A Special Pooh Event!

Back in the days of the big three networks, a television special like Charlie Brown, Winnie-the-Pooh, or the Little Drummer Boy was a once-a-year event. I remember being mesmerized by those now-old Pooh specials of the 1960’s and 70’s. They introduced us to memorable stories such as Pooh and the Honey Tree and memorable characters such as Eeyore and Tigger. Though releasing my set of Pooh adaptations may not be the kind of event that’ll gather the family in front of the Zenith on a Sunday evening, I none-the-less think it’s still kind of special.

My adaptations include the five best stories from Milne’s 1926 work. I’ve packaged them as five individual “mini-plays.” Each play has just five or six cast members, which means they’re great for small groups. My fifth graders are having a blast with them, and I’m enjoying hearing their interpretations of Milne’s clearly-defined characters. In our case, each small group is staging two plays with the intent of gathering first and second grade kids “in front of the Zenith” some afternoon after winter break. I think your kids will love them too.

A.A. Milne published the original set of Pooh adventures way back in 1926, but even though they’re now in the Public Domain, recreating them as reader’s theater isn’t as straight-forward as it might seem. Disney, for example, still owns the copyright to everything post-1926. That includes Tigger, Pooh’s red shirt, and even the un-hyphenated version of Pooh’s name. Still, these five plays represent the best of Milne’s original work. They’re suitable for third grade and up (a strong group of second graders can probably handle them too), but they promote fluency in upper grades too. They come with comprehension activities, and they’re printed in my kid-friendly, easy-to-read format. Look for Pooh on my TeachersPayTeachers storefront.

Thank you for using Read Aloud Plays! Happy directing!

Have a Dickens of a Christmas!

We all know that last week before Christmas vacation can be a real bugger in the classroom. The kids get so worked up about yule logs and gingerbread houses (or, more truly, about the L.O.L. Doll Box or Nintendo Switch under the tree), they’re no longer able to see straight, let alone sit still for a geometry test. You can have one Dickens of a Christmas, though, by adding a couple holiday plays to your Santa letters and holiday art projects.

Charles Dickens, of course, is the undisputed master of Christmas-oriented literature, so allow me to share with you some nifty class plays based on his life and work.

Whether you plan to fully enact it or just play around with it during language arts class, my traditional, kid-friendly version of a Christmas Carol is a great place to start. Challenging for 3rd, but great for 4th-6th graders. If you want to take things a bit further, consider creating a movie version, or merely having your students adapt the play to their liking. A few years ago my fifth graders added extra dialogue, a few additional scenes, and a contemporary setting to my script to make this lovely sixteen minute film. Use it as an introduction to your work on the play (it’ll really motivate your students) or as a follow-up compare and contrast activity.

Consider pairing Scrooge with ol’ Gabriel Grub. This script is a spooky, Christmas tale about a grumpy grave digger who is dragged away on Christmas Eve by a group of wretched goblins. It’ll scare the dickens out of the younger kids, but your fourth through eighth graders will find it a fun and fascinating comparison to Scrooge. You can check out a radio pod cast my students created by clicking here.

Another Dickens classic comes from his novel, Great Expectations. My original play depicts the opening chapters. Though not explicitly about Christmas, it takes place on Christmas Eve when the orphaned Pip encounters an escaped convict on the marshes. It’s full of angst and adventure, but best suited for 6th through 9th graders (though a talented or motivated group of 5th graders could probably handle it, too.

Along with any of these, you simply must try my wonderful play about Charles Dickens’ childhood, Escape from the Blacking House. I think a great triple play Christmas show would use Blacking House as an introduction to Grub and Scrooge. But even if you merely want your kids to have more engaging access to some holiday stories, these plays are great just for in-class reading. (Build fluency be reading them twice.) All these plays, along with The Gift of a Magi and others, are available on my TpT storefront.

So if you want to have a great week before the vacation, put away that geometry test. Show your Christmas spirit with some holiday plays.

Happy directing!

Plays: A Series of Good Times

My colleague popped in my room the other day to share his experience using my Sleepy Hollow play. His hope is to stage a simple production for Halloween, but after the first reading, he very nearly punted. His class of Covid-delayed readers, he said, could barely get through the script. Still, rather than thinking the script is too difficult, he stuck with it. A second reading was better—especially after he’d reviewed a few key vocabulary words.  Then, after sharing segments from the 1949 Sleepy Hollow Disney cartoon, Ichabod and Mr. Toad, the class bought-in and were soon fighting over who’d get to be Knickerbocker, Brom Bones, and Gunpowder. Now they’re practicing independently, their enthusiasm lending itself to improved fluency.

I share this because this is the way read aloud plays work. The magic comes when scripts are read multiple times. Yes, they’ll slog through the first reading, but when they read it repetitively, their fluency improves (dare I say) dramatically. I’d go so far as to say we ought to be having our kids read everything twice: every play, every article, every chapter of every book.  As Narnia author C.S. Lewis once said, “If you haven’t read a book at least twice, you haven’t read it.” The thing about a play is that kids are willing to read it over and over again.

In researching prospective new plays to share this Christmas, I came across the work of Walter Ben Hare. Back in 1917 he wrote a book called The White Christmas and Other Merry Christmas Plays. His work is too dated to re-use, but the notes he included in the prologue are charming and spot-on.

“The director’s aim should be to establish a happy co-operation with the players that will make the whole production, rehearsals, dress rehearsals and final performance, a series of good times crowned by a happy, if not perfect, production,” says Hare. “The director should always strive to be cheerful and happy, ever ready to give advice and ever ready to ask for advice, even from the youngest players. Take them into your confidence. Discuss color schemes, costuming, property making, lighting and scenic effects with your actors.”

I like that! Producing a play should be fun. It’s not a time to be handing out letter grades, nor a time to channel your inner Kubrick. In fact, it doesn’t really matter if the play turns out to be a “perfect production,” as Ben Hare would have you aim. A “happy” performance is the greater goal!  

That doesn’t mean it’ll be easy. Your students will stumble. They’ll stutter. They’ll leave their scripts at home. But some tenacity and determination like that of my colleague will be worth it in the end. As Hare concludes, “The pleasure of the work and the pride in a production well done, will amply repay an ungrudging lavishment of time and labor.”

For a pleasurable production this Halloween, Veterans’ Day, or Christmas, start with a visit to my storefront at TpT or Etsy.. Most were originally published in Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine, so you know they’re of the highest quality.

Happy directing!

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!

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!   

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!

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!