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!

Have a Dickens of a Christmas!

A Christmas Carol 1938 movie poster public domainWe 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 three nifty class plays based on his 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—and it’s just three bucks for a full class set. 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 “Elenora Scrooge” female-lead version and ended up with 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.

Also consider pairing ol’ 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 Pip & the Prisoner 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).

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!

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!

Just in Time for Halloween!

The Tell-Tale Heart Read Aloud PlayHaving recently reclaimed my publishing rights from Scholastic for a bank of my classic short story plays, I’m very pleased to offer Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart to my readers. This script was originally published in the October 2008 issue of Storyworks, but it was so well-received that it was quickly reprinted in Scope magazine, then in Scholastic News, and then finally included in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories. The play’s unique text formatting helps middle grade and early high school readers comprehend the unreliable narrator’s insanity, but what really sets this play apart is the clever way we’ve made it appropriate for the classroom. After all, Poe’s story is about murder. It’s violent. It makes administrators cringe. But teachers who’ve used this script like the way it remains true to the gruesome original despite only implying the gory details. The package also includes a comprehension worksheet, the original text (also formatted to make it more accessible to kids), and a mock trial activity in which “the villainous narrator” must stand before a jury of his peers. It’s a great way to make Poe’s work accessible to your students. Be sure also to contrast it to its partner play, Penelope Ann Poe’s Amazing Cell Phone, which tells the same story but involves crimes against an annoying cell phone rather than an old man. My 5th graders love it when one play group presents the traditional version while a second group presents the cell phone version. Your students will too. 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!

Here’s Help for that Pre-Holiday Chaos!

That last week before Christmas vacation can be a real doozy. While thoughts of sugar plums may not derail that lesson you’ve been planning on verb gerunds, knowing there are new gaming systems, cell phones, and hoverboards under the tree certainly will. There’s no doubt about it: this time of year the kids are all a twitter, prompting many a teacher to set aside serious content in favor of coloring pages featuring Rudolph, Frosty, or an occasional dreidel. But it needn’t be so. This is a great time to stage a play! In so doing your students will get some quality fluency practice, partake in some interesting literary discussions, and, depending on how far you want to take it, occupy themselves with meaningful work creating sets, props, and costumes. Here are four classroom reader’s theater scripts ideal for the next few weeks.

Click on the cover to preview or purchase! Click on the cover to preview or purchase!“Ebenezer Scrooge” is a traditional retelling of the Dickens classic. This age-appropriate version from the Dec. 1998 issue of Storyworks is available on TeachersPayTeachers only during December. It includes roles for fourteen students (though some can be doubled-up) as well as two or more non-speaking extras. I also have a version of this play in which Scrooge is cast as a woman, available in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories.

Long before Scrooge there was “Gabriel Grub,” the gravedigger. From Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, this eerie adaption is a perfect complement to “A Christmas Carol” or a wonderful stand-alone Gothic holiday play. Gabriel is the sullen sexton who scowls at holiday mirth. He goes to the churchyard on Christmas eve to dig a grave and there encounters the Goblin King and a chorus of imps. It’s Dickens’ at his best! It includes enough parts for an entire class, or double up roles and stage it with as few as twelve. (Warning: it may be too scary for younger students, so use it with grades 5 and up).

Click here to preview The Gift of the Magi Click here to preview The Necklace!The Gift of the Magi is the endearing story of a husband and wife who pawn their most precious things in order to buy gifts for one another, only to discover the gifts are no longer needed. This O.Henry classic originally appeared in the Nov./Dec. 2001 issue of Storyworks, and is currently available for immediate download through Scholastic Teacher Express. Students will likely be familiar with the plot because it’s been so readily adapted everywhere from Sesame Street to the Simpson’s to Walt Disney. Parts for nine students in grades 4 through 8.

Maupassant the Cat and Flaubert the Mouse tell the exasperating tale of the discontented Matilda Loisel in Guy deMaupassant’s 1884 classic, “The Necklace.” Matilda is a young French woman who takes her happiness for granted and consequently trades it all for a string of false pearls. Students consistently rank this among their favorite plays to perform. Originally published in the Nov./Dec, 2002 issue of Storyworks, it includes parts for eight actors (and numerous non-speaking extras). It isn’t specifically a holiday play, but could be made so simply by referring to “The Ambassador’s Ball” as “The Ambassador’s Christmas Ball.” It’s appropriate for students in grades 4 through 8 and is currently available in Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories on Scholastic Teacher Express.

Happy directing!

A Just So Adaption Just Right for Class

Elephant's Chil readers theaterI’ve just released a new reader’s theater play script. I put it together early in the summer but have waited until now to release it because, like nearly all my plays, I wanted to try it out with my own students before offering it to you. By doing so, not only do I catch (nearly) all my typos, I’m also able to figure out which lines work and which lines need a bit more pep. It amazes me how adding an innocuous word such as “always” bolsters an otherwise flat one-liner (in this case, spoken by an elephant to a hippo).

“How the Elephant Got Its Trunk” is my new play. It’s based on Rudyard Kipling’s oft-adapted “Elephant’s Child” from his 1902 work, Just So Stories. Yes, there are a lot of adaptions of this one out there, but I think you’ll find mine to be unique. First of all, Kipling’s original story is about an elephant that get’s spanked by all his relatives. I’m not intending to make any political statements, but there’s little question these days that spanking isn’t considered school-appropriate. Consequently, I’ve come up with a clever way to re-work the story without altering its mojo. It’s a Just So adaption just right for class!

My script also encourages students to experiment with dialect. I’ve found that any time I can get kids talking like a southern belle, a Bronx street urchin, or a Russian cowpoke (see my Talk Like A Russian Day post), the stories come to life in profound ways. We also have a lot more laughs. “Elephant’s Child” sets the tone with Swahili storytellers, then tosses in a baboon with a British accent, a snake with a lisp, a hip-hop jivin’ giraffe, and others. If your kids like it as much as my students do, I think you’ll be pleased.

I’ve also included two versions in one package: my original, which is geared toward 5th through 8th graders, and a simplified “Youngers Version” for 3rd through 5th. My fifth graders are using the upper version and doing fine with it. It includes leveled comprehension activities based on Common Core standards. Older students can pair the play with the original short story–available all over the Web. You can also enact it alongside another of my Kipling plays, “Rikki Tikki Tavi,” which is available through Scholastic.

Preview or purchase How the Elephant Got Its Trunk at my storefront on TeachersPayTeachers. While there, also be sure to check out my “Halloween Collection,” plays perfect for October: The Birth-mark, The Monkey’s Paw, and Cyclops.

Happy directing!

Would You Want Your Grandchild Working Like This?

Photo by Lewis Hine -- Library of CongressIn honor of Labor Day, the Washington Post published an excellent feature on Lewis Hine, whose photography a century ago brought an end to ugly child labor practices. The Post’s cover photo, a Hine classic of a young textile mill worker, was the inspiration for my play, “Stolen Childhoods.”

If you’re unfamiliar with Hine’s work, be sure to read the Post article. In the late 1900’s, because there were no labor laws to prevent it or unions to defend against it, companies quit hiring adult men and instead hired children at a fraction of the cost. Both unemployment and illiteracy skyrocketed. Hine brought the practice “into the light” by surreptitiously gaining access to mines, factories, and farms and photographing children working long hours under deplorable conditions. He often convinced floor bosses that he was merely there to take pictures of the company’s “impressive” machinery. The children, he’d tell them, needed to be in the picture to provide a sense of scale. He was often threatened with violence, but his effort eventually paid off for the American worker, leading to labor laws that still exist today. Hine, however, died impoverished and with little fanfare.

Stolen Childhoods coverMy play, “Stolen Childhoods,” has been published in both Storyworks and Scope magazines. It follows Hine as he finagles his way into factories and a trio of endangered siblings, whom he eventually photographs. Hine’s photographs are poignant and powerful; I’m hopeful I’ve captured a bit of that poignancy in my play. You can preview it or purchase it on my storefront at TeachersPayTeachers.

Allow me to conclude with a politically-charged statement: unions today have been vilified by politicians and corporate interests, but given their role defending the American worker, it seems more important than ever that young people know the history behind organized labor. The Post article, my play, and certainly the work of Lewis Hine go a long way in teaching that history.

Happy directing.