include a talking, walking gumball machine, a raccoon, a bluejay, and what I think might by a cloud. They’re all a bunch of nitwit employees of “The Park.” Yes, the plain ol’ park. Much to my astonishment, it’s a great show with strong lessons.

Well, I’m at my best when I get a bit silly, when I think like an elementary kid. So after watching a few episodes (a bit of Jeff Goldblum didn’t hurt, either), I was able to craft a semi-twisted kind of absurd version of The Piper. The traditional story is still there, but there’s just enough silliness to make it extra fun for kids—and easier for me to write. After a couple days of germination, the story sprouted in just two days of writing. Compare that to my more hardcore titles, many of which took weeks of serious slogging.

The writing, though, is only a small portion of the task. Editing takes a few days. I’m guessing I’ve read through a script twenty to thirty times before I share it with you. I also force my poor wife or friends to give it a read, and during the school year, I test run it with my students. (That’ll still happen, by the way, and no doubt I’ll make a few corrections and adjustments afterwards, but it’ll have to wait until September. Should you decide to snag a copy of the script before then, you’ll be notified and provided with a revised copy.)

Meanwhile, I’m pulling images from different sources, verifying copyright and public domain status, building the cover and title banner on Illustrator, and double checking my research. Next begins the formatting. When I’m writing for Scholastic, I don’t need to worry about any of that, but when I’m packaging up a project for ReadAloudPlays.com, developing a pleasing format suitable for kids is really time consuming. It can also be frustrating when images, textboxes, and footers migrate from where I stick ‘em to some random spot three pages away!

There’s also the process of developing comprehension activities. I always try to include a bubble quiz because I think teachers like to be able to give a quick assessment just to keep kids accountable and to have something for the grade book (I’m not a proponent of grading the play performance itself—but that’s a topic for a different day).  I also try to include other activities when I can. In the case of the Piper, I spent a couple days creating a good bubble quiz and a nifty paired text reading activity. They don’t require any real prep for the classroom teacher, and they’re straight-forward enough for kids to figure out without much direction, but they represent quite a bit of labor on my part.

Even after all that’s done, there’s still the task of putting together the information pages and teacher notes, of combining them into a single PDF, of double checking the PDF for weirdness (like migrating images), and of creating a preview file. I just finished accomplishing all that…yet I’m still not done. There remains the process posting the product on TpT, Etsy and ReadAloudPlays.com (All those log-ins! All those Captchas!), and of promoting the darned thing with a nice little blog post like this one.

I hope you like it!  With any luck, there’ll be more to come.

Happy directing!

Trees, Bees, and Centipedes . . .

The clocks have all sprung forward, the turkey vultures have returned, and the sprouts are beginning to pop. Spring has arrived! So tell that groundhog to make way for some fun plays celebrating the season, including my newest script, Nature Talks Back. It’s actually four coordinated skits designed to give younger students insight in to trees, bees, and centipedes. Its ecology and conservation themes include that trees communicate, that some perceived pests are considered beneficial insects, and that honeybees are super-important pollinators.  The stories center around three oddball forest trees named Luther, Otto, and Bill and their hysterical encounters with a host of pests.    

It’s aimed specifically at kids in upper 2nd through 4th grade, but it’s also suitable for grade 5 and up for reader’s theater, podcast, or stage— especially when performed for younger kids. (My fifth graders love it and are presently preparing a full production!)

Consider pairing Nature Talks Back with some of my other spring-oriented plays. Peter Rabbit is also aimed at younger students. Use it with 2nd and 3rd graders, or have older students perform it for primary-aged kids. Rikki Tikki Tavi, Kipling’s much-loved story about the heroic mongoose has some spring-time flair, a singing bird, and an important theme about courage. It too can be presented alongside How the Elephant Got Its Trunk, another classic Kipling tale from The Jungle Books.  And don’t forget that baseball season is upon us, so it’s a great time for my entertaining and socially important play about Jackie Robinson.

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!   

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.    

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!